Ukraine and a likely Russian recession; One fifth of China soil contaminated; When every home is a takeaway restaurant

1 Ukraine and a likely Russian recession (Straits Times) Russia looks increasingly likely to sink into recession in 2014 as the knock-on effects of its standoff with the West over Ukraine hurt an economy already beset by structural problems. Data released over the last week showed that Russian is beginning to suffer the effects of the worst East-West political crisis since the Cold War.

The threat of economic sanctions from the European Union and the US has already prompted a massive capital outflow from Russia in the first three months of the year. But even before the crisis erupted, Russian growth was starting to slow due to internal problems, such as slowing consumer spending, sagging investment and weakening demand for its energy exports.

2 One fifth of China soil contaminated (BBC) Almost a fifth of China’s soil is contaminated, an official study released by the government has shown. Conducted between 2005-2013, it found that 16.1% of China’s soil and 19.4% of its arable land showed contamination. The report, by the Environmental Protection Ministry, named cadmium, nickel and arsenic as top pollutants. There is growing concern, both from the government and the public, that China’s rapid industrialisation is causing irreparable damage to its environment.

“The survey showed that it is hard to be optimistic about the state of soil nationwide,” the ministry said. “Due to long periods of extensive industrial development and high pollutant emissions, some regions have suffered deteriorating land quality and serious soil pollution.” About 82.8% of the polluted land was contaminated by inorganic materials, with levels noticeably higher than the previous survey between 1986 and 1990, Xinhua news agency quoted the report as saying.

“Pollution is severe in three major industrial zones, the Yangtze River Delta in east China, the Pearl River Delta in south China and the northeast corner that used to be a heavy industrial hub,” the agency said. The report had previously been classified as a state secret because of its sensitivity. There is growing fear in China over the effect that modernisation has had on the country’s air, water and soil.

3 When every home is a takeaway restaurant (Johannesburg Times) A Danish website is turning private homes into take-away restaurants by letting users advertise what they are cooking, when and for what price. The website,, is sometimes described as a restaurant version of the popular lodging site Airbnb, on which homeowners make their spare rooms or unoccupied dwellings available to paying lodgers for a fee.

And just like on Airbnb, the cost to consumers is often considerably less than if they had used a professional service — with the added benefit that many of the homemade dishes may be healthier than the greasy fare typically available at take-out counters. Since being launched in February, the website has attracted 2,900 members, of whom 460 are registered as cooks, meaning they sell food.

Nearly all of them live in Denmark, where the website is especially popular in the trendy Copenhagen neighbourhoods of Noerrebro and Vesterbro, but the site’s founders are hoping it will go global after recently launching an English-language version. Earlier this month, another Danish take-away website,, which allows users to order food from 36,000 restaurants in 13 countries, was valued at $2.47 billion when it was floated on the London Stock Exchange 13 years after being founded.

But not everyone is convinced that ordering food from strangers online is a good idea. While the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries regularly publishes inspection reports from the country’s restaurants, Dinnersurfer’s cooks operate without any supervision. On one Danish Internet forum, users questioned how buyers could know whether hygiene standards were being upheld and how the origin of the food could be verified.

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The power-dispersed, G-Zero world; State of economy pointer to length of joblessness; The anti-depressant generation

1 The power-dispersed, G-Zero world (Maleeha Lodhi in Khaleej Times) The crisis over Ukraine has provided a fresh opportunity to President Barack Obama’s domestic detractors to assail him for ‘failing to lead’ and to deploy American power to force the Russian President to retreat. Much of this criticism shows willful ignorance of the limits of US power in a transformed international environment where no single state is able achieve outcomes or prevail over others, even by using overwhelming hard power.

Those ascribing the erosion of US global influence simply to Obama’s lack of leadership seemed to miss a fundamental point – that the world has changed in very significant ways with America’s unipolar moment having long passed into history. The redistribution of global power has been one of the most consequential developments of this century. Some have characterised this as a G-Zero world, in which no nation on its own or with others can deploy enough power to secure global outcomes or determine the rules of the game.

