Russian opens case against Yandex over alleged competition law breach

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) on Tuesday said it had initiated proceedings against internet giant Yandex over alleged competition law violations on the company’s search engine.

The state agency told Yandex in February it had created unequal market conditions for general online search services, that it was preferentially promoting its own products and asked it to stop. Yandex asked for extra time to respond to the accusations earlier this month.

The FAS said it would investigate possible anti-competitive practices and assess their consequences, adding that Yandex could be subject to a fine should evidence it was restricting competition be found.

“We do not agree with the accusation of restricting competition and are ready to defend our position,” Yandex said in a statement.

Yandex said it was using the global practice of enriched search results to enhance the user experience.

“Over 30,000 companies already use our enriched search technology for free,” Yandex added.

Reporting by Alexander Marrow; editing by Barbara Lewis

U.S. budget deficit hits record high for March as aid payments swell outlays

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government posted a March budget deficit of $660 billion, a record high for the month, as direct payments to Americans under President Joe Biden’s stimulus package were distributed, the Treasury Department said on Monday.

The deficit for the first six months of the 2021 fiscal year ballooned to a record $1.706 trillion, compared to a $743 billion deficit for the comparable year-earlier period. The first six months of fiscal 2020 largely did not include emergency pandemic spending to counter the coronavirus-related lockdowns that started in March 2020.

The March deficit, which compared to a year-earlier deficit of $119 billion, included receipts of $268 billion and outlays of $927 billion – both record highs for that month.

A Treasury official said the March outlays were further increased by $339 billion in direct payments of $1,400 that were sent to many individuals under Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act that was enacted last month.

More funding from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package will roll out in coming months, the official said, likely keeping outlays elevated.

For the first six months of fiscal 2021, outlays were a record $3.410 trillion, while receipts were $1.704 trillion, the Treasury said. Total direct payments in the six-month period came to $487 billion, including those from a year-end stimulus package passed under former President Donald Trump, the Treasury official said.

Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Paul Simao

EU proposes six-month tariff freeze with United States – Der Spiegel

BERLIN (Reuters) – The European Union has suggested that it and the United States suspend tariffs imposed on billions of dollars of imports for six months, EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis was quoted as telling Germany’s Der Spiegel on Saturday.

That would go beyond a four-month suspension agreed last month, and send a signal that Brussels is seeking compromise in a 16-year-old dispute over aircraft subsidies.

“We have proposed suspending all mutual tariffs for six months in order to reach a negotiated solution,” Dombrovskis told the news magazine.

“This would create a necessary breathing space for industries and workers on both sides of the Atlantic,” he added.

In March, the two sides agreed on a four-month suspension covering all U.S. tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU imports and all EU duties on $4 billion of U.S. products, which resulted from long-running World Trade Organization cases over subsidies for planemakers Airbus and Boeing.

Dombrovskis also said the EU would closely monitor U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Buy American” laws which provide for U.S. public contracts to be awarded exclusively to American firms.

“Our goal is to push for procurement markets that are as open as possible all over the world,” he told Der Spiegel.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by William Maclean and Helen Popper

China halts new enrollments at Jack Ma’s business school: FT

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Beijing authorities have forced an elite business school backed by Alibaba Group Co Ltd founder Jack Ma to halt enrollments, the Financial Times said on Friday, citing sources familiar with the matter.

The clampdown on the school, founded in 2015 by Ma to train China’s next generation of entrepreneurs, comes as his business empire faces government scrutiny.

Hupan Academy, based in the city of Hangzhou, where Alibaba has its headquarters, suspended a first-year class set to begin in late March, the newspaper said.

Alibaba and Hupan Academy did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Tuition for the three-year program amounts to 580,000 yuan ($88,500.98). Students listed in the incoming class of 2019 included executives from Keep, a successful Chinese exercise company, and fast-growing domestic chip firm Horizon Robotics.

The school is among the initiatives launched by Ma related to education, a sector the erstwhile English teacher has committed to since stepping down from his role as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019.

The enrollment halt comes amid Beijing’s crackdown on Ma’s businesses. Late last year Ant Group, a financial affiliate of Alibaba, abruptly suspended a planned $37 billion IPO in Shanghai following pressure from the authorities.

The botched listing came after Ma made comments in public criticising China’s financial regulators. He has yet to make a public appearance since, save for a brief 50-second video clip broadcast to a group of teachers.

($1=6.5536 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Josh Horwitz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

UK: Redcar cyber-attack: Government to help cover costs

A council left without online services for weeks following a cyber-attack is to receive £3.68m from the government to help towards the cost of rebuilding its systems.

