Initial U.S. drawdown to pull from restive Afghan east
"We’re expecting to contribute a modest amount to the remaining drawdown that has to occur between now and December," U.S. Army Major General Daniel Allyn, who commands about 33,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers in eastern Afghanistan, said in an interview with Reuters.After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, the White House is moving ahead with plans to withdraw the more than 30,000 extra troops Obama deployed after his 2009 overhaul of U.S. policy.The Pentagon says about 3,000 troops that comprised part of that troop surge already have been pulled from Afghanistan so far. A total of 10,000 will leave by the end of December and another 23,000 by the close of next summer. There are just under 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now.Allyn declined to say how many of his soldiers would depart Regional Command East — a vast region including 14 provinces, a long stretch of poorly protected border with Pakistan and some of the country’s most rugged, challenging terrain— but that it would not include front-line combat soldiers."It will not require the loss of any of our fighting strength," he said by phone from Bagram, Afghanistan.Allyn’s boss, the overall Afghanistan commander U.S. Marine General John Allen, told the Wall Street Journal last week that he was considering sending "some number" of combat battalions to eastern Afghanistan as part of a bid to better secure the capital Kabul from militants who cross the Pakistan border.Those plans do not appear set in stone, however.The Pentagon says the troop surge has helped bring a modicum of stability to parts of the Taliban’s southern heartland and set the conditions for improvements to Afghanistan’s weak governance and, hopefully, for convincing the Taliban leadership to consider a peace deal with Kabul.GROWING HAQQANI INFLUENCEEven as they tout the situation in places such as Helmand province, U.S. officials are growing more worried about the threat from the Haqqani network, an affiliated militant group they say is based across the border in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region.They blame the Haqqani network for a series of bold attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan, including a September 13 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a recent truck bombing in eastern Wardak province.U.S. officials believe the Haqqanis are responsible for the bulk of violence in the east and use lawless areas on both sides of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border as they plot attacks in and around Kabul.Some in Washington now see the Haqqani group — with its ambition to destabilize Kabul and undermine Afghans’ perceptions about the government’s ability to keep them safe — as an even more formidable enemy than the Taliban.The Haqqani threat crystallizes the Obama administration’s dilemma: it wants to leave behind a relatively stable Afghanistan as it shrinks its military footprint but it believes doing so requires more assistance than it is getting from neighboring Pakistan.Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has been strained since a Pentagon accusation linking the embassy attack with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency.Allyn said no final decisions had been made about how many, if any, new troops he would receive in the future to fight the Haqqani network and other militants, presumably compensating for troops he provides for this year’s drawdown.The U.S. military leadership in Kabul says it has not decided whether to formally declare the fight in Afghanistan’s east the new focus as it seeks to ensure that security gains in the south are not squandered as the U.S. force grows smaller."That’s clearly the decision for which when the conditions are right I’m sure General Allen will make it," Allyn said. "In the meantime, it’s our mission to ensure we make … use of every resource we have."A senior NATO official, who declined to be named, said most of those troops withdrawn initially would be what the military calls enablers — support and logistical troops rather than the frontline fighting soldiers.The official also said commanders likely would try to shift some military duties to civilian contractors or military personnel located outside of Afghanistan.
