Asian stocks slip after grim U.S. retail sales data

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asian stocks slipped on Friday after grim U.S. retail sales figures raised fresh doubts about the strength of the U.S. economy, offsetting optimism on trade talks between the United States and China.

Also casting a shadow, the White House said U.S. President Donald Trump will declare a national emergency to try to obtain funds for his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, drawing immediate criticism from Democrats.

Japan’s Nikkei dropped 1.1 percent while MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 0.25 percent in early trade, with South Korea’s Kospi shedding 1.0 percent.

In the United States, the S&P 500 lost 0.27 percent on Thursday, a day after it hit a 10-week high on rising hopes that Washington and Beijing could reach a trade deal.

U.S. retail sales tumbled 1.2 percent in December, recording their biggest drop since September 2009 as receipts fell across the board.

The shockingly weak report led to economic growth estimates for the fourth-quarter being cut to below a 2.0 percent annualized rate, with the Atlanta Fed forecasting a 1.5 percent growth, much below its previous forecast of 2.7 percent about a week ago.

Kazushige Kaida, head of foreign exchange at State Street in Tokyo, said he was “very surprised” by the U.S. retail sales data.

“The extraordinary weakness, however, appears to be owing in part to the government shutdown, though the exact extent of its impact is not clear,” he said.

“It would be premature to think the U.S. economy has lost steam completely. We have to wait for figures in the next couple of months,” Kaida said.

The collapse in retail sales came along with data showing an unexpected increase in the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week.

The closely-watched four-week average of the volatile data rose to the highest level in more than a year

That prompted Fed fund futures to price in a small chance, about 15 percent, of a rate cut this year.

U.S. Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said the central bank should stop paring its balance sheet by the end of this year.

Daisuke Uno, chief strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Bank, said the Fed “appears to be laying the ground work to end its balance sheet reduction early”.

The 10-year U.S. Treasuries yield fell to 2.655 percent, wiping out most of their rise this week.

In the currency market, the weak U.S. data dented the dollar.

The U.S. currency fetched 110.50 yen, stepping back from Thursday’s seven-week peak of 111.13.

The dollar’s weakness saved the euro from testing its 2018 low of $1.1216. The common currency stood at $1.1295 after having fallen to $1.1248 on Thursday following economic data showing Germany’s economy stalled in the fourth quarter.

The British pound slipped to $1.2800, after touching a near one-month low of $1.2773 after Prime Minister Theresa May lost a symbolic Brexit vote in parliament, weakening her hand as she seeks to renegotiate her withdrawal agreement with Brussels.

Traders are waiting for results of a meeting on Friday between the Trump administration’s top two negotiators and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

There has been no decision to extend a March 1 U.S. deadline for a deal, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Thursday.

Oil prices found support as top exporter Saudi Arabia said it would cut crude exports and deliver an even deeper output cut.

Brent crude futures rose to as high as $64.81 per barrel, their highest level in 12 weeks, on Thursday.

U.S. crude futures rose 0.9 percent in early Friday trade to $54.89 per barrel.

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Snap-happy tourists testing patience of Hong Kongers at must-have Instagram locations

HONG KONG (AFP) – For smartphone-wielding hordes of tourists, Hong Kong boasts a host of must-have Instagram locations – but crowds of snap-happy travellers are testing local patience and transforming once quaint pockets of the bustling metropolis.

Tony Hui recalls how elderly residents always used to play cards in a courtyard in the middle of the densely packed housing block where he owns a dry cleaning store.

The buildings in Hong Kong’s Quarry Bay are one of the city’s best known residential complexes, famed for tightly-knit apartments towering above three sides of a thin courtyard.

But in recent years, daily throngs of tourists have relegated the card players to a dark corner of the courtyard.

“You might say the elderly have made way for the photo takers’ convenience, to not get in their way,” Hui concedes.

While the building had long been a draw for street photographers and architecture enthusiasts, social media has helped turn it into a mass tourist attraction, fuelled by it featuring as a location in a recent Transformers blockbuster and the remake of the Japanese manga classic Ghost In The Shell.

A sign warning against shooting photos and disturbing residents has done little to deter the chic travellers who usually form an orderly line to wait for a coveted spot in the middle of symmetrical blocks.

A high-end cafe opened in November to cater to this new market – its sleek interiors and bright lighting a stark contrast to the more humble-looking neighbourhood shops and the public housing towers above.

Other Instagram hotspots have proven more chaotic.

A mural by local graffiti artist Alex Croft featuring rows of tenement houses draws a constant stream of tourists to the steeply sloping Graham Street in downtown Central district.

Taxis and cars honk restlessly as the tourists – primarily from mainland China, South Korea and Taiwan but also western nations – spill into the road to get their ideal frame seemingly oblivious to the safety issues.


Park Tae and Hwang Seung Min from South Korea had only seen the wall free of interlopers in carefully composed photos on their Instagram feeds so were surprised the street was so busy in real life.

