Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that the surveillance system could give the police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn the authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.

Hikvision, that aims to predict protests. The system collects data on legions of Chinese petitioners, a general term in China that describes people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities.

It then scores petitioners on the likelihood that they will travel to Beijing. In the future, the data will be used to train machine-learning models, according to a procurement document.

Local officials want to prevent such trips to avoid political embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing. And the central government doesn’t want groups of disgruntled citizens gathering in the capital.

A Hikvision representative declined to comment on the system.

Under Mr. Xi, official efforts to control petitioners have grown increasingly invasive. Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of a group that for years sought redress over a real estate fraud, said the authorities in 2017 had intercepted fellow petitioners in Shanghai before they could even buy tickets to Beijing. He suspected that the authorities were watching their communications on the social media app WeChat.

The Hikvision system in Tianjin, which is run in cooperation with the police in nearby Beijing and Hebei Province, is more sophisticated.

The platform analyzes individuals’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations, according to the procurement document. It helps the police create a profile of each, with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”

Many people who petition do so over government mishandling of a tragic accident or neglect in the case — all of which goes into the algorithm. “Increase a person’s early-warning risk level if they have low social status or went through a major tragedy,” reads the procurement document.

When the police in Zhouning, a rural county in Fujian Province, bought a new set of 439 cameras in 2018, they listed coordinates where each would go. Some hung above intersections and others near schools, according to a procurement document.

Nine were installed outside the homes of people with something in common: mental illness.

While some software tries to use data to uncover new threats, a more common type is based on the preconceived notions of the police. In over a hundred procurement documents reviewed by The Times, the surveillance targeted blacklists of “key persons.”

These people, according to some of the procurement documents, included those with mental illness, convicted criminals, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators and threats to social stability. Other systems targeted migrant workers, idle youths (teenagers without school or a job), ethnic minorities, foreigners and those infected with H.I.V.

The authorities decide who goes on the lists, and there is often no process to notify people when they do. Once individuals are in a database, they are rarely removed, said experts, who worried that the new technologies reinforce disparities within China, imposing surveillance on the least fortunate parts of its population.

In many cases the software goes further than simply targeting a population, allowing the authorities to set up digital tripwires that indicate a possible threat. In one Megvii presentation detailing a rival product by Yitu, the system’s interface allowed the police to devise their own early warnings.

With a simple fill-in-the-blank menu, the police can base alarms on specific parameters, including where a blacklisted person appears, when the person moves around, whether he or she meets with other blacklisted people and the frequency of certain activities. The police could set the system to send a warning each time two people with a history of drug use check into the same hotel or when four people with a history of protest enter the same park.

Yitu did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In 2020 in the city of Nanning, the police bought software that could look for “more than three key people checking into the same or nearby hotels” and “a drug user calling a new out-of-town number frequently,” according to a bidding document. In Yangshuo, a tourist town famous for its otherworldly karst mountains, the authorities bought a system to alert them if a foreigner without a work permit spent too much time hanging around foreign-language schools or bars, an apparent effort to catch people overstaying their visas or working illegally.

In Shanghai, one party-run publication described how the authorities used software to identify those who exceeded normal water and electricity use. The system would send a “digital whistle” to the police when it found suspicious consumption patterns.

The tactic was likely designed to detect migrant workers, who often live together in close quarters to save money. In some places, the police consider them an elusive, and often impoverished, group who can bring crime into communities.

The automated alerts don’t result in the same level of police response. Often, the police give priority to warnings that point to political problems, like protests or other threats to social stability, said Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing.

At times, the police have stated outright the need to profile people. “Through the application of big data, we paint a picture of people and give them labels with different attributes,” Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”

Mr. Zhang first started petitioning the government for compensation over the torture of his family during the Cultural Revolution. He has since petitioned over what he says is police targeting of his family.

As China has built out its techno-authoritarian tools, he has had to use spy movie tactics to circumvent surveillance that, he said, has become “high tech and Nazified.”

When he traveled to Beijing in January from his village in Shandong Province, he turned off his phone and paid for transportation in cash to minimize his digital footprint. He bought train tickets to the wrong destination to foil police tracking. He hired private drivers to get around checkpoints where his identification card would set off an alarm.

The system in Tianjin has a special feature for people like him who have “a certain awareness of anti-reconnaissance” and regularly change vehicles to evade detection, according to the police procurement document.

Whether or not he triggered the system, Mr. Zhang has noticed a change. Whenever he turns off his phone, he said, officers show up at his house to check that he hasn’t left on a new trip to Beijing.

Credit…Zhang Yuqiao

Even if police systems cannot accurately predict behavior, the authorities may consider them successful because of the threat, said Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of surveillance in China.

“In a context where there isn’t real political accountability,” having a surveillance system that frequently sends police officers “can work pretty well” at discouraging unrest, he said.