UPDATE 1-Olympus scandal highlights board inadequacies in Japan
* Olympus case takes shine off recent steps to improve governanceBy Nathan LayneTOKYO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The scandal at Olympus Corp triggered by accusations of improper payments has put a spotlight on what critics say is a key weakness of Japanese-style management: the lack of strong independent oversight on most boards.Japanese boards are typically stacked with insiders, and Olympus, a camera and medical equipment maker whose chief executive was abruptly dismissed last week, is no exception.Twelve of Olympus’ 15 board members are company executives, and one of its three outside directors failed to pass a test of independence set by top proxy voting firms.This structure, while common among Japanese companies, appears to have left the Olympus board vulnerable to groupthink when dissension and rigorous debate were needed most.”You have so many insiders, very few independent members and none of them is really in a position to challenge the decision-making of long-standing members of the board,” said Robert McCormick, chief policy officer at proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis & Co. “I think the CEO kind of came into that.”A spokesman for Olympus said its board of directors was functioning well.Former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford has told media he believes he was sacked for questioning about $680 million in payments to financial advisers in the purchase of Britain’s medical equipment firm Gyrus in 2008, or one-third of the transaction price, and $600 million in goodwill impairment after other small acquisitions in Japan.Olympus says that Woodford was dismissed because of a clash of management styles and that it has carried out proper accounting and disclosure for the acquisitions.SHARES PLUNGEBut the relentless slide in the share price — it has lost 43 percent in the past three sessions — suggests investors are not satisfied with the company’s explanation and generally lack confidence in management.Chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, who replaced Woodford as CEO, told the Nikkei newspaper on Tuesday that the Gyrus-related payment was closer to 30 billion yen ($391 million) and said losses at the domestic companies it acquired represented lapses in judgment on his part.But to some critics Kikukawa’s comments may only reinforce the notion that there have been few checks on his authority and may not silence criticism of the payments, which at 30 billion yen were still unusually high for an acquisition of that size.The lack of independent directors supervising management is one of the key factors behind Japan’s No. 36 ranking out of 39 countries on corporate governance in the latest survey by research firm GMI .Other propagators of poor governance include cross-shareholdings with business partners and a tendency for executives to hang on wielding influence in advisory posts even after they’ve retired from the board.The Olympus case may give the impression that governance is moving backwards, despite a series of steps aimed at improving the situation in recent years, including the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s requirement from this year that all companies have at least one independent director or auditor.”This is a negative step for corporate governance in Japan,” said Jamie Allen, secretary general of the Asian Corporate Governance Association based in Hong Kong.”There had been some hope that Japanese companies would take on not just outside directors but outside managers and that corporate cultures in Japan would be more open and international.”
BMW CFO still aims for 2012 margin targets -paper
Finance chief Friedrich Eichiner told German weekly business magazine WirtschaftsWoche in comments published on Saturday that the “margin of 8-10 percent” remained his target for 2012.Eichiner told Reuters on Friday on the sidelines of the premiere of its 3 Series that Chinese luxury car sales would continue to rise next year.The 3 Series is a key element of BMW’s plans and accounts for every third BMW sold worldwide.Speaking to WirtschaftsWoche, Eichiner also reaffirmed this year’s forecast for sales of over 1.6 million vehicles and an automobiles segment EBIT margin of more than 10 percent.”We would achieve this even if conditions were to worsen, which we currently do not expect,” he was quoted as saying.
Rare transplant gives quadruple amputee two new hands
Richard Mangino got the two hands last week in a 12-hour transplant procedure by a team of more than 40 doctors, nurses and other medical staff, the hospital said.Mangino said he’s adjusting to the new hands gradually and said now he won’t have to “perform a miracle” every day to do simple things like make coffee and get dressed.Speaking at a news conference seated in a wheel chair with his arms and hands propped on stack of pillows, Mangino said he prayed for the ability to touch his grandsons’ faces, stroke their hair and teach them to throw a ballMangino, from Revere, Massachusetts, lost his arms below the elbows and legs below the knees after contracting sepsis, a bloodstream infection, in 2002.The complicated surgery included transplanting skin, tendons, muscles, ligaments, bones and blood vessels on both forearms and hands, the hospital said.Doctors said Mangino independently moved fingers just days after surgery and called the results a “resounding success.”His recovery will take many months and doctors expect him to regain sense of touch in six to nine months with ongoing therapy to help him learn to grasp and pick things up.The double-hand transplant is the second performed by Brigham and Women’s, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.In May, a team performed a full face transplant and its first double-hand transplant on Charla Nash, a Connecticut woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee in 2009.The hospital said the hand transplant was successful, but the hands did not thrive after complications from pneumonia and were removed.There are a few other programs around the country that perform hand transplants.The first hand transplant was performed in France in 1998, and the first in the United States was completed a year later.Doctors said about a dozen hand transplants have been done in the U.S. and believe just four of those have been bilateral.
