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May 11, 2010

GLOBAL MARKETS: European Stocks Fall; Bailout Reassessed

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By Michele Maatouk & Ishaq Siddiqi

LONDON (Dow Jones)–European stock markets were sharply lower Tuesday, along with the euro, as investors began to reassess the viability of the EUR750 billion euro zone rescue package.

“Yesterday’s strong rally following the euro-zone bailout announcement has halted as questions marks over whether the EUR750 billion amount will be enough,” said Dolmen Securities, “and while it addresses the sovereign liquidity issues, it does not help resolve the current solvency pressures facing many of the EU states.”

There were also concerns over potential fiscal tightening in China, after the country’s inflation data came in stronger than expected. “These figures will add fuel to the argument that China is struggling to control its inflation and will find it difficult to maintain price stability without undermining its growing economy,” Dolmen said.

By 1020 GMT, the Stoxx Europe 600 index had lost 1.5% to 250.28. London’s FTSE 100 index was down 1.7% at 5296.34, Frankfurt’s DAX index was 1% lower at 5960.28, and Paris’s CAC-40 index was down 1.8% at 3653.66.

And U.S. stock futures pointed to a sharply lower open on Wall Street. The DJIA front month futures contract was down 0.8% at 10,655, and S&P 500 futures contract was down 1% at 1145.3.

In Europe, banking and basic resources stocks bore the brunt of the selling, amid worries about what the austerity measures the individual countries would be forced to undertake in order to receive the cash would mean for growth going forward.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 basic resource index fell 3.3%, while the pan-European Stoxx 600 banks index was 3.1% lower.

Yet despite the decline in banking shares, the sector’s outlook was given some support following a research note by Morgan Stanley, in which the investment banking firm raised the European banking sector to in-line from cautious.

“We feel tail risks from counter-party concerns have been cut off by the EU/ECB’s major package to address sovereign liquidity and solvency. We see valuation support after continental banks have fallen approximately 13% year-to-date,” said Huw van Steenis, analyst at Morgan Stanley.

In the U.K., stronger-than-expected industrial output data for March were largely shrugged off by equity markets, as concerns over the euro-zone bailout package and post-election wrangling dented sentiment.

“Gordon Brown’s speech after the London market closed last night has added an extra dimension of confusion regarding the coalition government talks and raised concerns that these could drag on much longer than expected ??? it is maybe not too surprising that some investors have viewed the remnants of Monday’s bounce as an opportunity to sell and sit things out for now,” said David Jones at IG Index.

In line with the losses in the equity markets, the euro fell against the yen and dollar Tuesday amid the continued threat of more credit rating downgrades to fiscally troubled euro-zone members.

Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said overnight that it will likely make a “substantial” change to Greece’s A3 credit rating in the coming four weeks.

At 1040 GMT, the euro traded at $1.2689 and Y117.31, compared with $1.2775 and Y119.00 late Monday in New York. Meanwhile, sterling traded at $1.4761, weaker than $1.4864 late Monday in New York, helped by stronger-than-expected U.K. industrial production data but still off the $1.50 level seen before investors moved to price in the possibility of a minority coalition government led by the ruling Labour Party.

This followed Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying Monday he would quit in a bid to keep his party in power, opening the floor for formal discussions with the Liberal Democrats.

“If this is a sign of things to come over the next 4-5 years of a coalition government [for instance, lots of foot dragging] then it highlights at an early stage the reasons why a hung parliament in itself is not a trigger for a downgrade, but it does bring with it the conditions that could facilitate such action,” said Alan Clarke, economist with BNP Paribas.

Still to come on the economic calendar, U.S. wholesale inventories data are due at 1400 GMT.

In Asia, stocks markets ended lower as traders re-examined the EU’s bailout package. Japan’s Nikkei 225 ended down 1.1%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index dropped 1.4% and the Shanghai Composite dropped 1.9%.

Among other asset classes, the front-month June crude oil futures contract was down $1.14 cents at $75.66 per barrel on Globex, while spot gold was at $1213.00 per troy ounce, up around $11 from late New York Monday.

Elsewhere, the European sovereign debt markets were higher, rebounding after Monday’s sharp losses, with the June bund contract 0.70 higher at 126.19. However, the U.K. gilt market underperformed, as concerns over the makeup of the next government, and what this means as far as paying down the country’s debt, weighed.

At 1045 GMT, the June gilt contract was 0.15 lower at 116.03, rebounding off the lows after the first gilt auction since last week’s U.K. election met a surprisingly strong response Tuesday.

The U.K. Debt Management Office’s reopening of the 4.25% 2027 index-linked gilt resulted in a bid-to-cover ratio, a gauge of demand, of 2.47 times, data showed. That’s better than when the last time this type of gilt was sold last August when the bid-to-cover ratio was 1.88.

-By Michele Maatouk, Dow Jones Newswires; +44-20-7842-9447;

May 10, 2010

Dams in Laos threaten Asia’s largest waterfall, critically endangered river dolphin

Dams in Laos threaten Asia’s largest waterfall, critically endangered river dolphin

Fisherman on the Mekong in Laos' Siphandone area near the proposed Don Sahong dam. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
March 16, 2009

Eleven proposed hydroelectric projects on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia threaten migratory fish stocks, regional food security, and the livelihoods of millions of people, warns a new campaign launched by environmental groups.

The Save the Mekong coalition says the dams would “block major fish migrations and disrupt this vitally important river, placing at risk millions of people who depend upon the Mekong for their food security and income.” Several threatened species — including the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin and the giant catfish — would be at risk, as would important tourist sites, including Khone Falls, Asia’s largest waterfall. More than 2,100 square kilometers of land — including agricultural areas, wetlands and tropical forests — would be flooded.