The dispersal of power and shift in global power from the West to the Rest has resulted in a more complex international landscape in which no country is able to call the shots or impose its will. Although the US remains the world’s dominant power, it is also constrained by an increasingly decentralised international system and the emergence of multipolarity. This means the US has to work with other nations and build coalitions to promote its goals. It is the limits on American power imposed by a transformed world that is shaping Obama’s conduct – as well as urging other Western nations to take a cautious approach, relying on diplomacy to avert a bigger crisis over Ukraine.

2 State of economy pointer to unemployment length (Julie Balise in San Francisco Chronicle) Length of employment and level of education don’t really matter. The state of the economy is the biggest factor in determining how long workers remain unemployed, according to a report from FiveThirtyEight.

The report by Ben Casselman looked at a variety of characteristics, including age, sex, race, marital status, education, and occupation, for trends among people who have been unemployed for a year or longer. Some made a bit of a difference. Men, black workers, and older workers are more likely to be long-term unemployed than women, white workers, and younger workers, according to the report. The timing of the termination has the biggest impact, with a weak economy significantly increasing the likelihood of long-term unemployment.

The report assumes that people who become long-term unemployed can’t find new jobs. Casselman notes that some economists believe extending unemployment benefits can contribute to longer unemployment because people have financial support while being more selective. That does not appear to be the case, though, as people who did not receive benefits are more likely to be long-term unemployed, according to Casselman’s research.

3 The anti-depressant generation (Doris Iarovici in The New York Times) Antidepressants are an excellent treatment for depression and anxiety. But a growing number of young adults are taking psychiatric medicines for longer and longer periods, at the very age when they are also consolidating their identities, making plans for the future and navigating adult relationships.

Are we using good scientific evidence to make decisions about keeping these young people on antidepressants? Or are we inadvertently teaching future generations to view themselves as too fragile to cope with the adversity that life invariably brings? Professional guidelines recommend six to nine months of medicine for first episodes of depression. When I recommend to my patients that they come off antidepressants, I encourage them to choose a relatively transition-free time in their lives, so that we don’t mistake what might be a normal reaction to a stressful situation for symptoms of recurrent depression. But because I work with university students, it’s close to impossible to find such a time.

Growing numbers of young people experience rapidly changing living situations, classes, jobs and relationships only while taking an antidepressant. Major depression in adults is often recurrent: half of people with first episodes will have a second episode. Children and adolescents increasingly take antidepressants. In 2009, a large trial showed that those who took an antidepressant in conjunction with therapy for nine months were much less depressed, and less suicidal, in the year after stopping treatment than those without treatment — so clearly treatment is critical. But for how long? And is medicine on its own, without therapy, sufficient?

We walk a thinning line between diagnosing illness and teaching our youth to view any emotional upset as pathological. We need a greater focus on building resilience in emerging adults. We need more scientific studies — spanning years, not months — on the risks and benefits of maintenance treatment in emerging adults.

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Google sales disappoint; Why China is doing better; The coming collapse of India communists

1 Google sales disappoint (David Streitfeld in The New York Times) Alexander the Great is said to have wept because he ran out of kingdoms to conquer. Google is eager to avoid such a miserable fate. Its core digital advertising business is so dominant that analysts are questioning just how much it can continue to grow. So Google is unleashing its vast cash hoard on robotics, artificial intelligence, smart thermostats and, just this week, high-altitude drone satellites. The only thing all these acquisitions have in common is a focus on the future — often, the distant future.

The risk in thinking about what will be big in 2050, however, is that you can lose sight of 2014. Google’s first-quarter earnings report surprised Wall Street. The company has traditionally gushed profits without breaking a sweat. Now it takes more of an effort. One big reason was a problem of several years’ standing: Internet users are migrating to mobile devices, but ads on phones and tablets still do not have the familiarity and appeal they do on bigger computers. And they are not as profitable for Google. Google’s ad volume jumped 26 percent in the quarter, which sounds good but is less than expected, while the amount advertisers pay dropped 9 percent, which sounds bad and is.

There were other potentially worrisome notes. Operating expenses were 35 percent of revenue, compared with 31 percent in the first quarter of 2013. One reason: acquiring companies at a rapid clip entails specialist fees and other costs. Then there were real estate and construction costs, as Google races with Amazon to build out the computing cloud for potential customers.

