Meet the man behind Bendigo’s emerging breakdancing scene


In a classic country town hall, Bendigo’s emerging breakdancers are learning about life and movement from Karl Jacobs, who is legally blind.

Far from the heights of his peak as a sponsored break-boy travelling and performing in South-East Asia; Jacobs is guiding a group of eight-year-old girls through stretching, preparing them mentally and physically for their next challenge — the Tapping Backswing.

“It’s a frustrating move,” he warns.

“Your body is going to want to do one thing and your mind is going to want to do something else.

“There’s a lot of moving parts that have to come together.

“It doesn’t matter about the power so much, it’s about the form.”

His words have a warm gentle tone. His patience informed by the experience of guiding his younger sister through young adulthood after the death of both their parents.

“Don’t get frustrated,” the 35-year-old says. “We’ll do it together slowly.”

Jacobs first demonstrates each step of the move, with the strength and control of an athlete.

Before he was a dancer, he was a budding tennis star.

But life had other plans.

At just 16 years old, and in the same week as the man he called Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jacobs lost his sight.

“I was training to get to Wimbledon, and overnight I just couldn’t see the ball anymore,” he says.

Jacobs has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.

It first presented as night-blindness as a child and as an adult, the disease has tested his strength and re-routed his future.

“It sucks because I don’t have freedom and I have to depend on people,” he says.

“But at the same time, I’m glad I have this and not someone else.

Dancing became Jacobs’ outlet, freedom of expression and place without judgment.

“I don’t feel judged. And even if I do feel judged, it’s when I’m in a competition and I’m meant to be,” he says with humour.

“I had to change track, but I still wanted to be physical, and it was the one thing that no one else was doing, so I was like … I’m going to do that.”

His track may have changed; but the fighting attitude of a competitive sports star remains.

“It builds my confidence up, knowing I can walk into a room and know that I can do cool stuff that others can’t do.”

Now, along with private classes, he brings his style to the local refugee community and the Malmsbury youth justice centre.

He hopes the dance academy Sick Steps, which he founded, will provide others the opportunities like it’s provided him.

In a brightly lit room, Jacobs sees the outline of his students crushing it and shouts to them.

“Sick!”

His intensity is apparent in his teaching, as is his control and deliberate usage of it.

From the slow start of the class where students tackle each movement one step at a time, the energy builds as they put the movements together.

“How do you feel about it?” he asks his students. “Do you want to take it up a little?”

By the end of the session music is loud; encouragement is strong. This group is bringing it and cheering each other on.

“I just think, whatever you do, be good at it,” he says.

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Column: Alarm bells ring again for emerging debt



People chat in front of a reception with an electronic board displaying movements in major indices at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange building in Sandton Johannesburg, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

March 5, 2021

By Mike Dolan

LONDON (Reuters) – Even if the pandemic-related debt explosion can be managed by the world’s biggest economies, last week’s bond market ruckus put large swathes of the developing world on notice yet again.

Worryingly, there are some fears the episode may signal far more than another tactical retreat by financial traders and could potentially mark an era-defining shift in the debt calculus for some of the biggest emerging economies.

Much like evidence of an unequal COVID impact within western economies, 2020 raised obvious concerns about a disproportionate hit to poorer emerging economies most reliant on travel, trade and commodities and with weaker health systems.

Countries with already heavy debt burdens also had, unlike the major economies, limited ability to simply print their own currencies to fund those debts for fear of exchange rate crises stoking inflation and foreign investor strikes.

A flooring of Western borrowing rates and a sharp weakening of the U.S. dollar alleviated the bind for countries with hard currency borrowing and market access – as did the yearend investor rush to rotate into the most beaten-down assets to anticipate a vaccination-led global bounceback.

But the resilience of the dollar this year against an overwhelmingly negative consensus and last week’s surge in benchmark U.S. Treasury yields – as traders try to price an exceptional, stimulus-led rebound in nominal U.S. growth of up to 10% this year – saw many banks raise red flags once again.

U.S. banks JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley and others rushed to warn about a hit to emerging currencies akin to 2013’s ‘taper tantrum’ in Treasuries, which preceded a slowing in Federal Reserve bond buying back then. It was an event from which many emerging markets have never fully recovered as tighter dollar credit was quickly followed by U.S.-China trade wars and long-term doubts about globalisation at large.