Once the metrics are set and the warnings are triggered, police officers have little flexibility, centralizing control. They are evaluated for their responsiveness to automated alarms and effectiveness at preventing protests, according to experts and public police reports.

The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.

One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.

Mr. Zhang expressed frustration at the ways technology had cut off those in political power from regular people.

“The authorities do not seriously solve problems but do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” he said. “This is a big step backward for society.”

Mr. Zhang said that he still believed in the power of technology to do good, but that in the wrong hands it could be a “scourge and a shackle.”

“In the past if you left your home and took to the countryside, all roads led to Beijing,” he said. “Now, the entire country is a net.”

Isabelle Qian and Aaron Krolik contributed research and reporting. Production by Agnes Chang and Alexander Cardia.

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‘We Buried Him and Kept Walking’: Children Die as Somalis Flee Hunger

DOOLOW, Somalia — When her crops failed and her parched goats died, Hirsiyo Mohamed left her home in southwestern Somalia, carrying and coaxing three of her eight children on the long walk across a bare and dusty landscape in temperatures as high as 100 degrees.

Along the way, her 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Adan, tugged at her robe, begging for food and water. But there was none to give, she said. “We buried him, and kept walking.”

They reached an aid camp in the town of Doolow after four days, but her malnourished 8-year-old daughter, Habiba, soon contracted whooping cough and died, she said. Sitting in her makeshift tent last month, holding her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Maryam, in her lap, she said, “This drought has finished us.”

imperiling lives across the Horn of Africa, with up to 20 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia facing the risk of starvation by the end of this year, according to the World Food Program.

appealed to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to lift the blockade on exports of Ukrainian grain and fertilizer — even as American diplomats warned of Russian efforts to sell stolen Ukrainian wheat to African nations.

The most devastating crisis is unfolding in Somalia, where about seven million of the country’s estimated 16 million people face acute food shortages. Since January, at least 448 children have died from severe acute malnutrition, according to a database managed by UNICEF.

only about 18 percent of the $1.46 billion needed for Somalia, according to the United Nations’ financial tracking service. “This will put the world in a moral and ethical dilemma,” said El-Khidir Daloum, the Somalia country director for the World Food Program, a U.N. agency.

projected to increase by up to 16 percent because of the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, which made ingredients, packaging and supply chains more costly, according to UNICEF.

displaced by the drought this year. As many as three million Somalis have also been displaced by tribal and political conflicts and the ever-growing threat from the terrorist group Al Shabab.

cyclones, rising temperatures, a locust infestation that destroyed crops, and, now, four consecutive failed rainy seasons.

spend 60 to 80 percent of their income on food. The loss of wheat from Ukraine, supply-chain delays and soaring inflation have led to sharp rises in the prices of cooking oil and staples like rice and sorghum.

At a market in the border town of Doolow, more than two dozen tables were abandoned because vendors could no longer afford to stock produce from local farms. The remaining retailers sold paltry supplies of cherry tomatoes, dried lemons and unripe bananas to the few customers trickling in.

perished since mid-2021, according to monitoring agencies.

The drought is also straining the social support systems that Somalis depend on during crises.

As thousands of hungry and homeless people flooded the capital, the women at the Hiil-Haween Cooperative sought ways to support them. But faced with their own soaring bills, many of the women said they had little to share. They collected clothes and food for about 70 displaced people.

“We had to reach deep into our community to find anything,” said Hadiya Hassan, who leads the cooperative.

likely fail, pushing the drought into 2023. The predictions are worrying analysts, who say the deteriorating conditions and the delayed scale-up in funding could mirror the severe 2011 drought that killed about 260,000 Somalis.

Famine in Somalia.”

For now, the merciless drought is forcing some families to make hard choices.

Back at the Benadir hospital in Mogadishu, Amina Abdullahi gazed at her severely malnourished 3-month-old daughter, Fatuma Yusuf. Clenching her fists and gasping for air, the baby let out a feeble cry, drawing smiles from the doctors who were happy to hear her make any noise at all.

“She was as still as the dead when we brought her here,” Ms. Abdullahi said. But even though the baby had gained more than a pound in the hospital, she was still less than five pounds in all — not even half what she should be. Doctors said it would be a while before she was discharged.

This pained Ms. Abdullahi. She had left six other children behind in Beledweyne, about 200 miles away, on a small, desiccated farm with her goats dying.

“The suffering back home is indescribable,” she said. “I want to go back to my children.”

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A Chinese Entrepreneur Who Says What Others Only Think

China’s entrepreneur class is grappling with the worst economic slump in decades as the government’s zero Covid policy has shut down cities and kept would-be customers at home. Yet they can’t seem to agree on how loudly they should complain — or even whether they should at all.

A tech entrepreneur wrote in a big group chat in May that many members were too critical. “What people here do every day is criticizing the government and the system,” she wrote. “I can’t see any entrepreneurship in this.”

