Vietnam police widens probes into oil and gas giant PetroVietnam

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Vietnamese police have widened their investigation into alleged graft and mismanagement connected to the state-owned oil and gas giant PetroVietnam that caused $69 million in losses. Three PetroVietnam subsidiaries are being investigated for alleged abuse of power in appropriating $5.3 million, the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement late Wednesday.

The case centers on Ocean Bank, which was taken over by State Bank in 2015 at no cost after reporting losses of $445 million. PetroVietnam had owned 20 percent of the bank and lost all its investment after the takeover. Ocean Bank’s former chairman and general director face embezzlement charges. A total of 51 bankers and businessmen including 46 senior executives at Ocean Bank are standing trial in Hanoi.

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Hurricane Harvey to make mild dent in US economic growth

Barclays predicted a 1.0 to 1.5 percentage point hit, which was the most pessimistic call in the poll. (Representational Image.) Top News

US economic growth will take a mild hit in the current quarter from Hurricane Harvey that slammed into Texas, but the outlook for the coming year remained steady in the latest Reuters poll, suggesting lost output will likely be recouped. Harvey was the most powerful storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years, killing over 60 people and displacing more than 1 million citizens. It also forced a temporary closure of refineries and the governor of Texas said the damage was around $180 billion.

Asked about the impact of Hurricane Harvey on economic growth in the current quarter, the median forecast from 48 economists who answered an extra question was for a 0.3 percentage point hit to seasonally adjusted annualised growth.

But the impact was expected to be short-lived according to economists, who responded to the survey Sept 7-12 before and as another powerful storm, Hurricane Irma, ripped through the Caribbean and then Florida, killing more than 60, displacing and leaving millions of households without power.

Previously, major hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 had cost more than half of the GDP growth rate for the respective quarters the storms hit. But data following those storms also suggest that the U.S. economy was able to add solid job numbers and bounce back from government reconstruction efforts.

“A storm of this magnitude is likely to have negative near-term effects on nationwide economic data. If flooding remains disruptive for several weeks, we would expect a drag on non-farm payrolls, but the historical experience here is mixed,” said James Sweeney, chief economist at Credit Suisse. “The effect on GDP is even more ambiguous, since many costs of dealing with the storm actually boost growth, offsetting some of the lost income and output.”

President Donald Trump’s administration struck a deal with Democrats that includes $15.25 billion in aid for areas affected by Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters. Still, the range of forecasts suggests not everyone is convinced of just a mild dent in growth. “Hurricane Harvey could pose a sizeable drag, given the presence of high-value-added energy sectors in the Gulf Coast region and the timing of the storm’s landfall,” wrote Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, in a note to clients.

Barclays predicted a 1.0 to 1.5 percentage point hit, which was the most pessimistic call in the poll.

Despite that, the latest Reuters poll consensus was for the US economy to expand an annualized 2.6 percent in this quarter and 2.5 percent in the next. That was up a bit from the previous predictions of 2.5 and 2.4 percent for the respective quarters in the August poll as economists had already begun upgrading their growth forecasts for the current quarter before Hurricane Harvey struck.

But inflation expectations have been lowered slightly from the previous month, with the core PCE price index – the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation – not expected to reach the central bank’s 2 percent target at least until 2019.

The consensus is for core PCE inflation to average 1.4-1.9 percent in each quarters from the current through the end of next year. In the August poll, the predictions were for it to average 1.5-2.0 percent. Still, the Fed is widely expected to announce steps at its meeting next week to start shrinking its balance sheet, worth over $4 trillion.

The survey of nearly 100 economists showed the central bank is expected to raise the federal funds rate once more in the final three months of this year, to 1.25-1.50 percent. But 44 of 73 economists who answered an extra question said their conviction for another Fed rate hike this year has decreased. The remaining 29 said it had stayed the same. “We still have a December rate hike call, but recent developments are making the path to a December rate hike more narrow,” said Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

That lack of confidence amongst poll participants is mainly driven by the divide among Fed policymakers on the outlook for inflation and future interest rate hikes.

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Coal mine explosion kills nine workers in northern China: Reports

A general view shows Pinggang coal mine from the state-owned Longmay Group on the outskirts of Jixi, in Heilongjiang province, China October 24, 2015. (Reuters/File Photo) Top News

An explosion late on Wednesday at a small coal mine in China’s northern province of Heilongjiang killed nine workers, the official Xinhua News Agency said on Thursday. The incident occurred at the Yuchen coal mine, which has 60,000 tonnes of annual production capacity, located in the city of Jixi.

The latest accident follows an announcement by China’s State Council on August 31 to launch a new round of safety checks at coal mines and chemical plants starting in September after injuries during an incident at a state-owned coal mine in August. China’s coal output in August fell to a 10-month low, data from the National Statistics Bureau showed on Thursday, suggesting mines have reduced production in the wake of major accidents.

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Peru’s Kuczynski dares Congress to dismiss entire Cabinet

Peru’s President, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, left, walks during a ceremony commemorating 25 years of the capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, outside the National Palace in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, September 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd) Top News

The government of Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski told opposition lawmakers on Wednesday that they would have to dismiss the entire Cabinet – and move closer to facing removal themselves – if they try to oust a second education minister. Kuczynski accused the opposition-ruled Congress of trying to sabotage his education reforms as the right-wing Popular Force party prepared a motion to censure Education Minister Marilu Martens over her handling of a teachers strike that dragged on for two months.

The president said ousting Martens would be “completely unfair.” “It would be the second education minister censured and purely over political preferences,” Kuczynski said. By turning the censure vote on Martens into a vote of confidence on his whole Cabinet, Kuczynski hopes to check Popular Force’s ability to threaten his ministers.