“The negative effects from the higher U.S. interest rates will overwhelm the positive effects coming from a higher U.S. growth rate and we may have just passed that tipping point,” wrote Eurizon SLJ hedge fund manager Stephen Jen, explaining a decision to turn pessimistic on emerging FX this week.

But Barclays economists Marvin Barth and Marek Raczko think that tipping point may have many far reaching consequences.

Unlike the rebound from the global banking crash 12 years ago, rising real borrowing rates will likely hit emerging market debtors hard after a decade of falling potential growth and ebbing globalisation.

At the same time, they argue, international investors are fearful long-term rates are now so close to their lower limits around or just below zero that bonds provide much less of a hedge in portfolios if equities or riskier assets like emerging markets sell off sharply.

That leads to a pullback in riskier fixed income, including emerging bonds, in favour of a “barbell” approach of equities and core fixed income and cash, which itself reinforces changes to the relative value of safe haven currencies like the dollar.

As Jen points out, central bank bond buying in the euro zone and Japan has cut the amount of those government bonds open to investors and led to the share of U.S. Treasuries of available reserve currency government bonds to almost double to 63% over 20 years.

PAYING THE PIPER

Barth and Raczko reckon the most highly indebted emerging countries would now suffer from a likelihood that the relentless decades-long decline in real or inflation-adjusted global borrowing rates – moves that offset the steady decline in trend growth worldwide – has reached the end of the road.

“The long debt cycle is coming to an end and the piper must be paid,” they wrote, adding that the historical asymmetry of the situation meant investors could no longer bet on “mean reversion” given the “irreversible shift” in risks and portfolio preferences.

The Barclays team said the pandemic has set off alarm bells in models on the sustainability of countries’ overall public and private debts – models that hinge on a net savings calculation.

“The dynamics that supported sustainability in the last decade may no longer be feasible.”

Their model shows South Africa, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Greece as “clearly unsustainable”, while Mexico, Russia and Turkey were on the edge. They said that can already be seen in relative currency moves since 2019 as well as in the slope of interest rate swaps market curves.

Potential growth in emerging markets peaked in 2012 and has been falling since, they estimate, while slowing population growth and a technology-driven death of the business ‘outsourcing’ trend would likely erode it further in the years ahead.

The only way to manage the debt in that environment is either a sustained fall in real borrowing rates akin to that of the last decade – now unlikely – or a concerted national degenerating that damages cyclical growth, they concluded.

Of course, not all emerging economies are in that boat – giant China is clearly different, as are many East Asia and central European economies. And that further atomizes the always-suspect EM catch-all bloc.

At the very least, it’s a reminder that despite the seeming nonchalance at blinding global debt accumulation over the past year, markets still fret about debt sustainability after all.

(by Mike Dolan, Twitter: @reutersMikeD; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)



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Emerging Markets Aren’t Safe Yet


Emerging markets had a bumpy 2018. Over the summer, Argentina and Turkey saw their currencies fall sharply as their economies ran into trouble. Argentina had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $57 billion loan. Commentators sharpened their pencils, ready to draw parallels with the wave of financial crises that swept over emerging markets in the late 1990s.

Yet most emerging-market economies came through the summer’s turbulence more or less unscathed. That is largely thanks to big improvements in economic and financial management since the last major wave of crises in the 1990s. Most countries that succumbed to crises then have moved from pegged exchange rates to largely floating exchange rates and have adopted sounder monetary policies. Most also now have more resilient banking systems, the result of a general shift away from risky short-term bank funding in favor of long-term funding from bond markets.

Perhaps the most remarkable change since the crises of the 1990s has come in the way emerging-market countries finance their debt. Governments now borrow much more in their own currencies than in foreign ones, making them less vulnerable to runs and currency crises. But risks remain. Developing countries still have work to do if they are to shield themselves from the vicissitudes of global financial conditions.

ORIGINAL SIN

Economists once thought that emerging-market countries that borrow from abroad were confined to doing so only in foreign currencies. Barry Eichengreen and Ricardo Hausmann called the phenomenon “original sin” because it seemed to doom developing countries to perpetual dependence on foreign financial conditions. When a country’s currency fell, its government found its debts harder to pay. Debt crises turned into currency crises.

