Europe’s Venture Capitalists Embrace Virtual Currency Craze

Some of Europe’s biggest venture capital firms are buying into sales of new virtual coins or asking their investors to give them the freedom to do so, in a sign of mainstream investor backing for the booming but controversial crowd-funding tool.

Germany’s HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, which has more than 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) under management, is talking to its investors about changing the terms of its next fund so it can buy tokens directly, Jan Miczaika, a partner at the firm, told Reuters.

Lakestar, the Zurich-based firm run by Klaus Hommels, has made at least four investments in crypto and blockchain-related businesses since early 2017, among them ShapeShift, an exchange, and Blockchain, a wallet provider, and it is preparing to invest in a combination of coin and equity stakes in more.

Smaller and newer funds like BlueYard Capital and Fabric Ventures are focusing specifically on investments around blockchain — a distributed ledger technology that can remove the need for centralizing institutions — often by buying virtual coins.

Venture capitalists usually take equity stakes in start-ups, gaining a say in how the company is run and legal and governance certainties over their investments. Buying into initial coin offerings (ICOs), as the sale of digital tokens is known, can be far more risky. They offer little more than a promise the tokens will be worth more in future.

But with hundreds of start-ups — ICOs last year raised $6.3 billion — seeking to raise capital for new projects, investors say that to gain access to cutting-edge technology they need the flexibility to compete.

“It’s the internet in the early 1990s, you have to experiment,” said Nicolas Brand, a partner at Lakestar. “I have to find the best way of backing the best entrepreneurs and we need to be agile in how we invest.”

Regulators have raised serious questions about the transparency of ICOs and the risks of scams, although authorities in countries from Switzerland to France have disclosed plans to attract new launches.

Supporters say blockchain will disrupt industries from finance to logistics and that ICOs are a novel way of crowd-funding.

Tokens are the route to make money. They embody the idea that consumers will need to own and use them to buy services, from playing computer games to online shopping. When demand for those products spreads, the token prices will rise, creating value for earlier owners like venture capitalists.

“The [blockchain] technology is very exciting. Ninety-five percent of the tokens will go to zero. On the other hand, the other 5 percent are very interesting and could go on to revolutioniZe the market,” said Miczaika at HV Holtzbrinck.

Equity to ICO

Unlike some big U.S. funds, most big European venture capitalists are avoiding the world’s biggest ICO, by messaging app Telegram, people familiar with the funds say, citing concerns about the amount — a reported $1.7 billion — it has raised.

Broader worries about the quality of teams looking to cash in on ICOs are common, and some funds say that far from being a threat to the venture capital model, most ICOs are a fad.

Those that survive will find themselves wanting the support and hand-holding that conventional venture investment offers.

“We need to get our heads around ICOs, but I don’t see it as a threat. I don’t think I’ve missed a company which I wish I’d invested in but couldn’t because it did an ICO,” said Suranga Chandratillake, partner at London-based Balderton Capital.

To date, venture activity has focused on crypto companies like HV Holtzbrinck’s investment in ICO platform Upvest or Point Nine Capital’s stake in peer-to-peer bitcoin lender Bitbond, which tapped into the crypto-trading craze and followed on from a series of investments by well-known U.S. venture funds.

Investors said the next round of activity would target projects offering the building blocks for blockchain’s development, such as software development networks. They will benefit if the largely unproven technology matures.

Buying into the coins is necessary for aligning themselves to such projects, they argue.

“We came to the conclusion that if we really want to do decentralized tokens we have to be a part of it,” said Ciaran O’Leary, who co-founded Berlin-based BlueYard and invested in the 2017 ICO by data storage network Filecoin, which was worth an estimated $200 million.

Risks

ICOs also present major governance and legal concerns, including how to store coins safely after several large hacks.

To keep their investments safe, venture firms are looking at storing coins offline or in wallets where no transaction can take place without the agreement of multiple individuals.

Max Mersch, a partner at Fabric Ventures, said his firm had also introduced multi-year lock-ups prohibiting quick dumping of coins, to encourage longer-term investment horizons and so partners had time to shape governance.

Risks aside, venture capitalists say the potential impact of tokens is too hard to ignore.

“A token is a very powerful innovation and in the best token projects, the fund-raising is actually a byproduct,” said Lakestar’s Brand said. “The token is about activating network effects on steroids,” he said, predicting they would have the power to take on “rival monoliths like Facebook”.


