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Arrest of Mexican general in US shakes López Obrador at home and abroad

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The spectacular arrest of former defence minister Salvador Cienfuegos at Los Angeles airport has questioned two bets Andrés Manuel López Obrador made when he became Mexican president in 2018: to rely on the military at home and to foster close relations with the US.

The allegations against Mr Cienfuegos, who has not been investigated in Mexico, are as sensational as any narco drama. The retired general, 72, is accused of having exchanged thousands of unencrypted BlackBerry Messenger communications with the H-2 drug cartel, raising questions over how Mexico could have remained oblivious to such huge US phone tapping.

Almost two years to the day of his arrest on October 15, Mr Cienfuegos was a friend of Washington: the US decorated him with the Legion of Merit, one of its most prestigious military awards, for his “extraordinary contributions” to bilateral ties as minister from 2012-18.

But Washington chose not to tip off Mexico that it would detain the ex-general on charges of being a drug trafficker and money launderer. Mr Cienfuegos, nicknamed the Godfather, was arrested at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration with no courtesy call to Mexico City. He is planning to fight the charges “energetically”, his lawyer, Duane Lyons, has said.

“This is a very clear message that the US right now doesn’t necessarily have confidence in the current Mexican government when it comes to the bilateral security agenda,” said a former senior Mexican government official. “We might have imagined we had a relationship with the US that we don’t.”

The breakdown in communications is a blow to Mr López Obrador’s foreign policy focus to keep President Donald Trump happy, analysts say. He has bent over backwards to preserve relations with Mexico’s top trading partner, even in the face of threats from Mr Trump. He mobilised his National Guard to contain migration to placate Mr Trump and yielded to some of his trade demands to clinch the new Nafta, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

The Los Angeles arrest shows the feeling is not necessarily mutual. As one former top Mexican military official put it: “(If) you don’t trust, you stop talking.”

He added: “The relationship between Mexican security forces and US defence, security and law enforcement will freeze for a long, long time.”

Mr López Obrador’s other major bet has been on the military, making them what Catalina Pérez Correa, a security specialist at Mexico’s CIDE university, called “the pillar of his government”.

Hours before the arrest, Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former intelligence official, published a document revealing that the National Guard had been placed under formal defence ministry control.

But Ms Pérez Correa noted that the president has also roped the military into tasks as diverse as building an airport and branches of a state bank, controlling ports, growing trees for a government reforestation programme and distributing school textbooks.

Mr López Obrador hails the military as honest — he calls its top brass “incorruptible” — and an essential ally in rooting out corruption.

That assessment is now being challenged, questioning the president’s anti-graft strategy. “The whole leadership of the army are Cienfuegos’ disciples. He promoted all of them,” the former military official said. “If you’re going to send all corrupt officials in the armed forces to jail, you’re going to need more prisons.”

The military now feels humiliated and angry, Mr Hope said. “Amlo is now trapped between the US and the army, and that’s not a good position,” he said, using the president’s nickname.

“He’s bet his presidency on the army and that has been shaken. He has also bet his presidency on not antagonising the US and now the US has delivered a slap in the face.”

Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, said: “This is the most difficult problem of López Obrador’s administration because there’s no good way out.”





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Bolsonaro faces investigation over election fraud claims

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Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s legal problems have multiplied after a court opened an investigation into his unsubstantiated warnings of voter fraud in presidential elections next year, a probe which could lead to him being disqualified from running.

The judicial inquiry comes as the far-right leader’s ratings are on the slide following accusations of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Brazilians.

Rising living costs and allegations of corruption in vaccine procurement within his administration have damaged Bolsonaro’s standing further.

With political pressure building, the populist has increased attacks on the electronic voting system in recent weeks, reiterating calls for the adoption of printed paper receipts in order to avoid manipulation.

Opponents fear the former army captain is seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, in preparation for refusing to recognise a potential defeat. A group of 18 current and former Supreme Court justices have defended the current ballot system, which was introduced in 1996, insisting that Brazil had eliminated election fraud.

