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OECD economies to shrink by 4.3%

The OECD group of leading global economies and the World Bank issued bleak forecasts for world economic momentum ahead of the high-stakes summit of G20 leaders in London.

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OECD economies to shrink by 4.3%

The World Bank forecast “unprecedented” declines in global economic output and trade volumes this year for the first time since World War II, warning that growth would also slow sharply in the vulnerable developing world.

The World Bank said the global economy would shrink by 1.7 per cent in 2009, while the 30-member OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) said its economies would see a contraction of 4.3 per cent this year.

\’World in deepest recession\’

“The world economy is in the midst of its deepest and most synchronised recession in our lifetimes, caused by a global financial crisis and deepened by a collapse in world trade,” OECD chief economist Klaus Schmidt-Hebbel said.

Growth in 2009 was forecast to contract 4.0 per cent in the United States, 4.1 per cent in the eurozone and 6.6 per cent in Japan, the OECD report said.

The OECD also called on governments to step up stimulus spending to spark a recovery in 2010 likely to be “muted” at best, echoing US appeals that have so far been brushed aside from leading EU states including France and Germany.

Bleak outlook for Asia

The Asian Development Bank meanwhile said growth in Asia\’s developing economies would fall to 3.4 per cent in 2009, adding that the short-term outlook was “bleak” and that more than 60 million people would remain mired in poverty.

The report said China, the major driver of the region\’s growth in the past decade, would expand by 7.0 per cent this year, much below Beijing\’s target of 8.0 per cent seen as the minimum required to prevent mass unemployment.

World Bank pushes $50b fund

World Bank president Robert Zoellick was quick to use the latest economic forecasts as fresh ammunition to push for a new $US50 billion ($A73.63 billion) trade liquidity fund to benefit the world\’s poorest nations.

“G20 backing will help us gain more momentum,” he said in a speech ahead of a meeting in London on Thursday of leaders of the Group of 20 industrialised and developing economies aimed at forging a common front against the crisis.

Leaders gather for G20

Ahead of the G20 meeting, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said world leaders must restore a sense of morality to global finances, while warning demonstrators who have promised to cause severe disruptions in central London.

As leaders set out their positions for the talks, Japan\’s Prime Minister Taro Aso said his country would “play a leadership role” at the summit “so that the world economy can gain smoother access to necessary capital”.

And French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the stakes, warning that France would not accept any consensus that ignored his demand for tighter financial regulation while playing down US calls for more stimulus spending.

US auto industry shake up

A massive shake-up meanwhile continued to roil the US auto industry, a day after President Barack Obama warned auto giants General Motors and Chrysler would have to get their act together before getting any fresh state aid.

The head of Italian auto giant Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, left for Detroit on Tuesday for meetings with Chrysler as the White House gave the ailing US company 30 days to sign a partnership with Fiat or face possible collapse.

Underscoring the severity of the crisis, unemployment in Germany, Europe\’s biggest company, edged higher and in Japan, the world\’s second largest economy after the United States, the jobless rate hit a three-year high of 4.4 per cent.

In France, anger over job cuts sparked another “boss-napping” incident when workers detained four managers from US firm Caterpillar at a plant in the eastern city of Grenoble in protest at plans to slash hundreds of jobs.

It was the third time this month that executives had been held by French workers after a factory run by US firm 3M in central France held a manager for more than 24 hours and the boss of Sony France was detained for a night.

Medibank to shift 140 staff to part-time

Medibank Private has confirmed about 140 full-time staff members will be shifted to part-time work, as the government-owned health insurer merges with an occupational health services firm.

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But a Medibank spokesman says no jobs will be lost as part of a restructure.

“There’s certainly no jobs going today,” spokesman James Connors told AAP.

The Community and Pubic Sector Union said 250 full-time staff had been asked to move to part-time work but Mr Connors said the number was likely to be lower.

“We’re still in consultation and we don’t have a final number,” he said.

“One figure we had was 140. It could be higher but it won’t be anything like 250.”

Mr Connors said Medibank Private was moving full-time staff on to part-time work so more employees were rostered on at retail centres during peak customer periods.

“We’re trying to make our staff more flexible and we want more staff on when members use the centres,” he said.

“We’re not firing people. At the end of this, we’ll be hiring people.”

The union said Medibank Private had asked 250 full-time employees to either accept part-time work or be made redundant.

The ultimatum for full-time workers expired on Wednesday.