A top venture capitalist told his nearly nine million social media followers that as much as everyone had suffered from the pandemic, they should try to stay away from negative news and information.

zero Covid policy, which has put hundreds of millions of people under some kind of lockdowns in the past few months, costing jobs and revenues. He’s saying what many others are whispering in private but fear to say in public.

“The questions we should ask ourselves are,” he wrote in an article that was censored within an hour of posting but shared widely in other formats, “what caused such widespread negative sentiment across the society? Who should be responsible for this? And how can we change it?”

He said the lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities made it clear that wealth and social status meant little to a government determined to pursue its zero Covid policy. “We’re all nobodies who could be sent to the quarantine camps, and our homes could be broken into,” he wrote. “If we still choose to adapt to and put up with this, all of us will face the same destiny: trapped.”

staying out of politics is no longer an option for China’s business leaders. But some of his peers are reluctant, given the potential penalties.

steered away from the market economy and cracked down on some industries. It demonized entrepreneurs and went after some of the most prominent of them. Then when the mild, albeit contagious, Omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged in China this year, the government meddled with free enterprise as it hadn’t in decades.

The lockdowns and restrictions have done so much damage to the economy that Premier Li Keqiang summoned about 100,000 cadres to an emergency meeting in late May. He called the situation “severe” and “urgent,” citing sharp drops in employment, industrial production, electricity consumption and freight traffic.

Many business leaders believe that it will be hard to reverse the damage if the government doesn’t stop the zero Covid policy. Yet they feel that there’s nothing they can do to make Beijing change course.

The chairman of a big internet company told me that with all the pandemic restrictions, he and others were operating as if dancing with shackles on while expecting the sword of a lockdown to strike at any moment. With a big public company to run, he said, it would be too risky to be vocal. He hoped the economists could be more outspoken.

The chairman of a publicly listed conglomerate with many consumer-facing businesses said he had to shut down a few of his companies and let people go as revenues dropped off a cliff. He’s not a Christian, he said, but he has been praying to God every day to help him get through this tough period.

articles that compared the pros and cons of different pandemic policies. Then, in mid-May, his social media Weibo account was suspended.

Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, largely disappeared from public view after he criticized banking regulators in late 2019. The regulators quashed the initial public offering of Ant Group, the tech and financial company controlled by Mr. Ma, and fined Alibaba a record $2.8 billion last year.

Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real estate developer, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of committing graft, taking bribes, misusing public funds and abusing his power. His real crime, his supporters say, was criticizing Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020.

Mr. Zhou, 49, is known as a maverick in Chinese business circles. He founded his first business in stereo systems with his brother in the mid-1990s when he was still in college. In 2010, he started Yongche, one of the first ride-hailing companies.

Unlike most Chinese bosses, he didn’t demand that his employees work overtime, and he didn’t like liquor-filled business meals. He turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and refused to participate in subsidy wars because doing so didn’t make economic sense. He ended up losing out to his more aggressive competitor Didi.

He later wrote a best seller about his failure and became a partner at a venture capital firm in Beijing. In April, he was named chairman of the ride-sharing company Caocao, a subsidiary of auto manufacturing giant Geely Auto Group.

A Chinese citizen with his family in Canada, Mr. Zhou said in an interview that in the past many wealthy Chinese people like him would move their families and some of their assets abroad but work in China because there were more opportunities.

Now, some of the top talent are trying to move their businesses out of the country, too. It doesn’t bode well for China’s future, he said.

“Entrepreneurs have good survivor’s instinct,” he said. “Now they’re forced to look beyond China.” He coined a term — “passive globalization” — based on his discussions with other entrepreneurs. “Many of us are starting to take such actions,” he said.

The prospect depressed him. China used to be the best market in the world: big, vibrant, full of ambitious entrepreneurs and hungry workers, he said, but the senseless and destructive zero Covid policy and the business crackdowns have forced many of them to think twice.

“Even if your company is a so-called giant, we’re all nobodies in front of the bigger force,” he said. “A whiff of wind could crush us.”

All the business leaders I spoke to said they were reluctant to make long-term investment in China and fearful that they and their companies could become the next victim of the government’s iron fist. They’re focusing on their international operations if they have them or seeking opportunities abroad.

Mr. Zhou left for Vancouver, British Columbia, in a hurry in late April when Beijing was locking down many neighborhoods. Then he wrote the article, urging his peers to try to speak up and change their powerless status.

He said he understood the fear and the pressure they faced. “Honestly speaking, I’m scared, too.” But he would probably regret it more if he did nothing. “Our country can’t go on like this,” he said. “We can’t allow it to deteriorate like this.”

In recent years, a few of Mr. Zhou’s articles and social media accounts have been deleted. His outspokenness has caused uneasiness among his friends, he said. Some have told him to shut up because it didn’t change anything and was creating unnecessary risks for himself, his family, his companies and the stakeholders in his businesses.

