Sharjah sells $1bn sukuk

Sharjah sells $1bn sukuk
Sharjah in the UAE. In May, the emirate raised 2 billion dirhams ($545 million) in privately placed one-year sukuk to support its economy during the coronavirus pandemic. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Sharjah sells $1bn sukuk

Sharjah sells $1bn sukuk
  • Gulf states seek to bolster finances hit by pandemic and historic slide in oil prices

DUBAI: Sharjah, the third-largest emirate of the UAE, sold $1 billion in seven-year sukuk, or Islamic bonds, on Tuesday, according to a document from one of the banks arranging the deal.

The debt sale comes as several governments in the Gulf seek to bolster their finances to face the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and a historic slide in oil prices.

Sharjah set the final spread at 245 basis points (bps) over midswaps for the sukuk, which are Islamic sharia-compliant bonds, according to the document seen by Reuters.

It tightened the spread by 30 bps from where it began marketing the notes earlier on Tuesday.

Sharjah, rated Baa2 by Moody’s ratings agency and BBB by S&P, is a relatively frequent issuer of US dollar Islamic bonds.

HSBC was hired as global coordinator for the transaction. Other banks on the deal were Bank ABC, Dubai Islamic Bank, Gulf International Bank, Mashreqbank and Sharjah Islamic Bank.

In May, the emirate raised 2 billion dirhams ($545 million) in privately placed one-year sukuk to support its economy during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a statement by Bank of Sharjah, which arranged that deal.

“Issued as 12 month dirham-denominated paper in several tranches, the Sharjah Liquidity Support Mechanism (SLSM) sukuk represents the first rated short term local currency tradeable instrument in the UAE, which can be used for liquidity management by banks,” the Sharjah Finance Department said in a statement on Tuesday, confirming that deal. It said that it was a first tranche and that further tranches with one or more other banks were expected to expand the SLSM to 4 billion dirhams.

S&P Global Ratings in April revised its outlook on the emirate to negative from stable due to lower oil prices and the impact of the new coronavirus.

“Although we expect GDP growth to recover in 2021, lower-for-longer oil prices and a protracted lockdown period could pressure the emirate’s fiscal position,” the agency said.


Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
Updated 06 March 2021

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
  • The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health

WASHINGTON: Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide late Friday, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up a variety of amendments in rapid-fire fashion. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes. It was unclear how long into the weekend the “vote-a-rama” would last.
More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supports the compromise on jobless payments.
Friday’s lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate. But the party can’t tilt too far center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.
Aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared to the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.
“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery.”
The overall bill faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
“You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
As the day began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October.
That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.
But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party tried finding a way to salvage its unemployment aid package.
The compromise announced Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on benefits.
During the “vote-a-rama,” the Senate narrowly passed an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would have extended the $300 unemployment insurance benefit to July 18. But Portman’s victory was short-lived and the proposal was canceled out when the chamber subsequently passed the unemployment insurance proposal worked out by the Democrats.
Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years.
Eight Democrats voted against that proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and was not formally gaveled to a close until nearly 12 hours later as Senate work ground to a halt amid the unemployment benefit negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats, calling their daylong effort to work out the unemployment amendment a “spectacle.”
“What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when you’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude,” McConnell said.
Republicans criticized the overall relief bill as a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.
“Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.” McConnell said.
Democrats reject that, citing the job losses and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,’” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay on the relief package. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.
Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.
In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to make some higher earners ineligible for the direct checks to individuals.


Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors
Updated 06 March 2021

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors
  • Authorities say that McAfee and cohorts fooled investors through social media to make over $13 million
  • McAfee and his team are accused of capitalizing on zeal over the emerging cryptocurrency market as they lied to investors

