Exclusive: Amid crisis, China rejected Hong Kong plan to appease protesters – sources

Protesters carry placards as they gather to condemn alleged sexual harassment of a detained demonstrator at a police station, in Hong Kong, China August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Earlier this summer, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, submitted a report to Beijing that assessed protesters’ five key demands and found that withdrawing a contentious extradition bill could help defuse the mounting political crisis in the territory.

The Chinese central government rejected Lam’s proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

China’s role in directing how Hong Kong handles the protests has been widely assumed, supported by stern statements in state media about the country’s sovereignty and protesters’ “radical” goals.

Beijing’s rebuff of Lam’s proposal for how to resolve the crisis, detailed for the first time by Reuters, represents concrete evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.

The Chinese central government has condemned the protests and accused foreign powers of fuelling unrest. The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned other nations against interfering in Hong Kong, reiterating that the situation there is an “internal affair.”

Lam’s report on the tumult was made before an Aug. 7 meeting in Shenzhen about the Hong Kong crisis led by senior Chinese officials. The report examined the feasibility of the five demands of the protesters, analyzing how conceding to some of these might quiet things down, the individuals with direct knowledge said.

In addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the other demands analyzed in the report were: an independent inquiry into the protests; fully democratic elections; dropping of the term “riot” in describing protests; and dropping charges against those arrested so far.

The withdrawal of the bill and an independent inquiry were seen to be the most feasible politically, according to a senior government official in the Hong Kong administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the move was envisioned as helping pacify some of the more moderate protesters who have been angered by Lam’s silence.

The extradition bill is one of the key issues that has helped drive the protests, which have drawn millions of people into the streets of Hong Kong. Lam has said the bill is “dead,” but has refused to say explicitly that it has been “withdrawn.”

Beijing told Lam not to withdraw the bill, or to launch an inquiry into the tumult, including allegations of excessive police force, according to the senior government official.

Another of the three individuals, who has close ties with senior officials in Hong Kong and also declined to be identified, confirmed the Hong Kong government had submitted the report.

“They said no” to all five demands, said the source. “The situation is far more complicated than most people realize.”

The third individual, a senior Chinese official, said that the Hong Kong government had submitted the report to the Central Co-ordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, a high-level group led by Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, and that President Xi Jinping was aware of it.

The official confirmed that Beijing had rejected giving in to any of the protesters’ demands and wanted Lam’s administration to take more initiative.

In a statement responding to Reuters, Lam’s office said her government had made efforts to address protesters’ concerns, but did not comment directly on whether it had made such a proposal to Beijing, or received instructions.

Written questions to China’s Foreign Ministry were referred to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), a high-level bureau under China’s State Council. HKMAO did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Reuters has not seen the report. The news agency also was unable to establish the precise timing of the rejection.

The two Hong Kong sources said the report was submitted between June 16 – the day after Lam announced the suspension of the extradition bill – and Aug. 7, when the HKMAO and China’s representative Liaison Office in Hong Kong held a forum in nearby Shenzhen attended by nearly 500 pro-establishment figures and businesspeople from Hong Kong.

The question of Beijing’s influence strikes at the heart of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” governance, which promised the city a high degree of autonomy and wide-ranging freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China.

More than two months of protests have embroiled Hong Kong in its most severe crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition bill, which would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial in Communist Party controlled courts, has morphed into a broader campaign for greater rights and democracy in a direct challenge to Beijing.

‘HER HANDS ARE TIED’

Ip Kwok-him, a senior pro-Beijing politician who sits on Hong Kong’s elite Executive Council, which advises senior officials, including Lam, told Reuters that “if the central government won’t allow something, you can’t do it.” Ip did not know about the proposal to withdraw the bill.

A senior businessman who attended the Shenzhen meeting and has met with Lam recently said “her hands are tied” and Beijing wouldn’t let her withdraw the bill. The businessman spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

At the Shenzhen meeting, Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the HKMAO, said in televised public remarks that if the turmoil persisted, “the central government must intervene.”