But Mr. Zhou can’t help himself. He’s worried that China could become more like it was under Mao: impoverished and repressive. His generation of entrepreneurs owes much of their success to China’s reform and opening up policies, he said. They have the responsibilities to initiate change instead of waiting for a free ride.

Maybe they can start by speaking up, even if just a little bit.

“Any change starts with disagreement and disobedience,” he said.

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German Brewers Face ‘Unprecedented’ Beer Bottle Shortage

Stefan Fritsche, who runs a centuries-old German brewery in Neuzelle, near the Polish border, has seen his natural gas bill jump a startling 400 percent over the past year. His electricity bill has increased 300 percent. And he’s paying more for barley than ever before.

But the soaring inflation for energy and grains in the wake of the Ukraine war is no match for the biggest challenge facing Mr. Fritsche’s brewery, Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, and others like it across Germany: a severe shortage of beer bottles.

The problem is “unprecedented,” Mr. Fritsche said. “The price of bottles has exploded.”

The issue is not so much a lack of bottles. Germany’s roughly 1,500 breweries have up to four billion returnable glass bottles in circulation — about 48 for every man, woman and child.

recycling, it comes with one major problem: getting people to return their empties.

Dragging a crate — or several — of empty glass bottles back to a store can be a hassle, even if it means getting back the deposit fee. So people tend to let them stack up, in the basements of their homes or on the balconies of their apartments, biding their time until they are running out of either space or spare cash.

“It is deadly for small brewers,” Mr. Fritsche said. The brewery he runs sells 80 percent of its beer in bottles. (In 2003, a recycling law was expanded to focus on reducing waste in the beverage industry, meaning most beer sold for the domestic market is in returnable bottles, not cans.)

annual survey by Kirin, the Japanese brewer. (The United States ranked 17th.) But on the whole, Germans are cutting back. Since the Federal Statistics Office began keeping records in 1993 — a year after Mr. Fritsche’s family took over the brewery in Neuzelle — national consumption of beer has dropped nearly 24 percent, as people embrace a wider diversity of soft drinks.

Lockdowns surrounding the coronavirus over the past two years also contributed to the trend, as bars remained closed and sporting and cultural events were canceled.

The difficult environment makes management of the breweries all the more important. Mr. Fritsche said he had relied for decades on a combination of tradition and creativity.

A willingness to push the boundaries and think around the corner is essential to surviving in a tougher business environment, he said. For example, the brewery has a bottle of its signature product, Schwarzer Abt, or Black Abbot, that has been blessed by Pope Francis. The bottle is now dipped into each fresh batch of Schwarzer Abt.

What helps, too, is taking a long view of the history that comes with running a business founded in 1589, the events that it has witnessed and withstood over time.

“Nazis, Communists, government takeovers — in the past, we’ve had just about everything here,” Mr. Fritsche said. “And we have survived it all. We will get through this as well.”

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White House Struggles to Talk About Inflation, the ‘Problem From Hell’

WASHINGTON — President Biden was at a private meeting discussing student debt forgiveness this year when, as happens uncomfortably often these days, the conversation came back to inflation.

“He said with everything he does, Republicans are going to attack him and use the word ‘inflation,’” said Representative Tony Cárdenas, Democrat of California, referring to Mr. Biden’s meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in April. Mr. Cárdenas said Mr. Biden was aware he would be attacked over rising prices “no matter what issue we’re talking about.”

The comment underscored how today’s rapid price increases, the fastest since the 1980s, pose a glaring political liability that looms over every major policy decision the White House makes — leaving Mr. Biden and his colleagues on the defensive as officials discover that there is no good way to talk to voters about inflation.

The administration has at times splintered internally over how to discuss price increases and has revised its inflation-related message several times as talking points fail to resonate and new data comes in. Some Democrats in Congress have urged the White House to strike a different — and more proactive — tone ahead of the November midterm elections.

increased by 8.3 percent in the year through April, and data this week is expected to show inflation at 8.2 percent in May. Inflation averaged 1.6 percent annual gains in the five years leading up to the pandemic, making today’s pace of increase painfully high by comparison. A gallon of gas, one of the most tangible household costs, hit an average of $4.92 this week. Consumer confidence has plummeted as families pay more for everyday purchases and as the Fed raises interest rates to cool the economy, which increases the risk of a recession.

a series of confidential memos sent to Mr. Biden last year by one of his lead pollsters, John Anzalone. Inflation has only continued to fuel frustration among voters, according to a separate memo compiled by Mr. Anzalone’s team last month, which showed the president’s low approval rating on the economy rivaling only his approach to immigration.

wrote in a tweet that went viral this weekend.

The White House knows it is in a tricky position, and the administration’s approach to explaining inflation has evolved over time. Officials spent the early stages of the current price burst largely describing price pressures as temporary.