The Superior Electoral Court this week opened an administrative probe into Bolsonaro over his claims, for which he has provided no evidence. It also asked the Supreme Court to investigate whether the president had committed a crime by disseminating fake news about the voting system.

The president hit back on Tuesday. “I will not accept intimidation. I will continue to exercise my right as a citizen, to freedom of expression, criticism, to listen, and to meet, above all, the popular will,” Bolsonaro told supporters in Brasília.

The electoral court’s intervention showed the judiciary was striking back against Bolsonaro’s attacks, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “He [Bolsonaro] is harming the rules of the game, of democracy and the institutions,” he added. “It’s not different to what [Donald] Trump did, and demagogues in other countries. His intention is to question the electoral process without proof.”

Both moves by the electoral court could in theory eventually pave the way for Bolsonaro being barred from standing in the 2022 poll.

“There is a long way until this can bring actual legal consequences against the president which might affect his eligibility,” said Rogério Taffarello, a partner in criminal law at Mattos Filho and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[This] does not mean, of course, that the existence of such investigations cannot generate political consequences”.

The president is already the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he failed to act on warnings about alleged irregularities by public officials in negotiations over vaccine purchases. Bolsonaro and the government deny any wrongdoing.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities over the past two months calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, who in polls is trailing former leftwing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also a likely frontrunner in next year’s election.

Bolsonaro had long promised to present evidence of cheating in elections, even claiming that the 2018 ballot he won was tampered with. Yet last week he admitted to not holding any proof, only “indications”.

Despite his falling popularity, Bolsonaro retains backing in Congress from an amorphous grouping of centre-right political parties known as the Centrão, or “Big Centre”. Analysts said for now this support appeared to be holding.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn

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South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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European and Chinese stocks rise after calming words from Beijing

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Chinese equities updates

European shares chased gains in China after calls from Beijing for greater co-operation with Washington helped sooth jitters over a regulatory crackdown in the world’s biggest emerging market.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.7 per cent on Monday to hit new all-time highs, while the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 1 per cent led by economically sensitive stocks including banks and energy groups. London-listed lender HSBC gained 1 per cent after it reported second-quarter figures that easily beat analysts’ expectations.

The gains came after the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing’s market regulator, called on Sunday for closer co-operation with Washington, stressing the country’s efforts to improve transparency and predictability after a crackdown on tutoring groups obliterated the market value of the $100bn sector’s biggest companies.

Chinese listings in the US have become a geopolitical flashpoint as Beijing has sought to exert greater control over the country’s powerful tech sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that Chinese groups that sought to sell shares in America would be subject to stricter disclosures.

Shares in China rebounded after their worst month in almost three years, with China’s CSI 300 benchmark of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed blue-chips rose 2.6 per cent on Monday, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 1.1 per cent. The city’s Hang Seng Tech index, which tracks big internet groups including Tencent and Alibaba, reversed early losses to rise 1 per cent. Futures tracking Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 0.6 per cent.

Last month, China’s cyber-security regulator announced plans to review all foreign listings by companies with data on more than 1m users after top leaders in Beijing called for an overhaul of how the country regulates initial public offerings in the US. The crackdown came just days after the $4.4bn listing of ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

The intensifying scrutiny of how Chinese groups access capital markets has pummelled stocks, delivering the worst month for China tech groups listed in the US since the global financial crisis. The Hang Seng Tech index fell 17 per cent last month.

“While we do not consider it prudent to completely avoid investments in China, further volatility can be expected until the first quarter of 2022, by which time we believe most regulatory changes may already be in place,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, data released by China at the weekend showed that factory activity grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in July as demand contracted for the first time in more than a year.

Government bonds were steady with the yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, gaining 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.45. The equivalent US 10-year yield was steady at 1.234 per cent.

Bond yields have been falling in recent weeks, despite higher than expected inflation readings in the US and indications from the US federal Reserve last week that it was moving a step closer to the day when it would start tapering its $120bn in monthly asset purchases.

The euro rose 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.1885, while the pound gained 0.1 per cent to purchase $1.3924. Prices for global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 1 per cent to $74.66.

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