Since then, there have been signs of Beijing taking a harder line.

For instance, officials have likened some protests to “terrorism,” Chinese paramilitary police have conducted drills near the border, several Hong Kong companies have been pressured to suspend staff supporting the protests, and security personnel have searched the digital devices of some travelers entering China.

On Friday, Joshua Wong, a prominent democracy activist, was arrested, according to his political party, Demosisto.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Clare Jim, Farah Master and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson and Gerry Doyle)

Global Banks fearing North Korea hacking, prepare defenses

Binary code is seen on a screen against a North Korean flag in this illustration photo November 1, 2017.

By Jim Finkle and Alastair Sharp

WASHINGTON/TORONTO (Reuters) – Global banks are preparing to defend themselves against North Korea potentially intensifying a years-long hacking spree by seeking to cripple financial networks as Pyongyang weighs the threat of U.S. military action over its nuclear program, cyber security experts said.

North Korean hackers have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from banks during the past three years, including a heist in 2016 at Bangladesh Bank that yielded $81 million, according to Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer at cyber security firm CrowdStrike.

Alperovitch told the Reuters Cyber Security Summit on Tuesday that banks were concerned Pyongyang’s hackers may become more destructive by using the same type of “wiper” viruses they deployed across South Korea and at Sony Corp’s <6758.T> Hollywood studio.

The North Korean government has repeatedly denied accusations by security researchers and the U.S. government that it has carried out cyber attacks.

North Korean hackers could leverage knowledge about financial networks gathered during cyber heists to disrupt bank operations, according to Alperovitch, who said his firm has conducted “war game” exercises for several banks.

“The difference between theft and destruction is often a few keystrokes,” Alperovitch said.

Security teams at major U.S. banks have shared information on the North Korean cyber threat in recent months, said a second cyber security expert familiar with those talks.

“We know they attacked South Korean banks,” said the source, who added that fears have grown that banks in the United States will be targeted next.

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have been building after a series of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and bellicose verbal exchanges between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

John Carlin, a former U.S. assistant attorney general, told the Reuters summit that other firms, among them defense contractors, retailers and social media companies, were also concerned.

“They are thinking ‘Are we going to see an escalation in attacks from North Korea?'” said Carlin, chair of Morrison & Foerster international law firm’s global risk and crisis management team.

Jim Lewis, a cyber expert with Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is unlikely that North Korea would launch destructive attacks on American banks because of concerns about U.S. retaliation.

Representatives of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the top U.S. banking regulators, declined to comment. Both have ramped up cyber security oversight in recent years.

 

 

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Washington and Alastair Sharp in Toronto; additional reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington; editing by Grant McCool)

 

Brexit fallout crushes financial stocks

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S. June 27, 2016.

By Yashaswini Swamynathan

(Reuters) – U.S. bank stocks led a steep decline on Wall Street on Monday as aftershocks from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union roiled global markets for a second day.

The S&P financial index was down nearly 3 percent by late morning, with investors increasingly worrying about London’s future as the region’s finance capital.

JPMorgan fell 3.7 percent, while Bank of America dropped 5.4 percent. The stocks were among the biggest drags on the S&P 500.

The Dow has now lost nearly 950 points since the “Brexit” vote outcome, setting it up for the worst two-day decline since August 2015.

European stocks were hammered yet again and the sterling fell more than 2 percent. The European banks index on Monday hit its lowest since July 2012.

“What I can say with certainty is uncertainty will remain,” said Tina Byles Williams, chief executive officer of FIS Group.

The selloff on Friday eroded $2.08 trillion in market capitalization globally – the biggest one-day loss ever, according to Standard Poor’s Dow Jones Indices, trumping the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, however, said the market impact from Brexit had been orderly so far and there were no signs of a financial crisis arising from the vote.

