Thursday, December 31, 2009

Asian shares bring curtain down on year of recovery

HONG KONG - Asia's markets rebounded during 2009 from losses incurred in the global financial crisis, but analysts warned of further volatility in the 12 months ahead.

More than a year after world economies went into freefall, the Asia-Pacific region has recovered strongly, largely due to the rapid deployment of massive government stimulus measures.

The year saw investor confidence return across the region. Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index ended 52% higher after being stripped by nearly the same amount in 2008.

In China the Shanghai Composite Index surged 80% while Seoul's KOSPI added nearly 50%. Tokyo's Nikkei-225 ended a tumultuous year 20% higher.

However, analysts warned of further volatility in 2010, as the United States and China look to end massive stimulus packages.

"If the economic recovery in the US takes hold, the government will likely exit its stimulus package," ICBC International strategist Ernie Hon told Dow Jones Newswires.

"Additionally, China is already facing a potential property market bubble."

The Shanghai Composite Index enjoyed a huge bull run in 2009 after shedding nearly two thirds of its value in 2008 as the effects of the global financial crisis took hold.

Beijing in 2008 unveiled a four-trillion-yuan (586-billion-dollar) stimulus package along with big tax breaks to boost domestic spending amid the global slump.

But analysts see the Chinese market consolidating in 2010 as the government looks to rein in record lending and surging property prices.

"In 2010, the Chinese stock market may continue to consolidate in a see-saw pattern. Various factors may affect the market including the possible exit from the stimulus package" said Cai Junyi, stock analyst at Shanghai Securities.

Japan saw a volatile 12 months as the country exited recession but saw unemployment hit a record high as prices continued to fall along with wages and a stronger yen battered exporters.

On Wednesday the Nikkei-225 closed down 0.86% at 10,546.44, still up 20% over the year.

A major concern for policymakers in 2010 is tackling falling consumer prices and averting another deflationary spiral, analysts said.

"Even if the performances of individual companies are impressive (in 2010), the overall stock market wouldn't get a boost without confidence in Japan," said Hiroaki Kuramochi, chief equity marketing officer at Tokai Tokyo Securities.

Investors will continue to look to the United States amid signs the world's biggest economy is recovering from deep recession.

"Recent US economic data have been encouraging," said Macquarie Private Wealth Associate Director Marcus Droga in Sydney. "The US market obviously believes the economy is more likely to get better".

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 20% ahead of Thursday's final trading session of 2009.

Elsewhere Sydney's S&P/ASX 200 index added more than 30% in a year that saw Australia hailed as "the wonder from Down Under", as the only major Western economy to avoid recession and the first to ease monetary stimulus amid surging resources exports to China.

However, AMP Capital Investors chief economist Shane Oliver said he expected a weaker 2010 as the after effects of the banking crisis in the US continued.

"That's going to no doubt throw up a few losses here and there," he said.

In India, Mumbai's Sensex index added a massive 80% as the government's economic reforms and coordinated policy actions restored confidence with foreign investors returning.

Singapore's Straits Times Index was 65% higher, as the government declared the end to a severe recession that had emerged in the third quarter of 2008.

The region's other markets also surged, with Sri Lanka 128% higher, Bangkok and Manila more than 60% up on the year, Kuala Lumpur up 45% and Wellington 18% higher.

2010 burden: Philippine deficits and debts

MANILA, Philippines - Each Filipino now owes P47,039 to local and foreign creditors, based on the national government's total debt stock as of September.

A month before that, each of the 92.2 million Filipinos owed P45,889.

The culprit: the widening budget deficit that prompts the government to borrow some more. Additional debts, which address current funding needs but could be paid in the future, translate to more debt burden for future generations.

The fact that the Philippines has been spending more than it earns is not earthshaking. Even the richest of countries have budget gaps. But prudence dictates that this deficit, which is a fiscal policy issue, has to be manageable.

Already, there are concerns about how the Philippines is faring as far as fiscal discipline is concerned.

The Philippines blew past its P250-billion fiscal gap target for 2009, recording a deficit of P272.5 billion with one more month to go before the year ends.

If this year's experience is any guide, analysts believe the country's 2010 budget deficit will also breach the government's official target.


Weak revenues—due to slower economic growth, several revenue-eroding laws, the negative impact of typhoons on tax collection, and lackluster privatization of assets—have been blamed for the wider-than-targeted deficit this year.

Except for privatization, which is expected to pick up steam, the same factors are seen to push the budget deficit above goal in 2010.

