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The sanctity of trade statistics

MIGHT Donald Trump’s promise to shake up America’s trade policy extend to its statistics? According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, discussions are afoot on changing the way trade figures are tallied. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the country’s main statistical body, calls this “completely inaccurate”. But in trade as elsewhere, the new administration seems prone to using statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than illumination.

The proposal reportedly involves stripping out some of America’s exports from the gross numbers. America sold $1.5trn of goods abroad in 2016, but of that $0.2trn were re-exports that left the country much as they had arrived. This type of trade has been growing, reflecting America’s role as a hub for North American trade. As a share of its combined exports to Mexico and Canada, re-exports rose from 12% to 20% between 2002 and 2016. Truckers and shippers benefit from this kind of trade. But critics see it as “padding”, obscuring gloomier trends in “made in America” exports.

Stripping out re-exports makes no sense when thinking…Continue reading

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Toymakers bounce back in the land of adult nappies

WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS, an American educator who travelled to Japan in the 1870s, noted that in the previous two and a half centuries, “the main business of this nation was play”. He described toyshops filled as full as Christmas stockings and plenty of grown-ups “indulging in amusements which the men of the West lay aside with their pinafores”.

Griffis would have found it familiar walking today around Hakuhinkan Toy Park, one of the largest toy stores in Tokyo. Teens, office workers and grandparents are mostly to be seen perusing its 200,000-odd knick-knacks across five floors. Its director, Hiroyuki Itoh, says he wants the store to be a place where everyone can play. After work, suited salarymen come to spend ¥200 (under $2) for a five-minute whizz around a 36-metre slot-car racetrack. In another corner a gaggle of university students fiddle with displays of toys from the era of their childhoods.

Playthings aimed at the over-20s make up 27% of Japan’s domestic toy sales, according to figures from Euromonitor, a market-research firm. That grown-up portion of the market has been crucial for Japan’s three biggest players,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

3G missed Unilever but its methods are spreading

Rejected suitor

JORGE PAULO LEMANN (pictured), a Brazilian investor, is ill-accustomed to failure. On February 17th Kraft Heinz, backed by Mr Lemann’s 3G Capital, said it had bid $143bn for Unilever, a maker of food and personal products. 3G has gobbled many a consumer firm, slashed costs, then bought an even bigger one. Even so, the Unilever bid was surprising in its audacity—the merger would have been the second-largest ever. As shocking, it collapsed two days later.

Kraft Heinz had hoped to continue talks in private, but news of its offer leaked out. Its management appeared to have badly misjudged the depth of Unilever’s attachment to its culture and its pursuit of long-term, “sustainable” growth. Unilever’s outright rejection meant that 3G and Warren Buffett, who was expected to help fund a deal, faced the prospect of going hostile against a revered firm. It was a rare stumble. But the episode doesn’t spell the end of its model. More deals are likely. And Kraft Heinz is already changing how Unilever and other rivals operate.

Times are hard for big consumer companies, once among the world’s…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Investors in America’s housing-finance giants lose in court

ONE unresolved issue from the financial crisis is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two firms that stand behind much of America’s housing market. Fannie and Freddie purchase mortgages, bundle them into securities and sell them on to investors with a guarantee. When America’s housing market collapsed a decade ago, the government had to bail them out. Its treatment of the firms since then has created a titanic legal struggle. Shareholders have cried foul. On February 21st, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling in the government’s favour.

At issue is the Obama administration’s decision in 2012 to hoover up all of Fannie and Freddie’s profits. Until then, it had received a fixed dividend on its investment. The timing of the shift was striking—just before a surge in the firms’ profitability. Since 2008 the Treasury has sucked in about $250bn from the firms, 30% more than the cost of the bail-out.

The change enraged hedge funds who had bought Fannie and Freddie’s shares and found themselves expropriated. The investors’ lawsuit held that the government overstepped its authority by seizing all…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Europe’s securitisation market remains stunted

SECURITISATION, the bundling and repackaging of income streams as tradable securities, goes in and out of fashion. America is still dealing with the fallout from the disaster in one part of the market—sub-prime mortgages—in 2008-09 (see article). In Europe, the swings in popularity have been just as marked. During the crisis, European securitised assets were hit by only small losses but the market suffered from guilt by association. It has since enjoyed a limited renaissance.

Leading the revival, oddly, are European regulators. They have sought not just to rehabilitate, but indeed actively to promote such “structured” finance. As early as 2013 the European Central Bank (ECB) was effusive not only about securitisation’s ability to spread risks, but also about its ability to channel funding to the economy, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The ECB and the Bank of England even published a rare joint paper in 2014 making the case for a “better-functioning…Continue reading

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The rise of artificial intelligence is creating new variety in the chip market, and trouble for Intel

“WE ALMOST went out of business several times.” Usually founders don’t talk about their company’s near-death experiences. But Jen-Hsun Huang, the boss of Nvidia, has no reason to be coy. His firm, which develops microprocessors and related software, is on a winning streak. In the past quarter its revenues increased by 55%, reaching $2.2bn, and in the past 12 months its share price has almost quadrupled.