In absolute terms, Google is doing very well. Here is one way to measure its heft: The company is projected to increase its digital ad revenue this year by more than $5 billion, which is more than the total ad revenue of Yahoo or Microsoft. The only viable threat to Google comes from Facebook, whose ad revenue is forecast by eMarketer to jump 50 percent this year. Facebook’s revenue is about a quarter of Google’s. Google’s position on the decline in its profits for mobile ads? Don’t worry about it.

2 Why China is doing better (Linda Yueh on BBC) Economic growth of 7.4% in the first quarter is in line with China’s 2014 annual year-on-year target of about 7.5% growth. The slowdown from the 7.7% GDP growth registered in the past two years is due to the government rebalancing the economy, shifting away from credit-fuelled investment and towards more consumption supported by income.

Credit-fuelled investment is what the Chinese government is trying to move away from, particularly in the housing market. Real estate comprises some 16% of GDP, a figure that is reminiscent of European countries felled by housing busts, such as Ireland. The worrying construction sector is still an issue. But the restraint of credit is having some impact on deflating house prices.

By the gauge of incomes and not the headline GDP figure, the economy is doing better, not worse, than last year. It is possible for the greater development of the services economy to create more jobs and raise incomes, since it is more labour-intensive than the capital-focused investment sector.

But as an economy slows, there will be less demand – and it is an open question as to whether China can create the seven million jobs a year needed for its new graduates and another 10 million for rural migrants moving to cities as part of the government’s urbanisation drive. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has said that a growth rate of at least 7% is needed for that level of employment creation. This is why China unleashed a fiscal stimulus package earlier this month, to cushion the slowdown induced by the rebalancing of its economy.

If China can manage the tricky balance between achieving a more sustainable growth model while sustaining a high enough rate of growth to create jobs, then it would be doing better than its headline GDP figures indicate. For now, it’s what the government is claiming to have achieved already.

3 The coming collapse of India communists (Sadanand Dhume in The Wall Street Journal) India finally appears on the brink of rejecting an ideology that most of the world junked a generation ago. For the first time in their history, India’s communists are staring at the prospect of extinction. Several polls show the two main parties–Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India–headed for their worst ever performance in ongoing national elections.

Just how badly are the communists doing? According to Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the vote share of the so-called Left Front communist alliance—which hovered near 10% for much of the 1970s and ’80s and was a respectable 8% in 2004—appears likely to fall below 5% this time. This would give the Left Front only 14 to 20 seats in India’s 543-member lower house of Parliament, about a third of the 59 they snagged 10 years ago.

Media attention is understandably focused on the frontrunner, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, predicted to win upward of 200 Parliament seats and lead the next government. But over time the demise of Indian communism may end up mattering as much as the BJP’s rise. A weak communist showing sharply reduces the chances that India will be saddled with a so-called Third Front government. This ragtag coalition of regional parties is united only by their desire for power and their opposition to both the BJP and the ruling Congress Party. Since 1989, no Third Front coalition has managed to form a government without the communists winning at least 50 seats in Parliament.

There are many reasons for the communists’ rapid slide into irrelevance. Over the years, West Bengal and Kerala have become bywords for militant labour unions and hostility to investment. Their brightest people head overseas or to other parts of India for employment. Two decades into liberalization, the manifesto of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) reads like a parody cooked up in the Soviet Union circa 1974. While most Indians are anxious for jobs amidst a sharp economic slowdown, the CPI (M) frets about workers being “the main target of exploitation by the neo-liberal regime. “

In foreign policy, it calls for “South-South cooperation and multipolarity,” and complains that India has tilted toward the US and Israel. When it comes to terrorism, the communists seem to think the biggest problem facing India isn’t Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Indian Mujahideen but “the bias and targeting of innocent Muslim youth.” With views like this, the most surprising thing for India’s communists shouldn’t be the historic defeat they face, but that it’s taken this long for Indians to reject them.

