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Police suspect Netanyahu associate of trying to bribe judge

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Israeli police on Tuesday said they suspect a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of offering a sitting judge a top posting in exchange for dropping a corruption case against Netanyahu’s wife.

The development marks the latest scandal to engulf the beleaguered Israeli leader’s inner circle. Netanyahu already stands accused of bribery in two other cases.

Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman of the Netanyahu family, is suspected of suggesting to Judge Hila Gerstel that she could be appointed attorney general if she killed a pending case against Sara Netanyahu’s excessive household spending.

The offer never materialized.

Earlier, police named Hefetz as one of two Netanyahu associates under arrest for their suspected role in a separate wide-ranging corruption probe.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says the latest charges against him were merely a continuation of a wider media orchestrated witch hunt against him and his family.

“Nir Hefetz never presented this ludicrous offer to the prime minister and his wife, he was never asked by them to make such an offer and we can’t imagine that Hefetz would even imagine such a thing,” Netanyahu said.

Earlier Tuesday, with an initial gag order lifted, police identified Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the former director of the communications ministry under Netanyahu, as the two suspects in promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company, in return for favorable coverage of Netanyahu in a highly popular subsidiary news site.

Netanyahu, who held the communications portfolio until last year, has not yet been named as a suspect in the case but is expected to be questioned.

Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch is also in custody, along with his wife, son and other top Bezeq executives. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.

The new probe comes days after police announced there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Netanyahu is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, police say Netanyahu had operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman.

In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper’s main rival in return for more favorable coverage.

Netanyahu has long accused the Israeli press corps of being biased against him and has taken steps to counter it by promoting more sympathetic outlets to him.

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China prepares for a big annual meeting to chart a growth strategy

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Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the National Day reception on the eve of the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, China September 30, 2020.

Thomas Peter | Reuters

BEIJING — The Chinese government is set to kick off an annual parliamentary meeting this week for approving national priorities for 2021.

The gathering of delegates, known as the “Two Sessions,” has overseen such changes as President Xi Jinping‘s abolition of term limits in 2018 and the proposal for a new security law for Hong Kong last year.

The otherwise generally symbolic meeting takes on particular significance this year as it marks the beginning of China’s five-year development plan — the 14th such in the country’s history — and the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party.

Authorities are expected to lay out details on topics ranging from employment targets to management of the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong.

Such comments will come as Beijing seeks to show progress on development promises made to the country of 1.4 billion people, and build up China’s competitiveness in a world shocked by the coronavirus pandemic and growing wary of the Asian giant’s rise.

No specific GDP target expected

Li-Gang Liu, managing director and chief China economist at Citi Research, said in a note that if the report lays out a GDP target directly or indirectly, the figure could top 7%. That’s according to growth goals announced by different Chinese provinces and a commitment to double GDP from its level in 2010, Liu said.

On monetary policy, although authorities have emphasized they will not abruptly reverse stimulus policies, “we expect China’s monetary policy conditions will visibly tighten this year,” Liu added.

China’s economy grew by 2.3% last year, despite the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, as authorities rushed to control the domestic spread of the virus and support businesses with tax cuts and cheaper loans. That GDP growth followed expansion of 6.0% in 2019, according to official figures.

On employment, economists generally anticipate China will aim to create more than 10 million new urban jobs this year, up from 9 million last year.

A plan for the next five years

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How much I overpaid buying things in bitcoin in 2017

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Four years ago, I attempted to live off bitcoin for a week and failed. It was too hard to find businesses that would accept it as a form of payment.

Bitcoin was trading in the $2,500 range at the time in 2017. Later that year, it soared to a then-record high of nearly $20,000. In 2018, it lost 80% of its value.

With bitcoin soaring 2,220% since the days of $2,500 per coin — most recently surpassing $58,000 — I decided to put it to the test, again.

But before I embarked on my new adventure, I looked back at the things I was able to pay for in bitcoin in 2017, and how much that amount of bitcoin would be worth at last month’s record prices.

Ouch!

How much I overpaid

Apps make it easier now

In 2017, I found it difficult to buy coffee directly using bitcoin. In 2021, it’s possible thanks to Bakkt Cash, a digital currency platform that Starbucks is testing out via a limited program.

