StanChart profits rise 18% on economic recovery from Covid pandemic


Standard Chartered’s pre-tax profits rose 18 per cent year on year in the first quarter, as the UK lender wound down its provisions for bad loans made during the coronavirus pandemic.

The emerging markets-focused bank beat analyst estimates, becoming the latest lender to benefit from an improving global economic outlook a year on from the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

StanChart’s $1.4bn profit was higher than the $985m forecast by analysts, the bank said on Thursday. However, operating income was down 9 per cent year on year to $3.9bn, in line with expectations.

The bank took a $20m credit impairment charge, down $936m from the first quarter of last year. It cancelled $35m in reserves set aside for potential loan losses, far less than its larger rival HSBC, which announced the release of $400m of provisions this week.

Bill Winters, chief executive, said the economic recovery from Covid-19 had led to improved transaction volumes and profitability. “This was particularly the case in our financial markets and in wealth management, which had its best-ever quarter,” he said. “Despite low interest rates, we expect our underlying momentum to lead to income growth in the second half of 2021.”

Income at StanChart’s wealth management business grew 21 per cent due to strong sales on foreign exchange and equities products, the bank said.

Its Hong Kong-listed shares rose as much as 2.4 per cent after the results were announced.

The lender’s global footprint has put it in the middle of geopolitical tensions between the US, UK and China. Relations worsened last year after Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong following pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Winters said in February that he hoped Joe Biden, the US president, would re-engage with China and end “tit for tat” escalations in trade, but there has been little evidence of reconciliation.

StanChart has struggled to balance its commercial dependence on China with its mission statement to be “here for good”. It has also come under pressure from its board and investors to better define its positions on human rights and environmental issues.

HSBC reported a 79 per cent increase in net profit for the quarter to $5.8bn this week, significantly higher than the $3.3bn forecast by analysts.

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‘Nomadland’ wins Best Picture, Director and Actress at Academy Awards


The austere and graceful drama Nomadland was the biggest winner at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, capturing Best Picture, Best Director for Chloé Zhao and Best Actress for Frances McDormand.

The victories capped an Oscars ceremony modified for the Covid-19 pandemic, with the ceremony held in front of a pared-down live audience after a year in which the film industry was devastated by cinema closures and delayed movie releases.

Zhao was the first woman of colour and the second woman to win the top directing prize. The awards for Nomadland also marked a triumph for Walt Disney and the Hollywood establishment, as streaming company Netflix missed out on any of the biggest prizes.

McDormand, who starred in Nomadland and co-produced the movie with Zhao, pleaded with viewers to return to cinemas. “Please watch our film on the largest screen possible,” she said.

The Oscars included several historic wins, after years of criticism that the awards did not recognise diversity, most notably during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015. Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean woman to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari, while Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Judas and the Black Messiah.

The evening’s biggest upset was reserved for the final award, with Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor for The Father. The prize was widely expected to be awarded posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, who died aged 43 from colon cancer last summer, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

British performer Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for his role in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ © via Reuters

The film industry has been disrupted over the past 14 months by cinema closures, the turbocharged shift to streaming and increasingly icy relations between the US and China.

Zhao, who was born in Beijing and went to boarding school in the UK, quoted from The Three Character Classic, a Confucian text that is almost universally studied in Chinese school: “This is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves,” she said in her acceptance speech.

But her remarks — and almost all coverage of the Oscars — were censored in China, the world’s biggest film market by revenue. Beijing ordered local media outlets not to cover the event after Do Not Split, a documentary about the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, was nominated for Best short documentary.

Zhao faced a backlash by Chinese nationalists in March after they found a 2013 interview in which she appeared to say “there are lies everywhere” in China. The controversy led to the cancellation of the release of Nomadland in the country.

Frances McDormand, left, won her third Best Actress award for her performance in ‘Nomadland’. Yuh-Jung Youn, right, won the Best Supporting Actress prize for ‘Minari’, becoming the first Korean woman to receive the accolade © Reuters

Actress Regina King opened the ceremony by invoking the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial last week. The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of three charges in the murder of George Floyd, an incident that set off global protests over racial injustice. “If things had gone differently in Minneapolis I might have traded in my heels for marching boots,” she said.

Mia Neal, who became the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, said: “one day it won’t be unusual, it won’t be groundbreaking, it will just be normal”.

The evening was a disappointment for Netflix, however, which fell short in the top categories.

The streaming company has long sought a Best Picture award, and entered Sunday’s ceremony with two candidates: Mank, which earned the most overall nominations at 10, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. The former, a black-and-white homage to old Hollywood, earned honours for cinematography and production design.