“I was taken aback as I didn’t expect the crowds, but it’s good for taking photos,” Park says.

For some shops, this heavy foot traffic brings new business: there are queues outside a famous egg tart store and a dumpling house nearby, as snappers stop to refuel.

But Toby Cooper who runs popular pub The Globe which sits directly opposite the mural, says the sheer number of people loitering on the road is a safety issue.

“We have seen a few people hit by cars and vans on Graham but they tend to be the instagrammers who are transfixed on taking photos,” he explains.

“Their saving grace is the sharp corner – vehicles entering Graham Street are going slowly. As far as I’m aware, none of my customers have been hit by cars, yet.”

Hong Kong’s unique urban aesthetics – especially its public housing estates – have proved enormously popular to social media obsessives.

Critics say the crowds help romanticise poverty sharing images that provide only a shallow view of what it is to live in the one of the world’s most unaffordable property markets.

Across the harbour tourists and some locals have taken over the basketball courts surrounded by the now iconic rainbow-coloured housing estate in the Choi Hung district, which means rainbow in Cantonese.

It is where Korean boy band Seventeen shot a music video and is now being promoted by the government’s tourism bureau.

Local resident Chow Keung, a 72-year-old kung fu master, is fairly sanguine about the visitors as he watches them from a bench.

“Many people have asked me how to get here and I give them directions, I don’t mind… but I’ve had to ask some tourists not to leave their trash behind,” he sighs.

A grandfather surnamed Liu recalls a bygone era when children actually rode scooters and freely played basketball on the courts.

Today’s teens have to navigate the groups of photographers as they play.

One 14-year-old resident, who gave his name as Yik, says he now fears racking up a bill when he shoots hoops.

He adds: “I once accidentally hit someone’s phone.”

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Hong Kong, crossroads of the criminal wildlife trade from pangolin scales to ivory

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – It was after dark on a Tuesday evening in December 2017 when the vans pulled onto Island House Lane, a placid side street of residential complexes and community garden plots in the suburban Tai Po district.

High-rises gave way to lush forest as the street wound down to a pebble beach. Across the harbour was Tolo Channel, and jagged green hills descending into the sea all the way to the coast of China’s Guangdong province.

On the water, a speedboat was waiting. Men began unloading the vans’ cargo onto the beach.

When officers from Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department arrived, the boats fled out to sea. Marine officers pursued them for two hours before losing them in the channel’s warren of rocky coves and mangrove estuaries.

From the vans, however, officers were able to recover part of the contraband cargo.

There was about US$1 million worth of mobile phones, digital cameras and tablets. And, packed into cardboard boxes, the agents discovered more than 300kg of smooth brown scales, each a couple of inches across, that looked as if they had been stripped from some prehistoric reptile.

In fact, they came from pangolins: a housecat-size, forest-dwelling mammal that resembles an armour-clad anteater. Pangolin meat is a delicacy in southern China, where it is critically endangered, and its scales are prized as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

During the past decade, the animal has been hunted out of most of its range in South-east Asia, and it is being poached at alarming levels in Central Africa. The pangolin’s value has increased with its rarity – the shipment seized in Tai Po had a street value of around US$300,000.

In the geography of the illegal wildlife trade, Hong Kong occupies a unique and essential position. It is a city that has built its reputation and economy as a frictionless connector of countries and capital, located on the doorstep of mainland China – the most ravenous wildlife market in the world.

Over the past decade, the appetites of segments of the booming Chinese middle and upper class – for jewellery, artwork, traditional (though often scientifically uncreditable) remedies and exotic foods – have dramatically expanded a global wildlife black market that has decimated species in Africa, South-east Asia and elsewhere.

The pangolin is the latest casualty: Four of the eight species are now endangered, and the international trade in pangolin products has been banned since 2016.

Researchers at the ADM Capital Foundation, a Hong Kong-based organisation focused on environmental issues, recently analysed data on seizures of wildlife products from the Customs and Excise Department.

In a report published last month by the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group, a consortium that includes the foundation, the researchers found that the territory accounted for more pangolin seizures than any country.

Between 2013 and 2017, Hong Kong seized 43 metric tonnes of pangolin scales and carcasses – representing tens of thousands of animals – in shipments arriving from six countries, principally Cameroon and Nigeria.

The amount intercepted between 2013 and 2015 alone is equivalent to 45 per cent of all the pangolin products seized worldwide between 2007 and 2015, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Although the data analysed by the foundation does not include 2018, pangolin seizures nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018. In January 2019, Hong Kong authorities intercepted the territory’s largest-ever shipment of pangolin scales, 9 tonnes in all, on a cargo ship bound to Vietnam from Nigeria.

The pangolin products appear to have been destined mostly for mainland China – though they are not hard to find in Hong Kong, either. On the well-trafficked Queen’s Road in the Sheung Wan district, the clerk at one small shop, presiding over a counter piled with dried goji berries, almonds and mung beans, readily offered pangolin scales to an inquiring customer.