A big part of Nvidia’s success is because demand is growing quickly for its chips, called graphics processing units (GPUs), which turn personal computers into fast gaming devices. But the GPUs also have new destinations: notably data centres where artificial-intelligence (AI) programmes gobble up the vast quantities of computing power that they generate.

Soaring sales of these chips (see chart) are the clearest sign yet of a secular shift in information technology. The architecture of computing is fragmenting…Continue reading

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It is easier than ever to fund an indie film, but harder than ever to get people to see it

Atypical success

IT MIGHT seem a great time for indie cinema. The Academy Awards on February 26th will be something of a showcase for films not financed by a major studio. “Manchester by the Sea”, a contender for six Oscars, including best picture, was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival last year. Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece (one scene is pictured) about family and loss has earned $46m in cinemas in America and Canada, a spectacular return on its production costs of $8.5m. Amazon, which bought distribution rights, will benefit.

Movie buffs can find all manner of films online that are made more cheaply still. “The Break-In”, a horror film shot by Justin Doescher on his girlfriend’s iPhone for less than $20, has earned him more than $20,000, with more than half a million people having watched at least part of it on Amazon’s streaming-video platform.

For every success story there are thousands of indie films that go unwatched. The digital age has made it easier than ever to make a film, but also harder than ever to break through the clutter of entertainment options to an audience. Chris Moore, a…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

India’s hostels for the upwardly mobile

Rite of passage

IF SEVERAL hundred million Indians do migrate from the countryside to cities between now and 2050, as the UN expects, it will be a fiendishly busy few decades for Vivek Aher, who runs a low-cost hostel, one of five, on the outskirts of Pune, a well-off city three hours’ drive from Mumbai. A fair few of the new arrivals will have their first experience of urban living bunking in one of the hostels’ 1,350 beds. Should recent experience be anything to go by, most of the new arrivals will test Mr Aher’s patience by tacking posters on his hostel’s walls, or endlessly complaining about the Wi-Fi.

India has two main drags on economic growth. One is the difficulty of finding a job, especially in the places people live. The other is a chronic shortage of cheap housing. Aarusha Homes, Mr Aher’s employer, started in 2007 to help people seize economic opportunities far from home. Its rooms are basic and cheap. They include up to six beds, a bathroom for every three or four residents, some common areas and little else. Rent ranges between 3,500 and 10,000 rupees ($52-$149) a month including food.

Most…Continue reading

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The rise of “deep-tech” is boosting Paris’s startup scene

EUROPE will never create a hub of tech firms and investors to rival Silicon Valley, many experts on entrepreneurship concur. Its markets are still fragmented along national lines, flows of capital into the region are limited and because of lingering, conservative attitudes to risk, few startups grow to rival American champions. “Europe is toxic”, argues Oussama Ammar, an outspoken founder of an incubator in Paris. “Life that should happen, does not happen”, he says.

But some digital life does flourish, spread among cities rather than fixing in one spot. Fintech firms cluster in London. Gamers and music-sharing sites do well in the Nordic countries. Berlin has a crop of companies that go beyond the kind of me-too consumer sites incubated by Rocket Internet, a notorious startup factory: new companies with expertise in the “internet of things”, for example. Milan, with strong medical universities, has flourishing biotech startups.

The most striking case of fresh growth is in Paris. Mention of France has long elicited sighs from venture capitalists. Its rigid labour laws and hefty taxes on wealth and on stock options have meant that…Continue reading

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Are technology firms madly overvalued?

IS THE technology industry in La La Land? There are alarming signs. House prices in San Francisco have risen by 66% more than in New York over the past five years. Even at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2001, the gap was lower, at 58%. Shares of technology firms trade on their highest ratio to sales since the turn of the century. Four of the world’s most valuable firms are tech companies: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. Snap, a tiddler with $400m of sales and $700m of cash losses in 2016, is expected to list shares on March 1st that will give it a valuation of over $20bn.

For companies and investors in any industry, it is hard to work out if you are living in a bubble. To help, Schumpeter has created three sanity tests for global tech firms. These examine their cashflow, whether investors differentiate between companies, and whether forecasts of their future earnings suffer from a fallacy of composition. The exercise suggests that tech valuations are frothy, but not bubbling.

The first test is cashflow, and the industry passes it with flying colours. In 2001 about half of all listed tech firms were unable to convert…Continue reading

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In fintech, China shows the way

CHINESE banks are not far removed from the age of the abacus. In the 1980s they used these ancient counting boards for much of their business. In the 1990s many bank employees had to pass a basic abacus test. Today the occasional click-clack, click-clack can still be heard in villages as tellers slide their abacus beads up and down the rack.

