More contagious U.K. COVID strain is also deadlier, Boris Johnson warns

BARCELONA — It was a bad end to a bad COVID week in Europe. On Friday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that researchers had found “some evidence” that the recently discovered U.K. variant of the coronavirus, which was already known to be more contagious than the original strain and has prompted an alarming surge of cases and a lockdown in that country, “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.” A 30 percent higher mortality, added his government lead scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, in revealing the assessment by that country’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. He added there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about exactly how lethal the variant is.

Responding to the news, Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel explained that “10 different studies with models show that the [U.K.] variant has a higher risk of death compared to the non-U.K. variants,” but underscored that “these are studies and models, not necessarily clinical trials.” She added that if the U.K. strain is in fact more deadly, it becomes “more urgent to get vaccines out as soon as possible” and that epidemiologists need to more clearly “understand the spread of the variant here in the U.S.”

The variant, which is believed to be as much as 70 percent more transmissible than the predominant strain in the U.S., has been identified in at least 20 states among Americans with no recent history of foreign travel, indicating it is spreading rapidly. The CDC says it could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

The U.K. report hit Spain particularly hard, as new cases there have been spiking since the holiday season ended, with Friday’s announcement of 44,357 new cases breaking all previous daily records. Only the U.S. and Brazil are reporting higher numbers of new cases. At least 5 percent of the cases in this Spanish “third wave” are believed to be the U.K. variant, which the Spanish government’s chief scientific COVID adviser, Fernando Simón, believes will be the dominant strain in Spain within a few weeks.

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The dramatic spike was initially believed to be a reflection of the extended holiday season in Spain, which stretches from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, during which some restrictions, such as curfews and travel between regions, were eased. However, with hospitalizations hitting new highs, epidemiologists realized that the U.K. variant, which first showed up in Spain a month ago, was evident in increasing numbers, and appears to be fueling the rising cases, particularly in the country’s south.

Thus far, the Spanish national government — which has mandated mask wearing in all public places, including on the streets, curtailed hours of restaurant operations and imposed a nationwide 10 p.m. curfew in October — is denying requests from Spain’s regions to set the curfew to 8 p.m. or to impose a full lockdown.

In fact, in the land where tourism is an economic driver, Spanish authorities have recently announced they hope Spain’s tourism will be back on track by late summer, by which time the prime minister believes at least 70 percent of Spaniards will have been vaccinated, a process that started last month.

Patel stressed that “despite this sobering news, we still believe vaccines can work against these variants and be incredibly important, especially for those at high risk for dying from COVID.” But as vaccines may need to be tweaked to address the British and other new variants, Americans “need to triple down on our public health efforts” such as donning masks and social distancing.


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Gibraltar could yet face no-deal Brexit, chief minister warns – POLITICO

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LONDON — Gibraltar could yet face the effects of a Brexit no-deal despite the agreement between Spain and the U.K. to allow the British overseas territory to join the Schengen passport-free area, the Rock’s chief minister said.

Fabian Picardo issued the warning during a House of Lords EU committee hearing Tuesday, where he cautioned that the agreement could fall apart in coming months.

The deal allows for Gibraltar, which was ceded to Britain in 1713 during the War of Spanish Succession, to join Schengen under the auspices of Spain.

That means Gibraltar’s international border will move to its airport and seaport, paving the way for the demolition of the 1.2-kilometer physical barrier that separates the territory from Spain. Management of that crossing has long poisoned relations with Madrid.

The “in-principle agreement”, struck on December 31, is still non-legally binding and must be transformed into an international treaty between the EU and the U.K.

The deal has been submitted to the European Commission, which must confirm whether it can form the basis of a treaty, Picardo said.

Brussels will need to appoint a task force and agree on a negotiating mandate before treaty talks can start with the U.K. government, which is responsible for Gibraltar’s foreign policy.

The Commission must also give its view on the timetable for the talks and could opt for a longer negotiating period than the six months envisaged by Spain and Gibraltar.