“We sell a lot, and we’ve been doing this business for a long time,” she said. One liang – a Chinese measure equal to about 37.5 grams – retailed for HK$300 (S$52). “It’s quite luxurious,” she said.

While the shop was careful not to keep the product on the premises, she said that with a phone call it could be delivered in half an hour, and that getting it across the border undetected was easy.

“We’ll just grind it into powder,” she said. In order to avoid getting caught, she advised, “don’t get too much at one time.”

A Pipeline for Illegal Trade

In recent years, as alarm has grown about both the ecological consequences of the illegal wildlife trade and its links to other forms of crime and security threats, many countries have significantly stepped up their response, stiffening laws and increasing the resources dedicated to enforcing them.

In the United States, wildlife trafficking is now often prosecuted under muscular organised-crime statutes. The United Nations describes the trade in wildlife as “one of the largest transnational organised criminal activities.”

Hong Kong stands out against this trend, conservationists here charge. While other countries with the political and law enforcement capacity to fight wildlife trafficking have begun to do so, the territory’s government – which is otherwise relatively aggressive in combating corruption, organised crime and other ills – has appeared reluctant to follow suit, even as an enormous share of the illegal trade passes through the territory’s airport and shipping terminals.

The territory’s Customs and Excise Department estimates the wildlife contraband it has seized over the past five years – by value, principally pangolin, elephant ivory and timber – to be worth more than US$71 million (S$97 million), a figure that suggests the possibility of a billion-dollar illicit industry.

But environment and law enforcement officials routinely reject the notion that these seizures suggest the existence of serious criminal enterprises.

“We do not have very strong evidence that organised crime is organising” the Hong Kong wildlife trade, said Tse Chin-wan, Hong Kong’s undersecretary for the environment, in an interview in August.

Fewer than 20 per cent of the seizures of pangolin products that ADMCF identified resulted in prosecutions. (According to the Customs and Excise Department, no charges have been filed yet in the speedboat smuggling case in December 2017.)

Cases involving ivory – the largest segment of Hong Kong’s illegal wildlife seizures by value, with US$26.3 million worth seized from 2013 to 2017 – were more likely to be prosecuted.

But arrests were rarely made above the level of the individual couriers, known as “ant smugglers,” who were caught red-handed at the airport and generally received little more than a few weeks in prison and modest fines.

The official reluctance to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade is explained in part by the territory’s long history as perhaps the world’s premier entrepôt for legal wildlife products. The city is culturally and physically adjacent to Guangdong province, a centre of traditional Chinese medicine and ivory craftsmanship for centuries, where the consumption of wildlife for food is also deeply ingrained.

Hong Kong is also close to Fujian province, a coastal region famous for its carving industry, where many illegal wildlife products – rhinoceros horn, helmeted hornbill crests, rosewood – are turned into high-end jewellery, knickknacks and statuary for the Chinese market.

Hong Kong’s century as a British territory gave it connections to merchants in the former African colonies who traded in elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and animal skins prized by consumers around the world. The city was the centre of the international ivory trade until it was banned in 1989, importing as much as 700 tonnes of tusks from Africa annually at its 1970s peak.

For years, Hong Kong has been a leading importer and exporter of shark fins – a popular soup ingredient in Cantonese cuisine. By the most recent available statistics, the territory leads the world in imports of live fish and reptiles.

Much of this legal trade is visible in neighbourhoods like the commercial district of Sheung Wan, where storefronts crammed with dried sea horses and birds’ nests crowd the street beneath billboards of the Kardashians.

Conservationists charge that this legal commerce complicates efforts to tackle Hong Kong’s role as a key node in the global illegal trade. Once they are skinned and dried for sale, the fins of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, for instance, are almost impossible to distinguish from the fins of legally caught blue sharks in Hong Kong’s seafood shops.

Among the dried fish swim bladders – also a popular soup ingredient – hanging in the same shop windows, it is similarly difficult to distinguish the sustainably caught species from the swim bladders of the totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose illegal harvest off the Pacific Coast of Mexico has also pushed the vaquita, a porpoise that is often caught in fishing nets, to the edge of extinction.

‘The World is Changing’

The massive growth of the shipping industry and global connectivity have made the markets for these species ruthlessly efficient and fast-moving. “I’m wondering, what’s the next species?” said Timothy C. Bonebrake, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong’s conservation forensics laboratory, which assists local law enforcement in analysing wildlife contraband.

“Is there a way you can be proactive about this and stop it before these things are all critically endangered? And certainly, in Hong Kong, we’re seeing there is always a new species, all the time.”

Efforts to patrol Hong Kong’s wildlife imports are also hampered by the sheer scale of commerce in a territory whose economy was built on unencumbered movement.

