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Switzerland says it is investigating Lebanese central bank

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The Swiss federal prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into “aggravated money laundering” and “possible embezzlement” from the crisis-hit Lebanese central bank.

The Swiss investigation comes amid increased scrutiny of longstanding central bank governor Riad Salamé once lauded for his financial acumen and now under fire for his management of the bank as Lebanon suffers its most painful economic crisis in three decades.

In response to reports by news organisations including Reuters that the Swiss probe related to overseas transfers made by the governor or his close associates, Mr Salamé said in a Banque du Liban statement that allegations that money had been moved abroad, “whether in his name, his brother’s name or his assistant’s name” were “fake news”.

Mr Salamé was once credited with steadying the country’s finances, chiefly through the local currency’s peg to the dollar, which kept down the cost of imports. But the black market rate collapsed after Lebanon defaulted on its debt in 2019, triggering the current crisis. Prices have risen dramatically, unemployment has soared and living standards have plunged.

For more than a year, depositors have been unable to withdraw dollars they had saved in Lebanese banks, while their Lebanese pound savings have lost about 80 per cent of their value. Ad hoc banking restrictions have prevented most people from making foreign transfers, although many ordinary Lebanese suspect that some people with political connections have squirrelled billions out of the country.

Swiss authorities declined to confirm whether Mr Salamé, first appointed governor in 1993 and seen as one of Lebanon’s most powerful men, was a subject of investigation specifically.

An official in the Lebanese prime minister’s office, who did not want their name to be published, said: “The prime minister and the president were made aware of [the Swiss investigation] yesterday by the justice minister.” Acting prime minister Hassan Diab, who resigned following the Beirut port explosion in August has year, has previously called for Mr Salamé’s resignation.

Riad Salamé at a conference in Paris, France, in April 2018
Swiss authorities declined to confirm whether Riad Salamé was a subject of investigation specifically © Abd Rabbo Ammar/ABACA/Reuters

Switzerland has asked for Lebanon’s co-operation in the investigation. Marie-Claude Najm, the Lebanese justice minister, confirmed having “received a request for judicial assistance from the Swiss judicial authorities”, adding that she “handed it over to the attorney-general, in accordance with the law”. Ms Najm declined to comment further.

With around half of its population falling into poverty, according to UN estimates, Lebanon is in desperate need of financial assistance. But potential donors, including France, have said they want to see a forensic audit into the BdL’s books first. This audit has been mired in controversy, and auditors Alvarez & Marsal withdrew late last year. The Lebanese government itself estimates that the BdL is sitting on tens of billions of dollars worth of losses. Mr Salamé has repeatedly warned that Lebanon is nearing the limit of its foreign currency reserves, used to subsidise imports of fuel, medicine and essential foods.



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Oil price jumps above $70 after attacks aimed at Saudi oil facilities

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Oil prices jumped above $70 a barrel for the first time in 14 months after Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, said its energy facilities had been attacked on Sunday, targeting “the security and stability” of global supplies.

A drone attack from the sea on a petroleum storage tank at Ras Tanura, one of the largest oil shipping ports in the world, took place on Sunday morning, the kingdom said.

In the evening, shrapnel from a ballistic missile fell in Dhahran, where state oil company Saudi Aramco has its headquarters and near where thousands of employees and their families live.

While Saudi Arabia’s ministry of energy said the attacks “did not result in any injury or loss of life or property”, and a person familiar with the matter said no production had been affected, the attacks have still unsettled oil markets that have rebounded strongly in recent months.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose 2 per cent to a high of $71.16 a barrel while West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, rose by a similar amount to a high of $67.86 a barrel.

Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi fighters claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they had also focused on military targets in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Asir and Jazan.

A Houthi military spokesperson said the group had fired 14 bomb-laden drones and eight ballistic missiles in a “wide operation in the heart of Saudi Arabia”.

Amrita Sen at Energy Aspects emphasised that while a direct hit on oil supplies appeared to have been avoided, the threat to the market would still be taken seriously by oil traders.

“The oil price was already on a strong footing after Saudi Arabia and Opec’s decision last week to keep restricting production,” she said.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, has risen close to $70 a barrel since the cartel and allies outside the group, including Russia, decided not to unleash a flood of crude on to the market.

Amid uncertainty about the oil market outlook as the coronavirus crisis continues to have an impact on crude demand, the group decided against raising production by 1.5m barrels a day from April.

Given the supply curbs, while the kingdom has the extra production capacity to tap into, “geopolitical threats to supply will add a premium to the price”, Sen added.

The kingdom’s state media outlet said earlier in the day that the Saudi-led military coalition confronting the Houthis had intercepted missiles and drones aimed at “civilian targets” without indicating their location.

The Eastern Province, where Dhahran is located, is where much of Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities are located. The attack is the most severe since September 2019.

At that time the kingdom was rocked by missile and drone fire that hit an important processing facility and two oilfields, temporarily shutting off more than half of the country’s crude output.

The Houthis have ramped up assaults on Saudi Arabia through airborne attacks and explosive-laden boats and mines in the Red Sea, laying bare the vulnerability of the country’s energy infrastructure despite the kingdom’s production prowess and its hold over the oil market.

“The frequency of these attacks is rising, even if the impact on energy infrastructure appears limited,” said Bill Farren-Price, a director at research company Enverus. “We know the capacity to cause serious damage exists, so this will boost the risk premium for oil.”



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Rio Tinto set to start negotiations over Mongolian mine

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Rio Tinto is set to start face-to-face negotiations with the government of Mongolia as its seeks to complete the $6.75bn expansion of a huge copper project in the Gobi desert. 

The Anglo-Australian group is sending a team of senior executives to the capital Ulaanbaatar to try and hammer out a new financing agreement so that the development timeline can be maintained and underground caving operations can start later this year.