Despite the continued deterioration in the government's fiscal position, analysts at some of the biggest banking institutions say it's not as bad as it seems.

The government had set next year's budget deficit ceiling at P233.4 billion, but the country's economic managers are looking to increase this "to incorporate realistic assumptions."

They said more revenue-eroding measures that will take effect next year as well as the lingering economic downturn will take toll on the collections of the government's main tax agencies, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Bureau of Customs.

The government is also expected to spend more for reconstruction efforts following back-to-back typhoons.

Taking these into account, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves said the actual 2010 deficit figure may hit close to P300 billion, the same as their "worst-case scenario" for the 2009 budget gap.

Teves' forecast is in line with analysts' consensus.

Not alone

Viewed in the context of the current economic crisis, financial experts say the country's swelling budget shortfall is not worrisome at all.

Unlike in 2004, when the poor fiscal state of the country was a product of the government's own hubris, the recent global crisis has made a large deficit more acceptable.

According to Metrobank head of research Marc Bautista, the country needs to incur a deficit to be able to sustain economic growth by curing sluggish demand through increased spending.

He noted that other countries are doing the same thing.

"There is room for deficit spending in 2010, the markets all but expect it already, and the Philippines is not alone in this predicament," Bautista said.

DBS strategist Philip Wee, for his part, said the widening budget gap has not really affected the strength of the Philippines , given the country's steadily rising external liquidity, and the peso's stability.

Fiscal consolidation

Nonetheless, the Philippines is eyeing to wipe out its budget deficit by 2013.

The country first targeted to balance the budget in 2008, but pushed this goal back to 2010 due to adverse external developments, including the rise in commodity prices and the onset of the global financial crisis. The 2010 goal was pushed further to 2013 to accommodate deficit spending for the economy.

As the country consolidates its fiscal position, Teves said that the government’s debt as a percentage of gross domestic product will also drop to 46.1% by 2013 from the programmed 57.6% by end-2009.

Similarly, he said the consolidated public sector fiscal position—the combined fiscal positions of the government, state-owned agencies and government financial institutions—will post a surplus during that year.

In the end, the economic managers will be assessed on how they managed the country’s finances. After all, it is the future generations of Filipinos who will bear the burden of today’s folly.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Oscars ballots mailed to voters

LOS ANGELES – The race for next year's Oscars got under way Monday as nomination ballot papers were posted to the 5,777 voters who will decide the movie industry's most prestigious awards.

Voting members of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences receive ballot papers roughly one month ahead of the nominations announcement on February 2. Ballots must be returned by January 23, the Academy said.

A second round of ballots will be mailed out after the nominations announcement where members will cast their decisive votes to determine the winners at the March 7 awards in Hollywood.

Next year's Oscars race is expected to be one of the most wide open in years while the battle for the coveted best picture statuette has been expanded to include 10 nominees.

Recession-drama "Up In the Air", starring George Clooney, and James Cameron's science-fiction fantasy epic "Avatar" are among the leading early contenders for the top honor, according to pundits.

Death toll from ro-ro ferry sinking may reach 42

36 missing, 6 dead in MV Baleno-9 tragedy

BATANGAS CITY, Philippines – Search and rescue operations in two separate sea tragedies in Batangas and Cavite resumed on Monday.

In Batangas, rescuers were racing against time to find and save 36 people who went missing after the MV Baleno-9 sank Saturday night.

Based on its manifest, the roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) ferry had 74 passengers and 14 crew on board or a total of 88.

However, on Monday, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Commandant Wilfredo Tamayo reported that there were actually more than 100 on board the ferry.

A total of 69 have been rescued, up from Sunday's figure of 62.

Thirty-six are missing, 14 more than what was reported on Sunday.

The number of dead bodies retrieved was still at 6, as of posting.

On Monday, some people reported to authorities that they belatedly learned of relatives who were on board the inter-island ferry, which accounts for the higher number of missing passengers.

More missing passengers reported

Paul Angelo de Castro, team leader of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), said some more relatives of the victims went to the Batangas Port to report missing family members.

Sonny Trinidad, brother of missing passenger Police Officer 2 Neil Trinidad, came to the PNRC operation center Monday morning to inquire about his brother.

In an interview with the ABS-CBN News, Sonny said they were only informed of their missing brother through Neil’s girlfriend.

“Nalaman lang namin na kasama ang kapatid namin sa lumubog na barko noong Linggo ng gabi nang mag-text ang girfriend ng kapatid ko kaya Lunes na kami ng umaga nakapunta dito sa Port of Batangas,” Trinidad said.