Most of the seized pangolin scales have turned up in shipping containers in Hong Kong’s port, the fifth largest in the world, where inspecting more than a sliver of the nearly 21 million containers that pass through annually would be a herculean task.

Ivory and rhino horn from Africa increasingly arrive through Hong Kong’s international airport, which leads the world in airfreight and is the eighth-most-trafficked by passengers.

“We’re serious about enforcement and prosecution,” said Tse, the environment undersecretary. “But we have to accept the reality that Hong Kong is a free port, and it offers a lot of opportunities for this kind of activity to happen. Every day we have tens of thousands of cargos going in and going out of the city.”

Tse argues that in the face of these daunting challenges, the best hope for reducing Hong Kong’s role in the illegal wildlife trade is reducing local consumer demand for legal products. He points to the territory’s consumption of shark fins, imports of which fell 50 per cent between 2007 and 2017.

“I think the community has begun to accept that if something is not good for the environment, it should be phased out,” he said. “The world is changing.”

Hong Kong has also made some moves to address its role as a wildlife-shopping destination for consumers from mainland China, where the appetite for wildlife products shows little sign of abating.

In 2018, Hong Kong took the significant step of banning the sale of ivory, following similar moves by China and the United States two years before. It was a momentous change, and a recognition that while the city is important to the ivory trade, the ivory trade is no longer very important to the city or its residents.

The busy Nathan Road shopping district, which was crammed with ivory shops as recently as the 1980s, is now mostly given over to outposts of international luxury brands. “There’s no reason why we have to focus on ivory here,” Tse said.

Since the international trade was banned in 1989, Hong Kong traders have been allowed to sell their stocks of pre-ban ivory – and for years, conservationists, citing that stockpile’s suspiciously slow depletion, argued that traders were using it to launder ivory from freshly killed elephants.

Some ivory sellers readily admit that such sleight-of-hand occurred, blaming unscrupulous traders while casting themselves as collateral damage in the struggle to contain the illegal wildlife trade.

“Sly and dishonest businessmen, they make it difficult for us,” said Leung Shun-cheung, who with his sister, Leung Yun-tim, runs the Hang Cheong Ivory Factory, a small shop on Queen’s Road. “They use the smuggled ivory to fill the space in their quota for legal ivory. That’s how they did it. But we are innocent.”

On an early evening in August, Leung Shun-cheung was crouched over a workbench in the shop, sanding a pair of ivory chopsticks he had carved, while Leung Yun-tim sorted through bills at a nearby desk. The bare fluorescent light bulbs illuminated dusty glass shelves packed full of ivory carvings, but no customers.

“Because of the ban, we don’t have much business,” Leung Yun-tim said. “From time to time, the locals come here to buy a small piece.” She said that in three years, when the domestic ban goes into effect, they intended to close their shop, which their father opened before World War II.

Leung Shun-cheung produced a sheaf of letters he had received from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, advising him of the 2021 deadline and offering to enroll him in training for a new career. He was 72 years old, and had only ever worked in the ivory shop.

“The government is asking me to retire at the age of 75,” he said, laughing grimly. “They’re very concerned about me.”

He settled the chopsticks in a display case: two slender increments of supply awaiting a demand that remained vast, but for the moment, out of reach.

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Asian shares doze in data lull, New Zealand dollar takes a dive

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian share markets were in a muted mood on Thursday and looked set for a sleepy session with China still on holiday and no major economic data on the diary.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was little moved in early trade after ending almost unchanged on Wednesday.

Japan’s Nikkei dipped 0.2 percent, while E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 were off 0.06 percent in very thin trade.

Wall Street had already snoozed through a subdued session, though disappointing revenue forecasts hammered shares of the major videogame makers.

Electronic Arts Inc tumbled 13.3 percent and Activision Blizzard Inc sank 10.1 percent.

The Dow fell 0.08 percent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.22 percent and the Nasdaq 0.36 percent.

Markets are still waiting on developments in the Sino-U.S. trade dispute after President Donald Trump offered little new to chew on in his State of the Union speech.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday that he and other U.S. officials will travel to Beijing next week for trade talks, aiming to clinch a deal to avert a March 2 increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods.


In currency markets, the early mover was the New Zealand dollar which slid after local data showed unemployment, job gains and wages growth all missed forecasts.

“The figures present a more modest picture of the labor market over the last year,” said Michael Gordon, senior economist at Westpac. “Soft jobs growth and hours worked increase the risk of another weak economic print in the December quarter.”

The kiwi slid to $0.6772, losing 1.6 percent in the past 24 hours, as investors narrowed the odds on a cut in interest rates. Bonds rallied hard, with two-year yields dropping 7 basis points to 1.67 percent, well below the 1.75 percent cash rate.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand holds its first policy meeting of the year next week and markets are wagering it will take a dovish stance.

Its neighbor, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), caused ripples on Wednesday when it tempered a long-standing tightening bias and indicated the next move in rates could just as well be down as up.