But since the 1990s, the share of emerging-market government debt issued in foreign currencies has fallen significantly. Foreign investors have grown more comfortable owning government debt denominated in the local currency. In some countries, such as Peru, South Africa, and Indonesia, foreign investors now hold around 40 percent of government debt in the local currency. Many other large emerging-market economies have figures close to this level. Companies in these countries still rely on foreign currency borrowing, but for their governments, original sin has turned out to be less a fundamental weakness than a passing phase.

Governments have gained greater control over their finances by developing local bond markets, shifting their economies away from relying on the kinds of short-term loans in foreign currency that left them vulnerable in the 1990s. But for all the good these changes have done, emerging-market countries have discovered that borrowing in their own currencies does not solve all financial woes. They are still vulnerable to the ebb and flow of global financial conditions.

Developing countries still have work to do if they are to shield themselves from the vicissitudes of global financial conditions.

To see why, look at the effects of exchange-rate changes on domestic inflation. If global financial conditions worsen and capital starts flowing out of an economy, the domestic currency falls. When that happens, inflation tends to rise, since imports get more expensive. If investors trust the central bank to keep inflation under control, the bank can raise rates to bring the economy back to an even keel. But expectations become self-fulfilling: if investors don’t trust the central bank, raising rates by itself won’t do the trick, and drastically tightening monetary policy will further damage an already weak domestic economy. If the political fallout is serious enough, policymakers may lose their nerve and reverse course.

It’s worth taking a step back, however, and asking why a big fall in the domestic currency causes problems at all. After all, economics textbooks teach that when a currency falls, it gives the economy a boost by making exports more competitive. A stronger economy, the argument goes, then starts a virtuous circle and restores the confidence of global investors.

But although this effect is undoubtedly important over the medium term, it does not always seem to hold in the short term. That’s largely because of the pressure currency depreciations put on global investors. Those investors measure their returns in terms of dollars or other major currencies (such as euros or yen), so exchange-rate moves amplify their gains and losses. A sharp fall in a currency can push investors to sell even more of their assets before the boost to exports turns the economy around and attracts new investment.

Bonds are riskier for global investors than local investors, as we can see by a measure of riskiness known as a bond’s “duration.” The duration of a bond reflects the degree to which the percentage return on the bond depends on changes in interest rates. In general, when bond prices fall, interest rates rise, since the fixed payments to bondholders make up a larger percentage of the bond price. The reverse also holds: when interest rates fall, existing bonds rise in value. The higher the duration, the bigger this effect—that is, the more the bond’s returns will move when interest rates change, and thus the riskier the bond is for investors.

Crucially, bond returns—and thus duration—can be expressed in terms of the local currency and in dollar terms. For many emerging-market countries, local currency sovereign bonds have significantly higher durations in dollar terms than in local currency terms. The graphs below show the weekly returns to investors from Brazilian sovereign bonds denominated in local currency, with returns in the local currency (on the left) and in dollars (on the right).


The slope of the lines shows the percentage return on the bond to a one-percentage-point change in the yield—that is, the duration. The important point is that the slope of the red line (which gives the duration in dollar terms) is steeper than the slope of the blue line (which gives the duration in local currency terms). For Brazil, the dollar duration is 8.5 and the local currency duration is 4.3. The same pattern holds in Indonesia, as shown in the graphs below, where the dollar duration is 6.6 and the currency duration is 4.5. For global investors, who care about returns in dollar terms even when they buy bonds in the local currency, these bonds are riskier than they are for local investors, who care only about returns in their own currency.


Exchange-rate changes and interest-rate changes push in the same direction. When yields rise, financial conditions tend to be tighter, so demand for the local currency falls and the currency depreciates against the dollar (at least in the short term). So dollar-based investors lose twice: because they must convert the local currency back to dollars at the lower rate and because the local currency price of the bond will have fallen in response to the rise in interest rates. The reverse is also true. When yields fall and bond prices rise, financial conditions are generally looser and investor flows push up the value of the local currency, such that dollar-based investors gain from both the price rise and the more favorable exchange rate. In that case, confidence that the authorities have things under control will limits the sales of bonds, cushioning the joint movement of bond yields and currency movements. This broad pattern holds for emerging markets as a group.