It remained unclear if consumers will opt to watch feature films through streaming services or return to cinemas as the pandemic eventually eases. Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive, told analysts last week that the company was “not really changing the way we make films for the way people watch film”.

The Oscars ceremony, as with the music industry’s Grammy Awards last month, took a sharp departure from tradition. The event took place at a makeshift stage at Los Angeles’s Union Station and the broadcast largely eschewed the replays of movie clips and soaring music performances from nominees typical in previous years.

Ratings for the Oscars will not be available until later in the week but pandemic-era awards shows and prominent sporting championships, including the Grammys and the Super Bowl, have fallen to historic lows.

Coronavirus latest: Britons scoop up clothes and gardening products as retail sales beat forecasts


Snap’s chief executive Evan Spiegel said that the easing of coronavirus lockdowns would boost engagement on his platform as users increasingly co-ordinate socialising, as the company posted bumper first quarter results. 

Sales at Snap, the parent of messaging app Snapchat, rose 66 per cent year on year to $770m in the first quarter of last year, beating analyst expectations of $742m, it said on Thursday. Daily active users reached 280m, up 22 per cent.

“We are optimistic about the engagement trends we are seeing as the world is beginning to open up,” Spiegel said, adding that as restrictions eased in the US in February, the company saw “inflection points” with users posting short video-clip “Stories” about their lives and using its Snap Map feature to share their whereabouts and activities. 

“More recently, we saw a rise in the rate of new friendships and bi-directional communication on Snapchat in late March as people have begun to socialise in broader groups,” he added. 

The upbeat set of results benefitted from delays to privacy changes to Apple’s iOS 14 operating system, which will ban app developers from collecting data on iPhone users without their explicit consent in a bombshell update that is expected to be painful for the online ads industry. 

The changes were expected to come into force towards the end of last year, but will now arrive next week. Snap, which explored frowned-upon ways to circumvent the rules according to a Financial Times report, said it was “not clear yet” what the longer-term impact of the changes would be. 

The company guided year-on-year revenue growth of between 80 to 85 per cent in the second quarter of the year despite the changes – albeit coming from a lower base after the pandemic put a squeeze on Snap’s advertising clients in the second quarter of 2020.

After a troubled 2019, Snap has undertaken a successful turnaround, with investments in its product upgrades and its offering to advertisers paying off. In March, Spiegel told a conference that a previous company forecast of multiple years of at least 50 per cent revenue growth was a baseline achievable even with further growth in user or engagement numbers.

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Coal and gas rebound puts carbon emissions on track for 2021 surge


The world is on track to record the second-largest increase in energy-related carbon emissions in 2021, driven by a resurgence in the use of coal in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest forecast.

Global energy-related CO2 emissions could jump by 1.5bn tonnes to 33bn tonnes this year, the largest annual rise since 2010, the IEA said on Tuesday. That would reverse 80 per cent of the decline seen in 2020, when the pandemic depressed demand, with emissions rebounding to just below 2019’s peak.

A rebound of coal being used to generate electricity in China was expected to fuel much of this year’s increase, said the IEA.

“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. He called on global leaders to commit to “clear and immediate action” at this week’s US-hosted climate summit.

The IEA warned in March that global energy-related carbon emissions were higher in December than they had been in the same month in 2019, as polluting activity rebounded from coronavirus lockdowns — a finding that Birol said must serve as a “stark warning” to policymakers.

Global carbon emissions were nearly 6 per cent lower in 2020 than the previous year, but that trend began to reverse rapidly as economies started reopening.

On Tuesday, the IEA forecast that the use of all fossil fuels would grow “significantly” in 2021, with both coal and gas likely to be in greater demand in 2021 than they were in 2019. Overall, energy demand is expected to rise by 4.6 per cent in 2021 — compared to a fall of 4 per cent in 2020 — driven by emerging markets.

Demand for coal is expected to grow 4.5 per cent this year and come close to its 2014 peak, due in large part to the fuel’s use in Asia, and in China in particular, according to the IEA findings. The forecasts were based on national data and real-time analysis of economic growth trends and energy projects in development.

Coal use in the US and the EU were also on track to increase, though were likely to remain below coronavirus crisis levels, the IEA said.

Line chart of Gigatonnes CO2 showing Global carbon dioxide emissions are rising again

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said on Monday that an “absolute priority” should be to ensure that no new coal power plants were built, and that coal was phased out entirely across all countries by 2040. In the absence of urgent action, the world would not meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, he said.

Speaking alongside Guterres, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, said there was already a “20 per cent probability” that the world would warm by 1.5C in the “coming five years on a temporary basis.”

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“For sure we will see years when we hit [1.5C] on a temporary basis,” he said.