The Aussie dollar duly dived 1.8 percent to stand at $0.7110 and gave a broad fillip to the U.S. dollar.

The dollar index has now risen for five straight sessions to reach 96.400, recovering almost all the losses suffered after the Federal Reserve all but abandoned plans for more rate hikes.

Less lucky was the euro, which was dragged back to $1.1366 in the wake of a dismal reading on German industrial output.

The dollar could make no headway on the yen, which benefited from its own safe-haven status, and idled at 109.93.

It broad gains still put pressure on gold, which eased to $1,306.84 per ounce, slipping further from last week’s top of $1,326.30.

Oil prices were underpinned by signs of strong U.S. demand for distillate products and tightening global crude supply.

Brent crude futures gained 71 cents higher on Wednesday to settle at $62.69 and were yet to trade. U.S. crude eased 6 cents in Asia to $53.95 a barrel.

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Asian stocks extend gains on firm Wall Street, Fed outlook

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asian stocks extended gains on Tuesday as overnight strength on Wall Street and the Federal Reserve’s cautious turn underpinned appetite for riskier assets, while the dollar held firm on last week’s upbeat U.S. data.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan advanced 0.4 percent and hovered near its four-month high marked on Friday.

Japan’s Nikkei average .N225 was flat on the day but at its highest level in seven weeks.

Australian shares jumped 2.2 percent, with long-battered financials surging on short-covering after a special government-appointed inquiry excoriated Australia’s financial sector for misconduct but left the structure of the country’s powerful banks in place.

Elsewhere in Asia, trade was light, with markets in greater China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia all closed for the Lunar New Year.

On Wall Street, the S&P 500 gained, with technology and industrials the biggest winners as investors braced for another big week of fourth-quarter corporate earnings reports.

After the bell, Google operator Alphabet fell about 3 percent as its higher spending in the fourth-quarter worried investors even as its revenue and profits beat the Street’s expectations.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe reached a two-month high, having risen more than 13 percent from its near two-year low late in December, helped by the Fed’s change of tack.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has signaled its three-year tightening drive may be coming to an end amid a suddenly cloudy outlook for the U.S. economy due to global growth concerns and the U.S.-China trade dispute.

The Fed said in a statement that Powell had told President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin late on Monday that “the path of policy will depend entirely on incoming economic information.”

Data announced on Friday showed U.S. job growth surged in January while a key gauge of U.S. manufacturing sector showed surprising resilience after December’s shocking fall, allaying fears the U.S. economy might be losing momentum quickly.

Hiroshi Nakamura, senior manager of investment planning at Mitsui Life Insurance, said financial markets’ positive reaction to the U.S. data is diminishing with time, but hopes for a U.S.-China trade deal “will continue to support markets until the two sides come to formal decisions”.

The dollar was on a firm footing as investors continued to lap-up Friday’s strong payrolls number and a manufacturing survey.

The dollar’s index against six major currencies was little changed at 95.833, having gained 0.27 percent on Monday.

The euro was also steady at $1.1436, off three-week high of $1.15405 set on Thursday.

The greenback firmed to 109.98 yen , having risen to 110.165 overnight, its highest level in five weeks.

The British pound barely moved and was at $1.3038.

On Monday, sterling quickly erased brief gains following a newspaper report that goods shipped to Britain from the European Union could be waved through without checks in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit.

The Australian dollar gained 0.3 percent to $0.7247, erasing earlier losses, following the Reserve Bank of Australia left policy unchanged at its first meeting of this year but sounded less dovish than expected.

Earlier on Tuesday, it fell as much as 0.5 percent after a slump in retail sales reinforced concerns about slowing growth in Australia.

In commodity markets, oil prices inched up, buoyed by expectations of tightening global supply amid U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and production cuts led by OPEC.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures rose 0.5 percent to $54.82 a barrel, after hitting a 2-1/2-month high of $55.75 in the previous session, while Brent crude futures were last up 0.4 percent at $62.77.

Gold prices held near one-week lows hit in the previous session, pressured by a firmer dollar and as investor appetite for riskier assets picked up.

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Potato or Hand Grenade? A Rusty Bombshell at a Chip Factory

HONG KONG — One spud was a dud.

Caked in rust and mud, a World War I hand grenade was harvested with potatoes in France and shipped to a potato chip factory in Hong Kong — until a machine found that one was not quite like the others.

The bomb, a German-made device that was in an unstable condition, was defused by the Hong Kong police at the factory on Saturday using a “high-pressure water firing technique.”

We detonated a German made WW1 hand grenade earlier this afternoon.

拆彈專家💣較早時間引爆了一枚第一次世界大戰時德國製的手榴彈。#HongKong #Police #Emergency #safeguarding #EOD

“Since the grenade had not blown up at the time it was thrown, there was an immediate danger that needed to be handled right away,” Superintendent Wong Ho-hon said.

