Fed at 'end of road' on rate hikes, Bullard says

(Reuters) – With U.S. growth likely to slow this year, the U.S. Federal Reserve has come to the “end of the road” on its current interest-rate hike cycle, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard said on Thursday.

“I am concerned we are on the precipice of a policy mistake,” Bullard told reporters after an event in Little Rock, Ark. “We are good where we stand right now… What I don’t want to do is project that further increases are needed, that we are somehow short of our goal.”

Bullard is a voter on Fed policy this year, and his remarks suggest he may use that vote to cast a dissent should the Fed press forward with what in December policymakers projected would be two more rate hikes this year. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has faced no dissenting votes since he took over the gavel at the policysetting panel last February.

Under the Fed’s rules that limit votes by presidents of the Fed’s 12 regional banks, Bullard did not vote on rate setting in 2017 and 2018. But on Thursday he said would have supported the Fed’s rate hikes over most of that period because the economy grew faster than he and other policymakers had expected, pushing unemployment down more than anticipated.

That opened a window for the Fed to increase rates to more normal levels, he said.

But, he said, he argued against the December rate hike, the Fed’s fourth of the year and its ninth since it started its rate-hike cycle in December 2015, because inflation expectations had fallen.

Those expectations, he said Thursday, suggest the U.S. central bank’s policy stance “might be too hawkish.” He urged the Fed to heed that warning, and to be careful not to be so aggressive on policy that it inverts the yield curve.

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The Fed needs to take signals from markets seriously, Bullard said, adding that “The market’s almost always right in that situation, and it’s the Fed that’s been wrong.”

Bullard also said he is concerned what has been a moderate slowdown in global growth could worsen.

While trade tensions between the U.S. and China and other trading partners may be inhibiting domestic business spending, the uncertainty and “angst” may be even more intense overseas, he said. That may be connected to the global growth slowdown, he said.

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Forklift operator jailed for collecting bribes of between 10 cents and $1 from drivers

SINGAPORE – To jump the queue so that they can promptly collect or return their containers, truck drivers had to pay Chen Ziliang bribes of between 10 cents and $1.

On Thursday (Jan 10), the container yard forklift operator was jailed for two months and ordered to pay a penalty of $4,870.50, after pleading guilty to a corruption charge.

Chen ran the scheme from Feb 1, 2016, to March 12 last year, earning up to $10 in bribes daily. Those who did not bribe the Chinese national had to endure a longer waiting time, Deputy Public Prosecutor Ang Siok Chen told the court.

In total, Chen obtained nearly $5,000 from the truck drivers.

As a forklift truck operator for Cogent Container Depot, which provides container storage services, Chen received a monthly salary of $2,600.

He worked six days a week from Monday to Saturday.

Chen started his scheme when he was deployed to Cogent’s container yard in Buroh Crescent near Pioneer Road. He was then in charge of operating a forklift to load and unload containers from the trucks.

DPP Ang said that when carrying out their duties, forklift operators are not allowed to receive monies from the truck drivers.

She added: “When the accused was employed by Cogent, he knew there was a practice of obtaining monies from truck drivers at the container yard in return for allowing them to jump the queue for the collection or return of containers.

“The truck drivers would place coins, ranging from 10 cents to $1, at the mudguard of the forklift that the accused was operating on. Then he would collect these coins during his break and keep them in his pocket.”

On Oct 20, 2017, a truck driver complained to Chen about the long waiting time to get served. The forklift operator replied that the norm was to pass him $1 or risk having to wait longer in the queue.

Court documents did not state if the driver alerted the authorities but the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) conducted a raid at the yard in March last year.

Officers arrested Chen after they caught him obtaining $2 in bribes.

In a statement on Thursday, the CPIB said: “Singapore adopts a strict zero-tolerance approach towards corruption. It is a serious offence to obtain bribes, or attempt to obtain bribes from another individual or entity.”

Offenders convicted of corruption can be jailed for up to five years and fined up to $100,000.

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No Li Chun during Year of the Pig

SINGAPORE – If you have been holding on to cash and waiting to deposit it during the Chinese New Year period, take note: The Chinese auspicious day of Li Chun will not fall within the upcoming Year of the Pig.

Depositing money on Li Chun, also known as Farmers’ Day, is believed to grow one’s wealth and ensure good luck.