“We should not take it for granted that there will be a treaty in six months,” Picardo said. “We have to prepare … for Gibraltar to have to go through a hard Brexit if we are not able to persuade the European Union that there should be a treaty, or we are not able to agree a treaty.”

As part of the process, the Commission will want to be satisfied that arrangements for removing border controls “protect the European single market in goods in a way that will not create distortion,” Picardo added. “So there might be some reinforced alignment in some areas.”

Under the terms of the deal, Gibraltar accepted that it will apply “substantially” the same duties and trade policy measures as the EU, including decisions on customs, excise and VAT legislation, as well as to share reliable statistics on imports with the EU. However, the details are still subject to negotiation, Picardo said.

The treaty negotiations might end up covering many more issues regarding Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU, such as social security cooperation, potentially extending the length of the talks, he added.

Gibraltar’s visa policy could also be aligned to Schengen to ensure safe access to Gibraltar, Picardo told peers. Holders of Schengen multiple-entry visas, allowing them to enter more than one Schengen member country, could be able to enter Gibraltar for 21 days, he explained.

The chief minister also expressed confidence a mechanism to replace the European Arrest Warrant could be agreed, to prevent those fleeing justice from seeing Gibraltar as a safe haven.

More risks lie ahead. Under the in-principle agreement, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, will patrol Gibraltar’s airport and seaport entry points for four years, after which no arrangements have yet been agreed.

If Frontex were to withdraw after that transition period, Picardo said, no chief minister would be able to accept that its role be taken over by Spanish law enforcement authorities because of the “institutional damage” done to Gibraltar’s trust in Spanish institutions in recent decades.

His preferred outcome would be for Gibraltar’s Borders and Coast Guard Agency to take over those responsibilities, provided that Gibraltar succeeds in gaining the confidence of the Commission and Spanish government during the transition.

Spanish politicians have previously expressed misgivings about the capacity of Gibraltar’s authorities to prevent cross-border crime.

The treaty will “no doubt” have a clause allowing all parties to undo the deal, Picardo added, leaving the door open for the British government to exit the arrangements in the future.

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Coronavirus threat in Greater Brisbane easing, Federal Government no longer warns of hotspot

The Federal Government has revoked Brisbane’s COVID-19 hotspot declaration after Queensland consistently recorded no new cases of community transmission.

Many states and territories shut their borders on January 8 to five council areas in Greater Brisbane after six people became infected with the UK strain, linked to Brisbane quarantine Hotel Grand Chancellor.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said there are now no hotspots in Australia, however warned that could change at any time.

“There will be days where there may be a requirement for the Commonwealth hotspot definition to be reintroduced,” Mr Hunt said.

Unfortunately, the Federal revoking of Brisbane’s hotspot status doesn’t mean Brisbanites can travel freely across Australia as some states still have restrictions in place. Here’s what you need to know:

I’m currently in Greater Brisbane, where in Australia can I go?

The only places you can travel to freely without a border pass or quarantining restrictions in place are the ACT and New South Wales.

If you want to go to Victoria, however, you will need to get tested upon arrival and isolate until you receive a negative result.

Travellers to Victoria from Greater Brisbane are now in the “orange zone” category and must fill out a border declaration pass.

You can’t enter Tasmania unless you quarantine for 14 days but a review into the rule is expected on Monday.

You can’t enter Western Australia unless you have an exemption through the state’s G2G pass system.

Queensland is currently deemed a “medium risk” by WA and even when you get an exemption, you’ll have to quarantine for 14 days before you can move freely within the state.

You can travel to South Australia without quarantining, but you must fill out a Cross Border Travel Registration and get tested on day 1, 5 and 12 of your visit.

You don’t need to quarantine for 14 days if you want to visit the Northern Territory but you must fill out an exemption form.

Are there still restrictions in Greater Brisbane?

There is still a mask mandate in place and restrictions on venues, events and gatherings.

You must wear a mask indoors at shopping centres, supermarkets, cinemas, on public transport, in taxis and rideshares, at the library and places of worship.

Social distancing restrictions are still in place for bars and restaurants.(ABC News: James Carmody)

When attending a restaurant or bar, you must put your mask on when entering and any time you leave your table.