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Low interest rates and the global recovery; Tech leaps, job losses and rising inequality; Selfie obsession and mental illness; India recognises third gender

1 Low interest rates and the global recovery (Barry Eichengreen in The Guardian) Two of the world’s most prominent economic institutions, the International Monetary Fund and Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, recently warned that the global economy may be facing an extended period of low interest rates. Why is that a bad thing, and what can be done about it?

Adjusted for inflation, interest rates have been falling for three decades, and their current low level encourages investors, searching for yield, to take on additional risk. Low rates also leave central banks little room for loosening monetary policy in a slowdown, because nominal interest cannot fall below zero. And they are symptomatic of an economy that is out of sorts.

Identifying the problem, much less prescribing solutions, requires diagnosing underlying causes. And here, unfortunately, economists do not agree. Some point to an increase in global saving, attributable mainly to high-saving emerging markets. There is only one problem: the data show little evidence of a savings glut. A second explanation for low interest rates is a dearth of attractive investment projects. But this does not appear to be the diagnosis of stock markets, notably in the US, where equities are trading at record-high prices.

Still others, like the Fed’s current leader, Janet Yellen, suggest that investment and interest rates are depressed as a result of the damage done to the economy and the labour force during the Great Recession. Specifically, the skills and morale of the long-term unemployed have been eroded. Detached from the labor market, they lack incomes to spend; and, stigmatised by long-term unemployment, they are not regarded as attractive employees.

As a result, firms see inadequate demand for their products, and a shortage of qualified workers to staff their assembly lines. The result is low capital spending, one of the striking anomalies of the current recovery, which in turn can explain other troubling aspects of the recovery, from slow growth to low interest rates.

If the disorder has multiple causes, then there should be multiple treatments. There should be tax incentives for firms to hire the long-term unemployed; more public spending on infrastructure, education, and research to compensate for the shortfall in private capital spending; and still higher capital requirements for banks and strengthened regulation of nonbank financial institutions to prevent them from excessive risk-taking.

2 Tech leaps, job losses and rising inequality (Eduardo Porter in The New York Times) A few years ago, technological development would be treated like unadulterated good news. But a growing pessimism has crept into our understanding of the impact of such innovations. It’s an old fear, widely held since the time of Ned Ludd, who destroyed two mechanical knitting machines in 19th-century England and introduced the Luddite movement, humankind’s first organized protest against technological change.

In its current incarnation, though, the fear is actually very new. It strikes against bedrock propositions developed over more than half a century of economic scholarship. It can be articulated succinctly: What if technology has become a substitute for labor, rather than its complement? No law of nature ensures this will always be the case. Some jobs — nannies, say, or waiting tables — may always require lots of people. But as information technology creeps into occupations that have historically relied mostly on brainpower, it threatens to leave many fewer good jobs for people to do.

Robert Solow, who won the Nobel in economic science for his work on how labour, capital and technological progress contribute to economic growth, proposed more than 50 years ago that the share of an economy’s rewards accruing to labour and capital would be roughly stable over the long term. But evidence is emerging that this long-held tenet is no longer valid. In the US, the share of national income that goes to workers — in wages and benefits — has been falling for almost half a century.

In a recent interview, Professor Solow stressed that his proposition of relatively stable labor and capital shares assumed “an economy in a steady state with no systematic structural changes occurring.” Technology clearly plays a role. “We will know better in 10 or 15 years,” Professor Solow said. “But if I had to interpret the data now, I would guess that as the economy becomes more capital intensive, capital’s share of income will rise.” The implication is potentially dire: The vast disparities in the distribution of income that have been widening inexorably since the 1980s will widen further.

3 Selfie obsession and mental illness (Khaleej Times) Taking lots of selfies is not an addiction but a symptom of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), psychologists warn. ‘Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites,” explained David Veale, a consultant psychiatrist in London.

In a first such study, experts have linked selfies with mental illness and have suggested that people regularly searching for the perfect angle from which to portray themselves could in some cases be ill. Selfie fans with BDD can spend hours trying to take pictures that do not show any defects or flaws in their appearance, which they are very aware of but which might be unnoticeable to others. Often, people who take selfies take several photographs until they find their best angle or pose, but picking out small details can make people very self-conscious about the tiniest of ‘flaws’, the report added.