PNRC volunteers listed Neil’s name on the missing person bulletin board after his relatives claimed that he boarded the vessel from Calapan City last Saturday.

Three of Bona Tan’s relatives were also not included initially on the missing person bulletin, as of Monday.

“Nagtanong na ako sa opisina ng Besta Shipping Lines noon pang Linggo pero wala silang maibigay na impormasyon kung nakasama sa mga nawawala ang mga kamag-anak ko,” Tan said, adding that the ship's staff could not even present her the manifest.

If not for the monitoring efforts of the PNRC, “hindi pa namin malalamang nawawala ang kamag-anak namin,” Tan said.

Meantime, the sixth casualty has been identified by relatives as Hermie An Largado, 22, of San Jose, Bulacan.

The other fatalities are Jenny Cabral Mutia, 36, of Socorro, Oriental Mindoro; Lealyn Peñaranda, 20, of Pola, Oriental Mindoro; eight-month-old Angelica Balanza; Jennilyn Gutierrez; and, June Panagsagan.

Moonlight saves passengers

Meanwhile, several passengers of M/V Baleno 9 said they managed to survive the sinking of the ill-fated ferry last Saturday with the help of moonlight.

“We survived, thanks to the moonlight that served as our guiding light in escaping from the sinking ferry,” Alberto Perez, 25, told ABS-CBN News.

Perez, a resident of Barangay 24 RR Station in Batangas City, was one of 68 passengers who survived the sinking of the ferry off San Agapito point in Isla Verde, Batangas City Saturday night.

“I thought we would die when people fell all over me, but it’s good that the moonlight was bright and I found my way out of the ferry,” Perez said as he lay in bed at the Batangas Regional Hospital .

Despite panicking, he was able to lift up an elderly woman to the surface of the sea before he was able to cling onto a wooden board.

“I was able to push two kids to safety but I don’t know if they survived,” Perez said, holding back tears.

'So many children'

Perez suffered contusions in his chest, legs and arms when passengers fell on top and stepped on him in the rush to get out of the air-conditioned room of the vessel.

“There were so many children, I couldn’t imagine how to save them all,” he recalled.

Perez said he even shouted at the passengers not to panic, and guided them out of the room. “After helping an elderly, I went down in the water again to help others but I was stepped on and almost lost my breath.”

Perez said the incident happened so fast they hardly had time to react upon being roused from sleep. “We woke up only when people were already shouting and in a little while water came rushing in.”

“I weep when I remember the children left inside the ferry, I could only pray for them as I floated in the dark,” Perez said.

Perez added that they were rescued by a passing ship, M/V Reina delos Angeles of the Montenegro Shipping Lines, while the others were saved by M/V Baleno-3 after an hour drifting at sea.

“We are thankful that the moon was bright so the rescuers could locate us while floating at sea,” he said.

Cold sea water

Perez, together with his friend, Michael Palipay, almost died of hypothermia. “The water was so cold. If the rescuers didn’t arrive soon, we might have died from the cold.”

Perez was admitted to the hospital and placed under medical observation after swallowing seawater with gasoline and engine oil from the vessel. Palipay, however, managed to survive.

Perez said they left Calapan port bound for Batangas at around 9:30 p.m., and the ferry sank at around 9:45 p.m.

“When we reached Verde Island the waves were so huge the water entered the front portion of the ferry until we gradually sank,” he said.

Perez said he even saw one family still sleeping inside their van when the vessel sank.

Perez said he already noticed the roll-on, roll-off (RORO) vessel tilting to its portside before sailing from Calapan port.

“It’s possible we were overloaded because there were many vehicles and passengers coming from Christmas holiday in Mindoro,” he said.

Coast Guard officials said they will conduct an immediate inquiry into the vessel’s captain and crew.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

'Clogged' Mayon volcano could burst: expert

LEGASPI, Philippines - Rumbling Mayon volcano in the Philippines is showing signs of becoming clogged with lava and could erupt explosively, a government volcanologist said Saturday.

The volcano, which has been oozing lava for weeks, is also emitting gas and ash, all signs of a powerful eruption any day now, said Ed Laguerta, head of the government's volcanology team monitoring Mayon.

"Mayon volcano is still in a high state of unrest and in the coming days it could still have an explosive eruption," he warned in a radio interview.

"The number of (volcanic) quakes have lessened but now the quakes are of a different variety. What is becoming clear is that it (the volcano) is getting clogged. That is when the lava is rising but cannot get out," he said.