Normally falling between Feb 3 and 18, the day typically sees long queues forming at banks and cash deposit machines around Singapore.

This year, Li Chun will fall on Feb 4, the final day of the Year of the Dog. The Year of the Pig will begin on Feb 5.

Next year, Li Chun will be on Feb 4 as well – but by that time it will already be the Year of the Rat, which will begin on Jan 25, 2020.

Aside from the belief that it brings good luck, Li Chun marks the start of spring in the Chinese calendar. This means that Chinese New Year this year will technically be a “wu chun nian” or a year without spring.

Chinese culture and tradition expert Xu Yiting told Chinese evening paper Shin Min Daily News that such a situation is not unheard of, and occurs roughly two or three out of every 10 years.

Last year, various sites put out timetables for the best times to deposit money during Li Chun, which also occurred on Feb 4.

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#SaveRahaf: How Twitter saved a Saudi woman

On the evening of Saturday, 5 January, a desperate situation began to unravel on a newly created Twitter account.

Fleeing her Saudi family in Kuwait, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, sent out a series of tweets pleading for help from an airport hotel room in Bangkok.

At the time she had 24 followers.

“I’m the girl who ran away to Thailand. I’m now in real danger because the Saudi embassy is trying to force me to return,” her first-ever tweet in Arabic read.

People noticed and the first tweet with the hashtag #SaveRahaf was sent out.

Within minutes of that, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy translated the Arabic tweets into English and sent it to her hundreds of thousands of followers.

A few hours later that tweet caught the attention of Human Rights Watch and eventually Phil Robertson, its Bangkok-based Asia deputy director, who sent this out.‏

18 year old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun is being held at #Bangkok airport, her passport confiscated by #SaudiArabia which prevented her from continuing to #Australia. She wants to seek asylum, fears she will be killed if forced back to #Riyadh. Needs access to #UNHCR! pic.twitter.com/7yEGI1KKcb

End of Twitter post by @Reaproy

By the early hours of Sunday he was engaged in a direct Twitter message exchange with Ms Mohammed al-Qunun, guiding the young woman in her dealings with authorities at the airport.

#SaveRahaf

Despite that she kept up her barrage, live tweeting every minute of her ordeal and putting out videos that showed everything that was happening to her at the airport. Over the course of Sunday, her posts became more and more fevered.

The fear and desperation she conveyed through the tweets drew sympathy and support from the Twitter community.

Tweets carrying the #SaveRahaf hashtag continued to gain momentum and by mid-Sunday afternoon, it was in more than half a million tweets, according to Twitter.

An unknown teenager from Saudi Arabia that no-one had ever heard of had gone from 24 followers to more than 27,000 in the span of less than 24 hours.

“When I heard Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s public statement that she renounced her religion, I knew things would go very bad for her if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia,” Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson told BBC News.

“At that point, there was no question in my mind – she needed our help.”

Renouncing Islam, or apostasy, is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

The movement to help Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s life gathered huge momentum, particularly in Australia, where her case is now being referred to for possible resettlement.

“Twitter aims to provide a platform where marginalised voices can be seen and heard. This is fundamental to who we are and crucial to the effectiveness of our service,” an official statement to the BBC read.

This is where it gets dramatic

On Monday morning, the situation took a turn for the worse, with the arrival of Thai immigration authorities at Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s hotel room to deport her to Kuwait.

Following their direct message exchange on Twitter, Ms Mohammed al-Qunun heeded the advice of Human Rights Watch not to surrender her mobile phone under any circumstances.

And it proved to be a crucial piece of advice.

SA charge d'affaires in Bangkok Mr. Al-Shuaibi in a meeting with Thai officials:

"She opened a Twitter account and her followers grew to 45000 within one day. It would have been better if they confiscated her cell phone instead of her passport because Twitter changed everything" pic.twitter.com/FEjPjUbteV

End of Twitter post by @DrTalebJawad

The frantic teenager barricaded herself in with Australian journalist Sophie McNeill, refusing to board the flight. Instead, she relentlessly continued documenting the ordeal on Twitter.

After that her followers doubled in number to more than 66,400.

The BBC’s South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, who was part of a network of foreign journalists closely charting Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s case, said the enormous publicity driven by social media was a big factor in what happened to her.

“Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was a frightened, young woman. Interest in Rahaf’s plight drove her own Twitter following up by the time Thai authorities planned to deport her on Monday morning.

“This was a very powerful human story happening in real time, whose ending was uncertain.”

Thailand’s immigration police chief Gen. ‘Big Joke’ Surachate has promised not to force @rahaf84427714 back to Kuwait and said the Thais believe her life is at risk if she does. Police trying to negotiate with her through her door now. She only wants to talk to the UN.

End of Twitter post by @pakhead

“In building support and response to crisis situations, Twitter was the perfect social media tool for Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun because it enabled the rapid sharing of information,” Phil Robertson added.

“The surge of support on Twitter [not only] caught the attention of reporters and editors, it helped engage the mainstream Thai media.

“Her tweets also attracted attention from local diplomats as well as the highest levels of UNHCR and governments to the situation.

“This was all pivotal in prompting Thailand to re-think their approach once it was clear that Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun would not go quietly.”

“As of Sunday night Thai officials were adamant she would be sent back and Thai media had still not reported the story, by Monday morning that had changed,” said the BBC’s Jonathan Head.

Today Ms Mohammed al-Qunun is safe, having been declared a legitimate refugee by the UN.

Young and social-savvy, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was able to take things into her own hands by successfully mobilising a solid online campaign to protect herself.

She has come out of this ordeal with 126,000 followers on Twitter in the five days her account has been active.

In another case where social media was used in a similar way a Syrian man stranded at a Malaysian airport for months managed to successfully seek asylum in Canada after campaigning for his cause on Twitter and Facebook.

But not everyone facing a threat to their life has been as lucky.

After all the publicity given to @rahaf84427714 spare a thought for other Saudi women who have not got out. https://t.co/RN56L6dbDk

End of Twitter post 2 by @pakhead

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Monkeying about: Japan macaques on high-wire stroll go viral

TOKYO (AFP) – It’s a high-wire balancing act, and a video showing a troupe of daredevil monkeys strolling along cables above snow-covered ground in northern Japan has gone viral.

“Look at this! Impossible!” a woman says in the 71-second video clip that has been viewed nearly a million times since it was posted on Twitter on January 7.

The clip shows a stream of the monkeys deftly shuffling along a cable, gripping one below with their feet and an upper one with their hands.

As the camera rolls, one after another the monkeys make their way, their furry behinds wiggling as they tiptoe along.

“How many, how many, how many of them were there? It’s amazing,” the woman says.

The clip was uploaded by Twitter user @baritone-666, whose mother shot the images in the rural city of Mutsu, more than 600km north of Tokyo.

Monkeys live across large parts of Japan, and the country is famous for its snow monkeys, who attract hordes of tourists eager to spot the animals relaxing in hot springs during the winter months.

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Manila ex-banker gets jail, $147 million fine over Bangladesh cyber heist

MANILA (AFP) – A Philippine former banker was handed a lengthy jail term and US$109 million (S$147 million) fine on Thursday (Jan 10) in the first conviction over one of the biggest ever cyber heists which saw US$81 million stolen from Bangladesh’s central bank.

Shadowy hackers transferred the cash in 2016 from Bangladesh’s US accounts to Philippine bank Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC), where it was swiftly withdrawn.

The theft exposed the Philippines as a haven for dirty money, where some of the world’s strictest bank secrecy laws protect account holders from scrutiny.

A Manila court found Maia Deguito, who was an RCBC branch manager where the money landed, guilty of eight counts of money laundering, which carry a minimum of four years each behind bars.

The court also ordered her to pay US$109 million in fines. Deguito plans to appeal and can remain free on bail until the conviction is finalised.

The authorities charged that Deguito helped coordinate the transfer of the money, which was taken from Bangladesh’s reserves account at the Federal Reserve bank in the United States.

Deguito is the only person who has been convicted in the case – which has drawn international concern – her lawyer Demetrio Custodio told AFP, adding that his client had been turned into a scapegoat.

“She could not have done this on her own. A bank the size of RCBC could not have allowed a lowly bank officer to have planned this, so there are others involved in this,” Mr Custodio said.

RCBC said in a statement that it was a “victim” and that Deguito was a “rogue” employee.

The Philippine justice department said the case was not closed, but could not immediately provide details on other cases.