UPDATE 1-UK energy bills face overhaul in 1st wave of reform
LONDON Oct 14 (Reuters) - British energy companies will have to simplify their billing structures under plans announced by Ofgem, making it easier for consumers to compare prices and overhauling a system the regulator believes is stifling competition.Ofgem said on Friday it continued to believe radical change was needed to address poor supplier behaviour and a lack of transparency in a system where consumers are currently faced with more than 400 tariffs to choose from.Electricity and gas firms will still be able to offer a mix of products but under the Ofgem plans it will set a fixed standing charge on top of which the companies will have to offer a variable price per unit, making bills clearer and price comparison easier.The plans mean the only variable on any bill will be the price per unit of gas or electricity and extra layers of complexity such as discount structures will be removed altogether.”So the lower the price the smaller the bill, with no exceptions,” Ofgem said in a strongly worded statement which chimed with recent speeches by senior members of the government who have called on it to get tough with suppliers.Prices have risen sharply in recent months, putting pressure on the government to ease the pain for consumers grappling with rising unemployment and sub-inflation wage growth.Ofgem said the plan was the “first of four waves of reform” which would include plans due in November to help business users and in December decisions on proposals “to break the stranglehold of the Big Six in the wholesale electricity market”.Britain’s energy minister Chris Huhne last month pledged “to get tough with the big six energy companies”.Britain’s six largest utilities are German groups E.ON and RWE , British companies Centrica and Scottish and Southern Energy , French operator EDF and Spanish firm Iberdrola .Ofgem said its latest report on prices showed the average dual fuel bill in Britain now stands at 1,345 pounds ($2,115) a year.
No sex please, we’re British and over 60
"The background was the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases in older people and the need to practice safer sex," said Drusilla Moody, Portsmouth Council’s tourism and visitor services manager.Entry would have been free, but those taking part would have had to supply proof of age and of residency in Portsmouth.These requirements are no longer needed, since the workshop was canceled "because too few people booked places," Moody said.
Rich world economic malaise to endure into 2012: Reuters poll
After a promising start, 2011 has turned into an enormous disappointment for major rich world economies, which have been hobbled by a noxious combination of austerity, debt crises, natural disaster and political impasse.Backed up by Thursday’s weak trade figures from China, which pointed to profound global economic weakness, the October quarterly survey suggested a bout of weak growth in many G7 economies could extend deep into next year and beyond.The world economy will grow 3.8 percent in 2011, the poll showed, and just 3.6 percent next year — a stark contrast to the 4.1 percent and 4.3 percent forecasts from the last quarterly survey in July.But even these tepid growth rates could depend on progress in clearing some of the world’s biggest economic hurdles, like the euro zone sovereign debt crisis and finding ways to boost growth in the United States.”Rarely has the economic outlook been so sensitive to the decisions of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Peter Hooper, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, in a research note.”Whether it is the complexities of reaching unanimous agreement among 17 euro area members regarding the resolution of the sovereign debt crisis, or the increasingly polarized U.S. political scene, political risk may be the greatest source of shocks to the global economy today.”Euro zone officials on Wednesday indicated they were willing to take at least a small step forward in plans to avert a potentially catastrophic Greek sovereign debt default, by asking banks to accept losses of up to 50 percent on Greek debt holdings.In the United States, the Senate defeated President Barack Obama’s job creation package in a sign that Washington may be too paralyzed to take major steps to spur the labor market before the 2012 elections.CANADA BLOOMS, ITALY WILTSCanada should see some of the strongest rates of growth compared with its G7 peers this year and next.Although the outlook for growth has darkened in common with other major markets, its healthy banking sector and commodity-driven economy should give it an edge, with growth of around 2.2 percent seen this year and 2.4 percent in 2012.But Italy, racked by political fighting, austerity measures and market fears about its ability to finance its