You don’t need to wear it outdoors if you can practice social distancing.

Restaurants, bars, and cafes must adhere to the one person per 4 square metres rule indoors and one person per 2sqm rule outdoors.

Weddings and funerals are capped at 100 people.

Private gatherings are limited to 20 people indoors and outdoors.

A visitor ban is still in place for hospitals, aged care homes, prisons and disability accommodation.

These restrictions are in place until Friday, subject to any new cases the state may record.

Is there still a threat from the UK strain

Queensland recorded two new cases of coronavirus on Sunday, both in hotel quarantine and authorities are increasingly confident they’ve contained the UK strain cluster.

There was just one community transmission case linked to a cleaner from the Grand Chancellor, with the three-day lockdown last weekend considered a success.

A woman wearing a black shirt and mask has a baby strapped to her chest standing next to a woman in a pink gingham shirt.
Sarah Crowley and daughter Zara with her mum, Ali, leaving quarantine in The Westin hotel in Brisbane’s CBD on January 16, 2021.(ABC News: Jessica Stewart)

The hotel was shut and evacuated last week and guests taken to The Westin, also in Brisbane’s CBD.

Initially they were told they would have to complete a further 14 days of quarantine, before that decision was revoked last night and travellers were released from the facilities.

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Ian Chappell says Marnus Labuschagne has been ‘extremely lucky’ this summer and warns the tide could turn

Australian cricket legend Ian Chappell says Marnus Labuschagne could yet face the biggest challenge of his career when his run of good fortune comes to an end.

Labuschagne made his first century of the summer on day one at the Gabba, but has been a consistent scorer at number three for Australia throughout the series — but not without some good fortune.

He has been dropped on five occasions this series, many of them early in his innings at great cost to the touring Indians.

Chappell says that run of good luck hasn’t been limited to this summer and will eventually go the other way.

“The consistency Marnus Labuschagne has shown has been incredible, he’s had an incredible run of consistent scores,” he said.

“Now, he’s been extremely lucky, not just this season but prior to that as well. At some point that luck is going to run against him, and that will be a challenge for him.

“That’s the sort of challenge you expect to get as a Test player, and how he overcomes those will be worth watching.”

Ian Chappell says Marnus Labuschagne’s good fortune will run out at some point.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

Despite the warning, Chappell says Labuschagne’s hold on the number three spot is a massive boost for an Australian batting order that remains in some flux.

“The Australian side, really since Ricky Ponting, hasn’t had a good number three or a permanent number three,” he said.

“You had Shaun Marsh who did quite well at times but would have patches of really bad form, and then there was the injury problems. Then you had Usman Khawaja who you could really only bat at three in Australia, and outside of Australia he struggled.

“So Marnus has proved that he’s good enough to do the job. The other thing that impressed me is that he wanted the job, he volunteered for the number three position when there weren’t too many volunteers around.”

A  bowler looks at an opposing batsman as the batsman runs between the wickets
Labuschagne has been Australia’s highest run scorer of the series.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

Chappell was also impressed with how Tim Paine batted in the first innings at the Gabba, in the wake of some criticism of his performance and conduct in Sydney.

“There was a determination to his batting and I thought he played pretty well in this innings here,” he said.

“He’s done a very good job as captain in difficult circumstances, I would give full credit to him that’s he been able to turn things around. not only with how they are playing on the field, but with Australia’s reputation as well.

“I think Tim Paine has to get a lot of credit for how that has progressed.

“I reckon that moment the ball hit the ground when he dropped Ravichandran Ashwin, having had words with Ashwin just prior to that … he probably thought ‘I’ve just made a big blunder’.

“That’s how you don’t let the pressure pile up on you too much. If you set your own standards, whether they be playing standards or behaving standards, then on the days you don’t meet those standards you go away and evaluate.

“That way to me you’re not letting the outside pressure pile up on you.”

Listen to ABC Sport’s live coverage of the fourth Test from the Gabba.