A North Korean hacker is also wanted by the US on charges that he and a state-sponsored hacking crew masterminded the Bangladesh heist.

Only US$15 million of the money was recovered after it landed in the Philippines and was quickly dispersed.

Tens of millions of the loot disappeared into Manila’s casinos, which were at the time exempt from rules aimed at preventing money laundering.

The Philippine central bank imposed a record US$21 million fine on RCBC after the discovery of the heist as it investigated the lender’s alleged role in the theft.

The US reserve bank, which manages the Bangladesh Bank account, has denied its own systems were breached.

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Malaysia to enact law to protect monarchy from slander amid fallout over king's resignation

PUTRAJAYA – The Malaysian government will enact legislation to protect the monarchy from “slander and attacks” in the wake of the unprecedented resignation of the country’s constitutional monarch.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Liew Vui Keong said on Thursday (Jan 10) that existing laws will also be amended, the official Bernama news agency reported.

“Ours is a constitutional monarchy. So, the government must always ensure that our rulers are protected from unfounded slander and attacks by irresponsible people,” Datuk Liew was quoted as telling reporters after delivering a new year message to staff of the Legal Affairs Division in the Prime Minister’s Department.

The move comes as Malaysia grapples with the abrupt resignation of Kelantan Sultan Muhammad V as the country’s 15th king, or Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, purportedly following his recent marriage to a Russian model.

The sultan’s unprecedented departure mid-way through his five-year term sparked a scramble to avert a constitutional crisis. The new king is now due to be selected by the Conference of Rulers on Jan 24, and be sworn in on Jan 31.

Police have arrested three people under the Sedition Act for allegedly mocking the former monarch on Facebook and Twitter.

Things that are deemed to be seditious by law include those that “raise discontent or disaffection amongst the subjects of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong or of the ruler of any state”.

Offenders can be fined up to RM5,000 or jailed up to three years, or both.

Mr Liew said the laws must provide for the punishment of “irresponsible people” who do not respect the institution of the monarchy. Current penalties for certain offences against the monarchy were too lenient, he was cited by Bernama as saying.

“The objective is to ensure that our constitutional monarchy will always be protected from all kinds of attack,” Mr Liew said.

The government would study the constitutional monarchies in Commonwealth countries for the new laws, he added.

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International design contest launched to seek proposals for Founders' Memorial

SINGAPORE – An international design competition has been launched to call for proposals for the upcoming Founders’ Memorial, which will be constructed in the Bay East Garden in Gardens by the Bay.

The competition, which opened on Thursday (Jan 10), invites architects from all over the world to take part in a bid to be appointed for the project.

Mr Lee Tzu Yang, who is chairman of the Founders’ Memorial Committee, said that the winning design should “honour the founding values of this country and make excellent use of the site”.

“We envision that it will be a space which everyone of all ages can enjoy and relate to, and an icon that Singaporeans can be proud of and share with our future generations,” he said.

“We are not looking for statues; we are not looking for depictions of iconographic people.”

The competition will be organised in two stages, with participants required to submit designs for the first stage by April.

A jury panel will shortlist up to six designs, and public engagement workshops will be organised to get Singaporeans’ thoughts on them. The shortlisted participants will then further develop their designs for stage two before the winning entry is announced at the start of next year.

The Founders’ Memorial will be housed in a garden, within which an indoor gallery will be built. There will likely be permanent and temporary galleries, as well as a visitor centre and multipurpose rooms which could host school excursions and citizenship ceremonies.

More than 32,000 people have been asked – through dialogues, surveys and workshops – what they wanted to see from the memorial. Groups of historians, educators, architects and students have also been consulted.

One of the factors the jury panel will consider is whether the project is within budget, although the exact budget is still being worked out.

International firms will be encouraged to partner with local ones in the first stage, and will have to do so in stage two.

The memorial is expected to be completed by 2027, and attract one million visitors a year.

Mr Tai Lee Siang, one of seven members of the jury panel along with Mr Lee, added that the site must be “carefully and properly planned”.

“It will set the tone for the rest of the Bay East Gardens design,” said Mr Tai, executive director (BuildSG) at the Building and Construction Authority.

The Singapore Institute of Architects has been appointed by the Founders’ Memorial Committee, through the National Heritage Board, to organise the competition.

