Canada is exploring the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the South American trading bloc Mercosur--a deal that could put pressure on the U.S. to keep its commitment to expanding trade among the Americas. If Canada were to join Mercosur as an associate member, for example, it would give Canadian exporters preference over U.S. businesses in gaining duty-free access for their products in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. In 1996, Canada exported $1.6 billion in products to Mercosur countries and imported $1.35 billion.

A survey of 1,320 senior technology officials by Ernst & Young indicates that nearly eight of 10 companies in North America surveyed have lost valuable information in the past two years to computer viruses, hackers, bitter employees, spies or disasters. Most of the losses--63 per cent-- were the result of viruses, but nearly one-third were caused by the malicious acts of insiders. Of the 30 per cent of companies that described their losses, 14 per cent said they lost between $250,000 and $1-million, and 2 per cent said they had lost more than $1-million.

After studying Ottawa's contracting system for two years, a Commons committee concluded that federal departments bypass the tendering system far too often in giving contracts for goods and services to their own lists of suppliers. Ottawa spent $8.6 billion on contracts in 1994-95, of which $3.1 billion was awarded without tender. MPs also rebuked the Treasury Board for not enforcing its policies, directives and guidelines governing contracts handed out by the departments.

According to Strategic Telemedia of New York, psychic hotlines are the anchor of the 1-900 business. It is estimated they take in $300 million a year, one third of the total 1-900 market. The average psychic phone call brings in $40.

Export Development Corporation (EDC) supported a record $22 billion of Canadian exports in 1996, serving almost 3,000 customers and increasing business volume by 28 per cent. Over 18,000 other firms benefited indirectly from EDC activities, when they acted as suppliers to EDC-financed transactions. In 1996, the proportion of small and medium-sized exporters assisted by the Corporation rose 23 per cent over the previous year, accounting for over 85 per cent of its customer base. Also, in 1996, the volume of exports by EDC's smaller customers rose 36 per cent to $3.8 billion, while nearly 140 of EDC's smallest customers expanded their export sales to more than $1 million. Responding to strong demand for exports to higher-risk markets, EDC committed an additional $1.5 billion in financing for these markets in 1996.

Contrary to popular belief, price isn't the main impetus for U.S. consumers who dine on fast food. A survey of 1,032 consumers by Advo Inc of Connecticut found that a convenient location motivates fast-food fans the most. Fast service and a hankering for a specific food rank second and third in importance. Price, in fact, scores seventh on a list of 10 reasons for choosing one restaurant over another. Other factors include easy access, good value and the influence of dining companions. "Healthy food" ranked last on the list.

American spending patterns are changing and they are plowing more of their income into goods or services that they think will help them stay healthy, on the go and in the know: mountain bikes, educational toys, museum memberships, chiropractic sessions, computers and home-entertainment centres. Among the big fluctuations: Commerce Department data show that while total U.S. spending rose 15 per cent to $4.69 trillion over the past seven years, spending on new autos declined 28 per cent to $74 billion. By contrast, home computers are consuming about 12 times the portion of the spending pie they did seven years ago. Americans spent over $22 billion in casinos in 1996, more than twice what they gambled seven years ago and spending on alternative medicine has surged 69 per cent since 1989.

This is the sound a car makes when it is running. The auto industry hires musicians and focus groups surveys to tune its engines. The Mazda Miata is engineered to mimic the sound of vintage British MGs and Triumphs.

China announced a second round of tariff cuts at the recent APEC meeting in the Philippines. It will further reduce import duties 15% to 23% by the year 2000. This follows a reduction of 12.9% a few months ago. European critics claim this is just a ploy to improve China's entry into the World Trade Organization and that the tariff cuts mainly fall in sectors of little interest to most Western exporters, while the tariffs on other products like vehicles remain prohibitively high.

In 1996, there were 54,311 police officers in Canada - a 1.3% drop from 1995. The number of police per 100,000 population (181) decreased for the fifth consecutive year in 1996, to its lowest level in over 25 years. Police strength increased steadily during the 1960s and early 1970s, peaking in 1975. Between 1975 and 1991, police strength remained relatively stable. Manitoba had the most officers per 100,000 population (194) in 1996, followed by Quebec (187) and Saskatchewan (187). Newfoundland (146) and Prince Edward Island (149) had the fewest. The proportion of female officers has been increasing steadily since 1974, with females now accounting for 1 in 10 officers.