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Twitter boss backs Donald Trump ban but warns of ‘dangerous’ precedent

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey says banning President Donald Trump from the social media platform after last week’s violence at the US Capitol was the “right decision,” but it sets a dangerous precedent.

San Francisco-based Twitter last week removed Mr Trump’s account, which had 88 million followers, citing the risk of further violence following the storming of the Capitol by supporters of the president.

While Mr Dorsey backed the decision on Twitter on Thursday, he said having to ban an account had “real and significant ramifications”.

“Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation,” Mr Dorsey said on Twitter. “They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

The ban drew criticism from some Republicans who said it quelled the president’s right to free speech. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warned through a spokesman that legislators, not private companies, should decide on potential curbs to free expression.

In his Twitter thread, Mr Dorsey said while he took no pride in the ban, “offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all”.

Even so, he added, “While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”

Twitter has introduced a series of measures in the past year such as labels, warnings and distribution restrictions to reduce the need for decisions about removing content entirely from the service.

Mr Dorsey has said he believes those measures can promote more fruitful, or “healthy”, conversations online and lessen the impact of bad behaviour.

The Twitter CEO said bans by social media companies on Mr Trump after last week’s violence were emboldened by each other’s actions even though they were not co-ordinated. But in the long term, the precedent set “will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet”.

Supporters of Mr Trump who has repeatedly made baseless claims challenging Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the November election, stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, trying to halt the certification by Congress of Mr Biden’s Electoral College win.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump became the first president in US history to be impeached twice.

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US politics live updates: Donald Trump speaks at border wall as FBI warns of ‘hundreds’ of cases to come from Capitol attacks

Joint Chiefs of Staff issue statement condemning violence, confirming Biden’s election

For those not super familiar with the US military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the absolute top dogs from all of the various arms of the US military. The kind of generals with more medals than chest to pin it on you see sat around big rounds tables in Hollywood movies when they’re discussing how Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum will save the earth from an alien invasion.

Today they’ve issued a letter calling what happened on January 6 a “direct attack on the US Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process”.

“We witness actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law. The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to violence, sedition and insurrection,” the letter says.

The statement also has this paragraph:

“On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Command in Chief.”

Apologies for the quality of the letter, but you can see the full statement below.

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US Democrats step up Trump impeachment plan as FBI warns of more armed protests

Poised to impeach, the House sped ahead Monday with plans to oust President Donald Trump from office, warning he is a threat to democracy and pushing the vice president and Cabinet to act first in an extraordinary effort to remove Trump in the final days of his presidency.

Trump faces a single charge — “incitement of insurrection” – after the deadly Capitol riot in an impeachment resolution that the House will begin debating Wednesday.

At the same time, the FBI warned ominously on Monday of potential armed protests in Washington and many states by Trump loyalists ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Jan. 20. In a dark foreshadowing, the Washington Monument was being closed to the public amid the threats of disruption.

It all adds up to stunning final moments for Trump’s presidency as Democrats and a growing number of Republicans declare that he is unfit for office and could do more damage after inciting a mob that violently ransacked the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday.

“President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government,” reads the four-page impeachment bill.

“He will remain a threat to national security, democracy, and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office,” it reads.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is summoning lawmakers back to Washington for votes, and Democrats aren’t the only ones who say Trump needs to go. A number of House Republicans may vote to impeach him, while others at least want to vote for censure. Former GOP Speaker John Boehner said “it’s time” for Trump to resign.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, joined GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska over the weekend in calling for Trump to “go away as soon as possible.”

As security tightened, Joe Biden said Monday he was “not afraid” of taking the oath of office outside — as is traditionally done at the Capitol’s west steps, one of the areas where people stormed the building.

As for the rioters, Biden said, “It is critically important that there’ll be a real serious focus on holding those folks who engaged in sedition and threatening the lives, defacing public property, caused great damage — that they be held accountable.”

Biden said he’s had conversations with senators ahead of a possible impeachment trial, which some have worried would cloud the opening days of his administration. The president-elect suggested splitting the Senate’s time, perhaps “go a half day on dealing with impeachment, a half day on getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate, as well as moving on the package” for more COVID relief.