The discussions will focus on a number of issues including tax, a new power agreement and benefit sharing, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Some government officials want Rio to pay more than $300m of withholding taxes on income it has received from Oyu Tolgoi LLC, the Mongolian holding company that owns the mine. 

Rio receives a management service fee for running Oyu Tolgoi’s existing open pit and the underground project as well as interest on money it has lent the government to fund its share of the development costs.

However, the officials say it is “very difficult, if not impossible” to engage constructively on the issue because the payments are the subject of arbitration in London.

For its part, Rio believes the issue of withholding taxes is dealt with in the separate investment and shareholder agreements that cover its operations in the country.

The underground expansion of Oyu Tolgoi ranks as Rio’s most important growth project. At peak production it will be one of the world’s biggest copper mines, producing almost 500,000 tonnes a year.

Although Rio runs the existing operations and is in charge of the underground expansion project it does not have a direct stake in the mine.

It’s exposure comes through a 51 per cent stake in Turquoise Hill Resources, a Toronto-listed company. TRQ in turns owns 66 per cent of Oyu Tolgoi LLC, with the rest controlled by the government of Mongolia. 

The project has been beset by difficulties and is already two years late and $1.5bn over budget. The government said earlier this year that if the expansion is not economically beneficial to the country it would be necessary to “review and evaluate” whether it can proceed.

To that end the ruling Mongolian People’s party and its new prime minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene are trying to replace the Underground Development Plan with an improved agreement.

Signed in 2015, this sets out the fees that Rio receives for managing the project as well as the interest rates on the cash Mongolia has borrowed to finance its share of construction costs.

However, it was never approved by Mongolia’s parliament and has become a focal point for critics who say the country should receive a greater share of the financial benefits.

Rio, which recently appointed a new chief executive, has told the government it is prepared to “explore” a reduction of its project management fees and loan interest rates as well as discuss tax.

However, analysts are sceptical that the two sides will be able to put a new agreement in place by June when a decision on whether to start caving operations must be taken if Oyu Tolgoi is to meet a new target for first production in October 2022.

Rio is also at loggerheads with TRQ on how to fund the cost overruns at Oyu Tolgoi. Last week, TRQ’s chief executive resigned after Rio said it planned to vote against his re-election at its annual shareholders’ meeting.

In a statement, Rio said it was committed to working with TRQ and the government of Mongolia to enable the successful delivery of the Oyu Tolgoi Project

“Aligning and co-ordinating our joint efforts to resolve the concerns of the Government . . . going forward is of the highest priority,” it said.



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Value investor John Rogers sees an end to Big Tech’s stock market dominance

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The veteran value investor John Rogers predicted the US is headed for a repeat of the “roaring twenties” a century ago that will finally encourage investors to dump tech stocks in favour of companies more sensitive to the economy.

The founder of Ariel Investments told the Financial Times in an interview that value investing “dinosaurs” like him stood to win as higher economic growth and rising interest rates took the air out of some of the hottest stocks of recent years.

Rogers, who has spent a near four-decade career focused on buying under-appreciated stocks, said the frenzied buying of special purpose acquisition companies, or Spacs, signalled frothiness in parts of the market, even while a coming economic boom underpinned other share prices.

“This will be a sustainable recovery. I think there’s going to be kind of a roaring twenties again,” Rogers said, adding that the strength of the economic recovery would surprise people and challenge the Federal Reserve’s ultra-dovish monetary policy.

The US central bank is “overly optimistic that they can keep inflation under control”, he said, and higher bond market interest rates would reduce the value of future earnings for highly popular growth stocks such as tech companies and for the kinds of speculative companies coming to market in initial public offerings or via deals with Spacs.

“Spacs are a sign that growth stocks are topping. A signal that the market is frothy,” said Rogers, a self-styled contrarian and famed for his Patient Investor newsletter for clients that debuted in 1983.

Value investing is based on identifying cheap companies that are trading below their true worth, an approach long espoused by Warren Buffett. Value stocks and those sensitive to the economic cycle boomed after the internet bubble burst in 2000, but the investment strategy has been well beaten over the past decade by fast-growing stocks, led by US tech giants. 

“We’ve been looking like the dinosaurs for so long,” said Rogers. “We’ve been waiting for that booming economic recovery since 2009.”

Proponents of value investing believe that the combination of expensive growth stock valuations and a robust recovery from the pandemic will cause a significant switch between the two investing approaches.

Higher bond market interest rates reduce the relative appeal of owning growth stocks based on their future earnings power.

When 10-year bond yields rise, “growth stocks look way, way too expensive versus value,” said Rogers. “Value stocks are going to come out of the recovery very strong, they’re going to have a tailwind from an earnings perspective. Their earnings are going to be here and now, not 20, 30 years down the road.”

The Russell 1000 Value index outperformed the equivalent growth index by 6 percentage points in February, rising 5.8 per cent versus a drop of 0.1 per cent for the growth index. That was the biggest outperformance for value since March 2001, according to analysts at Bank of America.

“Although rising rates triggered the rotation, we see a host of other reasons to prefer value over growth,” the analysts wrote last week, “including the profit cycle, valuation, and positioning that can drive further outperformance.”

Rogers said he expected higher overall stock market volatility from rising interest rates this year but value should reward investors as it did “20 years ago once the internet bubble burst”. Ariel is bullish on “fee generating financials” and Rogers said preferred names included KKR, Lazard and Janus Henderson, while it was also bullish on traditional media, including CBS Viacom and Nielsen.

Chicago-based Ariel is one of the few large black-owned investment companies in the US, with $15bn of assets under management. It manages the oldest US mid-cap value fund, dating from 1986. 



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