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Quartz Daily Brief – Americas Edition – Obama in Myanmar, HSBC, SAS, Alibaba-Sina, banana king bust

By Naomi Rovnick
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This item has been corrected.

Good morning, Quartz readers!

What to watch for today

The US reports existing home sales, which are expected to stay steady, a hopeful sign for the economy; also closely watched, though, will be tomorrow’s new housing starts, which are expected to show a downswing.

And the winner of France’s opposition primary is… everyone? The poll to choose the next leader of France’s opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has been marred by vote-rigging allegations, as both candidates claimed they had won over the weekend. The results were still unclear by Monday morning in Europe. UMP has been without a leader since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the May election.

HSBC may sell big stake in Chinese insurer. The British bank is considering offloading its $9.3 billion stake in China’s Ping An insurance. Intriguingly, the New York Times reported that Ping An counts Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives as major shareholders. Wen gave up his job last week as part of the Communist Party’s once per decade cabinet reshuffle.

SAS could stay in the skies. The Scandinavian airline, which has been fighting to stay afloat, has just inked deals with seven labor unions out of eight it has been negotiating with in a bid to slash costs. The airline, which is half-owned by the governments of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, had said a deal with unions on wage cuts, changes to work hours, and pensions must be reached if it were to stay in business.

Rebels close in on a regional capital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Government officials and soldiers are fleeing Goma, capital of the unstable African country’s North Kivu province, where the rebel army is, quite literally, at the gates. UN peacekeepers are staying in Goma, however. Severe fighting between government and rebel soldiers broke out in April. The DRC has vast mineral reserves, and the UN says precious metals fund the conflict. However miners in the DRC believe corruption is a greater impediment to their businesses than homicidal militias. Multinational miners present in the DRC include Glencore and AngloGold Ashanti.

While you were sleeping 

A presidential seal of approval for Myanmar. Barack Obama became the first serving US president to visit the country, in an attempt to show off his administration’s newfound attentiveness to Asia. He has praised the former hermit kingdom’s early reforms, but said much still needed to change. A new investment law was recently passed, but Myanmar remains rife with corruption and human-rights abuses. To show he is not endorsing the regime, Obama has stayed away from the administrative capital, Naypyidaw. In Rangoon, meanwhile, they are welcoming him in true American style: with graffiti.

China’s eBay may buy a stake in China’s Twitter. According to a newspaper report, Alibaba, the owner of e-commerce site Taobao, is planning to buy 15%-20% of Sina Weibo, valuing the microblogging service at $3 billion, against a stock-market implied valuation of $1.8 billion.

More news from the weekend 

Maersk looks for dry land. Danish conglomerate AP Møller-Maersk gave a downbeat forecast for the fate of the global container-shipping industry by signaling that it will switch investment to its other businesses. Nils Andersen, chief executive, told the Financial Times (paywall) his firm would cut back investments in Maersk Line, the world’s biggest operator of container ships, in favor of its oil, drilling rigs, and ports divisions.

Freedom is in sight for China’s yuan. China’s central-bank governor,  Zhou Xiaochuan, who has presided over a gradual loosening of exchange-rate policy, said that the next step for the renminbi would be full convertibility, allowing it to be used not just for trade. China has given strong hints of this in the past, but has been nervous about exposing itself to the volatility that would come with the lifting of capital controls.

Shadow banking is bigger than anyone thought. The size of the shadow banking system, which allows banks to carry out transactions off their balance sheets and avoid certain kinds of regulatory restrictions, is now $67 trillion, nearly 10% bigger than previously estimated. Regulators are trying to come up with ways to keep it under their thumbs too.

No easy ride for Rice. Republican lawmakers are spoiling for what may be the first serious fight of Barack Obama’s second term over the possible nomination of Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN, as secretary of state. They say they will call her before Congress to explain why she didn’t call the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi last September a terrorist act in a statement she made a few days later. The White House insists she was merely repeating the best intelligence from the CIA available at the time.

Quartz obsession interlude

Steve LeVine explains how to do an oil deal in Nigeria. “There are always middlemen, multi-million-dollar fees, meetings in luxury European hotels, and hijinx, because at least one of the parties is usually rough around the edges. The part about the trouble getting paid—that happens fairly often as well.”

Matters of debate

One reason Obama is in Myanmar is to show smaller countries neighboring China that they have a ‘big and heavily armed friend’. 

Though Republicans retained a majority in the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 election, they can’t claim they have a mandate.

If Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party wins the election on Dec. 16, as expected, it may mark a return to the one-party rule that held sway for half a century.

Mourning Bal Thackeray, India’s “charismatic fascist”, who died on Nov. 17, is as complicated as he was.

More US states could legalize cannabis. That is, if Colorado and Washington’s experiment goes well and shows the “sky hasn’t fallen”, drug policy researchers say.

VolatilityGotta learn to love it. Nassim Nicholas Taleb of “black swan” fame offers five rules for doing so, including the gnomic “Rule 1: Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.”

The staying power of Gangnam Style. Yes, yet another very serious essay about a very silly video.

Surprising discoveries

San Franciscans are deeply divided over public nudity. Lawmakers will vote on the issue on Tuesday.

The banana king goes strategically bust. Vladimir Kekhman, a fruit importer who once called himself “the emperor of the banana”, has become the first Russian to declare bankruptcy in a foreign court, in an effort to protect his assets from seizure.

One word: condoms. Malaysia’s rubber industry is perking up, thanks to the insatiable demands of Asia’s growing population of young adults.

Do you own a historic house? We’ll bet you a bottle of 10,000-year-old Scotch that it’s not as historic as this one.

A policeman caught smoking hashish in the United Arab Emirates told the court he was “just going through a phase.”

Nations who consume more chocolate produce more Nobel Prize winners. But can the link be explained?

The real reason why rebel fighters wear beards.

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Correction: An earlier edition of this brief referred to Goma as the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rather than as the capital of the country’s North Kivu province.

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