At 2.2 pounds, with a 3-inch diameter, the grenade was about the size of a potato, but was around five times as heavy.

While it is unusual for a grenade to evade detection as it travels halfway across the world, this was not the first war relic to be unearthed somewhere surprising. A farmer in Scotland discovered an unexploded World War II bomb last year, and farmers in Belgium have found shells even in fields that have been plowed many times before.

“Many hand grenades are left behind during bombardments, when an entire trench is buried,” said Kwong Chi-man, a military historian and an assistant professor of history at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The chip factory, Calbee Four Seas Company, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t know what mechanical means the plant uses to scoop up the potatoes, but I imagine they don’t routinely run magnet detectors through potatoes,” said Franco David Macri, a senior research fellow in the history department at Hong Kong University.

Last year, the Hong Kong police defused three 1,000-pound American-made bombs from World War II. They had been found within months of one another at a construction site in Wan Chai, a busy residential district where thousands had to be evacuated overnight. Another American bomb discovered and detonated in Hong Kong in 2014 weighed one ton.

Many wartime relics are degraded over time by rust and water damage, but the explosive mechanism can sometimes remain intact

“It doesn’t matter how old these things are,” Dr. Macri said. “They can still be a threat.”

Follow Tiffany May on Twitter: @NYtmay.

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Hong Kongers divided over city's emboldened wild boars

HONG KONG (AFP) – As Hong Kong prepares to celebrate the Year of the Pig, the city is facing its own peculiar porcine pickle – a furious debate about what to do with its growing and emboldened wild boar population.

Best known for its densely packed skyscrapers, Hong Kong also boasts large tracts of subtropical mountains and parkland that host a thriving number of Eurasian wild pigs.

And increasingly, humans and pigs are meeting face to snout.

Boars have been filmed running alongside vehicles on roads, jogging down beaches filled with sunbathers, sniffing the tarmac at the city’s international airport – and even falling through the ceiling of a children’s clothing store.

Easy pickings from rubbish bins and open air barbecue pits as well as humans deliberately feeding them have enticed the wild animals to leave their trotter prints across a growing swathe of the concrete jungle.

The situation has some people rattled.

“They are dangerous to pedestrians, as they rush down the hill. They pose threats to the older and the weak, hazards to traffic and hikers,” local councillor Chan Chit Kwai, who wants to see steps taken to reduce the wild boar population, told AFP.

“It’s not as easy as those people saying we can all just live in peace,” he added.

City authorities say the number of sightings and nuisance reports caused by boars has more than doubled, from 294 for all of 2013 to 679 for the January to October period last year.

Injuries have been reported. In October, two elderly people were bitten by a wild boar near a public estate while four months earlier two people needed stitches after they were attacked near the University of Hong Kong, local media reported.

The city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) is now considering euthanising “high risk” wild boars that are deemed aggressive or have a record of attacking humans.

“In those cases, we would use drugs to euthanise the wild pigs,” conservation officer Cheung Ka Shing told reporters. The agency has also sterilised 54 wild pigs who regularly appear near urban areas and relocated 92 others to more remote locations.

Some local politicians have proposed more active measures such as introducing predators, legalising hunting and even relocating pigs to an uninhabited island – the latter idea getting short shrift given that pigs can swim.

‘Not scared’

But many baulk at harming the boars.

Near the entrance to Aberdeen Country Park on the main island, a wild boar family of three is snoozing under warm sunlight – a trio of elderly Hong Kong residents playing cards just a few metres away.

“I’m not scared. As long as you don’t poke them or throw things at them, it will be fine,” said 73-year-old Mr Fung, one of the card-players said.

“They have made the Aberdeen country park an attraction,” explained another park regular, 70-year-old Mr Lai, who said he encounters boars often while hiking.

“As long as you don’t attack them, they won’t offend you. It’s too brutal to kill them,” he added.

The AFCD said it does not have an estimate of the total population of wild pigs in Hong Kong but country park camera surveys have recorded an increase in number and a wider spread than 20 years ago.

Experts say the wild boars’ diet is 90 per cent plant based and that there is no need for them to be fed by humans, who they would normally avoid.

“They shouldn’t come to people for food, nor to attack. Their aggressive behaviour would be an act of self-defence,” said Mr Chan Po Lam, a wetland and fauna conservation officer at the AFCD.

In the Aberdeen park, a banner warns visitors not to feed wild animals.

But some ignore it. During AFP’s visit a man scattered pieces of white bread on the grass, soon drawing a thankful boar from the bush.

“I believe people feed wild animals out of kindness, but it encourages them to hang out in human communities more often,” said Mr Chan.

Ms Veronique Che, from the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group, says the animals shouldn’t be blamed for being more visible given the urban sprawl increasingly encroaches on their natural habitat.

“Many problems related to wild boars are actually created by humans,” she said.

Just down the road from Aberdeen Country Park is a public housing estate with residents waiting for buses on a narrow winding roadside.