The expected rise in fossil fuel use in 2021 would occur even with record annual increases in the amounts of energy generated by both solar and wind, the IEA said on Tuesday. Renewable sources of energy are expected to generate about a third of total global electricity this year.

Oil would probably remain below its 2019 peak given that the aviation sector was yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, the IEA said.

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Japan vows to support US in opposing ‘coercion’ from China


Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said the US and Japan would “oppose” coercion or force in the South and East China Seas, in unusually blunt remarks about China after his summit with Joe Biden.

Speaking alongside the US president at the White House on Friday, Suga said the two leaders had held “serious” discussions about China and the “severe security environment” in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas and intimidation of others in the region,” Suga said.

The US and Japan are concerned about Chinese military activity near Taiwan in the South China Sea. They are also worried about Beijing’s actions around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Tokyo but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu.

Suga said the leaders also stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, in language that highlighted growing concern in the US and Japan about rising Chinese military activity around the island.

He said the two leaders had also “reaffirmed” the recent statement that their top defence and foreign policy officials had made in Tokyo about “the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”.

Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Suga’s comments on Taiwan were the most assertive from a Japanese leader since the US and Japan both switched diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing in the 1970s.

“There was a lot more nodding to the Taiwan problem than we have seen in a US-Japan summit since 1969,” he said, referring to the summit Richard Nixon held with prime minister Eisaku Sato.

Green added that Suga’s statement about opposing unilateral efforts to change the status quo mirrored a phrase that the US has used about Taiwan since the George W Bush administration.

At the press conference, Biden said the US and Japan were “committed to working together to take on the challenges from China” including the East and South China Seas.

This week, the Chinese air force flew 25 fighter jets, bombers and surveillance aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, a record intrusion.

On Friday, Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said Beijing had already expressed to both the US and Japan “grave concern . . . over their negative moves including collusion against China” following Suga’s visit.

“The US and Japan should take China’s concerns and demands seriously, avoid moves that interfere in China’s internal affairs and undermine China’s interests, and refrain from forming a clique targeting China,” Zhao said. 

Japan has become increasingly worried about Taiwan since any US-China conflict over the island would draw in Tokyo because of its mutual defence treaty with Washington.

A senior US official recently told the Financial Times that Washington was worried that China was flirting with the idea of invading Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory. 

In addition to Suga’s comments at the news conference, the leaders reiterated their concern in a joint statement issued after the summit, the first time such language has been included since the Nixon-Sato meeting.

In the statement, the leaders said they also shared “serious concerns regarding the human rights situations” in Hong Kong, where China has cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, and also in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The White House had pushed Suga to voice support for Taiwan ahead of the summit but Japanese officials were divided over whether he should agree to refer to the island during his visit to the US. Some argued that the recent statement in Tokyo had sent a strong enough signal to China, while others said Japan should demonstrate a united front with the US.

Suga was the first foreign leader to visit Biden since he entered the White House in January, underscoring the importance the US is putting on relations with Japan as part of his broader strategy to counter China.

Ahead of the summit, China had warned Japan to avoid getting involved in the “confrontation” between Washington and Beijing.

As well as taking aim at China, Suga said he would push to reinforce Tokyo’s defence capabilities and bolster US-Japan deterrence.

“China has engaged in a massive military build-up in Japan’s backyard — while increasingly menacing territory that Japan sees as its own. Yet Japanese defence budgets have remained at a remarkably low level, at 1 per cent of gross domestic product,” said Jennifer Lind, an Asia security expert at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “The dangers from China mean that Japan simply must do more. And Suga’s statement suggests that it will.”

Additional reporting by Edward White

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Toshiba CEO’s sudden resignation throws $20bn CVC deal into doubt


The chair of Toshiba’s board cast doubt on CVC’s proposed $20bn buyout on Wednesday as the Japanese conglomerate confirmed the sudden resignation of its chief executive.

The departure of Nobuaki Kurumatani follows an unprecedented shareholder rebellion, management’s defeat in a high-profile clash with activist funds and signs of a significant split on the Toshiba board over the approach made by CVC Capital Partners and other private equity funds.

The submission of CVC’s preliminary proposal last week raised the possibility of Toshiba being taken private in what would be Japan’s biggest leveraged buyout. Although one person close to the Toshiba board said the CVC proposal “looked absolutely serious” and contained an appropriate level of detail, attention has focused on Kurumatani’s previous role as CVC’s head of Japan and the presence of a senior adviser to the European buyout group on the conglomerate’s board.