"The edifice looks inflated so we cannot say that the actual activity of Mayon has decreased," he said.

"Just because the volcano looks calm... it does not mean its activity is decreasing. We cannot be off our guard. After this calm period, it could explode with even more force," Laguerta added.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said it had kept Mayon on alert level four, meaning a hazardous eruption may occur within days.

It warned people to stay away from river channels and other areas that might possibly be hit by volcanic mudflow in the event heavy rain falls on Mayon.

The government has evacuated more than 47,000 people living around the volcano, about 330 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Manila, since it began belching smoke and oozing lava earlier this month.

The evacuees are housed in 28 makeshift centres -- mostly government schools -- and could remain there for more than a month until the volcano settles, said Jukes Nunez, director of the disaster preparations office.

There are still a few people who refuse to leave the danger zone but Nunez said they were at the fringes of the zone and were not directly threatened.

However, he warned that the evacuees would need to find new shelters when schools reopen in January after the Christmas holidays.

Governor Joey Salceda, whose province includes Mayon, said in a television interview that he plans to set up a tent city for those who evacuated the area around the volcano.

The 2,460-metre (8,070-foot) volcano, which is famed for its near-perfect cone, has erupted 48 times in recorded history. In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed as lava buried the town of Cagsawa.

You couldn't make it up: offbeat stories from 2009

PARIS, France - Weird, wild and wonderful stories from 2009:

- Anti-corruption officials in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu found a way to literally stop airport workers from pocketing bribes. They issued them with pocketless trousers.

- A Norwegian man landed himself in hot water when police caught him having sex with his girlfriend as he raced at over 130 kilometres (80 miles) an hour through a 100km/h zone on a highway near Oslo.

- Old technology came to the aid of the new in a Brazilian prison, when guards found that inmates were getting mobile phones flown in to them strapped to carrier pigeons.

- Life imitated fiction when paid-for copies of George Orwell's book "1984" were mysteriously deleted from the Amazon company's new electronic reading device. Apologising, the firm said it had not been emulating Orwell's sinister "Big Brother", but had simply realised that it didn't have the rights to sell the title.

- An 11-month-old boy accidentally dialled an emergency number while playing with a house telephone in the Canadian province of British Columbia. When police arrived, they arrested his father, who was growing marijuana plants in his home.

- Farmers who pay individual attention to their cows, notably by giving them names, are rewarded with higher milk production, a team at Newcastle University in England said, quoting the results of a poll.

- Tired of seeing his parishioners give weird and wonderful names to their offspring, a Catholic priest in Croatia offered monetary rewards worth around 135 euros (195 dollars) to anyone who chose good old-fashioned monikers such as Lana, Petra, Luka or Karlo.

- "There's probably no God - now stop worrying and enjoy your life," proclaimed an ad campaign backed by atheists and aimed at London commuters. Religious groups were not amused, but the advertising standards body ruled that the posters were acceptable.

- For several hours a publicity stunt mesmerized US networks as they scrambled to broadcast live footage of the flying-saucer shaped balloon feared to be carrying a six-year-old boy. The parents later admitted that it was a hoax perpetrated in a bid to land their own reality television show.

- A group of Greek anarchists organised a collection to rebuild the newspaper kiosk of a 74-year-old woman that had burned down during a riot they were involved in. "We should support a fellow human being victimised by violence," said the group, which collected 13,000 euros (19,000 dollars) for the woman.

- A British academic who spent seven years collecting the dung of rare lizards in the Philippines was devastated when a clean-up team threw it out of his laboratory with the trash. "To some people it might have been just lizard shit... but to me it represented years of painstaking work," he said.

- Fans of a baseball team in the Japanese city of Osaka scoured a river to pull out a statue of the US fast-food icon Colonel Sanders that they had thrown into it 25 years before. They had hurled the object into the water in the honour of a successful player who they said looked like the good colonel -- but ever since they did so their team's fortunes had plummeted. Recovered from the mud, the figure was duly blessed in a Shinto ceremony.

- Irish police were scratching their heads to find out how a single Polish driver whose name had been recorded as "Prawo Jazdy" could have chalked up so many traffic offences -- until they realised that the phrase simply meant "Driving Licence" in Polish.

- Hoping to symbolise a new era in US-Russian relations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed what was billed as a "reset" button to her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. But the Americans were red-faced when they realised that the Russian word printed on the large red device actually meant "overload".