“These are radical plans and far more extreme than Australian companies in legitimate financial trouble,” union spokeswoman Nadine Flood said.

Medibank Private, which was established by the Fraser government in 1976, formally merged with Health Services Australia Limited on Wednesday.

The occupational and travel health services firm was established in 1997.

“Rather than just being a private health insurer we’ll be an integrated health service company,” Mr Connors said.

“From today, we’re going to have a private health division and a health services division.”

Medibank Private bought the Wollongong-based health insurer AHM in 2008 for $367 million.

Don’t panic, it’s just a missile

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Document\”> An influential think-tank has urged the world not to over-react to North Korea\’s upcoming rocket launch, saying an “overblown” response could wreck nuclear disarmament talks and even risk a war.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), in a report seen Wednesday, said even a successful test-launch would only slightly heighten security risks.

An “overblown response would likely jeopardise” the six-party nuclear talks and strengthen hardliners in Pyongyang, it said.

Any use of missile defences could in the worst case “risk a war with potentially devastating damage to South Korea, Japan and the world economy,” the Brussels-based conflict resolution group said.

The communist North has announced it will launch a communications satellite some time in early April.

The United States, South Korea and Japan say this is a pretext to test a long-range ballistic missile in violation of UN resolutions, and promise to report the launch to the Security Council.

But permanent council members China and Russia are unlikely to support any strong measures, the report noted.

Japan has deployed anti-missile systems to try to bring down the rocket should it start falling toward Japanese territory, while the US says it does intend to try to intercept it.

The North says that even a discussion of the launch in the Security Council would wreck the six-party talks, while any interception would mean war.

The talks group the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

“The prospective launch fits a pattern of North Korean attention-seeking when faced with stresses at home, political changes abroad or failure to get what it wants in negotiations,” the ICG report said.

It urged the other five members of the six-party talks to agree to “a moderate set of measures that maintains their unity in the face of North Korea\’s provocation.”

The report said the Taepodong-2 missile does not pose a significantly increased risk to Japan, since the North\’s tested and apparently reliable Rodong missile can already carry a nuclear warhead as far as Tokyo.

The report quoted intelligence sources as saying such warheads are believed to have been assembled for the Rodong.

“The Taepodong-2 could possibly reach Alaska but the likelihood of such a strike is negligible, since the North knows it would be devastated in any response,” it said.

“The launch of a Taepodong-2 also takes weeks to prepare; in a time of considerable tensions the missile could be destroyed on the (launch) pad.”

The six-party talks are stalled over differences about how the North\’s declared nuclear activities should be verified.

“Resumption of the talks is still a possibility, but they could be permanently derailed if the missile is shot down,” the ICG said.

New Israeli PM \’doesn\’t want peace\’

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said that Israel\’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “does not believe in peace” and urged world leaders to pile pressure on him.

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“Benjamin Netanyahu never believed in a two-state solution or accepted signed agreements and does not want to stop settlement activity. This is obvious,” Abbas told the official Palestinian news agency.

“We have to tell the world that this man does not believe in peace, so how should we deal with him? Let\’s put the ball in the world\’s court so that it puts pressure on him and assumes its responsibilities.”

Abbas\’s remarks came hours after Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister at the helm of a right-wing government that has said it will hold talks with the Palestinians but is not committed to the two-state solution.

“We will carry out peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority with a view to reaching a final accord,” Netanyahu said Tuesday.

“Under the final accord, the Palestinians will have all the rights to govern themselves except those that can put in danger the security and existence of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The Palestinian Authority said Netanyahu\’s statements “mark a start that is not encouraging” and urged US President Barack Obama – who has vowed to actively pursue peace talks – to put pressure on Israel.

“The American administration should pressure the Netanyahu government to stick to the fundamentals of the peace process, in other words land for peace.

“This means the restitution of all the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem,” Abbas\’s spokesman said Tuesday.

Israel and the Palestinians formally launched US-backed peace talks in November 2007 but the negotiations made little visible progress before grinding to a halt during Israel\’s offensive in the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year.

The European Union last week warned of “consequences” if the new government does not commit itself to the principle of the two-state solution, saying relations would become “very difficult.”

And US President Barack Obama acknowledged that peace efforts under a Netanyahu cabinet would not be any easier but were just as necessary.

Israel committed itself to a two-state solution in the 2003 roadmap agreement, which calls on Israel to halt settlement activity and the Palestinians to halt attacks on the Jewish state.