When it became clear that rising costs were lasting, administration officials began to diverge internally on how to frame that phenomenon. While it was clear that much of the upward pressure on prices came from supply chain shortages exacerbated by continued waves of the coronavirus, some of it also tied back to strong consumer demand. That big spending had been enabled, in part, by the government’s stimulus packages, including direct checks to households, expanded unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Some economists in the White House have begun to emphasize that inflation was a trade-off: To the extent that Mr. Biden’s stimulus spending spurred more inflation, it also aided economic growth and a faster recovery.

have claimed credit for strong economic growth.

“Some have a curious obsession with exaggerating impact of the Rescue Plan while ignoring the degree high inflation is global,” Gene Sperling, a senior White House adviser overseeing the implementation of the stimulus package, wrote on Twitter last week, adding that the law “has had very marginal impact on inflation.”

Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged in an interview last week that there were some disagreements among White House economic officials when it came to how to talk about and respond to inflation, but he portrayed that as a positive — and as something that is not leading to any kind of dysfunction.

“If there wasn’t healthy disagreement, debate and people feeling comfortable bringing issues and ideas to the table, then I think we would be not serving the president and the public interest well,” he said.

He also pushed back on the idea that the administration was deeply divided on the March 2021 package’s aftereffects, saying in a separate emailed comment that “there is agreement across the administration that many factors contributed to inflation, and that inflation has been driven by elevated demand and constrained supply across the globe.”

How to portray the Biden administration’s stimulus spending is far from the only challenge the White House faces. As price increases last, Democrats have grappled with how to discuss their plans to combat them.

deficit reduction as a way to lower inflation and arguing that Republicans have a bad plan to deal with rising costs. Mr. Biden regularly acknowledges the pain that higher prices are causing and has emphasized that the problem of taming inflation rests largely with the Fed, an independent entity whose work he has promised not to interfere with.

The administration has also highlighted that inflation is widespread globally, and that the United States is better off than many other nations.

The renewed messaging comes as Mr. Biden and his top aides have grown increasingly concerned about the public’s negative views of the economy, according to an administration official. Economists within the administration are more sidelined when it comes to setting the tone on issues like inflation than in previous White Houses, another person familiar with the discussions said.

So far, the talking points have done little to change public perception or to mollify concerns on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats are pushing for the White House to find a more compelling story.

“There has to be more of a laser focus on the economy, a bolder message, a clearer story,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who wrote a New York Times opinion piece last week saying that Democrats need a more ambitious plan for fighting inflation. He added that “rhetoric about ‘Well, we’re doing really well’ does not capture the profound sense of anxiety that Americans feel.”

Part of the difficulty is that there is only so much politicians can do to fight price increases.

suspended a ban on summertime sales of higher-ethanol gasoline blends to try to temper price increases at the pump, spurring frustration among climate activists still angry over the collapse of the president’s climate and social-spending package.

Talks over whether to roll back Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods have also gotten caught in the inflation maw. Ms. Yellen has said she supports relaxing tariffs to help ease prices, but other Democrats are wary that removing them would make Mr. Biden look weak on China.

Inflation is also influencing conversations about whether to forgive student loan debt, one of Mr. Biden’s key campaign promises. Economists in the administration think that loan forgiveness would, at most, push inflation up a little bit by giving people with outstanding student debt more financial wiggle room. But some economists in the administration’s orbit have expressed concern about the possibility of doing something that could stimulate demand — even slightly — at a moment when it is already hot.

To help mute the inflationary effect, forgiveness would most likely be accompanied by a resumption of interest payments on all student loans that have been paused since the pandemic.

For now, the administration is considering forgiving at least $10,000 for borrowers in a certain income range, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Cárdenas said that Mr. Biden knew he would be attacked over inflation but that he did not think the issue would prevent the president from canceling at least $10,000 worth of debt.

“Will it affect him going beyond that? It may,” he said.

Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.

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In the last-chance saloon, Boris Johnson survives as UK PM for now

  • Prime Minister’s party only just approves him in confidence vote
  • Conservative Party rebellion means he has much work to do
  • Johnson looking vulnerable to further threats

LONDON, June 6 (Reuters) – For a man who long set his sights on becoming Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson came dangerously close on Monday to being ousted by lawmakers tired of defending him and faces a battle to win back the confidence of his party and country.

He survives, just, for now. But he is deeply wounded and even loyal lawmakers who backed him in a confidence vote say he must now change – return to the traditional ideals of the governing Conservative Party, foster unity and lead.

His inbox is daunting. British households face the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since the 1950s, with food and fuel prices rising while wages lag, and travellers are experiencing transport chaos at airports caused by staffing shortages.

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The master of political comebacks might struggle this time.

Ed Costelloe, chair of the group Conservative Grassroots who backed Johnson in 2019, said he had got many things right, but had been brought down by the so-called “partygate” scandal over his breaches of COVID-19 lockdown rules. read more

“Once you face a vote of confidence somehow you are doomed. After that, the vultures start gathering. I think he is in real, real trouble,” he told Reuters.