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IMF: World Economy Expands Next 2 Years; Growth Fades After 2020

International Monetary Fund experts say the global economy will continue growing well for the next two years, but expect expansion to slow after 2020.

IMF research director Maurice Obstfeld said Tuesday fading trade could hurt growth and, “The first shots in a potential trade war have now been fired.” He repeated a warning the international rules that nurtured “unprecedented” economic growth after World War II are at risk of being “torn apart.”

Many economists worry that Trump administration efforts to slap tariffs on China and other U.S. trading partners are sparking retaliatory taxes on U.S.-made products that raise the cost of trading and hurt demand, stifling economic growth. Administration officials disagree, and insist their trade and tax policies will boost growth and not spark soaring deficits.

Trade squabbles are a key issue this week as top economic officials and experts gather from 189 nations in Washington for meetings of the IMF and the World Bank.

Obstfeld and his colleagues are also worried that efforts to stimulate economic recovery from the 2008 recession, such as low interest rates and massive purchases of bonds, are now ending. They put the current global growth rate at 2.9 percent, and say this moment of good growth is the time to make changes in tax and other policies that will help economies weather inevitable future downturns.

Growth in advanced economies like the United States is hampered by an aging population with larger numbers of people retiring and leaving the workforce. Slow growth in productivity and high levels of government and private debt are also threats to future growth.

The IMF predicts the world’s second-largest economy, China, will expand at a 6.6 percent rate this year and 6.4 percent in 2019. The global lender says China will continue changing its economic focus from investment and manufacturing toward consumption and services, but warns that a rising debt clouds the nation’s medium-term outlook.

 


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As Drought Keeps Men on the Road, Mauritania’s Pastoralist Women Take Charge

Every year when the pastoralist men in Fatima Demba’s Mauritanian village return from their months-long journey to find pastures and water, the women erupt in wild celebrations.

“We draw henna tattoos on our bodies, we braid our hair, we wear our nicest clothes,” she said, re-adjusting her bright yellow and blue robe.

Yet although she longs for her husband to come home, Demba sees one benefit in his absence.

“I am in charge of everything,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in the shade of a mud-brick hut in Mafoundou village. “Our money, our field of millet — even the village’s borehole is my responsibility.”

Prolonged dry spells in this southern region of Mauritania have depleted grazing land, forcing pastoralists to travel ever longer distances to search for food and water for their herds.

That gives women in these predominantly male-dominated societies newfound power to manage harvests, the family’s remaining animals and household finances, experts say.

“Women pastoralists are the first up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night,” said Aminetou Mint Maouloud, who started the country’s first association of women herders in 2014.

“Whether it’s making butter from cow milk, fetching wood or tending to ill animals, it all comes down to women,” she added.

Worsening Drought

Livestock herding is a traditional way of making a living in West Africa’s Sahel, a semi-arid belt below the Sahara, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region.

That is particularly true in the impoverished desert nation of Mauritania, according to El Hacen Ould Taleb, head of the Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a charity working with pastoralists.

“Transhumance — the seasonal migration of pastoralists and their herds to neighboring Senegal or Mali — normally starts in October but the rains were so bad last year that people started leaving in August,” he said.

His organization is helping pastoralists find smarter migration routes — with water sources and markets along the way, for example — as part of the British government-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program.

Demba, whose husband has been gone for seven months, says she does not know when he will return.

“He has no choice, he must save our animals,” she said, pausing to take a sip of a glass of green mint tea.

In the meantime, “the family depends on me,” she added.

Under-recognized

Although women play a crucial role in pastoralism, it is rarely acknowledged, according to Mint Maouloud.

“A man will listen to everything his wife whispers on the pillow, but in the morning she won’t get any credit for it,” she said.

To change that, her association has elected a council of eight women from villages around the country. Together they lobby the country’s government on pastoralism issues.

“We tell them where an animal clinic might be needed, or which markets are best for specific kinds of animals,” she explained.

Their suggestions could find an unusually understanding ear.

Since Mauritania’s livestock ministry was created in 2014, both of its leaders have been women.

Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, the current minister, says women seeking political roles is “extremely encouraging” — and that she has seen women grow in economic clout.

“We are seeing women becoming more independent, by virtue of being so active economically,” she said from her office in Nouakchott, the capital.

