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Britain becomes ‘never, never land’ as personal debt runs out of control

David Prosser, The Independent
UK borrowers account for one third of unsecured debt in western Europe
On average, a Briton has twice the debt of a European
Total consumer debt in the UK is at a record £1.3 trillion
New debt last year came to an unprecedented £215bn
Citizens Advice faced 1.25 million new debt cases last year – the figure is rising
Britain’s “buy now, pay later” consumer culture has led to unprecedented levels of personal debt. The average Briton now has more than twice as much unsecured borrowing – including overdrafts, personal loans and credit card debt – as the typical European, according to a report published by Datamonitor.
(28 Sept 2006)
See also: A precarious situation – especially if house prices crash

The Chinese bank puzzle

Sinclair Stewart, The Globe and Mail
The world’s largest IPO is still a month away, but Ding Qiang is already mapping out his strategy. It’s not the money that’s the problem — the veteran Beijing stock investor has more than $300,000 (U.S.) of his own cash waiting at the ready — but getting the opportunity to spend all of it.

China has been staging a series of progressively larger initial public offerings for its Big Four banks, and the attendant investor frenzy, some would say madness, is escalating in lockstep, conjuring images of the gold rush spawned by the Internet boom.

Hong Kong bank branches have resembled movie theatres on opening night, with lineups queuing out the door as hopeful investors jockey to buy shares. Such is the unabashed confidence in the prospects for these banks that one woman reportedly plowed three times her annual salary into Bank of China’s $11.2-billion offering in June. China Merchants Bank, a smaller player, was so overwhelmed by the response to its $2.4-billion IPO this month that retail orders were oversubscribed by nearly 270 times. …

Lurking behind this infectious enthusiasm, however, is the bigger question of whether China’s state-owned banks, riven as they have been by fraud, largesse, and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of bad loans, are stable enough to be foisted onto public shareholders.
(30 Sept 2006)

How America grows: A tale of two cities

Brad Knickerbocker and Daniel B. Wood, Christian Science Monitor
Gilbert, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have approached expansion in two very different ways.
PORTLAND, ORE., AND GILBERT, ARIZ. – As US population grows inexorably toward 300 million, there are two visions for the future of American towns and cities. Although very different, each seeks to create a sense of community, a sense of place where none existed before.

One focuses on downtown areas – often run-down, sometimes left as polluted industrial “brownfields.” This new kind of urban renewal is seen in places like the trendy Pearl district in Portland, Ore.

The other vision – the most dominant one – is found among the tile-roofed homes mushrooming outward from the nation’s fastest-growing city, Gilbert, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. As recently as 1970, there were fewer than 2,000 people in this former agricultural town once called the “Hay Capital of the World.” Today, the population is some 180,000; it’s projected to peak above 300,000.
(3 Oct 2006)
Long thoughtful piece. Previous articles in the series:
Part 1 – 09/12/06 Is a bigger nation richer?
Part 2 – 09/19/06A rising mix of immigrants
Part 3 – 09/26/06The environmental load of 300 million: How heavy?
Related: Traffic, housing costs force commuters to alter routines (USA Today)

Infrastructure vulnerable to hacker attacks

Bob Keefe, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In June 1982, in a remote patch of Russian wilderness, a huge explosion ripped apart a trans-Siberian pipeline.

It wasn’t a bomb that destroyed the natural gas pipeline and sent shock waves through the economy of what was then the Soviet Union. Instead, it was a software virus created by the CIA, according to a book by Thomas Reed, a former U.S. Air Force secretary and National Security Council member.

The virus took over the computers controlling valves and pumps, increasing the pressure until the pipeline was ripped apart by a blast equal to 3,000 tons of TNT.

The secret attack was one of the first known hacker strikes on a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA, network. Computer security experts say it won’t be the last.

Across America and around the world, SCADA networks control nuclear power stations, water and gas lines, chemical plants and other critical infrastructure. Many of them could be just as vulnerable today to attacks from computer hackers — or terrorists — as the Soviet system was nearly 25 years ago.
(1 Oct 2006)

Jamaican government admits received $31 million from oil firm

Jamaica Gleaner
The leadership of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP), including retired Prime Minister P.J. Patterson huddled on the weekend to strategise its way out of a potentially damaging position, brought on by the disclosure that the party received a donation of $31 million from a Dutch oil trading firm that does business with government. ..

The allegation is that money from the CCOC account was used to finance the PNP’s recent annual conference, which has drawn sharp reprimand from private sector groups. But the PNP responded that the money from the Dutch benefactor was a donation, which the firm denied on Friday, stating that the relationship with the Jamaica was strictly commercial. ..

While the party has been tight-lipped on the likely fallout, comments by several officials betray concern and displeasure at the developments. Several insist on the shedding of political blood to allay public discomfort and enhance the part’s chance of winning the impending general election.
(8 Oct 2006)