Afghan bomber kills six

At least one suicide bomb has exploded at provincial council offices in Afghanistan\’s city of Kandahar in an attack that killed six people, witnesses and officials said.

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Three gunmen in Afghan military uniform, apparently attackers, also stormed the building straight after the blast, shooting as they went, witnesses told AFP although this was not confirmed by authorities.

At least one of the assailants blew himself up in a second explosion, the witnesses said. It was not clear if others remained in the building.

Officials could not immediately confirm two blasts.

“There has been a suicide blast in front of the provincial council office in Kandahar,” interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP.

“The area has been cordoned off by police. At this stage we don\’t know if there are any casualties or how many. We also don\’t know if there were one or two suicide blasts,” he said.

At least six people were killed and 16 wounded, national health ministry spokesman Abdullah Fahim told AFP.

Agha Lalai, a provincial council member who was attending a seminar inside the building at the time, said there was “a big explosion” which blew open the gate of the compound.

“Then some people — I don\’t know if they were the terrorists – entered the building and started firing in the hall.

“Our bodyguards fired back. Another explosion occurred. It was like one of them blew himself up as our bodyguards fired at them.”

Lalai said he saw several wounded people, including one provincial council member, but he could not say how many.

A driver who was also inside the building at the time of the attack said a four-by-four vehicle exploded in front of the council offices.

“The three men in ANA (Afghan National Army) uniform entered the building,” Sayed Ahmad told AFP from the city\’s main hospital. “They kept firing in every direction,” he said.

“Six of my friends were wounded and I brought them here to hospital,” he said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack but it is likely to have been carried out by extremists behind a wave of violence in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan.

Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, which leads the insurgency against the Western-backed government and foreign troops in Afghanistan, with support from militant sanctuaries across the border.

The Taliban swept into government in 1996 and were removed in the 2001 US-led invasion.

Last year saw the most attacks since then and last week the United States unveiled a sweeping new strategy designed to defeat the extremists and stabilise the fragile country.

New study backs smoking-SIDS concerns

Babies born to smoking mums find it harder to rouse from sleep, say Australian researchers who have probed the link between cigarettes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

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The Melbourne-based study found babies in homes where the mother smoked up to 20 cigarettes daily, during and after the pregnancy, performed poorer on arousal tests.

Associate Professor Rosemary Horne said the research shed new light on why smoking was emerging as a leading SIDS cause.

“With maternal smoking, even though these babies appeared perfectly well and healthy and normal, they did not have the same arousal patterns as those babies whose mums didn’t smoke,” said Prof Horne, scientific director of the Ritchie Centre for Baby Health Research at Monash University.

“They wake up less, and more of the arousals they do have don’t go right up to the cortex, so they don’t wake up.”

Prof Horne restricted her study to full-term babies of smoking mums who also reached a normal birth weight to prevent premature birth or low birth weight factors from confusing the results.

She recruited 12 mums who smoked routinely throughout and after their pregnancies, and monitored their babies at intervals from two weeks old to six months.

The babies’ urine was checked and traces of cotinine, a by-product of nicotine, were found confirming their ongoing exposure to second-hand smoke.

“It was apparent in the babies even though most of the parents said they smoked outside,” Prof Horne said.

No cotinine was found in the urine of 13 babies from non-smoking households, who were used as a control group.

All of the babies were put through a series of tests to see what would wake them up and this involved a puff of air, in rising pressure, shot at the nostrils of the sleeping infants.

“Their overall arousal was depressed,” Prof Horne said of the smoke-exposed babies.

“We know that nicotine does bind to receptors in the brain and it binds to receptors associated with arousal.”

Prof Horne said studies had indicated up to 70 per cent of children who die from SIDS have exposure to maternal smoking.

“If your face is covered by the bedding … either under a doona or face down, you can move. The babies who die from SIDS don’t appear to have done this,” she said.

“Arousal is crucial, and in these babies whose mums smoked between three and 20 cigarettes a day, it was modifying the arousal process in the brain.”

Prof Horne’s study is published in the journal SLEEP.

Protester dies at G20 demo

Authorities said the man was found unconscious at a G20 protest camp near the Bank of England in London\’s financial district.

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“We received a 999 (emergency) call at 7:24pm (0524 AEDT Thursday) from a member of the public reporting that a man had fallen over and was unconscious, but was breathing,” said the London Ambulance Service.