NEW YORK: Antivirus software entrepreneur John McAfee was indicted on fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges alleging that he and cohorts made over $13 million by fooling investors zealous over the emerging cryptocurrency market, authorities said Friday.
McAfee, 75, was charged in a newly unsealed indictment in Manhattan federal court along with Jimmy Gale Watson Jr., who served as an executive adviser on what prosecutors described as McAfee’s “so-called cryptocurrency team.”
Prosecutors said Watson, 40, was arrested Thursday night in Texas and would make an initial appearance Friday before a federal magistrate judge in Dallas. McAfee, authorities said, is detained in Spain on separate criminal charges filed by the US Justice Department’s tax division.
Attorney Arnold Spencer, representing Watson, said his client is a decorated former Navy Seal.
“He fought for other people’s rights and liberties, and he is entitled to and looks forward to his day in court to exercise some of those very rights,” he said in an email.
“Criminal indictments are blunt instruments, not precise scalpels,” Spencer added. “This is not the right place to debate whether cutting edge technologies like cryptocurrencies are securities, commodities, or something else.”
It was not immediately clear who might represent McAfee. There was still no lawyer listed for him in the Memphis, Tennessee, federal court where tax charges were lodged against him in October.
“McAfee and Watson exploited a widely used social media platform and enthusiasm among investors in the emerging cryptocurrency market to make millions through lies and deception,” US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement describing crimes in 2017 and 2018.
“The defendants allegedly used McAfee’s Twitter account to publish messages to hundreds of thousands of his Twitter followers touting various cryptocurrencies through false and misleading statements to conceal their true, self-interested motives,” she added.
In October, McAfee was charged in Tennessee with evading taxes after failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies while he did consulting work, made speaking engagements and sold the rights to his life story for a documentary.
McAfee developed early Internet security software and has been sought by authorities in the US and Belize in the past.
The Tennessee indictment said McAfee failed to file tax returns from 2014 to 2018, despite receiving “considerable income” from several sources.
In July 2019, McAfee was released from detention in the Dominican Republic after he and five others were suspected of traveling on a yacht carrying high-caliber weapons, ammunition and military-style gear, officials on the Caribbean island said at the time.


More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw
Updated 06 March 2021

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw
  • The hacks are continuing despite emergency patches issued by Microsoft on Tuesday
  • Microsoft and the person working with the US response blamed the initial wave of attacks on a Chinese government-backed actor

WASHINGTON: More than 20,000 US organizations have been compromised through a back door installed via recently patched flaws in Microsoft Corp’s email software, a person familiar with the US government’s response said on Friday.
The hacking has already reached more places than all of the tainted code downloaded from SolarWinds Corp, the company at the heart of another massive hacking spree uncovered in December.
The latest hack has left channels for remote access spread among credit unions, town governments and small businesses, according to records from the US investigation.
Tens of thousands of organizations in Asia and Europe are also affected, the records show.
The hacks are continuing despite emergency patches issued by Microsoft on Tuesday.
Microsoft, which had initially said the hacks consisted of “limited and targeted attacks,” declined to comment on the scale of the problem on Friday but said it was working with government agencies and security companies to provide help to customers.
It added, “impacted customers should contact our support teams for additional help and resources.”
One scan of connected devices showed only 10% of those vulnerable had installed the patches by Friday, though the number was rising.
Because installing the patch does not get rid of the back doors, US officials are racing to figure out how to notify all the victims and guide them in their hunt.
All of those affected appear to run Web versions of email client Outlook and host them on their own machines, instead of relying on cloud providers. That may have spared many of the biggest companies and federal government agencies, the records suggest.
The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the vulnerabilities found in Microsoft’s widely used Exchange servers were “significant,” and “could have far-reaching impacts.”
“We’re concerned that there are a large number of victims,” Psaki said.
Microsoft and the person working with the US response blamed the initial wave of attacks on a Chinese government-backed actor. A Chinese government spokesman said the country was not behind the intrusions.
What started as a controlled attack late last year against a few classic espionage targets grew last month to a widespread campaign. Security officials said that implied that unless China had changed tactics, a second group may have become involved.
More attacks are expected from other hackers as the code used to take control of the mail servers spreads.
The hackers have only used the back doors to re-enter and move around the infected networks in a small percentage of cases, probably less than 1 in 10, the person working with the government said.
“A couple hundred guys are exploiting them as fast as they can,” stealing data and installing other ways to return later, he said.
The initial avenue of attack was discovered by prominent Taiwanese cyber researcher Cheng-Da Tsai, who said he reported the flaw to Microsoft in January. He said in a blog post that he was investigating whether the information leaked.
He did not respond to requests for further comment.


China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021
Updated 06 March 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021
  • Some analysts suggest the economy could expand by as much as 9% this year

BEIJING: China’s leaders said Friday they had set a target for GDP to grow more than 6 percent this year, as the world’s second largest economy surges out of a pandemic-induced slump.