- A Hong-Kong financial journalist was so overcome with emotion when the shares of the HSBC bank plunged 24 per cent at the close of trading that she burst into tears while on the air. She later explained that she was upset at the consequences for small investors, and did not hold shares herself.

- The local council of a village in southeast England decided not to repair the many potholes in their roads because they forced drivers to go more slowly. The safety-conscious councillors were overruled by a regional body.

- A 34-year-old Briton beat off over 30,000 competitors to win what Australian officials touted as the "best job in the world" -- spending six months as a caretaker on a tropical island of the Great Barrier Reef.

- A British woman won a famous victory -- and lots of publicity -- in forcing a supermarket chain to stop charging more for large sizes of bras than for smaller ones. The group she founded on the Facebook internet site was called "Busts 4 Justice".

- One of dozens of British members of parliament caught up in a scandal over illegal claims for expenses had to admit that he had been reimbursed by taxpayers for installing an ornamental duck house on his private estate. Announcing his resignation, he had to admit that the ducks had not even liked the thing.

- Australian officials in charge of handing out cash as part of an economic stimulus plan accidentally credited the accounts of 16,000 people who were no long living. Local media dubbed the beneficiaries "the grateful dead."

- Roman Catholics in two Swiss mountain villages said they wanted to give up a century-old prayer that asked for the local glacier to retreat. Due to global warming, the request was being answered more than they had ever wanted, they said.

- Fans of the recently deceased US pop singer Michael Jackson started taking great interest in a 3,000-year-old Egyptian artefact at a Chicago museum. The limestone bust, of an unidentified woman, looked uncannily like their hero.

- A regional official in France had to settle a fight between two adjoining Parisian suburbs, which had redirected traffic down a shared one-way street in opposite directions, meeting head-on at their boundary.

- An intrepid museum guard saved a national treasure when floods hit the Philippine capital Manila. He managed to move most of the 200 pairs of shoes once owned by the country's big-spending former first lady, Imelda Marcos, onto an upper floor.

- Another museum, in the US state of Ohio, was upset when what it had thought was a lock of hair from the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart turned out to be only a piece of thread. The International Women's Air and Space Museum had sent it for DNA testing, hoping to find a clue to why Earhart disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

- A six-year-old girl became an instant media celebrity in China when a TV interviewer asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. "A corrupt official, because corrupt officials have lots of things," she replied.

Phivolcs: Mayon's hazardous eruption may happen this week

MANILA, Philippines - The Mayon Volcano's feared hazardous eruption may happen within the week, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said Wednesday.

"Yes. It is possible because the rate of changing from moderate-sized explosion, as we observed yesterday (Tuesday), is quite fast," Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum told ANC's News@8 when asked if the hazardous explosion may occur this week.

Solidum, however, clarified that the Mayon Volcano may still calm down or settle with moderate eruptions during the week. He warned people that the continuous lava flow from the volcano still poses danger and the 6-kilometer to 8-kilometer danger zones should be free from human activity.

As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, the Phivolcs has detected 1,051 volcanic earthquakes, a slight decrease compared to the last 2 days' number of detected earthquakes.

Solidum said the earthquakes' intensities were "consistently bigger in size" since Tuesday and the number of detected tremors is still high, which indicates that the volcano's seismic activity remains intense.

The Phivolcs also observed 66 ash explosions during times of good visibility as the volcano has been covered by thick clouds since Monday.

It said the explosions produced grayish to light brown ash columns that went as high as 100 meters to 1 kilometer above the crater summit. The ashes fell towards the southwest direction, it added.

The agency's observers also tallied 280 "audible booming and rumbling sounds" 12 kilometers to 15 kilometers away from the volcano's crater.

The Phivolcs said lava continued to flow from the volcano's mouth to the Bonga-Buyuan, Miisi and Lidong gullies and sulfur dioxide emission remained very high measuring at an average of 6,737 tons per day.

The Phivolcs also said the volcano has spewed 20 million cubic meters of lava since Monday morning, a day after Alert Level 4 was hoisted over the volcano.

Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) said that as of Wednesday morning, a total of 9,880 families have been evacuated from the danger zones.

The evacuated families are residents of 32 villages in Camalig, Daraga, Legazpi City, Tabaco City, Malilipot, Sto. Domingo, Ligao City and Guinobatan.

The PNP said peacekeeping forces have been deployed in 26 evacuation shelters to secure the affected families.

Pacquiao chides Mayweather: Excuses, excuses

MANILA, Philippines – Seven-time world champion Manny Pacquiao has merely laughed off the drug testing issue being raised by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s saying that the former pound-for-pound king is just trying to excuse himself from the fight.

