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Bank of Japan leaning toward exiting negative rates

Bank of Japan leaning toward exiting negative rates

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Bank of Japan leaning toward exiting negative rates

A growing number of Bank of Japan policymakers are warming to the idea of ending negative interest rates this month on expectations of hefty pay hikes in this year’s annual wage negotiations, four sources familiar with its thinking said.

Upon ending negative rates, the central bank is also likely to overhaul its massive stimulus programme that consists of a bond yield control and purchases of riskier assets, they said.

But an imminent shift is a close call as there is no consensus within the nine-member board on whether to pull the trigger at its upcoming March 18-19 meeting, or hold off at least until the subsequent meeting on April 25-26, they say.

Many BOJ policymakers are closely watching the outcome of big firms’ annual wage negotiations with unions on March 13, and the first survey results to be released by labour umbrella Rengo on March 15, to determine how soon to phase out their massive stimulus.

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Significant pay hikes will likely heighten the chance of action in March, as the offers by big firms usually set the tone for those by smaller firms nationwide, the sources said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The BOJ hopes that solid wage increases will coax consumers to spend more, boosting demand and prices after years of economic stagnation and deflation.

“If the spring wage negotiation outcome is strong, the BOJ may not necessarily need to wait until April,” one of the sources said, a view echoed by another source.

But the BOJ may hold off until April if many board members prefer to wait for next month’s “tankan” business sentiment survey and the bank’s regional branch managers’ report on the nationwide wage outlook, before making a final decision, they said.

The yen has been rising against the dollar on growing speculation that the BOJ could end negative rates soon, and bets of imminent rate cuts by the U.S. Federal Reserve. It rose to 146.95 to the dollar on Friday, its highest level since early February.

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WEAK DATA A RISK

The BOJ has long targeted inflation at 2% and has guided short-term rates at -0.1% and the 10-year bond yield around 0% under a policy dubbed yield curve control (YCC).

With inflation exceeding the target for well over a year and prospects for sustained wage gains heightening, many market players expect the central bank to end its negative interest rate policy this month or in April.

Upon pulling short-term rates out of negative territory, the central bank is likely to ditch its 10-year bond yield target, the sources said.

To avoid an abrupt spike in long-term rates, the BOJ will likely commit to intervening in the market when needed to stem sharp rises, or offer guidance on the amount of government bonds it will keep buying, they said.

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Japan’s Jiji news agency reported on Friday the BOJ is considering replacing YCC with a new quantitative framework that will show in advance how much bonds it will buy in the future.

Prospects of continued solid wage growth, driven by rising living costs and an intensifying labour shortage, have heightened momentum for an end to negative rates in March.

Japan’s largest trade union group Rengo said on Thursday average wage hike demands hit 5.85% for this year, topping 5% for the first time in 30 years.

BOJ board member Naoki Tamura, a former commercial bank executive, has been the most vocal advocate of an early exit from negative rates, signalling in August last year that the bank could take such action by March 2024.

Fellow board member Hajime Takata also called for an overhaul of the BOJ’s stimulus programme last week, saying that Japan was finally seeing prospects for durably achieving the bank’s inflation target.

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If a majority of the nine-member board vote in favour of ending negative rates, it would pave the way for Japan’s first rate hike since 2007.

But there is uncertainty on whether any proposal to end negative rates in March would gain enough votes, as some board members may feel cautious about exiting amid recent weak signs in consumption and the broader economy.

Preliminary data suggested Japan’s economy slipped into recession in the fourth quarter due to weak domestic demand, though more recent readings pointed to stronger capital expenditure that will likely lead to an upgrade when revised gross domestic product figures are published on March 11.

Household spending also dropped 2.5% in December from a year earlier, extending its decline for a 10th month, due to supply disruptions of cars and continued declines in real wages.

Board member Seiji Adachi has said it might take until after the April 2024 start of the next fiscal year to determine whether conditions are conducive to ending negative rates.

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Two other members, Toyoaki Nakamura and Asahi Noguchi, have also voiced caution over a premature withdrawal of monetary support.
Sources have told Reuters earlier that the BOJ will downgrade its assessment on consumption and output, nodding to recent weak signs in the economy. 