Johnson won the vote 211 to 148, a worse showing than when lawmakers tried to oust his predecessor Theresa May, who won her vote but then resigned six months later. read more

The confidence vote was a brutal wake up call for a leader whose mandate once seemed unassailable after his promise to “get Brexit done” in 2019 won over voters in parts of the country the Conservatives had never been able to capture and the party’s biggest majority in over three decades.

Since then, the list of reasons lawmakers gave for wanting Johnson gone were as varied as they are many, cutting across usual factional lines and making the rebels somewhat uneasy bedfellows.

As reasons why the 57-year-old leader should resign, lawmakers cite anything from “partygate”, threats to breaking international law, the defence of rule-breakers at the heart of power, multiple policy U-turns, an initial slow response to COVID-19 to a general lack of respect for his office.

It was perhaps the lack of cohesion in Monday’s rebellion that helped save him. But it has left him weakened.

SURVIVOR

Political survival is something Johnson, known widely as Boris, has made a career of, with former prime minister David Cameron likening him to a “greased piglet” who is hard to catch.

“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters,” Johnson wrote in a newspaper column in 2004.

In a speech to the party lawmakers just hours before the vote, Johnson remained adamant he could win again.

“If you don’t believe that we can come back from our current position and win again then you haven’t looked at my own record or the record of this party,” he said, according to a senior party source in the meeting.

Some have warned of underestimating Johnson, or Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, saying his ruffled appearance and distinctive mop of blond hair masks the discipline and ruthlessness he needed to get to this point.

But after years of weathering sex scandals, gaffes and missteps as London mayor, foreign secretary and now prime minister, Johnson, a relative loner in the Conservative party, might be running out of road.

For some in the party the rot set in when he defended his former adviser Dominic Cummings when he broke COVID-19 rules early in the pandemic, enraging the country.

The following year he initially defended a Conservative lawmaker who had been found guilty of breaching lobbying rules and a U-turn on extending free school meals to children from low-income families did little to improve the picture.

The final straw was months of a steady drip of stories about lockdown-breaking parties in Johnson’s Downing Street culminating in a report last month detailing fights and alcohol-induced vomit in the early house at times when the rest of the country was obeying strict COVID-19 rules.

One former Conservative lawmaker was so incensed even before the report, they “crossed the floor” or went to join the main opposition Labour Party.

“Prior to leaving … it was just embarrassing being asked to defend the indefensible for a PM who clearly has no morals,” Christian Wakeford, who joined Labour in January, told Reuters.

Conservative Grassroots chair Costelloe said the decision could be fatal in the long-term: “I am firmly of the view if he is still there in two years then we will lose the next election.”

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Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Grant McCool

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Stocks Rally Out of Bear Market Territory, but End Lower for a 7th Week

Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, said high food and energy prices were creating “stagflationary effects” — the combination of high inflation and a stagnating economy. China’s economy, the world’s second-largest after that of the United States, is laboring under the government’s strict pandemic lockdowns. Before the war in Ukraine and Covid’s resurgence in China, the International Monetary Fund was projecting global growth of 4.4 percent this year. Now its forecast is 3.6 percent.

Wall Street had been expecting that torrid consumer demand would have to slow at some point. Government stimulus checks that provided Americans with billions in spending money during the pandemic stopped long ago. The hope of both the Trump and Biden administrations was that the economy could eventually be weaned off the stimulus and that consumer demand would stay relatively strong.

But inflation, which has risen faster and remained more persistent than many investors and even the Fed initially expected, has thrown the recovery into doubt.

Unemployment is approaching the lowest rate in decades, and the economy has regained nearly 95 percent of the 22 million jobs lost at the height of coronavirus lockdowns. Average hourly earnings in the U.S. rose 5.5 percent in the year through April, but many of those gains are being eroded by inflation. Over that same period, prices rose 8.3 percent.

“The government just turbocharged the economy, and we were partying on buying goods,” said Scott Mushkin, the founder of R5 Capital, a retail-focused consulting and financial research firm. “People wondered what the hangover would be like. We have never seen anything like this.”

To be sure, some retailers said that not every consumer was pulling back or shifting spending. Walmart said better-off shoppers continued to spend freely on bigger-ticket items like patio furniture, and Target said it was not seeing a broad retreat in spending, either. Home Depot, which has benefited from a pandemic remodeling boom, said it was seeing no big slowdown in business.

But Mr. Sole of UBS worries that if prices continue to climb, higher-income consumers will eventually shift their spending, too.

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Amateur Investors Rode the Bull Up. Now the Bear Looms.

Millions of amateur investors got into the stock market during the pandemic — some gingerly, some aggressively, some determined to teach Wall Street bigwigs a lesson — and almost couldn’t help but make money, riding a bull market for the better part of two years.

Now they may have to wrestle with a bear.

“It definitely isn’t as easy to trade in this market,” said Shelley Hellmann, a 47-year-old former optometrist in Texas who began actively investing in April 2020 while isolating from her family.