The number of occupied private dwellings in Canada continues to grow at a faster rate than the country's population. While the population rose 5.7% over the five-year census period, the number of occupied private dwellings increased 8.1%. The 1996 Census counted 10,899,427 dwellings, compared to 10,079,442 five years ago. The number of occupied private dwellings in British Columbia rose 14.6% to 1,433,533, the biggest percentage increase among provinces.

With economic reforms and a peaceful end to its 34-year civil war, Guatemala offers new trade and investment opportunities for Canadian firms. Some of these opportunities stem from the country's ambitious peace-building effort. The (estimated) $2-billion program will include construction of physical and social infrastructure and comprehensive institutional and legal reform. Other opportunities flow from deregulation, planned for 1997, of energy and telecommunications services, and from anticipated tenders for proposals to administer the state-owned railway, airport and ports as private concessions. In addition, Guatemala has announced import tariff reductions on a range of products from primary metals, through intermediate and finished products. The duty on imports of primary metals, for example, was slashed from 5 per cent to 1 per cent effective January 1997.

According to the ScotiaMcLeod Investment Executive newsletter, on average, men are retiring at 61 and women at 58. Based on current life expectancies, this means that their investments must stretch 17 non-working years for men and 23 years for women.

The 1996 Census confirmed a trend seen for a number of years showing the distribution of Canada's population shifting from east to west. In 1951, 15% of Canada's population lived in Alberta and British Columbia. By 1996, that had increased to 22%. Similarly, Ontario's share of the population has increased from 33% in 1951 to 37% in 1996.

Traffic jams in Bangkok are so bad that cab drivers and traffic police are being trained to help women deliver their babies. Women trying to get to hospitals give birth to an estimated 350 babies each year in taxis.

In 1995, the foreign controlled share of operating revenue in Canada rose 1.3 percentage points to 29.8%. This near-record rise was caused by a combination of strong revenue growth in the foreign-controlled sector, weakness in the domestically controlled sector and foreign takeovers. Revenue growth for foreign controlled firms was three times that of Canadian-controlled firms. This was mainly due to weak revenue growth in small and medium Canadian firms. The pattern of lower growth in small Canadian firms has persisted through the 1990s. Small Canadian companies operate predominantly in the domestic market, which has grown relatively slowly since 1991.

After two spectacular years, growth in world trade slowed down in 1996 to register a still-impressive 4% expansion in volume terms. In contrast, world GDP growth increased slightly. Japan's exports fell last year; in 1990-96, Japan saw its imports expand six times faster in volume terms than exports.

In the Gulf, as well as the Near East, a retail revolution has led to the development of some of the world's largest and most sophisticated shopping malls. Disposable incomes, free from taxation, have lured retail developers into multi-billion-dollar investments. Dubai is a regional hub supplying a West Asian market of some 2 billion consumers. Imports into Dubai, which acts as a re-export centre for the Gulf, North Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have recorded a year-over-year growth of nearly 5 per cent over the past two years, with textile imports among the top 10 trading commodities. Textiles are currently Dubai's second-largest re-export category, with a value of almost US$1 billion annually. In the GCC as a whole, the re-export business has risen from 1982 by some 160 per cent.

In 1996, national wealth rose roughly 3% to reach $2.9 trillion, in line with the rise in domestic expenditures. The gain was the result of acquisitions and revaluations of tangible assets like automobiles, houses, land, household appliances, trucks, and business machinery and equipment. Individuals accounted for just over 49% of national wealth at the end of 1996, up slightly from 1995. National wealth grew 4.0% in the personal sector, compared with 2.5% in both the corporate and government sectors in 1996.

Annual department store sales rose for the third consecutive year. This increase came entirely from discount stores. With total sales of $8.5 billion in 1996, discount store sales rose 8.6% from 1995. Their sales have increased every year since 1992. Discount department stores recorded a year-over-year increase in every month of 1996. On the other hand, consumers spent $6.56 billion at major department stores in 1996, 0.4% less than in 1995. This was the fourth annual decline in as many years.

On average, an important new drug has been produced for every 125 plant species studied according to the Herb Research Foundation. The success rate for chemical compounds is one in 10,000.

British farmers have found a novel way to deter hungry foxes: lambs that glow in the dark. Researchers have discovered that coating the lambs with horrible-tasting phosphorescent paint discourages predators.

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