At 10:51 a.m. ET (1451 GMT) the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 316.12 points, or 1.82 percent, at 17,084.63. The S&P 500 was down 42.83 points, or 2.1 percent, at 1,994.58. The Nasdaq Composite was down 118.77 points, or 2.52 percent, at 4,589.21.

Eight of the 10 major S&P sectors were lower. Utilities and telecom service were the only ones in the black.

The Brexit vote, which Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen had said would have significant repercussions on the U.S. economic outlook, is expected to scuttle the Fed’s ability to raise short-term interest rates.

Traders have virtually priced out an interest rate increase this year, according to CME Group’s FedWatch tool.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,573 to 363. On the Nasdaq, 2,372 issues fell and 342 advanced.

The S&P 500 index showed 5 new 52-week highs and 24 new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 10 new highs and 118 new lows.

(Reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Cyber security is the biggest risk facing financial system

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White is interviewed at the Reuters Financial Regulation Summit in Washington, US May 17, 2016.

By Lisa Lambert and Suzanne Barlyn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Cyber security is the biggest risk facing the financial system, the chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said on Tuesday, in one of the frankest assessments yet of the threat to Wall Street from digital attacks.

Banks around the world have been rattled by a $81 million cyber theft from the Bangladesh central bank that was funneled through SWIFT, a member-owned industry cooperative that handles the bulk of cross-border payment instructions between banks.

The SEC, which regulates securities markets, has found some major exchanges, dark pools and clearing houses did not have cyber policies in place that matched the sort of risks they faced, SEC Chair Mary Jo White told the Reuters Financial Regulation Summit in Washington D.C.

“What we found, as a general matter so far, is a lot of preparedness, a lot of awareness but also their policies and procedures are not tailored to their particular risks,” she said.

“As we go out there now, we are pointing that out.”

White said SEC examiners were very pro-active about doing sweeps of broker-dealers and investment advisers to assess their defenses against a cyber attack.

“We can’t do enough in this sector,” she said.

Cyber security experts said her remarks represented the SEC’s strongest warning to date of the threat posed by hackers.

A former member of the World Bank’s security team, Tom Kellermann, who is now chief executive of the investment firm Strategic Cyber Ventures LLC, called it “a historic recognition of the systemic risk facing Wall Street.”

BROKEN WINDOWS

Under White, a former federal prosecutor, the SEC introduced an initiative called “broken windows” designed to crack down on small violations of SEC rules to deter traders and others from larger transgressions.

But critics have questioned whether the initiative, similar to one used by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his crackdown on crime in the city, is an effective use of the agency’s limited resources.

The policy has been applied to instances of “rampant non-compliance” involving serious, significant rules, White said, noting that she considers the initiative a huge success.

For example, the SEC brought three groups of cases in a key area, the prohibition against short selling ahead of an IPO by individuals who then participated in the IPO, since 2013, she said. Each year, there have been fewer cases, with the most recent number at around 12, White said.

GAAP VS. NON-GAAP

Also on Tuesday, the SEC released guidance about how certain accounting practices could potentially mislead investors that White called “consequential.”

Companies are increasingly using non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or non-GAAP, to report earnings, permitting them to back out certain expenses from earnings figures, such as non-cash costs. But critics say the practice can also mislead investors by creating a rosier picture of a company’s profits.

The SEC’s current rules allow companies to report with figures that do not comply with GAAP, as long as certain conditions are met and White said the guidance spells out those conditions, such as a requirement that “the GAAP measure has to be of equal or greater prominence than non-GAAP.”

Non-GAAP “is not supposed to supplant GAAP and obviously not obscure GAAP,” she said.

She declined to say if the SEC is considering enforcement actions against companies that might be misleading investors with non-GAAP, but noted the SEC would not hesitate to bring one if it uncovered an “actionable violation.”

For months now, the SEC has only had three commissioners, down from its full complement of five, and the U.S. Congress has stalled on confirming two nominees.

“We’re really functioning on all cylinders,” White said, ticking off a list of projects the commission has recently completed.

She added that, to comply with rules on meetings and disclosures, commissioners typically meet one-on-one.