debt, looks set to linger in recession well into next year, and will miss government fiscal targets.U.S. economic growth looks likely to pick up slightly by year-end, although analysts also reined in their expectations and there is a one-in-three chance the world’s biggest economy will enter recession.”We’ve stepped back from the abyss, the data that we’re getting suggests certainly the economy isn’t in freefall as yet,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James.The euro zone faces a 40 percent chance of another recession as fears mount that the debt crisis will escalate further.Analysts expect the 17-nation currency bloc to post economic growth of just 0.9 percent next year, after 1.6 percent in 2011.”Leading indicators point to weaker economic conditions. Sentiment surveys have deteriorated across key sectors of the euro zone economy, against a backdrop of unusually high uncertainty and financial market tensions,” said Ken Wattret at BNP Paribas.Japan, forced into recession by the March earthquake and tsunami, saw its economic outlook downgraded for a fourth consecutive month thanks partly to the escalating euro zone debt crisis.”Japan’s exports are seen weakening in October-December due to the economic slowdown in Europe and the U.S., which would affect corporations’ capital spending,” said Yuichi Kodama, chief economist at Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance.Still, poll respondents predicted growth will pick up to 2.2 percent over the 2012-2013 fiscal year.(Polling by Reuters Polls Bangalore, Additional reporting and polling by reporters in bureaux in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Berlin; Editing by Catherine Evans)
PRESS DIGEST - British business - Oct 12
The European authorities are preparing to impose draconian standards on the region’s banks that could force them to raise hundreds of billions in additional capital.IRISH REVIVE TASTE FOR PROPERTYA devastating property crash has not slaked the Irish thirst for bricks and mortar, with cash buyers splashing more than 30 million euro on flats and houses in the past six months, according to an Anglo-Irish auction house.The TelegraphGOLDMAN ‘DEAL’ WITH HMRCGoldman Sachs escaped paying up to 20 million pound on a disputed National Insurance bill for bankers’ bonuses, according to leaked UK government documents.MOTHERCARE BOSS TO GO IN A MONTHBen Gordon, the longstanding chief executive of Mothercare , is to leave following a series of profit warnings from the retailer.SLOVAKIA DEALS BLOW TO BAILOUT EXPANSIONEuropean markets faltered as the Slovak government looked set to fall before the euro zone’s bailout fund is approved and Greece’s crucial money injection remained uncertain.The GuardianRECESSION OVER BUT UK STILL SUFFERING, SAYS THINK-TANKThe UK recovery will be the weakest seen for almost a century, as the economy remains mired in “depression”,the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR)think-tank warned on Tuesday.The IndependentBP TO RISK WORST EVER OIL SPILL IN SHETLANDS DRILLINGBP is making contingency plans to fight the largest oil spill in history, as it prepares to drill more than 4,000 feet down in the Atlantic in wildlife-rich British waters off the Shetland Islands.ENRC TAKES UP OPTION TO CONTROL KAZAKH MINERA former board member of Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) said “he couldn’t quite believe” the news that the controversial Kazakh miner had bought a company controlled by its three biggest shareholders.
WRAPUP 3-Greece to get loan, Trichet says crisis systemic
* Expectation of bigger Greek debt write-down mountsBy Ingrid Melander and Sakari SuoninenATHENS/FRANKFURT, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Greece should receive a vital lifeline next month in order to avoid bankruptcy, its international lenders said on Tuesday, buying time in a debt crisis that Europe’s top central banker labelled “systemic”.After a weeks-long review of the country’s finances, inspectors from the European Union, IMF and European Central Bank said an 8 billion euros loan tranche should be paid in early November after approval by euro zone finance ministers and the International Monetary Fund.But they warned Greece had made only patchy progress in meeting the terms of a bailout agreed in May last year.”It is essential that the authorities put more emphasis on structural reforms in the public sector and the economy more broadly,” the troika said in a statement.It said additional measures were likely to be needed to meet debt targets in 2013 and 2014 and a privatisation drive and structural reforms were falling short. Decisive implementation of existing plans should allow next year’s debt goals to be met, it said.The money will only buy Greece and its euro zone partners a small window of time.Germany and France, the leading powers