Europe on the brink of currency crisis meltdown

The crisis in Hungary recalls the heady days of the UK’s expulsion from the ERM.

The financial crisis spreading like wildfire across the former Soviet bloc threatens to set off a second and more dangerous banking crisis in Western Europe, tipping the whole Continent into a fully-fledged economic slump.

Currency pegs are being tested to destruction on the fringes of Europe’s monetary union in a traumatic upheaval that recalls the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

“This is the biggest currency crisis the world has ever seen,” said Neil Mellor, a strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.

Experts fear the mayhem may soon trigger a chain reaction within the eurozone itself. The risk is a surge in capital flight from Austria – the country, as it happens, that set off the global banking collapse of May 1931 when Credit-Anstalt went down – and from a string of Club Med countries that rely on foreign funding to cover huge current account deficits.

The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect.

They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles.

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Police will use new device to take fingerprints in street

Civil rights campaigners say images must not be added to databases


Photograph: Roger Tooth

Every police force in the UK is to be equipped with mobile fingerprint scanners – handheld devices that allow police to carry out identity checks on people in the street.

The new technology, which ultimately may be able to receive pictures of suspects, is likely to be in widespread use within 18 months. Tens of thousands of sets – as compact as BlackBerry smartphones – are expected to be distributed.

The police claim the scheme, called Project Midas, will transform the speed of criminal investigations. A similar, heavier machine has been tested during limited trials with motorway patrols.

To address fears about mass surveillance and random searches, the police insist fingerprints taken by the scanners will not be stored or added to databases.

Liberty, the civil rights group, cautioned that the law required fingerprints taken in such circumstances to be deleted after use. Gareth Crossman, Liberty’s policy director, said: “Saving time with new technology could help police performance but officers must make absolutely certain that they take fingerprints only when they suspect an individual of an offence and can’t establish his identity.”

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Wall Street halts futures trading amid panic

Stock markets across the world cracked yesterday, forcing Wall Street to suspend trading on a key futures contract to stem panic-selling while Moscow shut for business altogether.

Sharp losses in New York, London, Europe and the Far East raised the spectre that governments may be forced to impose emergency holidays to avert a meltdown across world stock markets.

Before Wall Street opened yesterday, American regulators suspended all trading of Dow Jones futures contracts, which had plunged. Such contracts allow traders to bet on the future direction of the Dow Jones index. The plunge had triggered an automatic circuit breaker, which halts trading to prevent a market sliding into freefall.

Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University, said that his prediction earlier this week that markets would have to be shut down is already coming true.

He said: “This morning, even before the markets in the US opened, the S&P futures fell by more than their daily limit. What I said yesterday has already started.”

A forced closure of stock markets in America would respresent the first time that Washington would have shut Wall Street since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. It would also have echoes of the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt shut American banks during an enforced holiday.

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Banks exploit legal loophole to seize homes

Banks and credit card companies are exploiting obscure legal powers to seize the homes of thousands of people who cannot pay their credit card bills.

In some cases, people owing as little as £1,000 have been served with charging orders – the legal instrument enabling a creditor to order the sale of a property.

The practice has emerged days after Yvette Cooper, chief secretary to the Treasury, called on banks to do more to allow people to keep their homes.

According to the Ministry of Justice, 97,026 charging orders were granted by courts in England and Wales last year, a tenfold increase since 2000.

They allow financial institutions to order the sale of a property to pay off unsecured debts on credit cards, personal loans, store cards and car finance. Some will have been used only to threaten the debtor, or to levy a surcharge on the mortgage to recoup the debts.

Nationwide, the building society, and Northern Rock, which was nationalised earlier this year, are among the most aggressive in using the court orders.

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US chiefs plan troop surge in Afghanistan

American military chiefs are to send up to 9,000 troops to Helmand next year, potentially sidelining the UK’s 5,000-strong force in the southern Afghanistan province. The first of three US brigade combat teams is expected to be operational by the spring. Their main base is under construction alongside the British headquarters at Camp Bastion.

The move comes amid US frustration that the British have insufficient soldiers and helicopters to maintain security and reconstruct Helmand, with the Taliban acting freely in large tracts of the province.

President George W Bush is expected to announce a surge of US troops into southern Afghanistan after next month’s White House election.

General David McKiernan, the US commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan, has asked for at least four brigade combat teams for Afghanistan, but most will go into Helmand.

British sources said the revelation that the bulk of the troops were to be sent to Helmand made it doubtful the British could stay in charge.

There are also likely to be differences over tactics. US commanders are more inclined than the British to call in close air support, which heightens the risk of civilian deaths.

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Top world military leaders meet in Lake Placid


U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top military commanders from four nations – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – flew into the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear this weekend aboard the jumbo jet that is used as Air Force 2 when the vice president is aboard. The group of powerful military leaders met in Lake Placid to discuss mutual security issues, including Afghanistan. Photo: Larry Miller

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and military leaders from several countries discuss Afghanistan and other issues.

LAKE PLACID – Some of the most powerful military commanders in the world met in Lake Placid over the weekend.

Speculation was rife after a C-32, the military equivalent to a Boeing 757 airliner, touched down Friday at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear.