The attack was estimated to have cost Redcar and Cleveland Council £10m, with the authority having to foot the remainder of the bill itself.

It said no ransom was paid to the hackers.

Critics said the government should be covering more of the cost.

Experts from the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had to be drafted in to help restore appointment bookings, planning documents, social care advice and council housing complaints systems that had been knocked offline in February last year.

‘Conned’ over settlement

The council said the money to be provided by the government would help replenish its reserves, which had been used to restore its online systems.

It declined to say whether any services would be affected as a result of covering the remainder of the bill.

Council leader Mary Lanigan, who heads a coalition of independents and Liberal Democrats, said: “We are pleased that the government recognised the unique circumstances under which we requested support, and awarded grant funding, rightly distinguishing the criminal ransomware attack suffered by the council from the financial rescue packages of some other local authorities where permission to borrow has been granted.

“No money was handed over to these criminals and we continue to hope that they will eventually be brought to justice.”

Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Simon Clarke, a Conservative, described the settlement as “exceptionally generous”.

Fellow Tory Jacob Young, MP for Redcar, said it would “go some way to restoring the hit on the council’s finances”.

However, former council leader Sue Jeffrey, of Labour, said residents were being “conned into thinking they have got a good deal” having only been awarded “a tiny proportion of the support they were promised by the government and local Conservative MPs”.

ENA: Macron to scrap French leaders’ elite training school

One of France’s top colleges – the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – will be shut down, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce, under plans to boost social mobility.

A degree from the ENA has been the passport to the upper echelons of French politics for generations.

Its graduates include Mr Macron himself and ex-presidents François Hollande and Jacques Chirac.

However, it has become the target of populist anger at perceived elitism.

The entrance exams are notoriously tough, and the ENA’s intake is dominated by students from privileged backgrounds.

It admits fewer than 100 students a year, who are fast-tracked into prestigious civil service jobs. 

Speaking in the western city of Nantes in February, Mr Macron said it was time to open up access to top colleges for students from modest backgrounds. The aim, he said, was that “no kid in our republic should say: this is not for me”.

He deplored the current state of social mobility in France, saying it was “worse than 50 years ago”.

A picture shows the building of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (National School of Administration) (ENA) on January 14, 2013 in Strasbourg, eastern France.
image captionThe ENA in Strasbourg is world-famous for intellectual rigour

His announcement is expected in a video conference with several hundred top civil servants. But he first suggested closing the ENA in 2019, after months of gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) street protests which severely challenged his presidency.

Those protests were triggered by a rise in fuel tax, but morphed into a much wider social protest against a perceived Parisian elite neglecting the needs of provincial communities.

Before becoming president, Mr Macron attended the prestigious Sciences Po university, then the ENA, before obtaining a plum job at the Financial Inspectorate – part of the finance ministry.

The ENA was established in Strasbourg in 1945 by then-President Charles de Gaulle, whose aim was to rebuild a modern French state from the wreckage of World War Two.

But while designed as a meritocracy, research shows that ENA students’ parents are often senior civil servants themselves or CEOs. Very few come from working-class backgrounds.

“It’s the school of the elite,” said Prof Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans, a political scientist who has studied the ENA extensively and now works with it.

Mr Macron is under pressure to improve his ratings ahead of next year’s presidential election, and France’s painful struggle with Covid-19 has exposed shortcomings in the state administration. 

France’s vaccination rate remains relatively sluggish, and its long-admired health service has looked vulnerable in the crisis, especially intensive care.

French Europe 1 news says Mr Macron aims to attack what is widely seen as a French civil service job-for-life culture, dominated by academic qualifications. 

The reforms could mean more staff turnover, job mobility and a sharper focus on pressing issues such as French secular values, poverty and the environment.

U.S. private prison GEO suspends dividends as sector faces pressure on finances

(Reuters) – U.S. private prison company GEO Group said on Wednesday it would suspend quarterly dividend payment to repay debt and fund growth as it faces pressures under limits on the sector from President Joe Biden.

Earlier this year, Biden signed an executive order to roll back the U.S. government’s use of private prisons, a part of what he called an initiative to tackle systemic racism.

Another private prison, CoreCivic Inc, has said it would offer $400 million in bonds to reduce debt and for corporate purposes.

Shares of GEO were down about 6% before the bell and those of CoreCivic fell about 2%.

GEO said it intends to maintain its corporate tax structure as a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), but would evaluate the structure, considering potential changes to its financial operating performance among other factors.