The president can dissolve Congress if it dismisses the Cabinet twice.

Congress has already forced Kuczynski’s former education and finance ministers to resign, while his ex-transportation minister quit to avoid a censure vote. Popular Force lawmakers said they would study the request for a vote of confidence on the Cabinet and noted they had not yet formally presented the censure motion for Martens – a sign they might back off.

“They’re putting the governability of the country at risk over one minister?” said Luz Salgado, an influential lawmaker with Popular Force, which controls Congress. “It’s completely irresponsible.”

The gamble could force Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, to appoint 19 new ministers as he tries to revive the economy and his slipping popularity in opinion polls. However, it might also give him a freer hand to govern during the remaining four years of his term.

A prime minister has not challenged Congress to renew its confidence in a cabinet in decades, said political analyst Fernando Tuesta, underscoring how rapidly relations between the executive branch and Congress have deteriorated in Kuczynski’s year-old government.

Kuczynski took office last year after narrowly beating long-time favorite Keiko Fujimori, the eldest daughter of jailed former leader Alberto Fujimori. Kuczynski’s party won less than 15 percent of congressional seats while Fujimori’s party, Popular Force, won an absolute majority.

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US Virgin Islands getting aid, but still reeling from Hurricane Irma

This photo shows storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Cruz Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands. (Source: Caribbean Buzz Helicopters via AP) Related News

The last of the late-summer tourists were gone Wednesday from the US Virgin Islands, ferried away from the wreckage of Hurricane Irma in cruise ships bound for Puerto Rico and Miami. Most part-time residents — and anyone else who didn’t have to stay — had cleared out as well, back to homes on the mainland with water, power and internet, and where food isn’t scarce.

Those left behind on St. Thomas and St. John were surviving on whatever they could find as they tried to repair or secure their houses with whatever materials were available. They had to dodge downed power lines that snaked through hills that were a deep green before the storm but now so stripped of leaves and trees that they are brown and desolate. Many people were surviving on military rations handed out by US Marines and the National Guard or at a local church that is serving 500 people a day.

“What I see are people coming who are hungry, who are tired, who are thirsty and need help,” said the Rev. Jeff Neevel, pastor of the St. Thomas Reformed Church in the Virgin Islands capital of Charlotte Amalie. “It’s a destruction zone. Everything is destroyed. Everything.”

His church got power Tuesday for the first time since the storm hit a week earlier, thanks to it being designated an official food distribution center. Neevel said one of the most critical needs he sees is for tarps to protect the many homes that have lost roofs.

People are also desperate for power and water so they can get back to work and return to some sense of normalcy. “The village where I live is devastated,” said Dominique Olive from French Town on St. Thomas’ southern coast. “There are people I’ve known for many, many years. Everything they have is gone.”

Olive said there has been some “disgusting” looting and desperation but also hopeful signs. “We are helping each other. It doesn’t matter which color you are, we are all helping each other,” he said as he walked through Charlotte Amalie shortly after the curfew was lifted at noon.

Gov. Kenneth Mapp warned that it could take several weeks to restore full power and water to the territory as he angrily denounced people with “unrealistic expectations,” an apparent reaction to complaints on social media and the radio.

“If you are not prepared to go through these challenges in a realistic way, with realistic expectations, I am strongly urging you to take one of the flights or one of the mercy cruises and go to the mainland for a few months and come back,” Mapp told reporters.

Hurricane Irma lashed St. Thomas and St. John with winds of 150 mph for more than four hours when the storm hit Sept. 6. A complete damage assessment has yet to be done but many homes were left in ruins, as were police and fire stations and the main hospital. There were four deaths from the storm, as well as a power line worker killed late Tuesday while trying to do repairs.

About 5,000 tourists who couldn’t get on any of the last departing flights endured the storm’s wrath along with the islands’ 105,000 residents. St. Croix, the most populated of the islands in the chain, escaped relatively unscathed because its location some 45 miles to the south spared it a direct hit.

The storm killed at least 38 people across the northern Caribbean, including 10 in Cuba and 15 on the island shared by French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten. The Dutch Red Cross said 90 percent of buildings on St. Maarten were damaged and a third were destroyed by Irma’s fierce winds and powerful storm surge.

In the US Virgin Islands, damage was particularly widespread on St. John, an island of stunning natural beauty that is mostly national park surrounded by coral reefs. “You could see there was not much left,” Larry Brown, a part-time resident, said as he waited in Puerto Rico for a flight back to his home in southwestern Florida to see what damage awaited him there. “It was just horrible.”

There was some progress in getting back to normal on St. Thomas. The health department reopened a prenatal clinic and at least one water-pump station was back online. Power was restored to parts of the island, though most residents still remained in the dark and downed power lines posed a hazard. Several US Navy ships were in the islands, ferrying in heavy equipment for a recovery effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its local equivalent.

Mapp said several airlines including American and Delta plan to resume flights Saturday to the St. Thomas airport, which should help bring in additional emergency supplies. Private aid and donations have been making it to the territory as well. The governor announced that former San Antonio Spurs basketball star Tim Duncan, a native of St. Croix, would arrive in the Virgin Islands on Thursday, accompanied by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with about $5 million in aid.

Mapp and other officials have denied reports of violence and theft in the immediate aftermath of the storm and said there have been no major crimes. But the governor did say that dozens of National Guard soldiers and police officers were on St. John and noted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had agreed to send 100 state troopers and National Guardsmen to relieve and assist local law enforcement personnel.

Mapp praised the response of the US federal government and said President Donald Trump would visit in about a week. He said he was creating a recovery task force to help rebuild the islands and restore their tourism-based economy. The goal, Mapp said, will be “making sure folks know we’re here, we are rebuilding and that we should not be written off as … a place to vacation.”

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