4 India recognises third gender (Nikita Lalwani in The Wall Street Journal) India’s Supreme Court has officially recognized a third gender category in a landmark verdict that for the first time affords transgender Indians legal status and protection under the law. Transgender people will now have the option to identify as a third gender in official documents, including passports and identification cards, the court said.

India’s top court directed the federal and state governments to count transgender people as part of the country’s “ backward classes,” a designation, based usually on caste, which entitles socially and economically disadvantaged groups to affirmative action in university admissions and state employment. The judgment emphasized the country’s history of discrimination against transgender people. India’s roughly three million transgender people are particularly vulnerable to public harassment, violence and sexual assault, sometimes at the hands of police, the court said.

Among India’s transgender communities, the hijra community is perhaps most prominent. The presence of a hijra at a wedding or birthday party is considered auspicious, but they remain deeply marginalized by mainstream society.

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Global trade to gain speed in 2014; Facebook may launch e-money transfer in Europe; Aussies hope to retire at 70; Poor education and India’s jobs crisis

1 Global trade to gain speed in 2014 (Andrew Walker on BBC) The growth of global commerce will pick up speed this year and next, says the World Trade Organization. Trade will grow by a “modest” 4.7% this year and by 5.3% in 2015, says the WTO. Next year’s figure, if correct, would be in line with the average growth rate in world trade over the last 20 years. These forecasts are consistent with other figures that show the world economy is gradually recovering from the financial crisis.

In 2009, trade in goods declined by 12% and bounced back by 14% the following year. The year 2011 was in line with the long term average, then came what the WTO calls a two-year slump – annual growth of around 2%. The overall impact is that global trade is above its pre-crisis level, but well below where it would have been, had it grown in line with the earlier pre-crisis trend.

But if world trade and its growth before 2008 was in some sense normal, we are still not back there. But perhaps that isn’t normal any more. The agency’s director general, Roberto Azevedo, said that just waiting for an automatic increase in trade was not enough. He called for new trade liberalisation agreements, in particular the negotiations known as the Doha Round.

The new WTO figures confirm that China is now the biggest goods trader in the world. Adding together exports and imports, China leads the US, which is itself still the biggest trader in commercial services. However, the picture is different if the European Union is treated as a single unit, counting the trade of EU member states with outside nations and excluding commerce within the Union. On that basis, the EU is the world’s biggest trader.

2 Facebook may launch e-money transfer in Europe (Samuel Gibbs in The Guardian) Facebook is preparing a money transfer service in Europe that would allow it to compete with the likes of Western Union, while giving users the option of storing money with the social network or buying items online. The US tech firm is seeking regulatory approval in its European base in Ireland for “e-money” status, which would see it issue digital credits that can be converted into cash by recipients.

 The firm already has permission for some forms of money transfer in the US, which allow payments within apps, from which Facebook takes a 30% cut. The company facilitated $2.1bn in transactions across Facebook in 2013, primarily to games publishers. Approval in Ireland would allow Facebook to operate an e-money service throughout Europe using “passporting”, which allows digital payments to be used across EU member states without having to gain regulatory approval from each one.

Facebook declined to comment on the development. “The market for money transfer is very, very large,” said Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder of TransferWise – one of three payment services reportedly in partnership discussions with Facebook. Hinrikus declined to comment on the reported partnership discussions but said: “For remittance alone the market is worth around $500bn, according to the World Bank, but for money moved between developed nations, as well as between developed and developing individuals and business, the market is valued at an estimated $5tn to $10tn, based on our analysis of global money flow data.”

3 Aussies hope to retire at 70 (Lisa Visentin & Gareth Hutchens in Sydney Morning Herald) Australians will become some of the oldest workers in the world if the government lifts the pension age to 70. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development shows if Australia lifts the pension age to 70 – as indicated by Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey – it will be doing so years before other countries finish lifting theirs to 67.

Mr Hockey gave his clearest signal yet that Australia’s pension age could rise to 70 in the budget, saying his generation would have to work for longer to prevent serious future budgetary stresses from an ageing population. His plan has been heavily criticised by seniors and the Labor Party, with opposition spokeswoman for families Jenny Macklin saying the legislated rise to 67 had not begun yet, and the government would need to account for serious age discrimination in the workplace before lifting it to 70.