Financial Independence

In Hadad village, amid stretches of sand and dirt dotted with the odd wilting tree, a dozen women huddle under a large tent covered with striped rugs.

Mariem Mint Lessiyad, a tiny woman with piercing brown eyes, chats energetically to the group, interrupted only by a bleating baby goat.

She leads a cooperative of 100 pastoralist women from nearby villages who buy chickens and sheep to raise and slaughter, selling affordable portions to local families.

“There is less meat going around, so we need to be clever with how we consume it,” she said.

The women buy a sheep for 12,000 Mauritanian ouguiya ($34), for instance, and make a profit of about 2,000 ouguiya ($6) per animal, she said.

They plan to reinvest the surplus in setting up a leather goods business.

“We can’t rely on our husbands to support us financially. They are too poor, especially now that they have to spend more money on keeping our animals healthy,” Mint Lessiyad said.

Mint Maouloud and her association are trying to persuade financial institutions to make it easier for women to get loans, so groups like Mint Lessiyad’s can get ahead.

Access to finance can be problematic, she said, with some banks outright refusing to lend money to women.

“It’s important to make women herders more independent financially, so they don’t rely on their husbands’ generosity or understanding,” she added.


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New AG School Teaches Secrets to Conserving Farmland

Doug Fabbioli is concerned about the future of the rural economy, as urban sprawl expands from metropolitan areas into farm fields and pastureland. The Virginia winery owner decided to be part of the solution and founded The New AG School. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the school’s mission is raising the next generation of farmers. Faith Lapidus narrates.


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China Eyes Australian Donkey Exports

The Northern Territory government in Australia says it has been approached by nearly 50 Chinese companies looking to buy land to start donkey farms. Demand for donkey products, especially donkey-hide gelatin is increasing in China, while global supplies are falling.

The Northern Territory government has bought a small herd of wild donkeys for its research station near the outback town of Katherine. Earlier this a month of delegation of Chinese business people visited the facility, and up to 50 companies from China have expressed interest in buying land to set up donkey farms.

It is estimated there are up to 60,000 wild donkeys in the Northern Territory. Donkeys were brought to Australia from Africa as pack animals in the 1860s, and many were released when they were no longer needed. For years feral donkeys have been considered a major pest by farmers.The animals trample native vegetation, spread weeds and compete with domestic cattle for food and water.

Now the authorities believe there are economic benefits in captive donkey herds.

Alister Trier, the head of the Northern Territory’s department of primary industry believes the donkey trade has a bright future.

“My feel[ing] is the industry will develop but it will not displace the cattle industry, for example, I just do not think that will happen.What it will do is add some diversification opportunities for the use of pastoral land and Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory,” said Trier.

In China, donkey skins are boiled down to make gelatin, which is then used in alternative Chinese medicines and cosmetics.

Animal rights campaigners are pressuring the authorities not to allow the live export of donkeys to China, claiming that conditions in transit would be cruel and unacceptable.

Activists also insist that donkeys’ health suffers when they are kept in large herds.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Australia wants the donkey skin trade stopped altogether because of concerns the animals are being skinned alive overseas and treated with extreme cruelty.


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Full Steam Ahead for Mozambique’s Rail Network

Dozens of passengers line up in single file along the platform in the dead of night, ready to gather their luggage and pile into the ageing railway carriages.

At the small railway station in Nampula, in northeastern Mozambique, the 4:00 a.m. train to Cuamba in the north west is more than full, as it is every day, to the detriment of those slow to board and forced to stand.

In recent years, the government in Maputo has made developing the train network a priority as part of its economic plan.

But mounting public debt has meant that authorities had no choice but to cede control of the project to the private sector.

Seconds before the train — six passenger coaches coupled between two elderly US-made locomotives — leaves Nampula station, the platforms are already entirely empty.

No one can afford to be late.

Inside, the carriages remain pitch dark until the sun rises as the operator has not installed any lighting.

A blast of the horn and the sound of grinding metal marks the train’s stately progress along the 350-kilometre (220-mile) line to Cuamba — more than 10 hours away.

Five or six passengers cram onto benches intended for four without a murmur of complaint.

“The train is always full,” said Argentina Armendo, his son kneeling down nearby.

“Lots of people stay standing. Even those who have a ticket can’t be sure of getting on. They should add some coaches!”

‘Enormous growth potential’

“Yes, but it’s not expensive,” insists the conductor Edson Fortes, cooly. “It’s the most competitive means of transport for the poor. With the train, they are able to travel.”

