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The petroyuan

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Many oil futures denominated in yuan were launched on the Shanghai market at the end of March 2018 and quickly traded for 62,500 contracts – hence for a notional value of 27 billion yuan, equivalent to 4 billion US dollars.

The financial process of the new petroyuan, however, had already begun as early as 2016.

Hence there was obviously the danger of an internal financial bubble in China, but linked to the crude oil price –  yet the Chinese government had decided that the fluctuation allowed for those contracts had to be only 5%, with a maximum 10% fluctuation only for the first day of trading.

Furthermore considering the average level of oil transactions in China, we can see that oil and gas imports could back financial operations totalling over 200 billion yuan.

According to industry analysts, the level of Chinese oil  imports is expected to increase by approximately 2.1 million barrels per day from 2017 until 2023, which implies that the Chinese market will change the future level of oil barrel prices – be they denominated in dollars or in another currency.

Hence, from now on, China will explicitly challenge the “petrodollar” to create its petroyuan – with an initial foreseeable investment by the Chinese government, which will take place on the sale of a 5% shareholding of Saudi Aramco.

Nevertheless the prospect of an IPO on the Saudi “jewel in the crown” – which was also at the core of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, all focused on the Kingdom’s economic diversification – has been postponed to at least 2019.

The Saudi Royal Family is not at all homogeneous, both politically and for its different financial interests.

This is demonstrated by the attack – obscure, but thwarted with some difficulty -on Riyadh’s royal palace, launched by some armed units on April 21 last.

Should the sale of a 5% shareholding of Saudi Aramco finally take place, however, it would be the biggest IPO ever.

The magnitude of the deal is huge: according to the latest Saudi estimates, the company is worth 2 trillion US dollars – hence a 5% shareholding is at least equal to 100 billion dollars.

Moreover, China is doing anything to make Saudi Arabia accept payments in yuan –  the first step to replace the old petrodollar.

If Saudi Arabia did not accept at least a large share of Chinese payments in yuan, it could be “blackmailed” and witness a decrease in an essential share of its oil exports. Not to mention the fact that – also with reference to Saudi Aramco-as the saying goes, sovereign funds and Chinese state-owned companies have “deeper pockets” than many prospective Western buyers.

Moreover President Trump is doing anything to make the IPO on Saudi Aramco end up in US hands. However, it cannot be taken for granted that he will succeed. In spite of everything, Mohammed bin Salman is not the heir of the old Saudi bilateralism vis-à-vis the United States.

Nonetheless, in his visit to China last March, Prince Mohammed bin Salman already signed contracts with his  Chinese counterparts to the tune of 65 billion US dollars –  and they are only petrochemical and energy transactions.

Furthermore this major Saudi oil company is considering the possibility of issuing yuan-denominated bonds, at least to cover part of the trade between the two countries.

Moreover, the US imports of Saudi oil have been steadily declining for some time, which makes the US role in the future post-oil diversification of the Saudi economy – the real big deal of the coming years – more difficult.

Over the next few months, however, the Chinese financiers are preparing to launch on the market a yuan-denominated oil future convertible into gold.

According to Chinese sources, it will be open to foreign investment funds and to the various oil companies.

Hence if the use of the dollar is gradually avoided, it will be possible -also for Russia and Iran, for example – to circumvent the sanctions imposed by the USA, the EU and the UN and fully re-enter -precisely through the yuan – the global oil and financial markets.

Moreover, the “petroyuan operation” is rapidly expanding to Africa.

Just recently, we heard about the definition of a three-year currency swap between China and Nigeria worth over 2.5 billion yuan.

As is well-known, the currency swap is a special derivative contract with which two parties exchange interest and sometimes principal in one currency for the same in another currency. Interest payments are exchanged at fixed dates through the life of the contract.

Hence 2.5 billion yuan are exchanged with 720 billion Naira.

Obviously, also in this case, there is no need for either of the two contracting parties to buy US currency for trading and exchanges, while Nigeria is currently China’s largest trading partner in Africa and China is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria.