 But the Productivity Commission and the Grattan Institute both support lifting the age to 70, saying it is reasonable in the face of an ageing population. The data shows if Australia moved to lift its pension age to 70 after 2023, it would be doing so before most other countries had finished lifting their pension age to 67. Canada will finish lifting its pension age to 67 by 2029; Germany will complete the process by 2029, while the US will be done by 2036. China has no plans to lift it above 60.

 4 Education and Inda’s jobs crisis (Raymond Zhong & Saptarishi Dutta in The Wall Street Journal) India’s economic slowdown is giving rural Indians fewer incentives to leave their home villages and farms in search of better-paying work. For some who have already left, it means going back to a way of life they thought they’d left behind. Credit-rating firm Crisil predicts that by 2019, 12 million more people will be working in agriculture than in 2012. Compare this to what happened between 2005 and 2012, when the agricultural workforce shrank by 37 million people, and you get some sense of what a turnaround this could represent for India if Crisil’s forecast bears out.

 This stalling of urbanization and industrialization touches on many aspects of India’s extraordinary, if rickety, economic rise. Part of the problem is the country’s undersized manufacturing sector. But it’s important not to undervalue another factor that is also preventing more people in India’s countryside from finding more productive—and hence more remunerative—work.

 School education in India is “abysmally poor” as one report put it last year. More boys and girls are enrolling than before, but quality hasn’t kept up. The Right to Education Act, 2009 guarantees free and compulsory elementary education but has been criticized for setting such unrealistically high standards for quality that schools are encouraged to pay bribes in exchange for certifications from government inspectors.

 Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet and polymath, issued this diagnosis many decades ago: “In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.” According to a 2010 study, only 40% of 8- to 11-year-old students in government schools in Bihar could read a simple paragraph. Just 43% of them could subtract a two-digit number from another two-digit number. The truly depressing thing about that last statistic? The nationwide average in India was also 43%.

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ECB signals further stimulus; After slide, rich countries now lifting growth; When teaching turns a high-pressure job; BlaBlaCar is AirBnB of car hire

1 ECB signal further stimulus (BBC) The European Central Bank (ECB) has said it will provide “further stimulus” to the eurozone economy if inflation in the bloc continues to remain low. Mario Draghi, the bank’s president, said a stronger euro would act as a trigger to looser monetary policy. The rise of the single currency’s exchange rate is one of the main reasons eurozone inflation is at a dangerously low 0.5%. One of Mr Draghi’s stimulus options would be quantitative easing (QE). That is something the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been suggesting as concerns grow about deflation in the eurozone.

Earlier this month the ECB kept interest rates steady, at a historic low of 0.25%, but Mr Draghi said its members were unanimous in their willingness to begin QE if inflation stayed well below their 2% target. Their fear is that falling inflation could harm the eurozone’s fragile economic recovery by reducing consumer spending – because people would be likely to put off purchases, believing prices will continue to fall. Low inflation also means governments and businesses find it more difficult to repay their debts.

However, most analysts believe Mr Draghi’s more likely choice would be a further cut in the ECB’s benchmark interest rate, currently at a record low of 0.25%. The bank’s policymakers recently raised the idea of cutting the rate to below zero, effectively charging banks that hold excess cash at the ECB. Such measures could be needed, Mr Draghi said, because of a euro that has strengthened by nearly 5.5% against the dollar, and by nearly 10% against the Japanese yen in the last year.

2 After slide, rich countries now lifting growth (Annie Lowrey in The New York Times) The rich countries whose property bubbles and collapsing banks plunged the world into recession in 2009 are now helping to lead the still-halting recovery out of it. That is the view from the International Monetary Fund’s latest forecast. “The recovery is strengthening,” Olivier Blanchard, the fund’s chief economist, said.

As growth has slackened in the big emerging economies, it has strengthened in rich countries, the fund said, especially in the US. It now sees the world economy as growing about 3.6 percent this year and 3.9 percent next year, up from 3 percent in 2013. That is down slightly from its early forecast in January, when it predicted the world economy would grow about 3.7 percent this year.