in the 17-nation euro zone, have promised to propose a comprehensive strategy to fight the debt crisis at an EU summit delayed until Oct. 23.After Athens admitted it would not meet its deficit target this year, there is a growing acceptance that a second Greek bailout agreed in July may not be sufficient and a rush is now on to beef up the currency bloc’s rescue fund and bolster its banks.Europe’s top financial watchdog warned that the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis had become systemic and threatened global economic stability unless decisive action was taken urgently.European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet issued the dramatic warning as chairman of the European Systemic Risk Board, created to avoid a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, amid growing fears that Greece will default on its massive debt.”The crisis is systemic and must be tackled decisively,” Trichet told a European Parliament committee in his final appearance before retiring at the end of the month.”The high interconnectedness in the EU financial system has led to a rapidly rising risk of significant contagion. It threatens financial stability in the EU as a whole and adversely impacts the real economy in Europe and beyond.”European banking regulators meanwhile asked banks across the continent to provide updated data on their capital position and sovereign debt exposures to help reassess their need for recapitalisation.Industry sources said the EU banking regulator has demanded lenders achieve a core capital ratio of at least seven percent in a new round of internal stress tests and banks that fail to reach that mark would be asked to bolster their capital.For a comprehensive deal to come together, the bloc’s leaders must resolve differences over how to recapitalise banks, whether to force a Greek debt restructuring or stick to a voluntary deal with private bondholders and how to use the euro zone’s rescue fund.The fate of that fund rests with Slovakia’s parliament, the only one in the euro zone yet to ratify more sweeping powers.Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radicova raised the stakes in a battle to win approval for new powers for the European Financial Stability Facility by tying the decision to a vote of confidence in her centre-right government.The small, liberal SaS party, the only member of the five-party ruling coalition which opposes the EFSF, said it would abstain, forcing the government to turn to opposition parties to push through a deal.Even if they lose the vote, Radicova and two of her ruling coalition partners have vowed to push through ratification with opposition support. But that may come at the price of a cabinet reshuffle or early elections.TORTURED PROGRESSEurope’s inability to draw a line under the crisis has caused growing international alarm, with Japan weighing in on Tuesday after the United States and Britain pressed EU leaders to take decisive action.Tokyo said it would consult with Washington before it considers buying more euro zone bonds. Finance Minister Jun Azumi urged Europe to restore market confidence in the run-up to a Group of 20 finance leaders’ meeting in Paris this week.Azumi repeated that Japan stood ready to buy more bonds if Europe comes up with a solid scheme to solve a crisis that has resulted in financial rescues for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.Interbank lending rates in Europe continued to rise amid growing concern over European banks’ ability to operate, despite the prospect of massive ECB liquidity support.Some European banks voiced concern at the prospect of being forced by governments to raise additional capital some say they do not need, possibly taking public money.Germany’s banking association said Europe should look at recapitalisation on a case-by-case basis rather than taking a blanket approach apparently envisaged by Berlin and Paris.The director of the BDB association, Michael Kemmer, also told ARD television that politicians should stick to a July agreement on voluntary private bondholder involvement in a rescue plan for Greece.That deal envisaged a 21 percent writedown on Greek debt for banks and insurers that participate in a bond swap to reduce and stretch out Greece’s debt burden.However, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and the chairman of euro group finance ministers, Jean-Claude Juncker, have said that figure may no longer be sufficient and the talks may have to be reopened.Speaking on Austrian television late on Monday, Juncker refused to rule out a mandatory debt restructuring for Greece, which many market analysts and economists say is bound to happen in the coming months.Many analysts see the rush to recapitalise European banks as a prelude to an enforced write-down of 50 percent or more on their Greek debt holdings.
