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General Motors plans to produce two new car models in South Korea

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The General Motors Global Headquarters shown on June 6, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan.

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

The General Motors Global Headquarters shown on June 6, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan.

General Motors plans to produce two new car models in South Korea, a local lawmaker said, quoting GM executive Barry Engle as saying this at a meeting with South Korean members of parliament.

Engle, who is president of GM International, did not elaborate on whether the company’s plan for the two new car models was dependent on government support for the automaker, according to South Korean politician Kim Sung-tae, who attended the meeting.

GM announced last week it will shutter a plant in the city of Gunsan, in the southwest of South Korea, by May, and decide within weeks on the fate of the three remaining plants in the country.

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The pandemic is undoing gender equality progress in the workplace

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Women’s progress in the workplace is set to reverse due to the coronavirus pandemic, professional services firm PwC found in its analysis of developed countries. 

PwC said that the pandemic was set to push the progress towards gender equality in the workplace back to 2017 levels, in a report published Tuesday, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8. 

This was according to PwC’s analysis of women’s economic empowerment, across 33 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for its annual Women in Work index. The index measures women’s participation in the labor market and equality according to a weighted average in five categories. 

PwC applied OECD forecasts of the unemployment rate and labor force size for 2019, which was latest data available, to its Women in Work index results in order to gauge the potential impact on these countries in 2020-22. It found that the gender equality index is expected to fall 2 points between 2019 and 2021, below the overall average score of 62 points in 2017.

In order to undo the pandemic’s damage to women’s position in the workplace by 2030, PwC projected that progress towards gender equality needed to be twice as fast as it was in the previous decade. 

Laura Hinton, chief people officer at PwC, said that these findings showed there was “absolutely no time to lose in addressing the very real impact of the pandemic on women.” 

Gender equality affects economic growth 

Research has shown that women in the global workforce have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, in being more likely to work in the sectors hardest-hit by the crisis. A United Nations study also found that women have been taking on the brunt of extra childcare and domestic duties since the onset of the pandemic. 

Hinton said that governments and business both had parts to play in “addressing the gender inequalities in unpaid work, through promoting and championing schemes like shared parental leave, affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements.” 

Larice Stielow, senior economist at PwC, pointed out that losing women from the workforce “not only reverses progress towards gender equality, it also affects economic growth.” 

In its ranking of the 33 countries analyzed in the report, based on the 2019 data, PwC found Iceland and Sweden retained their place as the top performing countries for women’s progress in the workplace. New Zealand moved into third place, thanks to progress in closing its gender pay gap and an increase in the number of its full-time female employees. 

In fact, PwC’s analysis showed that boosting women’s employment within the OECD — which spans 37 developed economies —  to match the rate in Sweden would increase gross domestic product by $6 trillion a year across this group of countries. Closing the gender pay gap would add $2 trillion to the OECD’s GDP each year.

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Russia slams new sanctions, calls them a ‘hostile anti-Russian lunge’

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A woman and her dog leave Red Square in downtown Moscow on September 24, 2020.

YURI KADOBNOV | AFP | Getty Images

Moscow rejected new sanctions imposed on it by the U.S. late Tuesday, describing the restrictions led by President Joe Biden’s administration as “hostile.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last night that it would retaliate against what it said was a “counterproductive” act that aggravated bilateral relations further.

“This is just a pretext for the continuing undisguised interference in our domestic affairs, and we will not accept this,” Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“Based on the principle of reciprocity, we will respond but not necessarily with symmetrical measures.”

She added that sanctions would fail: “Any hopes to impose something on Russia by way of sanctions or other pressure have failed in the past and will fail now.” She did not elaborate on how Russia might respond, however.

The comments come after the U.S. imposed further sanctions on Russia for its suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year. Washington imposed restrictions against seven senior Russian officials and on 14 entities “based on their proliferation activities in support of Russia’s weapons of mass destruction programs and chemical weapons activities,” the U.S. State Department said.

Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a military-grade Novichok nerve agent in August. Navalny was flown to Germany where he was treated, and recovered from the poisoning. The Kremlin denied any involvement in the poisoning that Navalny claimed was politically motivated.

On Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany in January, he was immediately detained and charged with violating his probation for a previous suspended sentence.

At a subsequent trial in early February, Navalny argued he could not attend the hearing given that he was in a coma following the poisoning. Nonetheless, he was handed a 3½-year jail sentence with 10 months deducted for time spent under house arrest.

The U.S. and EU had held off imposing sanctions following the sentence, calling for Navalny’s immediate release. Both were compelled to act given the lack of movement by the Kremlin, however.

The U.S. coordinated the sanctions with the EU, which issued its own restrictive measures Tuesday, sanctioning four senior government officials that it said were “responsible for serious human rights violations” and involved in Navalny’s “arbitrary arrest, prosecution and sentencing.” The restrictions came on top of other measures imposed last October when it had restricted travel and frozen the assets of six Russian officials, and one entity.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that the U.S. had sent a “clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences.” But some don’t think the measures have gone far enough to deter Russia from similar abuses in future.

Russia is already operating under sanctions for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, 2016 U.S. election meddling and the 2018 Novichok poisoning of former spy and double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K.

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, called the latest sanctions a “total joke” and said they did not hurt Russia, citing a rally in the Russian ruble as a sign that “the market likes it, thinking that these are very soft sanctions.”