As Congress briefly resumed on Monday, an uneasiness swept government. More lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering during the siege. And new security officials were quickly installed after the Capitol police chief and others were ousted in fallout from the extraordinary attack on the iconic dome of democracy.

Pending impeachment, Democrats called on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke constitutional authority under the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office before Inauguration Day.

Their House resolution was blocked by Republicans. However, the full House is to hold a roll call vote on it Tuesday, and it is expected to pass.

After that, Pelosi said Pence will have 24 hours to respond. Next would be the impeachment proceedings.

Pence has given no indication he is ready to proceed on a course involving the 25th Amendment and a vote by a majority of the Cabinet to oust Trump before Jan. 20. No member of the Cabinet has publicly called for Trump to be removed from office in that way.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., offered the resolution during Monday’s brief session. It was blocked by Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W. Va., as other GOP lawmakers stood by him.

Pelosi said the Republicans were enabling Trump’s “unhinged, unstable and deranged acts of sedition to continue. Their complicity endangers America, erodes our Democracy, and it must end.”

The impeachment bill from Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Ted Lieu of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and and Jerrold Nadler of New York draws from Trump’s own false statements about his election defeat to Biden.

Judges across the country, including some nominated by Trump, have repeatedly dismissed cases challenging the election results, and Attorney General William Barr, a Trump ally, has said there was no sign of widespread fraud.

The impeachment legislation also details Trump’s pressure on state officials in Georgia to “find” him more votes, and his White House rally ahead of the Capitol siege, in which he encouraged thousands of supporters last Wednesday to “fight like hell” and march to the building.

The mob overpowered police, broke through security lines and windows and rampaged through the Capitol, forcing lawmakers to scatter as they were finalizing Biden’s victory over Trump in the Electoral College.

While some have questioned impeaching the president so close to the end of his term, Democrats and others argue he must be held accountable and prevented from holding future public office. He would be the only president twice impeached.

House Democrats have been considering a strategy to delay for 100 days sending articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial, to allow Biden to focus on other priorities.

There is precedent for pursuing impeachment after an official leaves office. In 1876, during the Ulysses Grant administration, War Secretary William Belknap was impeached by the House the day he resigned, and the Senate convened a trial months later. He was acquitted.

Some Republicans warn against impeachment. “They’re not only going to create bad feelings in Congress, they’re really going to create tremendously bad feelings in America,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey.

Still, other Republicans might be supportive.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said he would take a look at any articles that the House sent over. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a frequent Trump critic, said he would “vote the right way” if the matter were put in front of him.

Cicilline, leader of the House effort to draft impeachment articles, tweeted Monday that “we now have the votes to impeach,” including 213 cosponsors and private commitments.

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Philippines keeps investment grade rating but Fitch warns vs vaccine rollout delay

Fitch Ratings warned a delay in the rollout of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines may hurt the Philippines’ growth prospects. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

FITCH RATINGS affirmed the Philippines’ long-term foreign currency issuer default rating at “BBB” with a stable outlook, on the back of modest government debt levels and still-strong growth prospects amid the coronavirus crisis.

However, the global debt watcher acknowledged that the economic impact of the pandemic on the Philippine economy in 2020 was “more significant” than initially expected, “due to the domestic infection rate and government policy measures to curb the spread of the virus.”

“The affirmation of the Philippines’ ‘BBB’ rating and stable outlook balances modest government debt levels relative to peers, robust external buffers and still-strong medium-term growth prospects, notwithstanding the deep pandemic-induced economic contraction, against relatively low per capita income levels and indicators of governance and human development compared to peers,” Fitch said in a note on Monday.

The stable outlook indicates the country’s rating could be unchanged for the next 18 to 24 months.

The government had implemented a strict lockdown in mid-March 2020 to curb the rise in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections, but this severely affected private consumption and investment. As a result, the Philippine economy slumped into a recession, with gross domestic product (GDP) contracting by 10% year on year in the January to September period.