“Marami lang siyang dahilan, marami siyang dinedemand. Siguro wala pa ‘yong fight, takot na,” said Pacquiao.

The Filipino champion, who recently won the World Boxing Organization welterweight title from Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto, said Mayweather maybe getting nervous with the idea of trading punches with him.

Thus, American boxer came out with a statement demanding an Olympic-type of dope testing.

“Sa akin walang problema kung gusto niyang lumaban. Fight kaming dalawa... pero kung medyo natakot siya -- palakasin muna niya loob niya,” said Pacquiao.

Pacquiao made it clear he has no qualm in undergoing tests. What he’s opposed against is having him to give blood so near the March 13 fight date.

“Require natin lahat pati blood test... pero ‘wag naman doon sa day of the fight, manghihina ka naman noon,” he said.

The Filipino boxing star added that the Mayweather camp may also be using the issue to just to distract him.

“Gumagawa lang siya ng paraan, strategy niya para magalit ako... para ma-distract ako sa concentration sa fight,” said the reigning pound-for-pound king.

Protecting Manny

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, meanwhile, said he called off the fight to protect Pacquiao from the dictates of Mayweather.

''Right now the fight is off. I will not allow Manny to be made like a fool and pushed around by Mayweather,” he said.

Arum said it looks like Mayweather never had any intention to fight Pacquiao.

“We don't trust them anymore. Mayweather never had any intention to fight Pacquiao and he's looking for a way out and to smear Manny's image as somebody who takes drugs,” he said.

Drug allegations first came out shortly before Pacquiao’s fight against Cotto when Mayweather’s father, Floyd Sr., insinuated that the Filipino may have been using performance-enhanceming drugs to maintain his punching power despite his climb in weight.

Pacquiao has repeatedly denied the allegations. All his drugs tests conducted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission have also cleared him of steroid use.

“This is clear harassment on Mayweather’s part,” Arum lamented. “He knows Manny feels weakened when blood is drawn from him.”

The Top Rank head honcho is now eyeing World Boxing Association super welterweight champion Yuri Foreman or former International Boxing Federation junior welterweight champion Paul “Paulie” Malignaggi as Pacquiao’s next opponent.

This comes after Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer, who represents Mayweather, said he will not allow any Golden Boy fighters to fight Pacquiao, the current World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight champion.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Abortion pill cleared for sale in Italy: official journal

ROME - The sale of the RU486 abortion pill in Italy was given a final green light on Wednesday, despite protests from the Vatican and members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

The Italian pharmaceutical authority AIFA had initially authorised the sale of RU486 on July 31, but was then asked by a Senate committee to rethink its decision in the face of objections in this predominantly Catholic nation.

It upheld its decision on December 2 -- and publication of that stance in the online edition of the Italian government's official journal on Wednesday cleared the way for its sale.

Unlike in other countries, however, RU486 -- an alternative to surgical abortion -- will only be administered in hospitals in Italy.

"The debate is not yet over," Senator Donatella Poretti told AFP. "From tomorrow, it has to be asked why Italian women (prescribed RU486) will be required to stay in hospital."

When AIFA initially approved the drug, deputy interior minister Alfredo Mantovano said its decision was tantamount to classifying it as just another drug for treating fever, rather than "an instrument for ending a life".

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, former head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, went so far as to threaten "excommunication for the doctor, the woman and all those who push for the use" of RU486, which he called "a deadly poison".

Three months ago, during a conference in Rome, the French inventor of RU486, Etienne Baulieu, denounced the fact that Italy was "the only major country in Europe" where it was still not available.

Approved in France since 1988, RU486 -- also known as mifepristone -- is manufactured for Europe by French laboratory Exelgyn, which applied two years ago to put it on the Italian market.

It differs from the morning-after pill Norlevo, which has been available in Italy since 2000.

Ampatuans: Billionaires of 3rd poorest province?

MANILA, Philippines - Officially, the networth of the Ampatuan clan's patriarch is P11 million. Unofficially, however, the wealth of embattled Andal Ampatuan Sr., former Maguindanao governor, and his family members, could reach up to at least P1.3 billion.

The official accounting of Ampatuan Sr.’s wealth was based on the 2002 statement of assets, liabilities and networth disclosed by the Maguindanao governor to the government.

Aside from Ampatuan Sr., who has been a politician for decades, other relatives also hold various public positions. Public officials are required to submit an accounting of their wealth for transparency.