The local boars have burrowed under a metal fence separating the forest from the housing estate to look in the rubbish bins for food.

As a group of boars appeared, locals took photos on their phones while children greeted their hairy neighbours with excited “oink” noises.

“There should be harmony between human and wild boars,” Ms Che said. “Humans shouldn’t treat wild boars as threats, nor as pets.”

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Asia stocks scale four-month peak as Fed turns more cautious; dollar sags

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asia stocks rose to a four-month high on Thursday after the Federal Reserve pledged to be patient with further interest rate hikes, signaling a potential end to its tightening cycle amid signs of slowing global growth.

The dollar struggled near a three-week trough against its major peers and U.S. Treasury yields were significantly lower as investors reacted to the Fed’s change in tone.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose to its highest since Oct. 4 and was last up 0.7 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei rose 0.9 percent.

The Shanghai Composite Index climbed 0.8 percent despite data showing China’s factory activity contracted for a second straight month amid weakening orders.

Australian stocks edged up 0.1 percent.

The Fed on Wednesday held interest rates steady as expected, and also discarded its promises of “further gradual increases” in interest rates.

The central bank said it would be “patient” before making any further moves amid a suddenly cloudy outlook for the U.S. economy due to global growth risks and impasses over trade and government budget negotiations.

On Wall Street, the Dow and the Nasdaq rallied 1.7 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, on hopes the Fed’s pause would give the U.S. economy and corporate profits more room to run.

Late in December the Dow had sunk to its lowest level since September 2017, dogged by factors including worries over cooling economic growth and trade tensions, adding pressure on the Fed to reassess its tightening bias.

“The Fed’s statements firmly confirmed its dovish stance, which had already been on display at the start of the year. Market concerns towards the Fed’s rate hikes have now been put to rest,” said Masahiro Ichikawa, senior strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management in Tokyo.

“The mention of the balance sheet by the Fed was a positive surprise. The focus now shifts immediately to U.S.-China trade talks, but the equity markets could have enough cushioning to withstand negative news from the talks.”

The U.S. central bank also said on Wednesday that its balance sheet would remain larger than previously expected.

However, while market expectations for Fed tightening may have waned significantly, some analysts suggested rate hikes still remained a near-term possibility.

“While many of the risks to the U.S. outlook remain in place, there is little to suggest that the outlook has changed by as much as the Fed communication says it has,” wrote Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.

“We worry that the Fed has traded near-term support for financial markets and the economy for another round of volatility later this year if it is forced to lift rates higher, which remains more likely than not, in our view.”

With the Fed decision out of the way, investors focused their attention on a pivotal round of high-level U.S.-China trade talks which began on Wednesday aimed at easing a months-long tariff war.

The two-day talks in Washington are expected to be tense, with little indication so far that Chinese officials are willing to address core U.S. demands to fully protect American intellectual property rights and end policies that Washington has said force U.S. companies to transfer technology to Chinese firms.

If the two sides cannot reach a deal soon, Washington has threatened to more than double tariffs on Chinese goods on March 2.

In currencies, the dollar index against a basket of six major currencies struggled near a three-week low of 95.253 brushed on Wednesday, when it had sunk 0.5 percent.

A weaker dollar helped nudge the euro to $1.1501 on Wednesday, its highest since Jan. 11, and the common currency was last up 0.15 percent at $1.1493 .

The greenback was down 0.15 percent at 108.88 yen and close to a two-week low of 108.81 reached overnight.

The pound was steady at $1.3117 , given some reprieve after slipping earlier in the week when British lawmakers voted down a proposal in parliament that could have prevented a potentially chaotic “no-deal” Brexit.

The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yield extended its decline to as far as 2.674 percent, its lowest since Jan. 14.

Oil prices rose after U.S. government data showed signs of tightening supply and as investors remained concerned about supply disruptions following U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry.

U.S. crude oil futures were up 0.7 percent at 54.59 per barrel.

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Hong Kong customs seize record haul of pangolin scales, along with over 1,000 ivory tusks, bound for Vietnam

HONG KONG (REUTERS) – Hong Kong customs busted a massive endangered species smuggling operation from Africa, seizing a record quantity of pangolin scales along with more than 1,000 ivory tusks, as authorities step up the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.

The value of the seized goods – which equates to around 500 elephants and up to 13,000 pangolins – was over HK$62 million, (S$10.7 million) officials said on Friday (Feb 1). Originating in Nigeria, the shipment was bound for Vietnam, they added.

In a separate incident, customs officials in the northern Vietnamese port of Hai Phong discovered another 1.4 tonnes of pangolin scales in a shipping container sent from Nigeria, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported on Friday.

Last October, Vietnam intercepted more than more than eight metric tonnes of pangolin scales and ivory, also from Nigeria, in one of the Southeast Asian country’s largest wildlife trafficking cases for years.