“The Biden administration sends a poor signal to Moscow from the start that it is not willing to bear the cost of countering Russian aggression,” he said in emailed comments, adding: “The West has to learn that we have to be prepared to accept there is a price for countering Russian aggression.”

Russia’s next move is now keenly anticipated although Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia would not fight fire with fire.

“Regardless of the U.S.’s enthusiasm for sanctions we will continue to consistently and resolutely uphold our national interests and rebuff any aggression. We urge our colleagues not to play with fire,” she said.

“If the U.S. is not ready for an equitable and reasonable dialogue, this is their choice.”

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What are NFTs? All you need to know about crypto collectibles

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A virtual art piece titled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days.” Created by digital artist Beeple, it’s the first NFT-based work of art to go on auction at Christie’s.

Christie’s

From art to sports trading cards, people are spending millions of dollars on digital collector’s items.

These crypto collectibles, known as NFTs, have exploded in popularity lately. A video clip created by digital artist Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was flipped for a record $6.6 million last week. It had originally been bought for around $67,000.

Meanwhile, one of thousands of computer-generated avatars called CryptoPunks recently sold for $2 million. And a crypto art rendition of the Nyan Cat meme from 2011 sold for about $590,000 in an online auction.

At the same time, critics see the NFT craze as another potential speculative frenzy in crypto that’s sure to fizzle out eventually.

So what are NFTs? And why are they suddenly being sold for millions? CNBC runs through what you need to know.

What are NFTs?

But unlike most virtual currencies, you couldn’t exchange one NFT for another in the same way that you would with dollars or gold bars. Each NFT is unique and acts as a collector’s item that can’t be duplicated, making them rare by design.

You can think of them like the crypto alternative to rare Pokémon or baseball cards.

The rise of the internet meant that anyone could view images, videos and songs online for free. People are buying NFTs out of the belief that they’ll be able to prove ownership of a virtual item thanks to blockchain.

NBA Top Shot, an NFT platform based on the U.S. basketball league, lets users buy and sell short clips showing match highlights from star players. The NBA licenses the reels to Dapper Labs, a start-up which digitizes the footage, making a limited amount to create scarcity. NBA Top Shot has facilitated over $277 million in sales to date, according to the website CryptoSlam. Dapper Labs earns a cut on each transaction while the NBA gets royalty payments.

Basketball isn’t the only sport getting into crypto. French start-up Sorare lets users collect and play officially licensed soccer cards in fantasy games. According to NFT data tracker NonFungible, Sorare’s marketplace has generated over $21 million worth of sales to date. Sorare last week announced it had raised $50 million from investors including Benchmark, Accel and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanion.

“It is an obvious industry use case for NFTs,” said Lars Rensing, CEO of blockchain firm Protokol. “Trading cards and collectibles have always been a profitable revenue stream for clubs.”

Meanwhile, art dealers are also getting in on the action, with auction house Christie’s running an auction for a virtual art piece from Beeple. The auction is yet to close but the work has already been bid up to $3 million.

NFTs aren’t a new phenomenon. CryptoKitties, one of the earliest examples, were once so popular they clogged up the network of digital currency ether. To date, CryptoKitties have generated sales of over $40 million, according to NonFungible.

Why are they so popular?

The coronavirus pandemic played a big role in the NFT boom. Last year, the total value of NFT transactions quadrupled to $250 million, according to a study from NonFungible and BNP Paribas-affiliated research firm L’Atelier.

That’s in no small part because of stay-at-home restrictions that resulted in people spending a lot more of their time on the internet and saving cash from a lack of commuting. It’s similar to the rise of retail traders betting on GameStop on other historically unloved stocks promoted on the Reddit board WallStreetBets.

Meanwhile, it also arrives at a time when bitcoin, ether and other digital coins have surged in value, with bitcoin briefly topping $1 trillion in market value last month.

“Right now we’re living in a point in the world whereby the majority of the population is spending 50% of their time online and a significant amount of their time on a PC,” Whale Shark, a pseudonymous NFT collector who claims to have amassed a collection worth over $2.7 million, told CNBC.

Skepticism

Many investors buy NFTs as a speculative investment in the hope that they’ll be able to flip them at a much higher price than what they originally paid. But a growing number of people are also holding them long term as collectibles.

“Like any technological hype cycle, we’re starting with speculative activity and usually that gives way to more fundamental value,” Nadya Ivanova, chief operating officer of L’Atelier, told CNBC.

“NFTs started in 2017. A lot of it was about speculation. What we saw in 2020 is the market is actually maturing.”

NFTs have lured in celebrities like Mark Cuban, Lindsay Lohan and Gary Vaynerchuk, while major brands are also getting involved. And people are finding other use cases for NFTs, such as virtual real estate and gaming.

Nevertheless, the NFT space has been met with skepticism from some artists and investors. Critics view it as another crypto fad akin to the initial coin offerings of 2017 that will eventually drift into irrelevance. Unsurprisingly, the firms behind such tokens disagree.

“I think that 99% of the projects that are in the space today might not exist two or three years later, very similar to the ICO boom,” WhaleShark said.

Many NFTs are priced in ether, the digital token of the Ethereum blockchain. The digital asset briefly touched a record price of more than $2,000 last month before slumping about $600 in a matter of days, reminding investors of cryptocurrencies’ wild volatility.

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