“At 7:30pm we were informed by the police that a man at the location had stopped breathing.”

He was moved to a quieter area where a police officer started to carry out CPR before ambulance staff arrived to treat him.

They “made extensive efforts to resuscitate him both there and on the way to hospital”, she said, but he was declared dead on arrival.

It was not immediately clear how he died, although some people were injured when a group held behind a cordon near the Bank of England surged against the crash barriers.

Earlier, police and campaigners clashed after angry marchers stormed their way into the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Bottles, paint bombs thrown

Police, many dressed in riot gear, were out in force as thousands of protesters demonstrated through the city\’s financial district, outside the US embassy and in Trafalgar Square.

Chanting anti-capitalist, anti-war and anti-pollution slogans, they were determined the G20 leaders heard their fury before holding talks about the global financial crisis on Thursday.

Dozens of people were arrested after violence erupted outside the Bank of England in the heart of London\’s financial district around lunchtime, local time.

Anarchists smashed the windows of a neighbouring branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a financial giant saved from collapse by the British government, and stormed inside.

Riot police on horses were called in to push the protesters on the street back as bottles, cans and paint bombs were thrown at officers.

Some protesters were left bleeding after being hit by baton-wielding police during the clashes.

Streets cordoned off

Police quickly cordoned off surrounding streets to coral the 4,000 protesters who had converged on the area.

Metropolitan Police commander Simon O\’Brien said the response by officers had been “proportionate”, adding that it was clear some protesters had been “determined to cause violence”.

The violence was condemned from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has travelled to London for the G20 summit.

“When it comes to acts of violence, these are unacceptable on the streets of London as they would be on the streets of Sydney or the streets of Melbourne,” he told reporters.

“People around the world are concerned about the impact of a crisis which they did not cause and its impact on their families and their communities through the loss of jobs, I understand that.

“That does not provide any justification whatsoever to wanton violence.”

\’Financial Fools Day\’

The protest had began peacefully, with thousands of demonstrators descending on the Bank of England from four different directions for what was dubbed “Financial Fools Day”.

Led by the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, the anti-capitalist protesters chanted “build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the bankers on top” and “fight back, fight back”.

Effigies of bankers were hung from traffic lights, while some protesters dressed as grim reapers and devils and waved placards.

Ronnie, a 38-year-old unemployed builder, said many people were “disgusted” at the way they had been treated by governments during the credit crunch.

“They need to listen because the world is in a state,” he told AAP.

Many businesses near the Bank of England were boarded up amid fears they would be attacked, while swathes of office workers decided to take the day off to avoid any clashes.

Climate change camp

Nearby on Bishopsgate, environmentalists brought traffic to a halt on the busy road as they pitched hundreds of tents for a “climate change flash camp” outside the European Carbon Exchange.

Their demonstration remained mostly peaceful, with only a few minor skirmishes with police as officers attempted to clear the road.

The protesters planned to spend the night camped at the site to highlight their concerns about carbon trading and global warming.

Hundreds of other anti-war campaigners also rallied at Trafalgar Square after protesting outside the US Embassy in west London.

A total of 24 people had been arrested by the end of the day, including 11 who had been in an armoured vehicle with police uniforms.

More protests are planned tomorrow when the G20 leaders, including US President Barack Obama, meet for their talks in the Docklands, in London\’s east.

France, Germany defiant at G20

France and Germany have vowed to stand together to press for “non-negotiable” new global finance rules, at a G20 summit clouded by US-Europe tensions over how to fix the global economy.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined their unity in an unusual joint news conference ahead of today\’s gathering of the Group of 20 countries.

“Without new regulations there will be no confidence. And without confidence there will be no recovery. It\’s a major aim, non-negotiable,” said Sarkozy, who did not repeat a threat to walk out of the summit.

Speaking as leaders struggled to resolve differences over finding a way out of the global economic crisis, Merkel said world powers could not wait until a subsequent meeting to take action on a new rule book for global finance.

“The important thing is that we have a new architecture to the world financial system,” she said.

“We must not be content with generalizations,” she said, referring to the final communique leaders are to draw up at the London summit.

Global regulations

While France and Germany are pushing for global regulations, the United States and other major economic powers would prefer to see the London meeting produce guidelines for reforms on the national level.

Speaking of the last G20 summit in Washington last November, Sarkozy added: “In Washington we set out the principles. In London we want concrete things, results.”