Think of this effect like a wind-chill factor that dollar-based investors experience but local investors don’t. Global investors have to deal with the effect of currency movements (the wind chill) on top of the underlying local currency returns (the temperature). For this reason, bonds in emerging-market countries tend to be riskier for global investors, who care about returns in dollar terms than they are for local investors, who care about returns only in their own currency. So dollar-based investors stand to gain and lose much more. Emerging-market governments, it turns out, are still vulnerable to ups and downs in global markets even when they borrow in their own currency.

ORIGINAL SIN REDUX?

Original sin, then, may not have been vanquished after all. It may merely have shifted from borrowers to lenders. To illustrate the point, it helps to consider how global investors make their decisions. Major investors, such as pension funds and life insurance companies, have obligations to their beneficiaries and policyholders in their home currencies—dollars, euros, or yen. Many such investing giants put limits on how much risk their investment managers can take—limits denominated in their home currency. Investors may also be swayed by advice from consultants to give more emphasis to recent news.

Such risk aversion can cause problems. These investors hold assets in a wide range of currencies, including local currency sovereign bonds from emerging-market economies. But although their assets are spread over many currencies, they incur liabilities in only one, their home currency. When emerging-market bonds fall in value, the effect is amplified by the associated currency depreciation, which can trigger global investors’ risk limits, leading them to sell their assets. That in turn puts further downward pressure on the borrower’s local currency. If the currency and bond prices both fall far enough, they can set off even more selling by investors.

If that’s the case, then, emerging markets still suffer from original sin, although not in the way Eichengreen and Hausmann originally theorized. Borrowers used to contend with a currency mismatch, as they would take in revenues in the local currency but owe debts in foreign ones. Now, the currency mismatch problem may have moved to the investors, who lend in one currency but must pay their beneficiaries and policyholders in another.

Given this shift, financial analysts should pay more attention to lenders. Commentators tend to focus on the borrowers—their latest current account deficit numbers and budget projections, the twists and turns in their politics—and pay much less attention to what drives the supply of credit. But lenders’ actions matter, too.

THE ROAD AHEAD

How should emerging-market governments deal with the new original sin? One way would be to develop a large domestic institutional investor base that sets its objectives in domestic currency terms and is thus insulated from exchange-rate swings. National pension systems contribute to this goal, and many emerging-market countries, such as Chile and Mexico, have made solid progress in this direction.

But this prescription relies on countries already having large domestic pools of wealth. Some emerging-market countries fit this bill, particularly if they have experienced rapid economic growth and demographic changes, such as an aging population, that increase savings rates. But many developing countries can’t provide such large pools of investors to buy their government debt, at least not in the short run.

They can, however, deepen their domestic capital markets over time. Take South Korea, which has moved past its unhappy history of financial crises. The country has a rapidly aging population and a large national pension fund, which gives it a deep pool of domestic investors to buy its government debt. As a result, bond yields on its debt don’t vary much and the wind-chill effect is much weaker than for other countries that suffered crises in the 1990s. Countries with a history of financial crises can, it seems, achieve greater resilience than in the past.

Many developing countries still lack deep domestic capital markets, however. In those countries, the central bank is often the largest investor. This arrangement creates a dilemma for policymakers. When the local currency depreciates, import prices rise, driving up inflation. Policymakers would normally raise interest rates to fight inflation, but currency depreciation usually signals a weak domestic economy, which argues for lower rates. In most cases, external conditions win out and central bankers are forced to raise rates to tighten policy.

This dilemma has generated a long-running debate on how authorities should combine sound management of the economy with policies to mitigate risks in the financial system. One common approach is to use tools that lean against the prevailing winds. When domestic borrowing is rising rapidly, for example, policymakers can tighten monetary policy to prevent the boom from getting out of hand.

Another approach could be to build up foreign exchange reserves when investors are pouring capital into emerging markets. Recent research by the Bank for International Settlements suggests that building up reserves cools down the growth of credit by much more than one might expect from the normal mechanical effect whereby bonds sold by the central bank crowd out lending by commercial banks.

The big difficulty with any systematic intervention in the foreign exchange markets is that the government in question will be accused of manipulating its currency to boost its trade competitiveness. Such accusations bite hard, especially given the current political environment. International policymakers should perhaps allow room for governments to intervene temporarily in currency markets in order to slow the appreciation of their currencies but not to fix the exchange rate for long periods. But even here, the practical details will be difficult to thrash out.