“For the past five years the emerging market and developing economies have been shouldering the burden of recovery, accounting for 75 percent of the increase in global growth since 2009,” said Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director. “The recovery is finally becoming a bit more balanced, in an overall economic landscape that has changed significantly.” Even as the IMF stressed that things were looking up in general, it reduced some countries’ growth forecasts to account for lingering sluggishness, internal financial problems or new geopolitical strife, as in Ukraine.

Even the euro area has finally stopped contracting, the fund said, and relief from government-imposed fiscal austerity might help that growth take seed. The drag from steep government cutbacks has dropped to 0.25 percent of economic output this year, from 1 percent last year. Economists at the IMF anticipate that the euro area will grow about 1.2 percent this year and 1.5 percent next year, after having shrunk for the last two years. For the major emerging economies — including China, Latin American nations like Brazil, Middle Eastern countries and South Africa — growth should be solid, if unremarkable, the fund said.

3 When teaching turns a high-pressure job (Rebecca Ratcliffe in The Guardian) A relentless inspection regime and culture of target-setting is damaging teachers’ mental health, with many reporting stress and exhaustion, a survey by a teaching union has found. More than half (55%) of those questioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in the UK say work pressures are having a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing, while almost four in 10 have noticed a rise in mental health problems among colleagues over the past two years.

Of those teachers who did feel their job had damaged their mental health, many reported experiencing stress (80%), exhaustion (69%), disturbed sleep patterns (66%), anxiety (57%) and headaches (47%). Almost one in three said it had affected their appetite.

“Education professionals do more unpaid overtime than any other group and are put under constant intense pressure to meet targets, with excessive observation, changes in the curriculum and inspections,” the union’s general secretary, Mary Bousted said. “There are in-school pressures caused by Ofsted – pressures put upon teachers by school leaders to ensure that students demonstrate progress. There are demands for data, demands for lesson planning – it’s as though nothing is done unless it’s written down.”

4 BlaBlaCar is AirBnB of car hire (Shane Hickey in The Guardian) Frédéric Mazzella’s car-sharing company BlaBlaCar has grown to the point at which the president of SNCF, the French national railway, identified it as a competitor last year. The Paris-based company has six million members in a dozen countries, linking drivers with passengers who can buy seats. According to the company, a million people use its website every month, keying in details of where they want to go and when, and getting a list of drivers heading to the same destination, with their journey history and a price – which can be a fraction of a ticket on public transport.

Mazzella says the early years were marked by frustration as BlaBlaCar struggled to reach a critical mass of drivers and passengers who could meet each others’ demands. The turning point came in 2007 when a series of strikes crippled the French transport system. A well-timed press release to say BlaBlaCar was still open for business attracted huge media attention. Nicolas Brusson, one of the three co-founders with Mazzella and Francis Nappez, says the influx of users meant that “suddenly the service worked”. For the first time, people were saying things about the service such as “useful, interesting, low-cost, efficient”.

After that leap forward, the business continued to grow, opening an office in 2009 and hiring its first employee. Then when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, causing massive disruption to air travel, prices on BlaBlaCar skyrocketed. With a trip from Madrid to Paris costing €850, the founders decided to cap prices in an attempt to retain the spirit of the “sharing economy”.

The company may expand into Asia, the US and Latin America and the founders cite trains and buses as the competition, not similar services. BlaBlaCar is often compared to Airbnb, the six-year-old accommodation site that was recently reported to be in talks to raise capital in a deal valuing it at $10bn.

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‘Someone please wake up the IMF before another catastrophe’; Scotch whisky exports remain flat; Samsung looks to life beyond smartphones; Nearly half of Twitteratis never tweet

1 ‘Someone please wake up the IMF before another catastrophe’ (Phillip Inman in The Guardian) The complacency is palpable. Despite some dire warnings about risky trading and the threat posed by overly indebted banks, the mood last week at the International Monetary Fund’s spring conference was one of calm. We have turned a corner since the financial crisis, the Washington-based organisation says. Normality is returning. Officials expect the US to lead the way. As consumer-in-chief, it will propel the world economy and global growth much as it has in the last 60 years.