That’s probably one of the biggest changes from four years ago, a growing number of third-party apps that make it easier to spend your bitcoin. Instead of putting a credit card into the apps, you opt to pay with bitcoin. Generally, the apps show you prices in dollars and draw on your bitcoin as the payment source.

Flexa, which bills itself as the “most fraud-proof payments network,” said retailers like Nordstrom, GameStop and Lowe’s allow consumers to transact with bitcoin using its system.

However, Flexa told CNBC a majority of the transactions on its platform, more than 60%, are for coffee, tea and other quick-service items. It charges no user fees.

Similar to four years ago, there are workarounds including gift cards that bitcoin holders can buy using their bitcoin. However, these sites typically have transaction fees that vary depending on a number of factors. Currently on bitinfocharts.com, the average transaction fee is $15. Two weeks ago, it was around $30.

Costly transaction fees are one of the many reasons bitcoin holders told CNBC they don’t view it as true currency. Based on a Chainalysis report, only 1% of bitcoin transactions in the U.S. were for merchant services last year.

Using a popular service, I was able to buy a $5 gift card to use on Amazon by connecting my crypto wallet. The process was slightly time-consuming and the transaction page did not break out the service fee.

What could redefine how cryptocurrency enthusiasts view bitcoin is PayPal‘s success in rolling out supportive technology that would allow its customers to use bitcoin as a payments tool with its nearly 30 million merchants.

PayPal’s involvement should make this much easier for merchants to become comfortable with accepting bitcoin.

“PayPal’s involvement should make this much easier for merchants to become comfortable with accepting bitcoin, particularly since what PayPal is doing is essentially enabling the synthetic acceptance of the cryptocurrency. At the end of the day, the merchants will have fiat currency in their books for their goods and service,” Mark Palmer, managing director of fintech and digital assets at BTIG, told CNBC.

David Grider, director of digital asset strategy at Fundstrat, said that decreased bitcoin volatility, lower crypto-to-fiat exchange fees, and wider crypto use in general are needed before cryptocurrency payments achieve mainstream adoption.

Until then, most experts said bitcoin will be widely viewed by holders as a store of value versus a currency. It’s often referred to as digital gold.

Regulation and taxes

However, before you start to prep your phone with apps that enable you to use your bitcoin, beware of two things: regulation and taxes.

Just last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sounded the alarm on the use of cryptocurrencies in illicit activities as a “growing problem,” prompting some concerns about whether digital coins, which by their nature are decentralized, would be regulated somehow.

As for the issue of taxes with April 15 fast approaching, investors should be aware that the IRS classifies bitcoin as a property, not a currency. So yes, capital gains taxes could apply.

Only time will tell if I’ll be kicking myself four years from now for buying items with bitcoin or thanking my lucky stars. It all depends on whether the sky-high prices go even higher.

— CNBC’s George Manessis contributed to this report.

Correction: Based on a Chainalysis report, only 1% of bitcoin transactions in the U.S. were for merchant services last year. An earlier version misstated the percentage.

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Investors watch Australia’s Q4 GDP, China economic data

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SINGAPORE — Stocks in Asia-Pacific were mixed in Wednesday morning trade as investors awaited the release of Australia’s fourth-quarter gross domestic product data.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 and Topix index both rose 0.4% each. South Korea’s Kospi dipped 0.22%.

Shares in Australia advanced as the S&P/ASX 200 edged about 0.7% higher.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan traded 0.16% higher.

Data ahead

On the economic data front, Australia’s fourth-quarter GDP print is expected to be out around 8:30 a.m. HK/SIN.

A private survey on China’s services sector activity in February is also expected on Wednesday, with the Caixin/Markit services Purchasing Managers’ Index set to be out around 9:45 a.m. HK/SIN.

Currencies

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was at 90.785 — off levels above 91 seen earlier in the week.

The Japanese yen traded at 106.73 per dollar, still weaker than levels below 105.7 against the greenback seen last week. The Australian dollar changed hands at $0.7819, following levels around $0.774 seen yesterday.

Here’s a look at what’s on tap:

  • Australia: Fourth-quarter GDP print at 8:30 a.m. HK/SIN
  • China: Caixin/Markit services Purchasing Managers’ Index at 9:45 a.m. HK/SIN

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— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report.

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