All this happens in Nigeria, with African exports to China  mainly consisting of oil and raw materials, exactly what is needed to keep China’s rate of development (and the yuan exchange rate) high.

The internationalization of the Chinese currency, however,  is mainly stimulated by the following factors: the expansion of the cashless economy, which favours large Chinese and global operators such as AliBaba (Alipay) or WeChatPay; the Belt and Road Initiative, which pushes China’s   investment and combines it with other monetary areas; the very fast globalization of Chinese banks and their adoption of the SWIFT gpi system; finally the development of the Interbank Paying System between China and the countries with which it trades the most.

Nonetheless there are some factors which still need to be studied carefully.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is still the largest clearing center for the transactions denominated in yuan-renmimbi – with 76% of all transactions that currently pass through the island still under the Chinese special administration.

Still today the renmimbi account only for 1.61% of all international settlements, while 22 Chinese banks are  SWIFT-connected.

Many, but not enough.

Moreover, as much as 97.8% of the yuan trading is still as against the US dollar, while the exchange between the yuan and the other currencies other than the US dollar is worth very little in terms of quantities of cash and liquidity traded.

Still today 80.47% of payments whose last beneficiary resides in China is denominated in dollars.

As to the international renmimbi reserves, it all began when, in September 2016, the International Monetary Fund announced that, for the first time, the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) would include the renmimbi.

In June 2017, the European Central Bank converted the value of 500 million euro into dollars (557 million US dollars)  and then into renmimbi – equivalent to 0.7% of the total portfolio of ECB’s currencies, while in January 2018 the German Central Bank decided to include the renmimbi among its reserves.

Nowadays only 16% of China’s international trade is traded in the Chinese currency.

The real problem for the dollar is still the euro.

In fact, the transactions in US dollarsfell from 43.89% of total transactions in 2015 to 39.85% in 2017 while, in the same period, those denominated in euro rose from 29.39% to 35.66%.

However, as Vilfredo Pareto said, currencies are “solidified politics”.

In fact, China wants to use the renmimbi-yuan also in the Pakistani port of Gwadar and in its Free Economic Zone, which is the first maritime station of the Belt and Road initiative.

Furthermore the payments in yuan between China and the USA, which is still China’s largest trading partner – account for 5% only, while Japan – the second largest country by volume of transactions with China – already operates 25% of its transactions with the yuan-renmimbi.

Only South Korea – another primary commercial point of reference for China – does use the Chinese currency for a very significant 86% of bilateral transactions.

Certainly the oil market remains essential for the creation of petroyuan or, in any case, for the globalization of the Chinese currency.

Since 2017 China has overtaken the USA as the world’s largest oil and gas importer.

Furthermore, as early as 2009, the Chinese authorities have criticized the use of the US currency alone as a basis for international trade.

In fact, the Chinese political leadership would like to define a monetary benchmark among the main currencies and later build the progressive de-dollarization of trade on it.

Obviously the expansion in the use of the Chinese currency in global transactions, which peaked in 2015, corresponded to the phase when the yuan was undervalued and gradually and slowly appreciated as against the US dollar.

After the two devaluations of the yuan-renmimbi in the summer of 2015, the profitability of replacing the US dollar with the Chinese currency has clearly diminished.

Moreover, since the possession of the yuan is still subject to restrictions and checks, the globalization of the Chinese currency cannot fail to pass through the full liberalization of China’s currency and financial markets.

A project often mentioned  by President Xi Jinping and implemented by the Central Bank, especially with maximum transparency on transactions and the end of the capital “shares”, in addition to the quick acceptance of a price-based financial system.

Moreover, all the currencies with which China trades in the oil markets are still pegged to the US dollar and, for the Chinese authorities, this is  another difficulty to replace the US currency.

On the domestic side, the yuan has a big problem: it is a matter of investing Chinese savings, which are currently equal to 43% of GDP.

If we consider a similar investment rate, the Chinese economy is no longer sustainable.

Therefore, either all investment abroad is liberalized – but, for China, this would mean the loss of control over domestic savings – or the yuan becomes a new international currency, thus using it for long-term loans in the Belt and Road Initiative and for creating a market of yuan-denominated  oil futures.