Tracking stock movements on an iPad Mini in her bedroom, she banked big gains as the market soared. Within a couple of months, she was considering making day trading a full-time gig. But since the S&P 500 peaked on Jan. 3, profits have been harder to come by.

“Sometimes I am glad to not be red for the year,” she said.

Five months of bumpy declines have put the S&P 500 on the precipice of a bear market — a drop of 20 percent or more from its most recent high, which is considered a psychological marker of investors’ dimmed view of the economy. Including a tumble of 4 percent on Wednesday, the index is down more than 18 percent from its peak on Jan. 3.

bored sports bettors or meme-stock aficionados who piled into GameStop — have tapped the brakes, or scrambled to shuffle their portfolios into more defensive positions.

grim reaper slaying low interest rates and stock market bulls.

bid-ask spread — the small difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay and the lowest a seller is willing to accept — kept costing him fractions that added up.

By January, some of his classes had resumed in person, and with them his onerous commute from the Bronx. Instead of trading for an hour every morning, he cut back to twice a week. The market was also becoming a lot choppier, and it was increasingly difficult to hold his positions. He had always used stop-loss orders — instructions to sell when a stock dropped to a certain price — to prevent disastrous declines. But with constant drops, he kept getting pushed out of his trades.

which measures retail investors’ behavior and sentiment, based on a sample of accounts that completed trades in the past month. Their interests have been shifting toward less volatile names and more stable holdings like shorter-term bonds, the firm said.

Ms. Hellmann, who started actively trading in the early days of the pandemic, said she was sticking with it, learning more and refining her approach as she goes along.

She often rises at 3 a.m. and turns on CNBC to begin plotting her strategy for the day, which involves studying stocks’ price movements, a process she compared to learning to catch a softball — watching its arc, then trying to figure out the physics of where it will land. “That is what I’m doing with price and volume,” she said.

Long a buy-and-hold investor, she began with roughly $50,000 — money that came from shares of ConocoPhillips that she inherited in 2014 after the death of her grandfather, who had been a propane salesman. Her approach has grown increasingly complex over the past two years: Last fall, she took a large position in an exchange-traded fund that bets against the price of natural gas — which has gone up as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roiled energy markets.

“The war causing natural gas to spike up at a time when it seasonally comes down did not help me much,” she said.

Even so, she’s more than quintupled her money since early 2020, riding the strength of a rally that has the S&P 500 up nearly 80 percent since it bottomed out in March 2020, even with its recent fall.

Experiencing losses after a period of gains can be instructive, said Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, which builds and manages diversified portfolios of low-cost funds and provides financial planning services.

“If you have a good initial experience with investing, you see this is part of it, it will be OK,” he said. “We get bumps and bruises that you need to learn what pain feels like,” he said.

Eric Lipchus, 40, has felt plenty of pain in his nearly two decades of full-time day trading — he owned options on Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that imploded during the financial crisis of 2008-9. Before that, he had watched his older brother and father dabble in the markets during the dot-com boom and bust.

“I have been on a roller coaster,” he said. “I am making OK money this year but it’s been up and it’s been down. It seems like it could be a tough year — not as much upside as in previous years.”

Challenging conditions like investors are now facing can get stressful in a hurry, Mr. Lipchus said. Right now, he’s keeping half his portfolio in cash — and is taking a fishing trip to the Thousand Islands in a couple of weeks to clear his head.

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Japan’s Economy Shrank 1 Percent as Consumers Fled Covid

TOKYO — Last December, after two years of stop-and-go growth, Japan’s economic engine seemed like it might finally be revving up. Covid cases were practically nonexistent. Consumers were back on the town, shopping, eating out, traveling. The year 2021 ended on a high note, with the country’s economy expanding on an annual basis for the first time in three years.

But the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, geopolitical turmoil and supply chain snarls have once again set back Japan’s fragile economic recovery. In the first three months of the year, the country’s economy, the world’s third largest after the United States and China, shrank at an annualized rate of 1 percent, government data showed on Wednesday.

A combination of factors contributed to the decline in growth. In January, Japan had put into place new emergency measures as coronavirus case numbers, driven up by Omicron, moved toward the highest levels of the pandemic. In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, spiking energy prices. And that was before China, Japan’s largest export market and a key supplier of parts and labor to its manufacturers, imposed new lockdowns in Shanghai, throwing supply chains into chaos.

The contraction has not been as “extreme” as previous economic setbacks thanks to high levels of vaccine uptake and less wide-ranging emergency measures than during previous waves of the coronavirus, according to Shinichiro Kobayashi, principal economist at the Mitsubishi UFJ Research Institute.

traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a halt to production. Here’s what happened next:

Consumer spending “will recover from the downward pressure, but because there are these negative factors, the question is how broad will that recovery be?” said Yoshiki Shinke, a senior economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has tried to offset the effects of price increases with large government subsidies for fuel and cash handouts for families with children. But Japanese consumers, wary of the pandemic’s economic effects, have largely been putting rounds of stimulus money into savings.