“If there are only three of you, it’s shorter-circuited to some degree,” she said. “There are some advantages, too.”

Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits

For other news from the Reuters Financial Regulation Summit, click on http://www.reuters.com/summit/FinancialRegulation16

(Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch)

Federal Reserve Expected to Raise Interest Rates Wednesday

The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to vote to raise a key interest rate for the first time in nearly a decade when it meets on Wednesday, according to multiple published reports.

The effects of such a vote could have wide-ranging implications throughout the economy, affecting things like interest on savings accounts, mortgages, auto loans and credit cards.

The rate the Federal Reserve is considering raising is called the effective federal funds rate. It deals with how banks borrow money from one another, thus setting a bar for all other lending.

The rate has been close to nothing since 2008, during the Great Recession. The rate was at 5.26 percent in July 2007, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, but the bank lowered the rate nearly every month through the end of 2008 to help jumpstart a struggling economy.

The rate has not been raised since that. In fact, it hasn’t been raised at all since June 2006, when the Federal Reserve raised it to the 5.26 percent level at which it stood until the recession.

But the economy is in better shape than it was during the recession. The civilian unemployment rate is down to 5 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In 2009, after the fallout from the financial crisis, it reached 10 percent. That was its highest level in 27 years.

Why is the Federal Reserve even considering raising the rate again? Essentially, the bank needs to find a balance that ensures the economy stays stable and healthy.

The Washington Post reported that if the Federal Reserve waits too long to raise the rate, it could create bubbles in the stock market or rampant inflation, where prices rise at a rate that employee wages aren’t able to match. But if the Federal Reserve hikes the rate too early, it could jeopardize the recovery — especially if people can’t obtain affordable loans for what they need.

A vote to raise the rate is seen as a vote of confidence for the economy. CBS News reported if the Federal Reserve doesn’t act Wednesday, especially because just about everyone on Wall Street is expecting it to, it could lead to a decline in the stock market because it would suggest the bank’s policymakers think the economy couldn’t cope with a rate increase, even one that’s fractional.

And any rate increase is expected to be slight. CNN reported that the Federal Reserve is expected to raise rates slowly, from its current level of about .12 percent to a new level near .25 percent. Any effects on the economy aren’t expected to be felt for several months, according to the report.

Still, some question the timing of the increase and whether the economy is truly as healthy as evidence suggests.

Goldman Sachs: The Third Wave of 2008’s Financial Crisis is Coming

In 2008, the U.S. real estate and investment banking collapsed, resulting in a financial disaster that is returning in a third wave.

Goldman Sachs analysts led by Peter Oppenheimer stated that the new crisis is characterized by a triple-whammy of rock bottom commodities prices, China’s stalling growth and other emerging markets economies, and low global inflation. The triple-whammy is a result of the banking collapse and European sovereign debt crisis, what experts call a debt supercycle that has taken place over the last few decades.

During the first two debt-fuelled crises, central banks all began to lower interest rates, encouraging investors to lend in emerging markets like China for a decent return. However, now that interest rates may be on the rise, lenders are pulling out of commodities.

During the first wave in 2008, the same situation happened along with the crash of the U.S. housing market. The low interest rates were put into place to grow credit and increase leverage, particularly in China. Combine this with China trying to escape the middle-income trap and the plunge of global commodity prices, and a new crisis is not very far away. At best, the situation would be a painful readjustment period for China.

The global economy will soon slow down thanks to developed economies raising interest rates. The raised rates will also apply to safer assets such as government bonds, which gives investors less incentive to take risks overseas in emerging markets. Without the investments, emerging market companies can’t fund big projects, which in turn, slows down the global economy.

What makes the situation even worse, is that recovery from the crisis is continuously stalled due to the different stages of the economy interacting with each other. In 2010 and 2011, the EU sovereign debt crisis derailed the U.S. economic recovery.

What will it take for the world to recover from the financial crisis? All excess lending in emerging markets have to be worked through, and investors will have to take losses.