Europe’s high-risk gamble
By Martin Feldstein The opinions expressed are his own. The Greek government needs to escape from an otherwise impossible situation. It has an unmanageable level of government debt (150% of GDP, rising this year by ten percentage points), a collapsing economy (with GDP down by more than 7% this year, pushing the unemployment rate up to 16%), a chronic balance-of-payments deficit (now at 8% of GDP), and insolvent banks that are rapidly losing deposits. The only way out is for Greece to default on its sovereign debt. When it does, it must write down the principal value of that debt by at least 50%. The current plan to reduce the present value of privately held bonds by 20% is just a first small step toward this outcome. If Greece leaves the euro after it defaults, it can devalue its new currency, thereby stimulating demand and shifting eventually to a trade surplus. Such a strategy of “default and devalue” has been standard fare for countries in other parts of the world when they were faced with unmanageably large government debt and a chronic current-account deficit. It hasn’t happened in Greece only because Greece is trapped in the single currency. The markets are fully aware that Greece, being insolvent, will eventually default. That’s why the interest rate on Greek three-year government debt recently soared past 100% and the yield on ten-year bonds is 22%, implying that a €100 principal payable in ten years is worth less than €14 today. Why, then, are political leaders in France and Germany trying so hard to prevent – or, more accurately, to postpone – the inevitable? There are two reasons. First, the banks and other financial institutions in Germany and France have large exposures to Greek government debt, both directly and through the credit that they have extended to Greek and other eurozone banks. Postponing a default gives the French and German financial institutions time to build up their capital, reduce their exposure to Greek banks by not renewing credit when loans come due, and sell Greek bonds to the European Central Bank. The second, and more important, reason for the Franco-German struggle to postpone a Greek default is the risk that a Greek default would induce sovereign defaults in other countries and runs on other banking systems, particularly in Spain and Italy. This risk was highlighted by the recent downgrade of Italy’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. A default by either of those large countries would have disastrous implications for the banks and other financial institutions in France and Germany. The European Financial Stability Fund is large enough to cover Greece’s financing needs but not large enough to finance Italy and Spain if they lose access to private markets. So European politicians hope that by showing that even Greece can avoid default, private markets will gain enough confidence in the viability of Italy and Spain to continue lending to their governments at reasonable rates and financing their banks. If Greece is allowed to default in the coming weeks, financial markets will indeed regard defaults by Spain and Italy as much more likely. That could cause their interest rates to spike upward and their national debts to rise rapidly, thus making them effectively insolvent. By postponing a Greek default for two years, Europe’s politicians hope to give Spain and Italy time to prove that they are financially viable. Two years could allow markets to see whether Spain’s banks can handle the decline of local real-estate prices, or whether mortgage defaults will lead to widespread bank failures, requiring the Spanish government to finance large deposit guarantees. The next two years would also disclose the financial conditions of Spain’s regional governments, which have incurred debts that are ultimately guaranteed by the central government. Likewise, two years could provide time for Italy to demonstrate whether it can achieve a balanced budget. The Berlusconi government recently passed a budget bill designed to raise tax revenue and to bring the economy to a balanced budget by 2013. That will be hard to achieve, because fiscal tightening will reduce Italian GDP, which is now barely growing, in turn shrinking tax revenue. So, in two years, we can expect a debate about whether budget balance has then been achieved on a cyclically adjusted basis. Those two years would also indicate whether Italian banks are in better shape than many now fear. If Spain and Italy do look sound enough at the end of two years, European political leaders can allow Greece to default without fear of dangerous contagion. Portugal might follow Greece in a sovereign default and in leaving the eurozone. But the larger countries would be able to fund themselves at reasonable interest rates, and the current eurozone system could continue. If, however, Spain or Italy does not persuade markets over the next two years that they are financially sound, interest rates for their governments and banks will rise sharply, and it will be clear that they are insolvent. At that point, they will default. They would also be at least temporarily unable to borrow and would be strongly tempted to leave the single currency. But there is a greater and more immediate danger: Even if Spain and Italy are fundamentally sound, there may not be two years to find out. The level of Greek interest rates shows that markets believe that Greece will default very soon. And even before that default occurs, interest rates on Spanish or Italian debt could rise sharply, putting these countries on a financially impossible path. The eurozone’s politicians may learn the hard way that trying to fool markets is a dangerous strategy. This piece comes from Project Syndicate. Photo: People walk over a world map engraved in marble in Lisbon September 14, 2011. Global markets have been roiled since the end of July by the twin fears of a recession in the United States and Europe’s protracted debt woes, which have forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to take bailouts and piled bond market pressure on Italy and Spain. Ribeiro