“We estimate full-year GDP to have contracted by 8.5% in 2020, after accounting for an improvement in activity indicators in 4Q,” Fitch said. Government economic managers said GDP likely slumped by 8.5-9.5% in 2020.

The ratings agency said economic activity will continue to recover in the next quarters, with GDP growth estimated at 6.9% and 8% in 2021 and 2022.

However, Fitch warned a delay in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines may hurt the Philippines’ growth prospects.

“The potential for a delay [in vaccine distribution] poses downside risks to our growth forecasts, while an effective vaccine rollout could result in a faster-than-expected recovery in growth,” it said.

While there was a drop in daily reported COVID-19 cases in recent months, experts have warned of a possible surge after the holiday season. On Monday, the Health department reported 2,052 COVID-19 infections, bringing the total to 489,736.

The government is aiming to start the vaccine rollout as early as February, vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. told the Senate on Monday. However, he admitted most of the vaccinations will begin in the second half of the year. Regulators have yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccine in the country.

At the same time, Fitch flagged downside risks arising from the presidential elections in 2022 and the fiscal impact of the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that requires the National Government to increase revenue allotments to local governments.

“Downside risks could stem from presidential elections scheduled in May 2022 that create some uncertainty regarding the post-election fiscal strategy, or from weaker-than-expected economic growth in the aftermath of the health crisis that could make fiscal consolidation more challenging,” Fitch said but added that it expects the medium-term fiscal framework to remain intact.

Also, the debt watcher said the financing extended by the central bank to the National Government is only temporary. “However, ongoing recourse to direct central-bank financing of the budget deficit beyond the immediate needs of the health crisis could undermine investor confidence and financial stability by raising questions about the independence of monetary policymaking,” it said.

The Philippine banking system, Fitch said, continues to be stable, although lenders will continue to show weaker profits this year due to slim margins and lack of outsized trading gains.

“The deterioration in reported asset-quality metrics is likely to accelerate in early 2021 as debt moratoria expired in December 2020, but large pre-emptive general provisioning taken by banks in the preceding year should help the major banks avert significant capital impairment,” it said.

Fitch cited several factors that could lead to a negative rating action or downgrade, such as the “sustained rise in the government debt-to-GDP ratio associated with a reversal of reforms or departure from prudent macroeconomic policy framework that leads to sustained higher fiscal deficits;” and the failure to return to “historically high” pre-pandemic growth rates.

Another factor that could lead to a negative rating action would be the weakness in external indicators, including dollar reserves, current account deficit, and net external debt — as Fitch said such scenarios reflect deteriorating resilience of the Philippine economy to shocks.

“Fitch will monitor the post-pandemic evolution of the fiscal deficit and debt levels, as the balance between fiscal consolidation and ongoing government spending to support economic growth will be an important consideration for the rating over the medium term,” it added.

On the other hand, the Philippines’ rating could be upgraded if the revenue base is broadened; and governance standards are strengthened.

In a statement, Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez, III said the country’s maintained rating shows it remained credit- and investment-worthy throughout the crisis.

“We continued our commitment to prudent fiscal and debt management even as we start spending big on COVID-19 response measures to revive the economy and restore both business and consumer confidence,” Mr. Dominguez said.

Meanwhile, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin E. Diokno noted they were “among the first central banks” that responded to the crisis as they slashed rates as early as February.

“We deemed it important to signal to the market that we were ready to act swiftly and decisively to buoy market confidence, as well as to ensure sufficient liquidity and efficient functioning of the financial system,” Mr. Diokno said.

Given the central bank already slashed rates by 200 basis points cumulatively last year, Fitch said it will have “very limited” space for further rate cuts in 2021. The key policy rate is currently at 2% which is already below the 2.6% average inflation logged in 2020.

S&P Global Ratings also affirmed its BBB+ long-term credit rating with a stable outlook for the Philippines in May last year. Moody’s Investors Service likewise kept its Baa2 rating with a stable outlook by July. — Luz Wendy T. Noble

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US politics live updates: Donald Trump’s second impeachment looms as FBI warns more armed protests to come

Good morning everyone

Hey there folks. Peter Marsh here, ready to bring you the latest from the US as Donald Trump spirals towards another impeachment and US authorities warn of more unrest to come before president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated next week.