Hence, unlike petrodollars, the petroyuan is not a US internal way to use the Arab capital stemming from the energy market, but a large internal reserve of capital to meet the needs of an expanding economy and support China’s fresh capital domestic requirements.

For Swiss banks, however, the flow of renmimbi-denominated contracts will radically change the energy financial market, but in the long run, thus obliging many global investors to invest many resources only in the Chinese financial market.

It is worth reiterating, however, that the Chinese currency has not fully been liberalized yet – nor, we imagine,  will it be quickly liberalized in the future.

In essence, China wants to govern its development and it does not at all want to favour the US single pole.

Hence either a small monetary globalization, like the current one, or the large and progressive replacement of the dollar with the renmimbi – but this presupposes the liberalization of the entire financial market denominated in the Chinese currency.

Moreover – but this would be fine for the Chinese government -foreign and domestic investors’ full access to the Chinese capital market should be granted.

It already happened in 2017 but, nowadays, it becomes vital for the geopolitical and financial choices made by President Xi Jinping’s China.

Hence, it is likely that in the future China would play the game that Kissinger invented after the Yom Kippur War, i.e. the game of the dollar surplus in the Arab world that is reinvested in the US market.

Obviously, this has kept the US interest rate unreasonably low with an unreasonably high US trade surplus.

A monetary manipulation made using one’s own strategic and military leverage.

Hence, with petrodollars, the USA has invented the monetary perpetual motion.

Therefore, if most of the Chinese oil market is denominated in yuan-renmimbi, a strong international demand for Chinese goods and services will be created or there will be a huge amount of capital to invest in the Chinese financial markets.

This will obviously change the role and significance of China’s engagement in the world.

With significant effects for the dollar market, which could be regionalized, thus highlighting the asymmetries which currently petrodollars hide: the US super-trade surplus and the simultaneous very low interest rate.

What about the Euro? The single European currency has no real market and it shall be radically changed or become a unit of account among new infra-European currencies.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Economy

Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook

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Authors: Ibrahim Chowdhury, Ekaterine T. Vashakmadze and Li Yusha

After a strong rebound last year, the world economy is entering a challenging 2022. The advanced economies have recovered rapidly thanks to big stimulus packages and rapid progress with vaccination, but many developing countries continue to struggle.

The spread of new variants amid large inequalities in vaccination rates, elevated food and commodity prices, volatile asset markets, the prospect of policy tightening in the United States and other advanced economies, and continued geopolitical tensions provide a challenging backdrop for developing countries, as the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report published today highlights.

The global context will also weigh on China’s outlook in 2022, by dampening export performance, a key growth driver last year. Following a strong 8 percent cyclical rebound in 2021, the World Bank expects growth in China to slow to 5.1 percent in 2022, closer to its potential — the sustainable growth rate of output at full capacity.

Indeed, growth in the second half of 2021 was below this level, and so our forecast assumes a modest amount of policy loosening. Although we expect momentum to pick up, our outlook is subject to domestic in addition to global downside risks. Renewed domestic COVID-19 outbreaks, including the new Omicron variant and other highly transmittable variants, could require more broad-based and longer-lasting restrictions, leading to larger disruptions in economic activity. A severe and prolonged downturn in the real estate sector could have significant economy-wide reverberations.

In the face of these headwinds, China’s policymakers should nonetheless keep a steady hand. Our latest China Economic Update argues that the old playbook of boosting domestic demand through investment-led stimulus will merely exacerbate risks in the real estate sector and reap increasingly lower returns as China’s stock of public infrastructure approaches its saturation point.

Instead, to achieve sustained growth, China needs to stick to the challenging path of rebalancing its economy along three dimensions: first, the shift from external demand to domestic demand and from investment and industry-led growth to greater reliance on consumption and services; second, a greater role for markets and the private sector in driving innovation and the allocation of capital and talent; and third, the transition from a high to a low-carbon economy.