When it comes to debt crises, analysts often see building up foreign exchange reserves as a distant second best to creating a global financial safety net, a collection of national and international policies and institutions designed to lower the risk of crises and tackle them when they occur. Analysts often frame the choice as one between costly self-insurance by emerging-market economies and a centralized insurance scheme.

But in practice, the arguments aren’t so clear-cut. The traditional reason for building up foreign exchange reserves during economic upswings is so that they can be used in a crisis. But building them up may also dampen the boom itself and thus make crises less likely in the first place.

Policymakers must recognize the importance of global liquidity for domestic financial conditions. It is all too easy for an economy enjoying abundant credit to mistake the cyclical upswing in investment for a vote of confidence in its domestic economic policy. Governments need to be careful not to drink too much from the fountain of global liquidity during times of plenty.

Most important, developing countries need to build strong economic fundamentals if they are to benefit in a sustainable way from open global capital markets. Solving original sin has turned out to be harder than simply following a recipe of good policies, but the success of some countries in putting their debt crises behind them shows that it can be done.

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Kotak Emerging Equity Fund: Discovering hidden mid-cap gems


With the Budget broadly focussing on economic revival and long-term growth, mid-cap companies could benefit from the growing economy in the long run.

Investors with a high risk appetite can take exposure to the mid-cap segment and buy the units of Kotak Emerging Equity that predominantly invests in mid-cap stocks and has delivered consistent returns over the long term.

For instance, the fund has clocked 12.48 per cent and 19.5 per cent over the past three- and five-year time-frames beating the benchmark, Nifty Midcap TRI, returns of 6.9 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively.

Over the past three- and five-year periods, the fund is placed among the top quartile of the mid-cap category.

However, due to the volatility in the short term, in the past one year, the scheme has been in the second quartile. But the fund’s one-year return of 31 per cent marginally outperforms the category average return of 30.7 per cent.

Investors with a long-term horizon can also opt for the systematic investment plan (SIP) route to enhance their returns.

As per SEBI circulars on categorisation and rationalisation of mutual fund schemes, Kotak Emerging Equity moved from the mid- and small-cap category to the mid-cap one. Another scheme from the fund house, Kotak Midcap, which had been a mid-cap one, was moved to the small-cap category and renamed Kotak Small Cap Fund.

Thus, Kotak Emerging Equity is the only mid-cap fund of Kotak AMC, with 65-100 per cent of investment going into mid-cap companies and 0-35 per cent in large- and small-cap companies.

 

Performance and strategy

After containing the downside in 2018, the fund posted good returns of 8.8 per cent in 2019 compared with category’s 2.7 per cent. In the volatile 2020, though the mid-cap stocks took a beating initially, they later staged a recovery in line with the large-cap stocks.

The fund delivered 21.8 per cent returns in 2020, which is slightly below the category averageof 24.3 per cent — this could be attributed to the short-term volatility in the market. That said, the scheme has the potential to deliver higher returns over the long run.

The fund’s investment strategy centres around identifying the hidden growth potential of mid-sized companies. It invests in both value and growth stocks, and follows a buy-and-hold strategy. In general, the portfolio of the mid-cap segment exhibits higher volatility than large-caps.

On the valuation front, mid-caps and small-caps stocks are at a marginal premium to large-caps. However, the fund’s portfolio has an adequate mix of defensives and cyclicals, which can give downside protection when required.

Currently, the scheme has a 67 per cent exposure to mid-cap stocks; the balance is held in large-caps (13.7 per cent) and small-caps (18.6 per cent).

Industrial products are the top sector choice, followed by consumer durables, in which the fund has upped the allocation over the past year. On the other hand, it has trimmed its exposure to banking and finance sectors.

The scheme holds 65 stocks in its kitty. Supreme Industries, Coromandel International and The Ramco Cements are the top stock holdings that have delivered good returns, boosting the NAV over the past one year.

Some of the stocks added to the portfolio over the past one year are Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services, ICICI Bank, Blue Star, Gujarat Gas and Gland Pharma. Apart from the top four-five stocks, the exposure in the other individual stocks are below 3 per cent, which mitigates portfolio risk.

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NRL 2021: Joseph Suaalii, debut before 18-years old, Latrell Mitchell, Sydney Roosters, NSW emerging Blues squad, Brad Fittler


NSW coach Brad Fittler has backed Joseph Suaalii to make his NRL debut before turning 18 and has likened his ability to a young Latrell Mitchell.