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Microsoft’s UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

Microsoft’s UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

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Microsoft's UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

Microsoft President Brad Smith said the tech company’s high profile deal with the United Arab Emirates-backed AI firm G42 could eventually involve the transfer of sophisticated chips and tools – a move that a senior Republican congressman warned could have national security implications.

In an interview with Reuters this week, Smith said the sales accord, many details of which are being reported here for the first time, could progress to a second phase that entails the export of crucial components of AI technology such as model weights, a crown jewel of AI systems that determine how powerful they are. Smith said there is no firm timeline for the second phase.

US officials have said that AI systems could pose national security risks, for example by making it easier to engineer chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The Biden administration in October required the makers of the largest AI systems to share details about them with the US government.

To move forward, the deal would require the approval of the US Department of Commerce. Microsoft executives said the agreement has safeguards to protect Microsoft’s technology and prevent it from being used by Chinese entities to train AI systems.

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But those measures have not been made public, and some US lawmakers question whether they are adequate.

The closed-door nature of the negotiations between two private companies over the terms and safeguards on transfers of US technology have alarmed some lawmakers.

“Despite the significant national security implications, Congress still has not received a comprehensive briefing from the executive branch about this agreement,” Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the US House of Representatives, told Reuters.

Read more: Economic diversification: UAE and US to see more AI partnerships

“I am concerned the right guardrails are not in place to protect sensitive US-origin technology from Chinese espionage given the (Chinese Communist Party’s) interests in the UAE.”

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The Commerce Department already requires notifications and, in several regions, export licences to send AI chips abroad. But the Microsoft-G42 deal highlights gaps in US laws as regulators rush to keep up with fast-moving technology.

At present, for example, there is no regulation restricting the export of AI models, though McCaul and a bipartisan group of lawmakers this week advanced legislation that would give US officials more explicit power to do so.

Microsoft executives said the company welcomes a debate on a new legal framework governing the transfer of AI technology and that the deal with G42 requires the UAE firm to comply with US regulations as they evolve.

“Fundamentally, what we’re focused on is trying to ensure that American technology can move around the world safely and securely,” Smith said.

BEYOND UAE

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When Microsoft and G42 announced the deal last month, it was billed as drawing G42 closer to the US and spreading US technology influence amid strategic competition with China. Microsoft is investing $1.5 billion in G42 with Microsoft’s president, Smith, taking a seat on its board.

The companies did not give details about which technologies might be transferred to the UAE or other countries or which specific security safeguards would be put in place. Some of those details are being reported here for the first time.

The broad intent of the deal is for Microsoft and G42 to jointly take AI technology into regions where neither could do so as effectively alone. An early example is a deal in Kenya announced by the two companies on Wednesday.

Read more: US lawmakers advance bill to make it easier to curb exports of AI models

The Microsoft-G42 deal is an agreement between the two companies that requires each to give security assurances to their respective home governments, but there is no direct agreement between the US and UAE governing the transfer of sensitive technologies. The two companies could seek to transfer those technologies to other markets beyond the UAE, including places like Turkey and Egypt, Microsoft executives said.

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Smith said many of the details of the deal remain to be worked out, including how to protect what are known as AI “model weights,” which is the critical part of an AI model that defines how it responds to questions or prompts. Those weights are obtained by training an AI model with huge amounts of data, often at great expense.

Model weights currently cannot be encrypted while in use, and Smith estimated the promising technical approaches for doing so remain at least a year away.

Smith said Microsoft has considered several alternative options to protect its technology, including a “vault within a vault” that would involve physically separating parts of data centers where AI chips and model weights are housed and restricting physical access.

“I suspect by the time we’re done, we’re going to end up with a regulatory regime or trade export control approach that will be applicable broadly and not just to Microsoft and G42,” Smith said.

Under the Microsoft deal, G42 will also follow a “know your customer” rule to determine who is using Microsoft’s technology and will not allow Chinese firms to use it to train AI models, Microsoft executives said. US regulators have proposed a similar rule, but they have not yet enacted it.

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“We adopted a strategic commercial decision to partner with US companies when it comes to advanced technologies. And we’re very clear on the fact that in order to do so, we will need to adhere to the requirements and our partners and government regulatory requirements or export control regulations,” Talal Al Kaissi, an executive who handles partnerships for G42’s AI work, told Reuters.