Sitting in a vast, ferociously air-conditioned office Mario Moura da Silva, the rail operations manager for CDN, the company operating the line, appears more concerned about passenger numbers as a measure of success than perhaps their comfort.

In 2017, its trains carried almost 500,000 — a 265-percent increase on a year earlier.

“Passenger traffic isn’t profitable but it’s a requirement of the contract with the government,” said Moura da Silva.

“It’s not that which earns us money, it’s more the retail,” he added, referring to the company’s commercial operation, which has grown by 65 percent in a year.

Brazilian mining giant Vale, which owns CDN along with Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, began its Mozambican rail venture in 2005.

Having won a contract to run the concession from the government, it restored the former colonial line, which linked its inland coal mines with the port at Nacala.

It now operates a network of 1,350 kilometres (840 miles) following an investment of nearly $5 billion (around 4 billion euros).

“The growth potential is enormous,” said Moura da Silva.

Rail corridors

Mozambique’s government is eyeing the project as a bellwether for the industry.

“We have made infrastructure one of our four investment priorities,” said Transport Minister Carlos Fortes Mesquita.

“Thanks to this investment, the country recorded a strong growth in the railway sector.”

Eight new “rail corridor” projects are now under way in Mozambique, all funded with private capital, as the state grapples with a long-standing cash shortage.

The government has been engulfed in a scandal linked to secret borrowing by the treasury, which is juggling debt amounting to 112 percent of GDP.

As a result, a handful of large companies, attracted by Mozambique’s vast mineral wealth, have taken the lead in developing the country’s rail infrastructure.

But it is unclear if their interest in the sector will continue in the long-term.

Until the coal runs out?

“Today the Nacala line only exists because of coal. But once the mine closes, who will be able to justify continuing operations?” asked Benjamin Pequenino, an economist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“The private sector won’t continue to invest if it knows it will lose money,” he said.

But in the absence of any alternative, former parliament speaker Abdul Carimo accepts that public-private partnerships are the least worst option.

Carimo, who remains close to the ruling party, now heads up the “Zambezi Development Corridor”.

The scheme is managed by Thai group, ITD, and plans to build 480 kilometres of track between Macuse port and the coal mines at Moatize for a price tag of $2.3 billion.

Carimo, who closely follows developments on the project, has vowed that “his” line will not only be used to carry minerals but will stimulate activity across the region it serves.

“I hate coal but I want this infrastructure to relaunch agriculture in Zambezi province,” he said, adding that the region was “one of the richest in the country in the 1970s.”

 

 

 


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Pence Says NAFTA Deal Possible in Several Weeks

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday that he was leaving a summit of Latin American countries in Peru very hopeful that the United States, Mexico and Canada were close to a deal on a renegotiated NAFTA trade pact.

Pence told reporters it was possible that a deal would be reached in the next several weeks.

The vice president also said that the topic of funding for U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S. border with Mexico did not come up in Pence’s meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.


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India’s Federal Police File Case Against Former UCO Bank Chairman

India’s federal police said Saturday that they had filed a case against a former chairman of state-run UCO Bank and several business executives alleging criminal conspiracy that caused a loss of 6.21 billion rupees ($95.17 million).

Police said officials at the bank had colluded with private infrastructure firm Era Engineering Infra Ltd. and investment banking firm Altius Finserve Pvt. Ltd. to siphon bank loans.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said in a statement that Arun Kaul, the bank’s chairman from 2010 to 2015, had helped clear the loan.

Kaul did not respond to Reuters’ calls for comment. Era Engineering and Altius Finserve did not respond to calls outside regular business hours.

The case revealed yet another case of alleged bank fraud in India since February, when two jewelry groups were accused of using nearly

$2 billion of fraudulent bank guarantees in what has been dubbed the biggest fraud in India’s banking history.

That case put the banking sector under a cloud, with the CBI unearthing a string of other bank frauds since then.

In the UCO Bank case, it charged Kaul and several officials and accountants at the two companies with criminal conspiracy with intent to defraud the bank of about 6.21 billion rupees by diverting and siphoning loans, according to the

statement.

“The loan was not utilized for the sanctioned purpose and was secured by producing false end use certificates issued by the chartered accountant and by fabricating business data,” the CBI said.

The offices of the companies, accountants and the residences of the accused are being searched, the CBI said.