Most of the projects are planned in Laos, a poor, but resource-rich country that shares the Mekong as a border with Cambodia and Thailand. The dams would generate more than 20 megawatts of power, most of which would go to cities in Thailand and Vietnam.

“Big dams don’t develop Laos; they destroy invaluable rivers and resources upon which Lao people depend for daily survival,” said Shannon Lawrence, Lao Program Director for International Rivers — a coalition member — and editor of Power Surge, a report outlining the dams proposed in the country.

Khone Falls. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Mekong mainstream dams – like Don Sahong – would be a tragic and costly mistake,” said Dr. Carl Middleton, International Rivers’ Mekong Program Coordinator. “For only 360 megawatts of electricity, Don Sahong would devastate fisheries that are central to people’s food security and the wider economy and undermine the region’s growing tourism potential. In a region where wild-capture fisheries are valued at US$2 billion per year and are of critical importance to riparian communities, these dams simply don’t add up.”

Save the Mekong is urging policymakers to adopt “more sustainable and peaceful ways” of meeting regional energy and water needs. The coalition has launched an online petition and this past weekend opened a photo exhibition highlighting the beauty and importance of the Mekong.

Planned dams on the Mekong

Khone Phapheng, The world’s widest waterfall in Laos

Laos dams: Powering the future

May 9, 2010

FULL VIDEO of Military Parade in Moscow on Victory Day 2010

Military Parade in Moscow on Victory Day 2010 Part 1

Military Parade in Moscow on Victory Day 2010 Part 2

January 18, 2010

Laos: Sex, drugs and inner tubes

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Laos: Sex, drugs and inner tubes

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As Laos opens to tourists, some fear it may be losing its soul. Others are merely losing their bikinis.

By Jonathan Adams Published: January 18, 2010 07:05 ET

VANG VIENG, Laos — Drunk Brits leer at passing female tourists. A Western tourist gets in a public shouting match with her guide.

And stoned backpackers lounge gape-mouthed in cafes, eyes glued to televisions playing looping reruns of “Friends” and “Family Guy.”

“Welcome to Vang Vieng“, one of Laos’ premier tourist destinations. Just don’t call it “unspoiled.”

As this Southeast Asian country opens its doors to tourism, it’s facing a classic conundrum. The poor, underdeveloped country desperately wants to earn tourist dollars. But it also wants to preserve its conservative, traditional ways. Doing both may be impossible.

“It’s hard to keep the balance between development and the preservation of tradition and local culture,” said Thavipheth Oula, an official at the Lao National Tourism Administration, in an email. “The issue is how we can keep Lao identity while the number of tourist arrivals increases.”

In the 1960s,  America waged a “secret war” here against the Pathet Lao communists. Now, the country that once crawled with spooks has been invaded by tourists.

Annual tourist arrivals have tripled in 10 years, from half a million in 1998 to 1.7 million in 2008, according to numbers from Laos’ tourism authority. Tourism now brings in $275 million in annual revenue, up from $80 million in 1998, making it Laos’ second biggest money-maker after mining.

The key draws are the capital, Vientiane, and the temple-studded World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. The latter’s development is regulated — for example, with strict building codes. Well-preserved wats crowd up against hip, new French-Lao fusion restaurants and bars.

But Vang Vieng has no such restrictions. Instead, it’s carved out a niche as a mandatory stop on the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia. And it caters to 20-something hedonists with scores of cafes, bars and riverside debauchery, making it something of a “lost city of sin” in the heart of Laos.

Vang Vieng’s natural beauty is breathtaking: It sits on the Nam Song River amid jagged karst mountains.

The obligatory activity here is inner-tubing down the river. Tourists crowd onto trucks that drive them to a spot upriver from the city. By the launch site, hordes of shirtless and bikini-clad Western tourists gyrate to deafening techno music, as others hurtle into the river from rickety wooden platforms three stories high. As these two YouTube videos illustrate, it’s like the underground party scene from a “Matrix” movie.

Enterprising locals have built riverside bars hawking the national pride, “Beerlao,” and jerry-rigged fly wires over the river. Lao touts tempt passing inner-tubers by throwing lines at them; if you’re thirsty you just grab on and they pull you in.

Such attractions are a big draw for younger tourists, in particular. But they have some wondering whether Vang Vieng has lost its soul.

“Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng,” said Brett Dakin, the author of “Another Quiet American,” a chronicle of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority.

“Tourism has contributed a great deal to communities like these: rising incomes and higher standards of living,” Dakin wrote in an email. “But there is a sense that something has been lost in the process.”

There’s no easy solution to the problem. Oula, of the tourism authority, says restrictions on young foreign backpackers would backfire by taking away much-needed income from the local Lao who run guesthouses, restaurants and other tourist businesses.

Instead, the authority is pinning its hopes on “awareness programs” for tourists and locals. Such programs will “ask tourists to respect and strictly follow the rules, regulations, tradition and cultures of the Lao people,” Oula said.

“At the same time, [we should] educate local people to maintain the Lao identity, way of life, tradition and culture and not imitate tourist behavior.”

For Dakin, a little sensitivity could go a long way. There are some basics in Laos: dress conservatively (that means no bikinis and shirtless-ness in public, a suggestion posted clearly in English throughout Vang Vieng). Take off your shoes indoors. And try not to poke your camera in the monks’ faces at the traditional morning alms-giving in Luang Prabang.

(See more dos and don’ts, and other information, from the tourism authority).

“It’s not hard to travel responsibly in Laos, it just requires a little thought, and perhaps above all the ability to empathize,” said Dakin. “Would you want your visitors acting this way in your hometown?”

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