When asked about his threat made Tuesday to walk out of the summit if leaders failed to agree on sufficient new regulations, he said: “This is a historic moment and we cannot run away.”

But Sarkozy said Germany and France had nevertheless laid out “red lines” where they wouldn\’t budge, including a demand for action on tackling offshore tax havens and on supervision of hedge funds.

“The 20 heads of state and government must say to the entire world: are they for the end of tax havens or for their continuation,” he said.

“It is very clear that there must be a list and the margin for negotiation is on whether the list will be published right away or in a few days.

“We also want hedge funds to be registered and supervised. The principle is no financial institution without supervision.”

Merkel also underlined her call for new international accounting standards and a framework for pay in the financial sector, putting an end to bonus systems that reward particularly risky behaviour.

“We must not forget how we got into this crisis,” she said.ac

Sarkozy dismissed criticism, most recently by Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, that countries such as Germany and France were doing too little to fire up their ailing economies.

“Germany and France have put everything into (promoting) recovery, we have to fuel that, and we have done that,” he said.

Sarkozy said he was “confident” that Barack Obama, on his first trip overseas as US president, would join the effort to promote a stronger regulatory framework for the way the world does business.

“I am sure that he will help us. I am sure that he understands us,” he said.

“But the day after tomorrow is too late. The time for taking decisions is today and tomorrow.”

Merkel also signalled fresh support for beefing up the International Monetary Fund\’s means to rescue poor countries stricken by the economic meltdown.

“This crisis has created thousands of victims who are totally blameless,” she said.

“We need to ensure fiscal stimulus for those who cannot do it themselves.”

Al Capone\’s family home for sale

A six-room Chicago home once owned by notorious mobster Al Capone and his family has gone on the market for $450,000.

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The brick-built home at 7244 South Prairie Avenue, in the Park Manor neighbourhood, boasts ornate tile work, a cellar big enough to hide ill-gotten gains, and an impressive pedigree.

Listed for sale at $US$US450,000 ($A645,485), the property is priced well above similar houses on Chicago\’s South Side, which normally sell for $US180,000 ($A258,195) to $US230,000 ($A329,915).

But no other home in Chicago can match the history of the modest home that has had just two owners since Capone\’s mother died in 1952.

“I\’m looking for people who would be interested in the historical value of this home,” said real estate agent Patrice Brazil. “It\’s an excellent home, and it\’s in great shape.”

Capone barricaded inside

Records show the Capones bought the home for $US5,500 ($A7,890) in 1923 after moving from Brooklyn, where Al Capone\’s notorious business interests began.

Capone headquartered his bootlegging, gambling and prostitution enterprises in Cicero, Illinois, and later moved them to the old Lexington Hotel at Cermak and Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

But he was a frequent guest of his mother\’s, famously barricading himself inside one December night in 1927 when police threatened to arrest him.

Since 1963, the home has belonged to Barbara Hogsette, 71, who is selling it so she can move to California to be with her son.

Hogsette said she knows the home\’s history might not appeal to every buyer, but charm and character count for a lot – especially in real estate.

“The time is right for me to move on and let someone else in,” she said.

Tropics are a boon for baby girls

It points to big differences in the proportions of male to female births between tropical latitudes and temperate and sub-arctic latitudes.

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This gap remains even when local cultural and social preferences — such as the preferences for males in India and China, resulting in the abortion of female foetuses — are taken into account.

University of Georgia endocrinologist Kristen Navara looked at official data collected from 202 countries over a decade, from 1997-2006, and published in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook.

Averaged around the world, there were 51.3 percent male births to 48.7 female births, she found.

Light and temperature may favour one gender

But this average masked big differences according to latitude: in tropical latitudes, male dominance fell to 51.1 percent of births. In tropical sub-Saharan Africa, it was just 50.8 percent.

“Significantly more females were produced at tropical latitudes,” she told AFP. “This relationship emerged despite enormous lifestyle and socio-economic variation among countries and continents.”

Navara, whose paper appears in the British journal Biology Letters, said more research is needed to explain the puzzle.

She speculated that human gametes — sperm and eggs — may be affected by ambient light and temperature, and this could exert a bias in favour of one gender or another.

Previous studies in small mammals (Siberian hamsters, house mice and meadow voles) have discovered that these animals produce more males during the winter months or when daylight hours are fewer.

In China, the pro-male bias was 52.8 percent while in India it was 51.2 percent, slightly below the global mean, Navara said.

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