Thanks for bearing with us over the past two days while we didn’t have a blog. Appreciate your patience while Emily and I got some rest after an unprecedented week.

But I’m back as of today, so let’s dig into what’s happened over the American weekend, and what lies ahead of us in these next five days.

Thanks, as always, for being here.


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U.N. warns of serious repercussions from planned U.S. blacklisting of Yemen’s Houthis


3 “Strong Buy” Stocks with Over 9% Dividend Yield

Markets ended 2020 on a high note, and have started 2021 on a bullish trajectory. All three major indexes have recently surged to all-time highs as investors seemingly looked beyond the pandemic and hoped for signs of a rapid recovery. Veteran strategist Edward Yardeni sees the economic recovery bringing its own slowdown with it. As the COVID vaccination program allows for further economic opening, with more people getting back to work, Yardeni predicts a wave of pent-up demand, increasing wages, and rising prices – in short, a recipe for inflation. “In the second half of the year we may be on the lookout for some consumer price inflation which would not be good for overvalued assets,” Yardeni noted.The warning sign to look for is higher yields in the Treasury bond market. If the Fed eases up on the low-rate policy, Yardeni sees Treasuries reflecting the change first.A situation like this is tailor-made for defensive stock plays – and that will naturally bring investors to look at high-yield dividend stocks. Opening up the TipRanks database, we’ve found three stocks featuring a hat trick of positive signs: A Strong Buy rating, dividend yields starting at 9% or better – and a recent analyst review pointing toward double-digit upside.CTO Realty Growth (CTO)We’ll start with CTO Realty Growth, a Florida-based real estate company that, last year, made an exciting decision for dividend investors: the company announced that it would change its tax status to that of a real estate investment trust (REIT) for the tax year ending December 31, 2020. REITs have long been known for their high dividend yields, a product of tax code requirements that these companies return a high percentage of their profits directly to shareholders. Dividends are usual route of that return.For background, CTO holds a varied portfolio of real estate investments. The holdings include 27 income properties in 11 states, totaling more than 2.4 million square feet, along with 18 leasable billboards in Florida. The income properties are mainly shopping centers and retail outlets. During the third quarter, the most recent reported, CTO sold off some 3,300 acres of undeveloped land for $46 million, acquired two income properties for $47.9 million, and collected ~93% of contractual base rents due. The company also authorized a one-time special distribution, in connection with its shift to REIT status; its purpose was to put the company in compliance with income return regulation during tax year 2020. The one-time distribution was made in cash and stock, and totaled $11.83 per share.The regular dividend paid in Q3 was 40 cents per common share. That was increased in Q4 to $1, a jump of 150%; again, this was done to put the company in compliance with REIT-status requirements. At the current dividend rate, the yield is 9.5%, far higher than the average among financial sector peer companies.Analyst Craig Kucera, of B. Riley, believes that CTO has plenty of options going forward to expand its portfolio through acquisition: “CTO hit the high end of anticipated disposition guidance at $33M in 4Q20, bringing YTD dispositions to nearly $85M, with the largest disposition affiliated with the exercise of a tenant’s option to purchase a building from CTO in Aspen, CO. Post these dispositions, we estimate >$30M in cash and restricted cash for additional acquisitions, and we expect CTO to be active again in 1H21.”To this end, Kucera rates CTO a Buy along with a $67 price target. At current levels, his target implies a 60% one-year upside potential. (To watch Kucera’s track record, click here)Overall, CTO has 3 reviews on record from Wall Street’s analysts, and they all agree that this stock is a Buy, making the analyst consensus of Strong Buy unanimous. The shares are priced at $41.85, and their average price target of $59.33 suggests room for ~42% growth in the year ahead. (See CTO stock analysis on TipRanks)Holly Energy Partners (HEP)The energy sector, with its high cash flows, is also known for its high-paying dividend stocks. Holly Energy Partners