It had $291 million in cash on hand and about $209 million in borrowing capacity available under a revolving credit facility and $450 million under its senior credit facility, as of March 31, the company said.

Patchy corporate climate disclosure prompts G20 watchdog to act

LONDON (Reuters) – G20 companies will face common disclosure requirements on climate change risks under plans by the Financial Stability Board, which coordinates financial rules for the group.

In the latest sign of how policymakers want faster action to replace the patchy progress seen so far, the FSB said on Tuesday that said it will set out in July ways to promote consistent, high-quality climate disclosures.

Investors have long called for globally comparable disclosures to stop so-called greenwashing, where firms exaggerate their responses to climate change or underplay how global warming is likely to affect their business.

Although recommendations by the FSB’s Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) are being applied by some companies, they are voluntary and critics say they lack detail, while implementation has been patchy.

While the 27-member European Union is pushing ahead with reforms to define which investments are “sustainable” and how to disclose them, the FSB said it would build on the TCFD recommendations.

The FSB, whose members include central banks, financial regulators and treasury officials from G20 countries, said it backed plans by the IFRS Foundation for a global sustainability reporting standards board based on the TCFD recommendations initially.

Given a proliferation of work on climate disclosures, the FSB said there was a need for a “strategic vision, good coordination, and clear communication to the G20 and the public” and it will present a multi-year roadmap this summer.

“This will leverage work being carried out by standard setting bodies and international organizations while simultaneously using our mechanisms to identify vulnerabilities and build consensus on ways forward,” it said.

The FSB and the Network for Greening the Financial System, a forum of central banks and financial regulators for climate related issues, will also work with each other.

Japan’s central bank issues digital currency

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan (BOJ) began experiments on Monday to study the feasibility of issuing its own digital currency, joining efforts by other central banks that are aiming to match the innovation in the field achieved by the private sector.

The first phase of experiments, to be carried out until March 2022, will focus on testing the technical feasibility of issuing, distributing and redeeming a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the BOJ said in a statement.

The BOJ will thereafter move to the second phase of experiments that will scrutinise more detailed functions, such as whether to set limits on the amount of CBDC each entity can hold.

If necessary, the central bank will launch a pilot programme that involves payment service providers and end users, BOJ Executive Director Shinichi Uchida said last month.

“While there is no change in the BOJ’s stance it currently has no plan to issue CBDC, we believe initiating experiments at this stage is a necessary step,” Uchida told a committee of policymakers and bank lobbies looking into CBDC.

Global central banks are looking at developing digital currencies to modernise their financial systems, ward off the threat from cryptocurrencies and speed up domestic and international payments.

While China leads the pack, the BOJ has been speeding up efforts to catch up with a plan announced in October to begin experimenting on how to operate its own digital currency.

Jordan arrests: Official and royal arrested for ‘security reasons’

A former adviser to Jordan’s King Abdullah and a member of the royal family are among a number of people arrested on “security-related” grounds.

Bassem Awadallah, a former finance minister, and Sharif Hassan Bin Zaid, a royal, were detained.

The military denied reports the king’s half-brother, former Crown Prince Hamza bin Hussein, was among those arrested.

But it said he had been ordered to stop actions that could be used to target the country’s “security and stability”.

High level political arrests are rare in Jordan, a key US ally in the Middle East. 

The country has a powerful intelligence agency that has been granted new powers since the coronavirus pandemic, which has drawn criticism from rights groups.

Mr Awadallah, an economist who was educated in the US, has been a confidant of the king and an influential force in Jordan’s economic reforms. 

He has often found himself pitted against entrenched government bureaucracy resistant to his reforms.

Petra news agency earlier said the former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the oldest son of the late King Hussein and Queen Noor, was not subject to any restrictions.

However, in a later statement the military said he had been asked to stop any actions targeting the country’s security and stability.

King Abdullah stripped Hamzah of the title of crown prince in 2004

It was seen as a blow to Queen Noor, who had hoped to see her eldest son become king.

Former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein pictured in 2004
image captionPrince Hamzah is a graduate of the UK’s Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst,

Prince Hamzah, who was 24 at the time, had been a favourite of the late King Hussein, who often described him in public as the “delight of my eye”.

However, he was seen as too young and inexperienced to be named successor at the time of his death.

Jordan is a key US ally and has assisted US forces in security operations. It is also a partner in the US-led campaign against the so-called Islamic State.

The country has few natural resources and its economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. The kingdom has also absorbed waves of refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Source: BBC