Recently, Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said the government is already moving to freeze the assets of the Ampatuan clan and that the Anti-Money Laundering Council has started looking into the assets of the Ampatuans.

She said a freeze order on the Ampatuan's wealth may be forthcoming.


The P11 million official networth of the Ampatuan Sr. is far from the reported assets believed to be owned by the clan he heads.

He and family members are reported to own the following properties:
- 16 homes in Davao City
- 14 houses located in Maguindanao province, divided among family members
- 2 houses in nearby Tacurong City in adjacent Sultan Kudarat province
- 2 mansions in Metro Manila - one in Makati City and another in posh Alabang village.

These properties, believed to be listed under different names, are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pesos.

Billionaire Ampatuan

An ABS-CBN News source said almost all of the houses have vaults that contain weapons and cash.

According to a source from the police, the cash of the Ampatuans, hidden in various locations, aggregate to about P1.3 billion.

Another source said total cash could reach up to P3 billion since the Ampatuans prefer to stay liquid instead of stashing them in bank accounts or other financial instruments that are regulated.

In the latest raid conducted by the military on several Ampatuan homes in Maguindanao, no cash was retrieved.

Authorities suspect the family was able to hide the money before martial law was declared over the province.

Sources familiar with the wealth and investments of the Ampatuans said the family’s personal bank accounts, as well as the company accounts of their businesses, have also been cleaned out.

Poor kingdom

If these are true, the Ampatuans have amassed billions of pesos in wealth while the rest of Maguindanao wallowed in poverty.

The National Statistics Coordinating Board said Maguindanao is the third poorest province in the Philippines.

The Ampatuans own several businesses in the province, including a gasoline station and a pawnshop.

The government is currently studying assets of the Ampatuan clan that could not have been acquired with their meager salaries as public officials.

After the government concludes its investigation into the massacre and rebellion cases against the Ampatuans, its next target is the unlawfully accumulated assets of the clan. Executive secretary Eduardo Ermita said these will be frozen and seized.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Nov forex reserves at record $43.73-B

MANILA - The Philippines' gross international reserves (GIR), its main buffer against foreign exchange shocks, hit a fresh record high in November.

According to preliminary data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the country's GIR grew to a record $43.73 billion last month from the October level of $43.173 billion, which was revised downward from $43.181 billion.

The increase in last month's GIR was due to revaluation gains on the central bank's gold holdings, income from its investments abroad, and inflows of government loans.

The latest GIR could cover 8.1 months worth of the Philippines' import requirements. The reserves are also equivalent to 9.2 times the country's short-term external debt based on original maturity and 4.2 times based on residual maturity.

Short-term debt based on residual maturity refers to outstanding external debt with original maturity of one year or less, plus principal payments on medium- and long-term loans of the public and private sectors falling due within the next 12 months.

BSP Governor Amando Tetangco earlier said that the GIR could reach $42 to $43 billion by the end of this year, and $47 billion by the end of 2010.

He said money sent home by overseas Filipinos would also boost the country's foreign exchange reserves. Tetangco forecast remittances to grow 4% this year, higher than the BSP's previous forecast of flat growth from a record $16.4 billion in 2008.

SC urged to revoke martial law in Maguindanao

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - Several petitions were filed Monday before the Supreme Court (SC) seeking to declare as unconstitutional President Arroyo’s Proclamation No. 1959, which placed most areas in the province of Maguindanao under martial law.

The first petition was filed by Maguindanao 1st District Rep. Didagen Dilangalen, whose daughter is related by marriage to the Ampatuans.

In his petition for certiorari and inhibition before the High Tribunal, Dilangalen questioned the grounds cited by Malacañang to declare martial law in the province.

The congressman said that under the 1987 Constitution, the President can only declare martial law in the Philippines or any part thereof in case of rebellion or invasion when the public sector requires it.

"It is very clear that it says actual rebellion or invasion. There is no such thing as imminent threat of rebellion or looming rebellion. There is no such thing as armed or public uprising in the area," he said in an ANC interview.

The other petitions were filed by the Ampatuans' lawyer, Philip Sigfrid Fortun; Albert Lee Angeles; human rights lawyers belonging to National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL); activist groups Bayan Muna, Gabriela, and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN); former Senator Jovito Salonga and several lawyers led by University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Harry Roque; and, law student Joseph Nelson Loyola.

The petitioners are seeking the High Court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the enforcement of martial law in Maguindanao.