is a midstream transportation player in sector, providing pipeline, terminal, and storage services for producers of crude oil and petroleum distillate products. Holly bases most of its operations in the Colorado-Utah and New Mexico-Texas-Oklahoma regions. In 2019, the last full year for which numbers are available, the company saw $533 million in total revenues.The company’s revenues in 2020 slipped in the first and second quarters, but rebounded in Q3, coming in at $127.7 million. Holly reported at distributable cash flow – from which dividends are paid – of $76.9 million, up more than $8 million year-over-year. This supported a 35-cent dividend payment per regular share, or $1.40 annualized. At that rate, the dividend yields a strong 10%.Noting the dividend, Well Fargo analyst Michael Blum wrote, “Our model suggests the distribution is sustainable at this level as [lost revenue] is offset by inflation escalators in HEP’s pipeline contracts and contributions from the Cushing Connect JV project. About 80% of HEP’s distribution is tax-deferred.”Blum gives HEP a $20 price target and an Overweight (i.e. Buy) rating. His target implies a 38% upside for the next 12 months. (To watch Blum’s track record, click here)”Our rating primarily reflects the partnership’s steady, fee-based cash flows, robust yield and conservative balance sheet,” Blum added.For the most part, Wall Street agrees with Blum’s assessment on HEP, as shown by the Strong Buy analyst consensus rating. That rating is supported by 6 reviews, split 5 to 1 Buys versus Hold. The average price target, at $18.67, suggests that the stock has room to grow ~29% this year. (See HEP stock analysis on TipRanks)DHT Holdings (DHT)Midstreaming is only one part of the global oil industry’s transport network. Tankers are another, moving crude oil, petroleum products, and liquified natural gas around the world, in bulk. Bermuda-based DHT operates a fleet of 27 crude oil tankers, all rated VLCC (very large crude carrier). These vessels are 100% owned by the company, and range in tonnage from 298K to 320K. VLCCs are the workhorses of the global oil tanker network.After four quarters of sequential revenue gains, even through the ‘corona half’ of 1H20, DHT posted a sequential drop in revenues from 2Q20 to 3Q20. The top line that quarter fell from $245 million to $142 million. It’s important to note, however, that the 3Q revenue result was still up 36.5% year-over-year. EPS, at 32 cents, was a dramatic yoy turnaround from the 6-cent loss posted in 3Q19.DHT has a history of adjusting its dividend, when needed, to keep it in line with earnings. The company did that in Q3, and the 20-cent per regular share payment was the first dividend cut in 5 quarters. The general policy is a positive for dividend investors, however, as the company has not missed a dividend payment in 43 consecutive quarters – an admirable record. At 80 cents per share annualized, the dividend yields an impressive 14%.Kepler analyst Petter Haugen covers DHT, and he sees potential for increased returns in the company’s contract schedule. Haugen noted, “With 8 out of 16 vessels ending their TC contracts by end Q1 2021, we believe DHT is well positioned for when we expect freight rates to appreciate in H2 2021E.”Getting into more details, Haugen adds, “[The] main underlying drivers are still intact: fleet growth will be low (1% on average over 2020- 23E) and the US will still end up being a net seaborne exporter of crude oil, making further export growth from the US drive tanker demand. We expect spot rates to improve again during 2021E, shortly after oil demand has normalised. We expect average VLCC rates of USD41,000/day in 2022E and USD55,000/day in 2023E.”In line with his comments, Haugen rates DHT a Buy. His $7.40 target price suggests that this stock can grow 34% in the months ahead. (To watch Haugen’s track record, click here)The rest of the Street is getting onboard. 3 Buys and 1 Hold assigned in the last three months add up to a Strong Buy analyst consensus. In addition, the $6.13 average price target puts the potential upside at ~11%. (See DHT stock analysis on TipRanks)To find good ideas for dividend stocks trading at attractive valuations, visit TipRanks’ Best Stocks to Buy, a newly launched tool that unites all of TipRanks’ equity insights.Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the featured analysts. The content is intended to be used for informational purposes only. It is very important to do your own analysis before making any investment.

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