“CVC claims it will submit a more detailed proposal, but it is impossible to evaluate the proposal at this point,” Osamu Nagayama, Toshiba’s chair of the board, said at an online news conference. “The initial proposal notes that the management will be maintained. With Mr Kurumatani resigning, we don’t know what their thinking is now.”

A person close to the Luxembourg-based fund added that there was no clarity about “CVC’s next move”. 

Atsushi Akaike, the head of CVC in Japan, was not immediately available for comment.

Despite the turmoil at Toshiba, shares in the company rose as much as 8 per cent on Wednesday to reach their highest level since April 2015, just before the company was caught in a massive accounting scandal that began six years of reputational and financial crises. 

Investors said the share price would remain strong on the prospect of Toshiba being “in play” as a potential buyout target, with expectations high that KKR and others might enter higher bids than CVC in the coming weeks.

Toshiba’s board said it had appointed Satoshi Tsunakawa to replace Kurumatani. Tsunakawa, who was also Kuramatani’s immediate predecessor, made the decision in 2018 to issue $5.4bn worth of new shares in a move that stuffed the register of one of Japan’s most famous companies with aggressive foreign shareholders.

Nagayama sought to deny that Kurutamatani’s resignation followed a boardroom coup triggered by opposition to CVC’s bid, claiming personal reasons were behind the decision to step down. In a statement read out at the news conference, Kurumatani said he wanted to spend more time with his family after “completing” his mission to revive Toshiba. 

Both Tsunakawa and Nagayama made multiple references to Toshiba’s “successful” return to the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange in February after its three-and-a-half-year demotion to the second section as punishment for its accounting scandal. The return was made possible by a historic change in the TSE rules.

According to several people close to the company, the chair belonged to factions within Toshiba who were unhappy with the way Kurumatani was managing the company and dealing with activists.

Tsunakawa, 65, said he would work to build “favourable ties” with the company’s activist investors and aimed to hand over the chief executive role to the younger generation in the near future.

China considers mixing vaccines to bolster efficacy


China’s Center for Disease Control is thinking about mixing vaccines and varying the sequence of doses to boost efficacy. It is the first time a government body has discussed publicly that there are concerns over the effectiveness of Chinese jabs.

Gao Fu, the CDC head, told a forum on Saturday that the agency was “considering how to solve the problem that the efficacy of existing vaccines is not high”, according to local media.

In a now unavailable Weibo social-media post, the influential “Vaccines and Science” account said Gao’s comments were “very candid”. But it also reminded readers that taking the jab was still important for protecting the country. It added that “we can’t wait for vaccines to become perfect before getting vaccinated”.

Gao proposed mixing different vaccines as well as amending the sequence of doses, such as changing the number and quantity of doses, and the interval between them.

Some of the WeChat social-media posts on Gao’s remarks were swiftly censored, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is the first time . . . a government official publicly admitted that the protection rate is a concern in the vaccination drive,” Huang added.

China had administered 65m doses across the country by the middle of March.

Unlike other vaccine producers, China’s manufacturers have not published their phase 3 trial data, leading to accusations of a lack of transparency over their effects on different groups.

Any new strategy will have ramifications for the more than 20 countries that China said it was supplying jabs to in mostly bilateral “vaccine diplomacy” deals. As of March, China had supplied 40m doses abroad.

Chile is facing another Covid wave from new variants, despite a successful rollout of China’s Sinovac vaccine. The efficacy of one jab was only 3 per cent, compared with 56 per cent with two shots. Experts, however, have not linked the latest wave to the vaccine’s efficacy rate.

Vaccine makers in other countries have conducted dosage experiments, too. In the UK, Oxford/AstraZeneca researchers stumbled upon the efficacy of lowering the initial dose after a dosing error.

Gao also suggested mixing different vaccines. For now, the only jabs approved for use in China are the traditional “inactivated virus” vaccines produced by Sinopharm, Sinovac and other domestic groups, which are similar in mechanism to Oxford/AstraZeneca.

Sinopharm claims a 79 per cent efficacy rate, similar to the rates recently achieved by AstraZeneca in its US trials. However, while AstraZeneca revised down its rates after facing criticism for releasing incomplete data, neither Sinopharm nor any of its Chinese peers have released phase 3 data for public scrutiny.

Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac vaccine has an overall efficacy rate of 50.66 per cent among people aged between 18 and 60 years old, according to documents published by a Hong Kong panel of experts.

However, CoronaVac phase 1 and 2 data published in the Lancet found the shots were “safe and well tolerated”.

Gao also warned that reopening China’s borders to foreigners, who have been barred from entering the country since March last year, posed a risk to elderly people, who have not yet been vaccinated.

The timing of relaxing border restrictions will affect attendees at Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February 2022.