The Chinese territory of Hong Kong, located on the country’s southern coast, is a global blackspot for wildlife trafficking. The city is a key transit point, supplying an array of wildlife products including timber, shark’s fin and rhino horn across Asia and particularly mainland China.

Customs on Jan 16, seized about 8,300kg of pangolin scales and 2,100kg of ivory tusks at the Kwai Chung cargo port located in the former British colony.

It was the largest single seizure of pangolin parts in Hong Kong.

Mr Yeung Ka Yan, head of command at Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department, said the smugglers used a new method to hide the endangered species by a process of “solidification” where they used ice bags and frozen meat to obscure the species.

“The low temperature environment created by the ice bags and frozen meat helped mask the distinctive smell of the pangolin scales.”

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are critically endangered. They are coveted for their meat – considered a delicacy – and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat aliments from cancer to arthritis.

“It is clearly impossible that the pangolin species can withstand such high rates of poaching, trafficking and trade. Eight tonnes is outrageous,” said Mr Alex Hofford, campaign manager for conservation group WildAid in Hong Kong.

WildAid estimates 100,000 pangolins are poached from the wild each year, with all eight species of pangolin in Africa, and especially Asia, now under threat.

Customs officials who worked with their mainland counterparts to intercept the goods, found the species buried under frozen meat inside a refrigerated container.

Officials said two people had been arrested in connection with the case.

In a 2018 review released on Thursday (Jan 31), customs officials said there had been a 72 per cent increase in seizures of endangered species with the total volume of goods seized increasing more than treble.

ADM Capital Foundation, which focuses on environmental challenges across Asia, wrote in a January report that wildlife trafficking should be incorporated under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO).

Doing so would provide “a powerful disincentive to wildlife criminals, and importantly, would prevent reinvestment of profits into further criminal activities,” the report said.

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Asian shares go flat as China data disappoints

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian shares crept back from four-month highs on Friday as a dismal survey on Chinese factory activity dulled optimism about the prospects for a Sino-U.S. deal on tariffs.

The Australian dollar, a liquid barometer of investor sentiment toward China, skidded 0.5 percent after the Caixin/Markit index of manufacturing fell to its lowest since February 2016. That was more downbeat than the official version of the index and inflamed fears for the economy.

Investor caution is also mounting ahead of U.S. jobs data later in the session with analysts unsure what impact the government shutdown might have had employment.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan slipped 0.2 percent, though that followed a stellar 7.2 percent gain in January.

Japan’s Nikkei went flat, while Shanghai blue chips held onto a 0.7 percent gain. E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 eased 0.1 percent and spread betters pointed to a marginally mixed start for European bourses.

Stocks had taken heart after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping soon to try to seal a comprehensive trade deal as the top U.S. negotiator reported “substantial progress” in the talks.

Beijing’s trade delegation said the talks made “important progress” for the current stage, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.

The previously upbeat mood was also chilled somewhat by White House insistence that March 1 was a hard deadline for a deal, a failure of which would lead to an increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods.

“Analysts mostly remain deeply skeptical that a genuine trade deal can be done on this time frame,” economists from Commonwealth Bank of Australia said in a note.

“We are less pessimistic since these negotiations are being conducted by senior politicians, not by trade bureaucrats,” they added. “Both sides also have an incentive, and arguably a growing incentive, to get a meaningful deal done.”

The optimism supported Wall Street with the S&P 500 ending Thursday with a gain of 0.86 percent. The Nasdaq jumped 1.37 percent on the back of a near 11 percent rise in Facebook Inc. The Dow slipped 0.06 percent.

Over January, the S&P 500 rose 7.9 percent, its best monthly performance since late 2015 and its strongest start to a year since 1987. The Nasdaq gained 9.7 percent in the month and the Dow rose 7.2 percent.


Equity markets have also been relieved by a change of heart at the U.S. Federal Reserve, which this week surprised many by all but abandoning plans for further rate hikes.

Investors responded by pricing in a one-in-three chance that interest rates could actually be cut this year.

Yields on two-year Treasuries were down almost 15 basis points on the week so far, which if sustained would be the largest weekly decline since mid-2010.

That in turn has been a drag on the U.S. dollar, though it was off its lows on Friday. It was down 0.6 percent so far this week against the yen at 108.85, but found some support around 108.50.

Against a basket of currencies, the dollar was a fraction firmer at 95.622 thanks in part to a pullback in the euro to $1.1439.

The single currency had taken a knock when Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann painted an unusually bleak picture of the German economy, saying the country’s slump will last longer than initially thought.

Gold prices hovered just short of nine-month highs supported by the fall in bond yields and expectations for a softer dollar. Spot gold stood at $1,318.44 per ounce, having touched a top of $1,326.30.

Oil prices were subdued as the poor China data offset signs major exporters were quickly reducing output in line with a pact to cut supply.

U.S. crude futures edged up 5 cents to $53.87 per barrel, while Brent rose 13 cents to $60.97. [O/R]

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