There’s been plenty of hype surrounding the teen prodigy ever since the Rabbitohs and Rugby Australia entered a tug of war over his future.

Ultimately rugby league won. But instead of signing a multi-year deal with South Sydney, the 17-year-old sought a release from the final year of his contract to sign with fierce rivals, the Roosters on a two-year deal effective immediately after already agreeing to terms with the Tricolours for 2022.

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Round 1

The Roosters have now moved to gain an exemption for Suaalii to make his NRL debut before turning 18 in September — the minimum age to play first grade.

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‘Genuine excitement’ as Suaalii named in emerging NSW Blues before NRL debut


Suaalii is not allowed play in the NRL until his 18th birthday in August but the Roosters are set to provide the ARLC with a submission seeking an exemption in coming weeks.

ARL Commissioner Peter V’landys said the Roosters would have to provide reports from various tests to prove the youngster was capable of handling senior football, both mentally and physically. They will also be required to show how they are going to balance the year 12 student’s educational requirements and his welfare.

“We will assess it once they give us all that information,” V’landys said. “And they will do that, they haven’t rushed back, they’re taking their time.”

NSWRL chief executive Dave Trodden told the Herald about Suaalii on Friday he was more than happy to roll out the Sky Blue welcome mat for the high school student.

“It’s fair to say there’s genuine excitement about Joseph Suaalii,” Trodden said. “You don’t want to put too much pressure on young guys, but a lot of people are anticipating what might be with Joseph’s career.

“Our selectors identify people across a whole spectrum of age groups who have the potential to be Origin players.

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“Anyone who has seen anything of Joseph, it’s easy to understand why our coaching staff believe he has the potential to go on and have a representative career.

“It’s also introducing him to NSWRL, which would have normally happened last year through our junior representative camps had it not been for COVID.”

Melbourne’s Ryan Papenhuyzen was in last year’s Emerging Blues squad and went on to make the extended squad late last season, only for injury to deny him his shot against Queensland.

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NSW records eight new coronavirus cases including five in the emerging western Sydney cluster



NSW records eight new coronavirus cases including five in the emerging western Sydney cluster as mandatory mask rule comes into force

New South Wales recorded eight new locally-acquired COVID-19 cases on Sunday as a mandatory face mask rule comes into effect.

Two of the cases are household contacts of the Avalon cluster, five are linked to the western Sydney Berala cluster and one is a household contact of a known source in Wollongong.

Three cases were detected in hotel quarantined travellers, out of 18,927 tests in the 24 hours to 8pm on Saturday night. 

More to come.  

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NSW coronavirus cases emerging from hotel quarantine ‘inevitable’, Gladys Berejiklian says, after third infection confirmed


NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says infections slipping through the cracks of hotel quarantine are “inevitable”, after a case linked to the scheme was confirmed today.

Eight new cases were confirmed in NSW, including a nurse from Western Sydney who transported a symptomatic family from the airport to their quarantine.

Whether the healthcare worker’s COVID-19 infection is an overseas strain or a local strain is still under investigation.

One new coronavirus case has already been linked to the healthcare worker’s infection and will be included in Wednesday’s update.

“I don’t think any system can ever guarantee that we won’t have transmission events,” Ms Berejiklian said.

She said what was important was the surveillance of the system, and picking up the cases and responding to them.

“I think it’s inevitable that these issues will arise. We try as best we can to minimise them but it is about the response and the actions of individuals coming through,” she said.

Three hotel quarantine cases this month

The nurse was the third positive case traced back to the hotel quarantine scheme this month.

On December 2, a cleaner working at a Sydney quarantine hotel tested positive to the virus.

Two weeks later, a bus driver who transported flight crews from the airport to their hotel tested positive on December 16.

Investigations also continue into the source of the northern beaches outbreak, which is thought to be connected to a traveller from the US who could become the fourth case traced back to the hotel quarantine system.

Using genomic analysis, NSW Health found a close match between the cluster and a woman who arrived from the United States on December 1 and went into hotel quarantine.

Investigations are continuing into how the virus was transmitted from her to the cases that kicked off the current cluster.

From today, quarantine rules for international air crew flying into Sydney tighten.