SC spokesman Jose Midas Marquez said all petitions relating to the Maguindanao incident would be discussed by the SC magistrates during its regular en banc session Tuesday.

“It will be included in tomorrow’s [Tuesday] agenda of the en banc. We will try to include all others in tomorrow’s agenda as well. Most probably, they will all be consolidated,” Marquez said in a text message.

Section 18 of Article VII of the Constitution states that the SC “may review, in an appropriate proceeding filed by any citizen, the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or the extension thereof, and must promulgate its decision thereon within thirty days from its filing.”

Other petitions

In his petition, Fortun argued that the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao has no factual basis as no actual rebellion or invasion exist, and that the local judicial system that has jurisdiction over Maguindanao is fully operational, contrary to Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera's claim.

He also cited Section 18 of the Constitution which allows the President to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the country under martial law for a period not exceeding 60 days “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.”

Fortun insisted that even imminent danger of rebellion does not exist in Maguindanao considering that the government has assured that it has full control of the situation following the declaration of a state of emergency and the corresponding take over of the province by government authorities.

Fortun also noted that the Ampatuans had already signified that they were willing to cooperate with the authorities in connection with the massacre of 57 civilians, including 30 journalists.

“No danger of retaliation or tumultuous uprising from the Ampatuans could therefore be expected. Thus, the claim of the government that supporters of, or the Ampatuans were brewing a plan to publicly rise and take up arms against it is pure speculation and conjecture,” Fortun said.

'No sufficient factual basis'

On the other hand, the NUPL and its co-petitioners argued that the claim of the government that there were heavily-armed groups that have established positions in some areas in Maguindanao has not been confirmed by other sources except by military and executive officials.

“As of this filing, however, no arrest or even a single encounter has happened between military troops and the so-called ‘heavily armed groups in the province of Maguindanao that have established positions to resist government troops, thereby depriving the Executive of its powers and prerogatives to enforce laws and to maintain public order and safety’ claimed by Malacañang to be present in the province and used as a reason in the issuance of Proclamation No. 1959,” the petitioners said.

They noted that even the full text of Proclamation No. 1959 fails to state any sufficient factual basis for the declaration of martial law.

The petitioners said mere allegations about the alleged deterioration of the condition of peace and order in Maguindanao, to the extent that the local judicial system and other government mechanisms in the province are not functioning, are not enough bases for a declaration of martial law.

The petitioners also stressed that there was no instance, since the Maguindanao massacre happened, wherein President Arroyo as been deprived of any of her powers or prerogatives since she was able to exercise her powers as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines by issuing Proclamation No. 1946.

“The proclamation of martial law and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus are not a substitute for the incompetence of the authorities in the immediate arrest and detention of the butchers in the Ampatuan town massacre,” the petitioners said.

“Abuse of discretion”

Meanwhile, Salonga’s group also maintained that President Arroyo abused her discretion in declaring martial in Maguindanao considering that the massacre in Ampatuan town is a police matter already addressed by her earlier declaration of a state of emergency, which also covered the province.

“There is no one to blame for the breakdown of government functions in Maguindanao but the Arroyo administration itself, since from November 27, 2009, it had shut down government offices in the province and placed them under the control and supervision of Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno," they argued.

They noted that the alleged acts of rebellion by the Ampatuans had already been quashed with the confiscation by the police and the military of huge caches of arms, explosives and ammunition.

Rebellion charges filed

Meanwhile, Devanadera said the Philippine National Police has already filed a formal complaint of rebellion against 24 individuals including former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Datu Zaldy Ampatuan.

Devanadera said a panel of prosecutors led by Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera are still conducting inquest proceedings to determine whether there is probable cause to file rebellion charges against them before the trial court.

“The prosecutors are still conducting inquest proceedings. I don’t want to preempt their findings. If the evidence would warrant the filing of a case, then we will file it. If not, then they will be released,” she said.

The prosecutors have three days or until Tuesday to “judicially charge” those persons arrested during the implementation of martial law.

Aside from the petitions seeking the lifting of Proclamation No. 1959, the other issues to be tackled by the SC are the petitions filed by ARMM Gov. Ampatuan and other ARMM officials on the following:

  • seeking to enjoin government authorities from taking control of the region and suspending local officials and employees accused of having involvement in the November 23 massacre;
  • the petition of the Ampatuans seeking the issuance of TRO to enjoin authorities from arresting them without a warrant; and,
  • the motion of the Department of Justice seeking the transfer of the court proceedings involving the Maguindanao massacre to any court in Metro Manila.