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The best new wellbeing destinations

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Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of coronavirus. For the latest updates, read the FT’s coverage of the outbreak

Fill the senses in Brazil
Botanique, the intimate resort in the mountains bordering São Paulo and Minas Gerais states owned by Brazilians Ricardo and Fernanda Semler, was one of Brazil’s first genuinely sustainable retreats when it opened – and was covered first in HTSI – almost a decade ago. Between the organic terraced produce gardens, lush spa and countless trails for hiking and hacking, there didn’t seem to be much room for improvement. But if one name can up the ante on such promise, it’s sustainability pioneers Six Senses, who are about to take on management of the entire property – adding 14 new villas to the existing suite-villa count of 20 (plus a few dozen branded residences for those who fall hard for the Mantiqueira Mountains’ fresh air, native rainforest and charmed remove from São Paulo’s urban fray). There are plans to elevate the wellness and fitness offerings too, expanding the spa and incorporating signature anti-ageing, detox and immune-boosting programmes. sixsenses.com; from about £345

Great Plains Selinda Camp, Botswana
Great Plains Selinda Camp, Botswana © Andrew Howard
Accommodation at Selinda
Accommodation at Selinda © Andrew Howard

Embrace the great outdoors in Botswana
Botswana – which reopened its borders to international travellers last month – has some very compelling escapes that put the great outdoors at the centre of the show. The team at Great Plains Conservation has completely renovated the camps at Selinda (in the Linyanti) and Duba Plains (in the heart of the Okavango Delta). These were already intimate places, with just a handful of tents. But included in all the newness are the Selinda and Duba Plains Suites – the lodges’ signature two-bedroom tents, set away from the main camps and operated as standalone offerings (meaning guests have their own cooks, guides, house staff and even entrance). The net: near-360-degree privacy, so they can immerse entirely, day and night, in the wellbeing that total solitude in spectacular nature brings. greatplainsconservation.com; from $7,340, exclusive use

South Africa’s Babylonstoren
South Africa’s Babylonstoren
The courtyard of Babylonstoren’s owner’s house
The courtyard of Babylonstoren’s owner’s house

Kick back in Cape Dutch country
We’re not shy about declaring our love for Babylonstoren, in South Africa’s ravishingly pretty Cape Winelands. Its owners, Koos Bekker and Karen Roos – who more recently gave us The Newt in Somerset – first delighted guests and garden enthusiasts here at their maiden hotel venture, an 18th-century Cape Dutch farm remade with contemporary interiors (Roos is the former editor-in-chief of the South African edition of Elle Decoration) and acres of gardens full of glorious things to eat, drink and smell (the walled chamomile garden is a favourite feature: enter in the early morning or evening, walk barefoot among the thousands of blooms, then sit down on the bench at its centre and contemplate the heavenly scent that fills the air). Next month, the Roos-Bekkers will debut the Fynbos Family House, which accompanies the recently built Fynbos Cottages. Set away from the main farm, with views over the vineyards, the Family House’s five bedrooms, own walled garden and signature Babylonstoren “cube” – the ultra-sleek glass conservatory style found in all the suites and cottages, for maximising the outdoors-in effect of the surrounding landscape – are an ideal family or group escape, but with all the perks of the farm close at hand. babylonstoren.com; from about £670

Dishes from the Joel Robuchon-signed restaurant at The Woodward, Geneva
Dishes from the Joel Robuchon-signed restaurant at The Woodward, Geneva

Pampering in Geneva
Anyone who’s been to the spectacular spa at The Lanesborough in London knows: the team at the Oetker Collection does holistic wellness-beauty-fitness extremely well. This is good news for those based in Geneva, who can now avail themselves of the full experience at The Woodward, the newest Oetker-flagged European property. The lakefront Quai Wilson situation is pretty mint, as promise to be the Pierre-Yves Rochon-designed rooms and suites, and (if molecular wizardry and showy plating are your things), the properly fancy Joël Robuchon-signed restaurant. But spare some time – perhaps even a whole day – for The Woodward’s 1,200sq m spa, with its airy treatment suites, 21m indoor lap pool, Swedish baths and hydrotherapies, full fitness centre and very swank Guerlain Wellness Institute, where the menu includes skincare treatments you won’t find elsewhere. oetkercollection.com; from about £1,250

@mariashollenbarger





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Emerging Markets

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.

Unhedged — Markets, finance and strong opinion

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