Air crews transiting through Sydney will be restricted to quarantining in just two hotels near the airport, down from 25.

They will be monitored by police and health authorities.

Crews had previously been able to apply for a hotel quarantine exemption which would allow them to self-isolate at accommodation of their choice.

‘Clearly there are flaws’

ABC senior health reporter and Coronacast host Norman Swan agreed the escape from the hotel quarantine system was inevitable.

“The reality is that clearly there are flaws in our system,” Dr Swam said.

“You need to do a root-cause analysis of why it spread and shore up why it happened, and try and prevent it next time.”

He said anecdotally it appeared that transporting returning overseas travellers was high risk.

“That needs to be tightened up. Now we have two situations where that has been an issue,” he said.

“The problem with the [hotel quarantine] system is we are focused on droplet spread of 1.5 metres, when there is spread at greater distance.”

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Dr Norman Swan warns that Christmas with family could become a superspreading event.

He said studies in Victoria had shown that poor ventilation could exacerbate viral spread.

Dr Swan said there had almost certainly been more cases directly linked to hotel quarantine, but it had not spread through the population.

Both the hotel cleaner and the bus driver did not pass the virus on to any of their close contacts.



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Thailand Tops Bloomberg’s Emerging Markets List


Thailand and Russia are well placed to be among the emerging-market standouts that could beat expectations next year, according to a Bloomberg study of 17 developing markets gauging their outlook for 2021.

Thailand topped the list, owing to its solid reserves and high potential for portfolio inflows, while Russia scored No. 2 thanks to robust external accounts and a strong fiscal profile, in addition to an undervalued ruble.

The Government Spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri reported today that Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has welcomed the ranking of Thailand as the number one country on Bloomberg’s Top Emerging Markets list, indicating high potential for Thailand’s economic recovery thanks to the government’s economic stimuli and investment promotion measures.

The U.S. media firm has conducted studies on the 2021 outlook in 17 emerging markets, covering Thailand, Russia, China, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and based on 11 indicators of economic and financial performance.

Among these markets, Thailand received the top ranking thanks to the country’s reserves and potential for portfolio inflows.

There remains a worry, especially among poorer less-developed countries, that they’ll be left behind in global vaccination distribution, and emerging markets have certainly taken their share of hits to Covid-era growth, including those like Thailand that are especially dependent on tourism.

That said, Bloomberg surveys show that analysts are penciling in high rates of growth next year for some of those that have been hardest-hit in 2020.



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E.U. Insists on Rule of Law in Emerging Deal With Hungary and Poland


BRUSSELS — European Union leaders head into difficult talks on Thursday to break through a veto by Poland and Hungary holding up the bloc’s budget and a hefty stimulus package, as the two nations attempt to evade oversight that could strip them of E.U. funds if they continue to overhaul democratic institutions at home.

The dispute — which threatens 1.8 trillion euros, or $2.2 trillion, in funding, including money desperately needed for pandemic recovery — has deepened fissures between member states and forced European leaders to reckon with the very nature of the bloc itself.

The emerging compromise, brokered by Germany — which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency — would still tie the funding to adherence to rule of law standards, a win for most member states.

But the legally binding measure would still be watered down. Officials and diplomats briefed before the leaders’ scheduled meeting said the deal would grant Hungary and Poland a statement that would limit the bloc to scrutinizing the spending of E.U. funds. Members would also be able to challenge a ruling in the European Court of Justice.

In typical E.U. fashion, such a compromise would permit the leaders of Hungary and Poland to save face at home or even claim victory. But it would also end the standoff that has delayed the stimulus funds.

A draft statement seen by The New York Times, which could be finalized on Thursday, said that the European Commission would define how the rule-of-law mechanism will work, and noted that it would not be used to discriminate against a member state or encroach on its sovereignty.

The draft would also allow member states to challenge the mechanism in court before it is used. The details make for a lengthy process, postponing any real action by months if not years. That would be advantageous to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, as he faces elections in 2022.

Legal experts were swift to criticize the emerging compromise.

“The draft is unprecedented and legally suspect in that is seems to promise the European Commission will not enforce the new regulation until after Hungary and Poland have had a chance to bring litigation before the European Court of Justice trying to annul it,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science and law at Rutgers University.