The 155-foot-long jumbo jet, which is used as Air Force 2 when the vice president is aboard, was emblazoned with “United States of America” on the side and parked on the eastern edge of the airport.

“I was contacted by the Department of Defense approximately a month ago, and they indicated they had some foreign dignitaries that they wanted to bring in through the airport,” said Ross Dubarry, the airport’s manager.

Following the landing, a motorcade led by State Police rushed Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top military commanders from four nations – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – to a resort in Lake Placid.

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Financial crisis: demand for gold soars as price tumbles

Investors have rushed to buy gold bars and bought exchange traded funds, worth US$2.8 billion – the biggest inflow on record.

Gold bars - Gold offers safety as the financial crisis rages
Good as gold: investor demand for gold remains high Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND

The onset of a global recession and falling stock markets have triggered a stampede for gold – the traditional safe haven during times of uncertainty.

According to the World Gold Council, exchange traded funds are the main beneficiary of the flight to safety. ETFs experienced their strongest quarterly inflow during the third quarter since SPDR®Gold Shares – the first gold ETFs – were launched in November 2004.

But the Council added that bullion dealers around the world reported an unprecedented surge in demand for coins and small bars. It said that there had been reports outright shortages of gold and high premiums over the gold spot price. The US Mint temporarily suspended sales of American Buffalo gold 1 ounce coins after its stocks were depleted, while UK, German and Austrian coin dealers have also reported an enormous increase in demand during the third quarter, it added.

The average gold price edged down slightly between June and September, to $870.88/oz, from $896.11/oz in the previous three months. Gold traded as high as $986/oz on July 15, the day after the US Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank announced plans for a joint bail-out of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but fell sharply later in the quarter to a low of $740.75/oz on September 11. This proved short lived, however. By the end of the quarter, the gold price had rebounded to $884.50/oz.

Yesterday, gold was trading at $729.20 an ounce after hitting intraday low of $718.20 — its lowest level since September 2007.

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House prices to plummet by 35% – the biggest ever fall in Britain

House prices will fall a record-breaking 35 per cent by next autumn, a leading firm of economists warned yesterday.

The collapse will be the biggest fall ever seen in this country.

The claim, from the consultancy Capital Economics, will horrify homeowners who face being plunged into negative equity.


Not needed: Estate agent boards piled up in a yard in Hull

According to the forecast, around £65,000 will be wiped off the value of the average home. At the height of the property boom last year the average home was worth £186,000. By next autumn it will be worth around £120,000.

Capital Economics had originally expected house prices to drop 35 per cent by the end of 2010.

But yesterday it amended this forecast in the light of recent economic turmoil. The consultancy still expects the same fall, but squeezed into a much shorter period.

Prices are then predicted to stagnate for 18 months before a tentative recovery begins in 2011.

Ed Stansfield, property economist at Capital Economics, said: ‘The sheer speed of adjustment is causing alarm.’


The housing market has been affected by the credit crunch that has frozen the world’s financial markets

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Sir Ken Macdonald: Centuries of British freedoms being broken by security state

Centuries of British civil liberties risk being broken by the relentless pressure from the ‘security state’, the country’s top prosecutor has warned.

Outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald warned that the expansion of technology by the state into everyday life could create a world future generations “can’t bear”.

In his wide-ranging speech, Sir Ken appeared to condemn a series of key Government policies, attacking terrorism proposals – including 42 day detention – identity card plans and the “paraphernalia of paranoia”.

Instead, he said, the Government should insist that “our rights are priceless” and that: “The best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them.”

The intervention will be seen as a significant setback to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who last week saw her plans to lock up terror suspects for 42 days before being charged thrown out by the House of Lords.

It is also a blow to Miss Smith’s plans for a super-database to record the details of millions of people’s online presence, including emails, SMS messages and Facebook profiles as well as the controversial identity card programme.

Sir Ken chose to issue his tough warning about the perils of the “Big Brother” state in his final speech as DPP, days before he leaves his post at the end of this month.

He warned that MPs should “take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can’t bear”.

Sir Ken, who has held the post for the past five years, said: “We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security State.

“Technology gives the State enormous powers of access to knowledge and information about each of us, and the ability to collect and store it at will.”

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Paris to quadruple number of CCTV cameras

Paris will quadruple the number of closed-circuit police cameras in its streets by the end of next year, after President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to emulate London in an attempt to track crime and terrorism threats.

While the Paris metro and rail networks already operate around 9,500 CCTV devices, police have only 330 at their disposal to survey outside public areas. The new plan, dubbed “A Thousand Cameras for Paris”, will raise that number to more than 1,200 – with most installed in high-risk areas and outside railway and underground stations.

The figure is still small compared with London, where each citizen is caught on average several hundred times a day. Britain has about four million closed-circuit security cameras compared with France’s 340,000.

The CCTV drive follows Mr Sarkozy’s pledge last autumn to follow London’s surveillance lead. “I am very impressed by the efficiency of the British police thanks to this network of cameras,” the French president said. “In my mind, there is no contradiction between respecting individual freedoms and the installation of cameras to protect everyone’s security.”

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