George Osborne revealed himself a cheerleader for the technocratic answer to debt and financial risk. The chancellor declared that central banks and regulators would make sure the west’s economies had a bright future, as they withdrew the post-2008 stimulus and locked down risky lending. It would be a neat trick. And the betting must be that it will fail. It will fail because policymakers will be unable to cope with more fundamental forces at work.

First there are the debts: government debts and household debts across the developed world. Put simply they are still too high. Bank debts in the eurozone and corporate debts in many emerging-market economies are similarly at risk from small financial shocks. The eurozone poses a particular problem. Spain is growing, but only with the help of government cash. France is staggering on, but Italy is in permanent recession. Inflation is falling to the point that many worry it will go into reverse. The Germans have blocked initiatives that might boost output.

Another part of the problem is the legacy of savings generated in Asia. That savings glut has had to find a home, and one that provides a good return. There is about $70tn-$80tn invested in assets of various kinds from government bonds to property and exotic derivatives. The IMF highlighted how a $300bn market in US credit mutual funds in 2000 has grown to $2tn today. These funds are invested in junk bonds that are difficult to sell when the panic starts, making the panic even worse.

Andy Haldane, soon to be chief economist at the Bank of England, said we were “still in the intellectual foothills in terms of dealing with potential financial risks”. He pointed out that while there was some good news the problem had shifted to exotic derivatives, which accounted for $19tn of bank portfolios in 2006, but total $31tn today. Then there is the fact that 90% of trades in New York are generated by algorithm-driven computers, making the financial system prone to extreme volatility.

The IMF wants a financial system with airlocks that can contain panics, but knows there are instruments of contagion everywhere it looks. Its boss, Christine Lagarde, has warned of the threats, but without accusing those whose complacency she fears. It is time for some straight talking.

2 Scotch whisky exports remain flat (BBC) Scotch whisky exports stagnated last year, as sales were hit by slowing demand in China and other emerging markets. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association showed overseas sales remained flat at £4.3bn by value. In volume terms, exports increased by 2.5% to the equivalent of 1.23 billion bottles. Scotch whisky performed strongly in the US, Mexico and India but direct exports to China fell by nearly 30% to £51m.

The best performers included the US, which saw exports of Scotch grow 8% on 2012 to a record £819m. The US was by far the largest market for whisky by value. France remained the largest volume market for Scotch. India, which is now Scotch whisky’s fourth biggest market by volume, saw the value of whisky sales climb by 12% to £69m. SWA said it hoped EU-India Free Trade Agreement negotiations would restart following this year’s Indian elections, leading to a reduction of the current 150% import tariff. Overall, Scotch whisky accounts for about 85% of Scottish food and drink exports and nearly a quarter of the British total.

3 Samsung looks to life beyond smartphones (Straits Times) After years of record profit growth, tech giant Samsung Electronics looks to be at a commercial crossroads as it searches for a new growth driver to counter slowing sales of its phenomenally successful smartphones.

Alarm bells have been sounding for a while over Samsung’s reliance on smartphone sales in increasingly mature markets such as Europe and the US, and increasingly competitive emerging markets like China. The world’s largest smartphone maker has a diverse product line ranging from memory chips to home appliances, but more than half its profits are generated by mobile devices.

Last week, Samsung said it was on track for a second consecutive quarter of year-on-year profit decline, and its stock price fell nearly 10 per cent in 2013 – the first annual drop in five years.

4 Nearly half of Twitteratis never tweet (DNA) Twitter has a whopping 974 million registered accounts. However 44% of these have never tweeted even once, a new survey has found. Twitter analytics company Twopcharts found that the micro-blogging site has nearly 974 million accounts, meaning roughly 429 million accounts have never tweeted.

According to PC World, some of the account users just use them to read tweets and others may have created an account, only to forget that it exists. Twopcharts’ data indicates that 30% of accounts have sent between one and 10 tweets, and that only 13% of accounts have at least 100 tweets. According to TheNextWeb, Twitter had 241 million active users in the last quarter of 2013, the report added.

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