Under the deal, Microsoft would have the ability to impose financial penalties on G42 and enforce them in arbitration courts in London, Microsoft said. That means Microsoft would not be forced to work through the UAE legal system to ensure G42 complies with its obligations and could seize assets in many countries if G42 is found in violation of the agreement, Microsoft said.

Precisely how US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will allow the deal to move forward remains unclear. Smith said the provisions are “informal” and that “certainly with this Secretary of Commerce, one knows pretty clearly whether she approves or rejects something.”

In a statement, a Commerce Department spokesperson said any technology transfers would be governed by export controls, “including currently in force licensing requirements” for AI chips and “potential future controls.”

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Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

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Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Pakistan are currently also deliberating upon a framework concerning new government borrowings, as both the sources in finance ministry and the Washington-based lender fear an increase in loans in the next budget covering the fiscal year 2024-25.

Read more: More gas tariffs hikes planned as Pakistan eyes another IMF programme

Hence, the sources say that Pakistan could borrow from domestic and external sources another Rs10,433 billion – a massive amount that will propel the total debt burden to Rs87,346bn.

Out of this total, the sources say, domestic borrowing will witness an increase of around Rs7,636bn while external debt can jump by Rs2,797bn in 2024-25.

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Thus, the addition of these amounts will raise the total domestic debt to Rs53,878bn and the overall external debt Rs33,648bn.

Previously, it was reported that the government economic team has given an initial estimate of external financing of around $22 billion for the next fiscal year.

Read more: Pakistan external financing needs estimated at $22bn, lower power tariffs proposed for industries

As far as the current fiscal year is concerned, the sources are expecting domestic debt to reach Rs76,913bn by the time 2023-24 ends on June 30, as high interest rates are further worsening the already complicated debt repayment equation for Pakistan.

Read more: Govt bonds are borrowing instruments. High interest rates means more deficit

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On the other hand, external debt will jump to Rs30,671bn at a time when Pakistan is trying its best to revive economy amid record high interest rates.

The Pakistani authorities have also shared a macroeconomic framework for the next fiscal year with the IMF mission during the ongoing talks, sources say, with an estimated GDP growth rate of 3.7 per cent and inflation rate dipping to 11.8pc.

Read more: Pakistan sees 2024-25 inflation at 11.8pc, IMF thinks it will be 12.7pc

However, the IMF thinks that the GDP will grow at a slightly lower pace of 3.5pc while inflation is going to stay at 12.7 pc – a projection that is 0.9pc higher than the suggested by the Ministry of Finance.

Earlier this week, the IMF and Pakistan started policy-level talks, as the cash-starved Islamabad is looking forward to clinch another deal with the Washington-based lender while meeting all the tough conditions being attached to it.

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In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in ‘red hot’ conditions

In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in ‘red hot’ conditions

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In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in 'red hot' conditions

Working on a highway project in one of India’s hottest areas this summer, Banwari Singh handles iron bars that he says often turn “red hot”.

Temperatures hit 47.8 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) last Sunday, among the highest recorded in India this year, in Najafgarh, an area on the outskirts of New Delhi where Singh works.

“This is among the hottest it has been in this area,” Singh, in checked trousers, a half-sleeved shirt, a bright orange safety vest and a hard-top hat, said.

“But we have no option. If we want to eat, we have to work whatever the conditions are,” said the 40-year-old, resting near a pillar he is helping to build.

The northwest of India is experiencing an unusually hot summer and the national weather office has forecast three times the usual number of heatwave days this May. Experts say climate change adds fuel to the heat.

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Read more: Climate change is slowing heatwaves, a phenomenon visible in Pakistan too

Delhi shut schools earlier this week as temperatures rose. Voters in India’s national election face the prospect of queuing this weekend in the sweltering heat.

Singh and other labourers, who earn around 500 rupees to 700 rupees ($6-$8.4) a day, say they dread the heat and some fall sick as a result of the hot conditions.

Water is available for workers to douse themselves regularly to beat the heat and some buy cool drinks from a makeshift shop nearby.

The deputy project manager, Vinay Sahani, said the company provides water for workers, and sometimes lemonade, and asks workers to rest after noon when temperatures peak. Work can resume after sundown, he said.

Sumit Goswami, 21, who had to take time off this week after a heat-related illness, said he has worked in hot conditions before.

“But this year it has become extreme,” he said. “Still, we have to continue because we have to support the family.”

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