The face-off has pushed the building toxicity between the two countries and the rest of the bloc to the heart of Brussels, throwing into disarray painstakingly laid plans for a €750 billion post-coronavirus stimulus package, as well as the regular multiyear budget. Further delays would stop the funds from getting to the nations that most desperately need them, stalling a nascent economic recovery from the worst recession in the bloc’s history.

But the fight has also revealed the depth of the fault lines, at a time when the European Union is trying to band together to fight the pandemic and show a united front in the wake of Britain’s exit.

Hungary and Poland have long been at loggerheads with the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, over their dismantling of key rule-of-law institutions. The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the E.U., has declared some of those policies illegal, but the backsliding has continued. Hungarian and Polish leaders argue that institutional changes are their national prerogative, and accuse the Commission of applying double standards to East European states, describing the rule-of-law provisions as arbitrary and political.

Many worry that the damage being done to democracy in Poland and Hungary is not only hard to reverse, but also detrimental to the whole of the European Union, the world’s richest bloc of democracies.

“Europe was set up as a community of like-minded states, and in its DNA, it doesn’t have this awareness that there may be fundamental breaches of the rule of law within the E.U.,” said Wojciech Sadurski, a Polish and Australian expert on constitutional law who is a prominent critic of the Polish government.

On the ground in Hungary and Poland, the impact of these policies is deeply felt.

In Hungary, Mr. Orban and his allies have led a slow, methodical erosion of the rule of law. They adopted a new constitution and changed election laws to favor themselves. The Constitutional Court has been stacked with loyalists as have high-level posts encompassing public media outlets, prosecutor general, the National Bank of Hungary and beyond.

This consolidation of power has drastically curbed meaningful scrutiny: Elections are free, but they are not fair; much of the news media is controlled by allies of the governing party; the opposition in Parliament is small and has no practical power.

Poland’s judicial overhaul, coming under the guise of a push to exorcise remnants of the Communist-era system, has also drawn criticism from the European Commission, which sees interference with judicial independence.

The battle over the rule of law conditionality comes as Poland is being rocked by a surge in coronavirus cases, as well as a growing protest movement over women’s rights.

Laurent Pech, a professor of the European Law at Middlesex University in London said both countries were following “the same blueprint to undermine checks and balances of power.”

“It starts with capturing the constitutional court, then taking control of the public media, the prosecutor services and the police, usually concluding with a revision of the electoral code,” he said.

As a result, Mr. Pech said, Hungary is now “an electoral autocracy,” with Poland, where the governing party faces more resistance, not far behind.

Since coming to power, Poland’s nationalist-conservative government has taken control of the constitutional tribunal, put the prosecutor’s office under the authority of the Justice Ministry, and set up a new disciplinary regime for judges.

The European Court of Justice has ordered the suspension of that disciplinary body, but in recent months, it has stripped immunity and cut the salaries of two judges who had been critical of the government.

The European Commission has brought several cases against both Hungary and Poland, mostly relating to the overhauls and management of the judiciary. But the process is slow, requiring dozens of people to be dedicated to a case over several months. In some cases, the court’s ruling comes too late.

The Commission and Parliament have advanced cases against Poland and Hungary over serious breaches of E.U. values. The ultimate penalty is a removal of voting rights, but no progress has been made in either case.

A key node in the process lies with the grouping of member state leaders, known as the European Council, where Mr. Orban and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland have occasional allies, chief among them Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

The mistrust generated among citizens and governments in some of the wealthier and more mature democracies is a fresh threat to the bloc’s unity. The so-called frugal nations, which are net contributors to the budget, are leading the charge against Poland and Hungary’s push to skirt scrutiny.

Recent research suggests that citizens in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden are not bothered by their nations’ big contributions to E.U. spending, but feel that some of the receiving countries did not have necessary checks and balances to ensure sound spending. Another poll found that more than 70 percent of E.U. citizens, including those in Poland and Hungary, want rule-of-law checks for fund disbursement.

That pressure is strong in the Netherlands, the most vocal critic of the Polish and Hungarian position, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte faces elections in March.

And while the acutest issues are in Poland and Hungary, rule-of-law problems lurk in several other states, giving rise to concerns that appeasing Warsaw and Budapest might enable more violations elsewhere.

“You can understand the importance of the rule of law when it is gone,” Mr. Pech said. “When you have it, it is much more difficult to value it.”

Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Benjamin Novak from Budapest.



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