Landscaping will be an important part of the design. Proposals should also take into consideration the connectivity and accessibility to the site.

Plans for the area include public road access, a new pedestrian bridge and water taxi stop, as well as the new Founders’ Memorial MRT station.

For more information on the contest, visit: foundersmemorialcompetition.sg

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China's December factory-gate inflation at 0.9 percent year-on-year, lowest since September 2016

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s producer price index (PPI) in December rose 0.9 percent from a year earlier, marking the lowest rate since September 2016 and slowing sharply from the previous month’s 2.7 percent increase, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Thursday.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected producer inflation would cool to 1.6 percent last month.

The consumer price index (CPI) rose 1.9 percent last month compared with a year earlier, also below market expectations for a 2.1 percent gain.

That compares with November’s 2.2 percent growth, and Beijing’s 2018 target of around 3 percent.

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Woman and 2 Children Die in Nepal Menstruation Hut

KATHMANDU, Nepal — When Amba Bohara’s period came this week, she followed a familiar routine in western Nepal. Considered impure in her village because she was menstruating, Ms. Bohara barricaded herself in a tiny hut, built a fire and braced for an icy winter night with her two young children.

By Wednesday morning, all three were dead.

“It seems they died from suffocation,” said Uddhab Singh Bhat, the deputy superintendent of police in the area. “The hut was so small. It was very difficult to breathe.”

Ms. Bohara and her children were the latest victims of a centuries-old tradition of banishing menstruating women and girls from their family homes. Though Nepal criminalized the practice last year, many villages in the country continue to follow the taboo, known as chhaupadi in Nepali.

During their periods, women living in places where chhaupadi is followed are unable to visit temples, use other villagers’ kitchen utensils or wash in communal water sources. Some religious Hindus consider it bad luck to touch menstruating women and girls.

Instead, they leave their homes and sequester themselves in closet-size huts made of mud or rock, sometimes sleeping next to goats.

Each year, at least one or two women die in the huts — typically from exposure, animal bites or smoke inhalation after building fires to stay warm during the Himalayan winters. Reports of sexual assault from men who prey on women while they stay alone are also common.

Many women who follow chhaupadi say they do so out of social pressure or guilt.

A Nepali government survey from 2010, which was cited in a State Department human rights report, found that 19 percent of women age 15 to 49 in the country followed chhaupadi. In Nepal’s midwestern and far western regions, the proportion climbed to 50 percent.

Nepal’s Supreme Court banned the practice in 2005, and last August the government went a step further by criminalizing it. Anyone who forces menstruating women into the huts now faces up to three months in jail.

But women’s rights activists say the law has made little impact, particularly in western Nepal, one of the poorest pockets of Asia, where it is still politically unpopular for local representatives to oppose the taboo. So far, not one has been charged for following chhaupadi.

“The situation is miserable,” said Mohna Ansari, a member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal. “It seems nothing is changing.”

In a telephone interview, Khadak Bahadur Bohara sobbed as he related what happened this week to Ms. Bohara, his 35-year-old sister-in-law.

On Tuesday evening, the second day of her period, she fed her family’s cattle in the village of Budhinanda and collected wood to build a fire in the hut.

200 MILES

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Budhinanda

NEPAL

Kathmandu

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By The New York Times

With her husband working as a manual laborer in India, Ms. Bohara also scooped up her two children, Suresh, 9, and Ramit, 7, and shut them inside the hut with her.

Ms. Bohara placed a large stone in front of the door to block others from entering.

The next morning, when her mother-in-law brought cups of tea to the hut, she saw smoke seeping out from cracks in the walls. Relatives struggled to break the door. Once inside, they found a gruesome scene: Ms. Bohara’s legs were charred. Foam bubbled out from the children’s mouths.

“This has broken my heart,” Mr. Bohara said of the three deaths.

In interviews, senior police officials said they were investigating and would decide whether any charges would be applied after autopsies were performed and the woman’s husband was contacted.

Rewati Raman Bhandari, a former lawmaker who drafted the measure that criminalized chhaupadi, said the push to eradicate the practice — from villagers, the police and local politicians — was still far too muted.

“Tradition is stronger than the law,” he said.

Bhadra Sharma reported from Kathmandu, Nepal, and Kai Schultz from New Delhi.

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