None of these rebalancing acts are easy. However, as the China Economic Update points out, structural reforms could help reduce the trade-offs involved in transitioning to a new path of high-quality growth.

First, fiscal reforms could aim to create a more progressive tax system while boosting social safety nets and spending on health and education. This would help lower precautionary household savings and thereby support the rebalancing toward domestic consumption, while also reducing income inequality among households.

Second, following tightening anti-monopoly provisions aimed at digital platforms, and a range of restrictions imposed on online consumer services, the authorities could consider shifting their attention to remaining barriers to market competition more broadly to spur innovation and productivity growth.

A further opening-up of the protected services sector, for example, could improve access to high-quality services and support the rebalancing toward high-value service jobs (a special focus of the World Bank report). Eliminating remaining restrictions on labor mobility by abolishing the hukou, China’s system of household registration, for all urban areas would equally support the growth of vibrant service economies in China’s largest cities.

Third, the wider use of carbon pricing, for example, through an expansion of the scope and tightening of the emissions trading system rules, as well power sector reforms to encourage the penetration and nationwide trade and dispatch of renewables, would not only generate environmental benefits but also contribute to China’s economic transformation to a more sustainable and innovation-based growth model.

In addition, a more robust corporate and bank resolution framework would contribute to mitigating moral hazards, thereby reducing the trade-offs between monetary policy easing and financial risk management. Addressing distortions in the access to credit — reflected in persistent spreads between private and State borrowers — could support the shift to more innovation-driven, private sector-led growth.

Productivity growth in China during the past four decades of reform and opening-up has been private-sector led. The scope for future productivity gains through the diffusion of modern technologies and practices among smaller private companies remains large. Realizing these gains will require a level playing field with State-owned enterprises.

While the latter have played an instrumental role during the pandemic to stabilize employment, deliver key services and, in some cases, close local government budget gaps, their ability to drive the next phase of growth is questionable given lower profits and productivity growth rates in the past.

In 2022, the authorities will face a significantly more challenging policy environment. They will need to remain vigilant and ready to recalibrate financial and monetary policies to ensure the difficulties in the real estate sector don’t spill over into broader economic distress. Recent policy loosening suggests the policymakers are well aware of these risks.

However, in aiming to keep growth on a steady path close to potential, they will need to be similarly alert to the risk of accumulating ever greater levels of corporate and local government debt. The transition to high-quality growth will require economic rebalancing toward consumption, services, and green investments. If the past is any guide to the future, the reliance on markets and private sector initiative is China’s best bet to achieve the required structural change swiftly and at minimum cost.

First published on China Daily, via World Bank

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Economy

The US Economic Uncertainty: Bitcoin Faces a Test of Resilience?

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Is inflation harmful? Is inflation here to stay? And are people really at a loss? These and countless other questions along the same lines dominated the first half of 2021. Many looked for alternative investments in the national bourse, while others adopted unorthodox streams. Yes, I’m talking about bitcoin. The crypto giant hit records after records since the pandemic made us question the fundamentals of our conventional economic policies. And while inflation was never far behind in registering its own mark in history, the volatility in the crypto stream was hard to deny: swiping billions of dollars in mere days in April 2021. The surge came again, however. And it will keep on coming; I have no doubt. But whether it is the end of the pandemic or the early hues of a new shade, the tumultuous relationship between traditional economic metrics and the championed cryptocurrency is about to get more interesting.

The job market is at the most confusing crossroads in recent times. The hiring rate in the US has slowed down in the past two months, with employers adding only 199,000 jobs in December. The numbers reveal that this is the second month of depressing job additions compared to an average of more than 500,000 jobs added each month throughout 2021. More concerning is that economists had predicted an estimated 400,000 jobs additions last month. Nonetheless, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate has ticked down to 3.9% – the first time since the pre-pandemic level of 3.5% reported in February 2020. Analytically speaking, US employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet businesses are still looking for more employees. The leverage, therefore, lies with the labor: reportedly (on average) every two employees have three positions available.