The global growth powerhouse stuttered in 2020, logging its slowest expansion in four decades as strict virus containment measures at home collided with a freeze in international trade.
The slowdown raised doubts about the Communist Party’s ability to deliver on its pledge of continued prosperity in return for unquestioned political power.
But with the coronavirus largely brought under control domestically, analysts expect a strong comeback, with some suggesting the economy could expand by as much as nine percent this year.
Beijing usually sets a target it feels it can exceed. It did not set one at all last year.
Announcing the figure at the start of the annual legislative session, Premier Li Keqiang said the government had “taken into account the recovery of economic activity.”
The target of over 6 percent also dovetails with future goals, Li said, and these include reform, innovation, and “high-quality development.”
Authorities say they want to create 11 million new urban jobs this year, and keep urban unemployment around 5.5 percent.
Outside observers caution that China’s unemployment figures may not tell the whole story, with many people across the vast nation involved in the informal workforce.
Analysts had widely predicted the continued global uncertainty would make it tricky for China to set a GDP target again this year, and greeted the 6 percent figure as deliberately cautious.
“The bar is set too low ... (it’s) as if there is no target,” ING chief economist for Greater China Iris Pang told AFP.
This could be because Beijing does not want to slash its growth target next year, when distortions from the pandemic subside, added Nomura chief China economist Lu Ting.
The figure also reflects “the shifting focus from quantity to quality of economic growth,” said Zhu Chaoping, a strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management.
That could include resources being allocated to long-term initiatives like environmental protection, Zhu added.
Leaders also did not specify a growth target in its new five-year plan draft published Friday, as is its usual custom, only saying it would be “maintained within a reasonable range.”
China has been trying to rebalance the economy from its export- and investment-led economic model to one driven by consumer spending and high-quality development.
The post-COVID economic rebound saw China’s GDP growth recorded at about 2 percent last year, which made it the only major economy to post positive figures in a year lost to the virus.
With weakness around the world caused by the prolonged pandemic shutdown, capitals around the globe will be watching China’s economic performance eagerly.


Travel industry bets on vaccine passports to draw Brits to Med

Travel industry bets on vaccine passports to draw Brits to Med
Updated 06 March 2021

Travel industry bets on vaccine passports to draw Brits to Med

Travel industry bets on vaccine passports to draw Brits to Med
  • Britain is the only major European country likely to inoculate a large share of working-age adults by summer

LONON/MADRID: The race to roll out vaccination passports is spurring competition among travel companies and tourist destinations for the large number of Britons set to receive COVID-19 shots before the summer.
Thanks to its swift vaccine deployment, Britain is the only major European country likely to inoculate a large share of working-age adults by summer. They may become the first big regional test of digital health credentials in development.
Airlines such as easyJet saw outbound bookings from Britain surge last week as the government raised the prospect of a return to quarantine-free summer travel, and the EU agreed to develop vaccine passports under pressure from tourism-dependent southern countries.
But cooped-up consumers’ getaway plans face reality checks — from unpredictable virus variants to lingering EU divisions over vaccine passports, with France leading resistance from several states over political and discrimination concerns.
Britain’s tentative move toward restoring travel “puts pressure on other countries to do the same, which is good for us,” said Grigoris Tasios of the Greek Hoteliers’ Federation. Greece has eased restrictions for vaccinated Israelis and is discussing a similar arrangement with the UK.
Tourism from Germany, another big travel market lagging the UK on vaccinations, hinges on Berlin dropping quarantines for tested passengers, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said this week.
In the aftermath of Britain’s departure from the EU, its reputedly unruly tourists are at the center of a battered travel industry’s hopes for the peak season.
Spain, typically Britons’ No. 1 destination by far, has pushed hard for EU vaccination certificates. The island of Mallorca’s mostly shuttered hotels anxiously await details, their spokeswoman Maria Duran said.
“We’re paying very close attention to the UK, the first country to design and share a roadmap for restoring mobility,” she said. Spain saw UK visitor numbers plunge to 3.1 million last year from more than 18 million in 2019.
Athens is appealing directly to British consumers.
Those with shots will be spared tests, with or without the EU’s blessing, Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis said in UK media interviews.
Tourism sustains a fifth of Greece’s workforce and economy, hit by a 76 percent drop in international arrivals last year and €14 billion ($17 billion) in lost sector revenue.
Greece’s position, and similar Spanish assurances, contrast with the message from France, the second-ranked destination for Britons — which is in no hurry to welcome them back.
“Don’t come,” the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, advised potential overseas visitors last month as the Mediterranean city grappled with a faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first identified in Britain. “It’s not the time.”
As a result, airlines and tour operators are pushing “sun-and-sea” bookings to Spain, Greece and Portugal in a bid to bring in much-needed cash.
“The trend now is toward what’s likely to be open,” said Toby Kelly, CEO of UK travel agency Trailfinders, pointing to a “massive pickup in demand” to Greek destinations.
“Greece has been the big story, with its government totally behind vaccine certificates.”
Without waiting for Brussels, Cyprus joined the rush on Thursday, announcing that vaccinated UK tourists could enter from May 1 without testing or quarantine.
Andy Davies, a 43-year-old British company director who booked a Mallorca villa for July after getting vaccinated, said he was reassured by Britain’s reopening plans and “noises coming out of Europe about the vaccine passport.”