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Trump Task Force to Study Postal System Finances

After weeks of railing against online shopping giant Amazon, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday creating a task force to study the United States Postal System.

In the surprise move, Trump said that USPS is on “an unsustainable financial path” and “must be restructured to prevent a taxpayer-funded bailout.”

The task force will be assigned to study factors including its pricing in the package delivery market and will have 120 days to submit a report with recommendations.

The order does not specifically mention Amazon or it owner, Jeff Bezos. But Trump has been criticizing the company for months, accusing it of not paying its fair share of taxes, harming the postal service, and putting brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Trump has also gone after Bezos personally and accused The Washington Post, which he owns, of being Amazon’s “chief lobbyist.”

The U.S. Postal Service has indeed lost money for years, but package delivery has actually been a bright spot for the service.

Boosted by e-commerce, the Postal Service has enjoyed double-digit revenue increases from delivering packages. That just hasn’t been enough to offset pension and health care costs as well as declines in first-class letters and marketing mail, which together make up more than two-thirds of postal revenue.

Still, Trump’s claim the service could be charging more may not be entirely far-fetched. A 2017 analysis by Citigroup concluded that the Postal Service, which does not use taxpayer money for its operations, was charging below market rates as a whole on parcels. Still, federal regulators have reviewed the Amazon contract with the Postal Service each year, and deemed it to be profitable.

 


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China Posts Rare Trade Deficit for March; Surplus with US Narrows

China’s exports growth unexpectedly fell in March, raising questions about the health of one of the economy’s key growth drivers even as trade tensions rapidly escalate with the United States.

March import growth beat expectations, however, suggesting its domestic demand may still be solid enough to cushion the blow from any trade shocks.

That left China with a rare trade deficit for the month, also the first drop since last February.

The latest readings on the health of China’s trade sector follow weeks of tit-for-tat tariff threats by Washington and Beijing, sparked by U.S. frustration with China’s massive bilateral trade surplus and intellectual property policies, that have fueled fears of a global trade war.

China’s March exports fell 2.7 percent from a year earlier, lagging analysts’ forecasts for a 10 percent increase, and down from a sharper-than-expected 44.5 percent jump in February, which economists believe was heavily distorted by seasonal factors.

For the first quarter as a whole, exports still grew a hefty 14.1 percent.

Stronger currency

Some analysts had expected a pullback in March exports following an unusually strong start to the year, when firms stepped up shipments before the long Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February. That scenario did not alter their view that global demand remains robust.

But a stronger currency could also be starting to erode Chinese exporters’ competitiveness. The yuan appreciated around 3.7 percent against the U.S. dollar in the first quarter this year, on top of a 6.6 percent gain last year.

No hard timeline has been set by either Washington or Beijing for the actual imposition of tariffs, which leaves the door open to negotiations and a possible compromise that could limit the damage to both sides.

But with the threat of tariffs hanging over nearly a third of China’s exports to the United States, analysts say its companies and their U.S. customers may try to front-load shipments before any measures kick in.

China’s exports to the U.S. rose 14.8 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, while imports rose 8.9 percent.

That sent its quarterly trade surplus with the U.S. surging 19.4 percent to $58.25 billion, though the March reading narrowed to $15.43 billion from $20.96 billion in February.

China’s total aluminum exports in March rose to their highest since June, just as the United States imposed a 10 percent tariff on imports of the metal on March 23 along with a 25 percent duty on steel imports.

Outlook cloudy

China’s exports rode a global trade boom last year, expanding at the fastest pace since 2013 and serving as one of the key drivers behind the economy’s forecast-beating expansion.

But the sudden spike in trade tensions with the United States is clouding the outlook for both China’s “old economy” heavy industries and “new economy” tech firms.

Washington says China’s $375 billion trade surplus with the United States is unacceptable, and has demanded Beijing reduce it by $100 billion immediately.

In a move to further force China to lower the trade surplus running with the U.S., Trump unveiled tariff representing about $50 billion of technology, transport and medical products early this month, drawing an immediate threat of retaliatory action from Beijing.

China’s tech sector, which is key part of Beijing’s longer-term “Made in China 2025” strategy to move from cheap goods to higher-value manufacturing, may be particularly vulnerable.

High-tech products have been among its fastest growing export segments. China exported $137.8 billion worth of high-tech products in the first quarter, up 20.5 percent on-year.


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