The ‘Great Resignation,’ a coinage for the new phenomenon, underscores this unique leverage of job selection. Sectors with low-wage positions like retail and hospitality face a labor shortage as people are better-positioned to bargain for higher wages. Thus, while wages are rising, quitting rates are record high simultaneously. According to recent job reports, an estimated 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November alone. Given that this data got collected before the surge of the Omicron variant, the picture is about to worsen.

While wages are rising, employment is no longer in the dumps. People are quitting but not to invest stimulus cheques. Instead, they are resigning to negotiate better-paying jobs: forcing the businesses to hike prices and fueling inflation. Thus, despite high earnings, the budget for consumption [represented by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)] is rising at a rate of 6.8% (reported in November 2021). Naturally, bitcoin investment is not likely to bloom at levels rivaling the last two years. However, a downfall is imminent if inflation persists.

The US Federal Reserve sweats caution about searing gains in prices and soaring wage figures. And it appears that the fed is weighing its options to wind up its asset purchase program and hike interest rates. In March 2020, the fed started buying $40 billion worth of Mortgage-backed securities and $80 billion worth of government bonds (T-bills). However, a 19% increase in average house prices and a four-decade-high level of inflation is more than they bargained. Thus, the fed officials have been rooting for an expedited normalization of the monetary policy: further bolstered by the job reports indicating falling unemployment and rising wages. In recent months, the fed purview has dramatically shifted from its dovish sentiments: expecting no rate hike till 2023 to taper talks alongside three rate hikes in 2022.

Bitcoin now faces a volatile passage in the forthcoming months. While the disappointing job data and Omicron concerns could nudge the ball in its favor, the chances are that a depressive phase is yet to ensue. According to crypto-analysts, the bitcoin is technically oversold i.e. mostly devoid of impulsive investors and dominated by long-term holders. Since November, the bitcoin has dropped from the record high of $69,000 by almost 40%: moving in the $40,000-$41,000 range. Analysts believe that since bitcoin acts as a proxy for liquidity, any liquidity shortage could push the market into a mass sellout. Mr. Alex Krüger, the founder of Aike Capital, a New York-based asset management firm, stated: “Crypto assets are at the furthest end of the risk curve.” He further added: “[Therefore] since they had benefited from the Fed’s “extraordinarily lax monetary policy,” it should suffice to say that they would [also] suffer as an “unexpectedly tighter” policy shifts money into safer asset classes.” In simpler terms, a loose monetary policy and a deluge of stimulus payments cushioned the meteoric rise in bitcoin valuation as a hedge against inflation. That mechanism would also plummet the market with a sudden hawkish shift.

The situation is dire for most industries. Job participation levels are still low as workers are on the sidelines either because of the Omicron concern or lack of child support. In case of a rate hike, businesses would be forced to push against the wages to accommodate affordability in consumer prices. For bitcoin, the investment would stay dormant. However, any inflationary surprises could bring about an early tightening of the policy: spelling doom for the crypto market. The market now expects the job data to worsen while inflation to rise at 7.1% through December in the US inflation data (to be reported on Wednesday). Any higher than the forecasted figure alongside uncertainty imbued by the new variant could spark a downward spiral in bitcoin – probably pushing the asset below the $25000 mark.

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Platform Modernisation: What the US Treasury Sanctions Review Is All About

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Image source: home.treasury.gov

The US Treasury has released an overview of its sanctions policy. It outlines key principles for making the restrictive US measures more effective. The revision of the sanctions policy was announced at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidential term. The new review can be considered one of the results of this work. At the same time, it is difficult to find signs of qualitative changes in the US administration’s approach to sanctions in the document. Rather, it is about upgrading an existing platform.

Sanctions are understood as economic and financial restrictions that make it possible to harm the enemies of the United States, prevent or hinder their actions, and send them a clear political signal. The text reproduces the usual “behavioural” understanding of sanctions. They are viewed as a means of influencing the behaviour of foreign players whose actions threaten the security or contradict the national interests of the United States. The review also defines the institutional structure of the sanctions policy. According to the document, it includes the Treasury, the State Department, and the National Security Council. The Treasury plays the role of the leading executor of the sanctions policy, and the State Department and the NSS determine the political direction of their application, despite the fact that the State Department itself is also responsible for the implementation of a number of sanctions programmes. This line also includes the Department of Justice, which uses coercive measures against violators of the US sanctions regime.