Japan’s growth is facing diverse challenges, but ultimately its recovery will depend on Covid, analysts said, a common refrain over the last two years.

While Japan has high vaccination rates and has performed better than most other wealthy countries at keeping the pandemic in check, the virus’s protean nature has made it difficult to predict its path. And that has made experts hesitant to commit to any forecasts about its future impact on global economies.

“The big risk is that corona starts to spread again,” said Naoyuki Shiraishi, an economist at the Japan Research Institute. “If a new variant appears, there will be new restrictions on activity, and that will suppress consumption.”

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Germany’s Allianz and its U.S. funds troubles

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FRANKFURT, May 17 (Reuters) – Germany’s Allianz (ALVG.DE) has agreed to pay about $6 billion and its U.S. asset management unit will plead guilty to fraud after a group of its multibillion investment funds collapsed amid market turmoil triggered by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. read more

Here is timeline of key events in the saga, based on court documents, corporate disclosures, archived websites, public statements, and minutes of investor meetings:

2005

Allianz’s U.S. asset management arm establishes the so-called Structured Alpha funds under manager Greg Tournant.

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2007

Arkansas’ pension fund for retired teachers – which would later be the first to sue Allianz over its investments in the funds – owns $19.4 million in Allianz stock, its fourth-largest holding in a foreign company.

2008

The Arkansas’ pension fund makes an initial investment in Allianz’s Structured Alpha funds.

2013-2016

Arkansas decides to build up its investment in the Allianz funds. The funds also attracted pension funds that served labourers in Alaska and subway workers in New York.

2016

Marketing material describes the funds as “a tested & proven solution” and “consistently above target”. They are marketed as “a confident strategy with an insurance spirit”.

2019

Arkansas’ Structured Alpha holdings reach a market value of $1.6 billion at the end of 2019, a significant portion of the $18.3 billion fund.

2020

January – Global stock markets plunge amid fears of the spreading coronavirus.

Feb. 3 – Mohamed El-Erian, Chief Economic Advisor at Allianz, warns CNBC viewers not “to buy the dip” because the coronavirus crisis was without precedent.

March 13 – The investment consultant Aon warns Structured Alpha investors in a “flash report” that it put the Structured Alpha funds on review.

March 25 – Allianz announces the liquidation of two hard-hit funds. Investors are also told chief fund manager Tournant had been ill for weeks, according to lawsuits.

March 27 – Allianz says it remains committed to the fund franchise and “the remaining funds are now well positioned”, but Aon issues another report recommending a “sell”.

March 31 – One of the funds held by Arkansas loses 78% in the first quarter, compared to a 22% drop of its benchmark.

April 6 – The Arkansas fund’s board votes to exit the Allianz funds and park the proceeds with BlackRock.

June 30 – The Arkansas fund’s board votes to sue Allianz.

July 20 – Arkansas’ suit is filed with the U.S. Southern District of New York claiming $774 million in losses.

July 21 Allianz publishes a paper saying that “losses were not the result of any failure in the portfolio’s investment strategy or risk management processes”. It has since been removed from the web.

Aug. 4 – Allianz discloses that the SEC is investigating.

September – Numerous other investors had by this point filed suits similar to Arkansas’, and more followed.

2021

May – The U.S. Department of Justice approaches Allianz for information on the funds.

Aug. 1 Allianz publicly discloses the DOJ investigation and says it could take a financial hit. read more

Aug. 2 – Allianz shares drop 7.8%. read more

Aug. 7 Oliver Baete, Allianz chief executive officer describes a “horrible week” and concedes “not everything was perfect in the fund management.” read more

Sept. 10 – Reuters reports that the DOJ was looking at possible misconduct by fund managers and misrepresentation of risk to investors. read more

2022

Feb. 17 – Allianz says it will set aside 3.7 billion euros ($3.90 billion) to deal with investigations and lawsuits. Reports 2021 profit was the lowest since 2013. read more

Feb. 18 – Allianz announces bonus cuts for its CEO and board, and a settlement with a “vast majority” of investors. read more

Feb. 28 – A number of big investors file to end their lawsuits. read more

March 3 – Arkansas drops its lawsuit after settling for $642 million, according to a court document and board meeting minutes. read more

March 4 – Allianz’s annual report discloses that Allianz Chief Executive Oliver Baete earned 9% more in 2021 despite a cut in his bonus for the funds saga.

May 11 – Allianz sets aside another 1.9 billion euros to settle litigation and any fines from U.S. regulators. nL5N2X327P]

MAY 17 – The DOJ announces Allianz has agreed to pay about $6 billion and its U.S. asset management unit will plead guilty to fraud. read more

($1 = 0.9496 euros)

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Reporting by Tom Sims
Editing by Tomasz Janowski

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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