Interestingly, the Department of Commerce is not mentioned among the institutions. The review focuses only on a specific segment of the sanctions policy that is implemented by the Treasury. However, it is the Treasury that is currently at the forefront of the application of restrictive measures. A significant part of the executive orders of the President of the United States and sanctions laws imply blocking financial sanctions in the form of an asset freeze and a ban on transactions with individuals and organisations. Decrees and laws assign the application of such measures to the Treasury in cooperation with the Department of State and the Attorney General. Therefore, the institutional link mentioned in the review reflects the spirit and letter of a significant array of US regulations concerning sanctions. The Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Industry and Security are responsible for a different segment of the sanctions policy, which does not diminish its importance. Export controls can cause a lot of trouble for individual countries and companies.

Another notable part of the review concerns possible obstacles to the effective implementation of US sanctions. These include, among other things, the efforts of the opponents of the United States to change the global financial architecture, reducing the share of the dollar in the national settlements of both opponents and some allies of the United States.

Indeed, such major powers as Russia and China have seriously considered the risks of being involved in a global American-centric financial system.

The course towards the sovereignty of national financial systems and settlements with foreign countries is largely justified by the risk of sanctions.

Russia, for example, is vigorously pursuing the development of a National Payment System, as well as a Financial Messaging System. There has been a cautious but consistent policy of reducing the share of the dollar in external settlements. China, which has much greater economic potential, is building systems of “internal and external circulation”. Even the European Union has embarked on an increase in the role of the euro, taking into account the risk of secondary sanctions from “third countries”, which are often understood between the lines as the United States.

Digital currencies and new payment technologies also pose a threat to the effectiveness of sanctions. Moreover, here the players can be both large powers and many other states and non-state structures. It is interesting that digital currencies at a certain stage may present a common challenge to the United States, Russia, China, the EU and a number of other countries. After all, they can be used not only to circumvent sanctions, but also, for example, to finance terrorism or in money laundering. However, the review does not mention such common interests.

The text does propose measures to modernise the sanctions policy. The first one is to build sanctions into the broader context of US foreign policy. Sanctions are not important in and of themselves, but as part of a broader palette of policy instruments. The second measure is to strengthen interdepartmental coordination in the application of sanctions in parallel with increased coordination of US sanctions with the actions of American allies. The third measure is a more accurate calibration of sanctions in order to avoid humanitarian damage, as well as damage to American business. The fourth measure is to improve the enforceability and clarity of the sanctions policy. Here we can talk about both the legal uncertainty of some decrees and laws, and about an adequate understanding of the sanctions programmes on the part of business. Finally, fifth is the improvement and development of the Treasury-based sanctions apparatus, including investments in technology, staff training and infrastructure.

All these measures can hardly be called new. Experts have long recommended the use of sanctions in combination with other instruments, as well as improved inter-agency coordination. The coordination of sanctions with allies has escalated due to a number of unilateral steps taken by the Trump Administration, including withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal or sanctions against Nord Stream 2. However, the very importance of such coordination has not been questioned in the past and has even been reflected in American legislation (Iran). The need for a clearer understanding of sanctions policy has also been long overdue. Its relevance is illustrated, among other things, by the large number of unintentional violations of the US sanctions regime by American and foreign businesses. The problem of overcompliance is also relevant, when companies refuse transactions even when they are allowed. The reason is the fear of possible coercive measures by the US authorities. Finally, improving the sanctioning apparatus is also a long-standing topic. In particular, expanding the resources of the Administration in the application of sanctions was recommended by the US Audit Office in a 2019 report.

The US Treasury review suggests that no signs of an easing are foreseen for the key targets of US sanctions. At the same time, American business and its many foreign counterparties can benefit from the modernisation of the US sanctions policy. Legal certainty can reduce excess compliance as well as help avoid associated losses.

From our partner RIAC

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