But these days the abacus is mainly a symbol, more likely to be used in the branding of China’s online-finance companies than as a calculating tool. At least three internet lenders have paid homage to it in their names: Abacus Loans, Small Abacus and Modern Abacus. The prominence, so recently, of the abacus is testament to how backward Chinese banking was a short time ago. The rise of the online lenders shows how quickly change has come.

By just about any measure of size, China is the world’s leader in fintech (short for “financial technology”, and referring here to internet-based banking and investment). It is far and away the biggest market for digital payments, accounting for nearly half of the global total. It is dominant in online lending, occupying three-quarters of the global market. A…Continue reading

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Why taxing robots is not a good idea

BILL GATES is an unlikely Luddite, however much Microsoft may have provoked people to take a hammer to their computers. Yet in a recent interview with Quartz, an online publication, he expressed scepticism about society’s ability to manage rapid automation. To forestall a social crisis, he mused, governments should consider a tax on robots; if automation slows as a result, so much the better. It is an intriguing if impracticable idea, which reveals a lot about the challenge of automation.

In some distant future robots with their own consciousnesses, nest-eggs and accountants might pay income taxes like the rest of us (presumably with as much enthusiasm). That is not what Mr Gates has in mind. He argues that today’s robots should be taxed—either their installation, or the profits firms enjoy by saving on the costs of the human labour displaced. The money generated could be used to retrain workers, and perhaps to finance an expansion of health care and education, which provide lots of hard-to-automate jobs in teaching or caring for the old and sick.

A robot is a capital investment, like a blast furnace or a…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Are airlines’ new “last class” fares just a bait-and-switch?

THIS week, United Airlines introduced the change that no flyers were eagerly awaiting: “basic economy” class. You might think that some budget-conscious travellers would welcome the arrival of the new no-frills designation, which offers the lowest fares but strips away flyers’ ability to select their seats, bring full-size carry-on bags onto the plane and earn elite qualifying miles. They might, except basic economy doesn’t actually bring lower fares than the ones already available.

Ben Schlappig was the first to note this on his popular “One Mile at a Time” blog. Mr Schlappig looked at fares on a Minneapolis-Denver route before and after the introduction of basic economy. (On February 22nd United began offering basic economy only between its seven American hubs and Minneapolis; other routes in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean will follow.) Prior to the rollout, he found that standard economy fares on this route started at $173. When the “new” fares became available, the basic economy seats began…Continue reading

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After 70 years, AIG sells its ski resort

FOR most people, the only reason to associate skiing and insurance is in the context of accident cover. Few are aware that AIG, a large American insurer, has owned and operated Stowe, a famed ski resort in Vermont, for nearly 70 years. But on February 21st, it announced a $50m deal to sell it to Vail Resorts, owner of ten skiing spots in the American and Canadian Rockies. The insurer is, however, keeping most of the property in Spruce Peak, the ski village at the base of Stowe’s slopes, including rights to future development. After AIG had owned Stowe for so long, the news of the sale has come as a surprise.

Its involvement with the resort dates back to 1943, when Cornelius Starr, AIG’s chairman at the time, visited Stowe and got frustrated at having to queue for the only chairlift. He offered to help finance a second one. AIG took ownership in 1949, so Stowe had the distinction of having the same owner longer than any other ski resort in North America.

Owning and operating property assets is usual practice for AIG and many of its fellow insurers. Real estate can provide an important and diversifying source of investment income to…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

What to drink at 30,000 feet

THERE exists a genre of information which might be termed “little-known facts that everyone knows”. It is the sort of tidbit you expect to amaze your friends at a dinner party, but which is greeted with rolled eyes. Casinos don’t have clocks or windows. Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” contains no example of irony. The body exerts more calories digesting celery than is contained within the vegetable. (Except the last of these facts—and everyone knows this—is in fact untrue.)

Then there is Bloody Marys and aeroplanes. Have you ever wondered why the only time most people fancy gulping down vodka, tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce is when strapped into the seat of a passenger jet? It is a little-known fact (that everyone knows) that our taste buds are dampened by the low pressure and humidity in the cabin, as well as the white noise of the engines. This particularly affects flavours that are sweet and salty. The umami taste, however, remains prominent. Tomato juice is high in umami. Worcestershire sauce, meanwhile, is what one cook…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

The busiest airports in Europe

ANYONE who has tried to hold a conversation in a West London garden will wonder how it is possible to squeeze any more more flights into Heathrow Airport. On average, a chinwag is interrupted every minute or so by a Boeing or an Airbus rumbling overhead. 

And yet each year more people manage to pass through. The latest figures from Airports Council International (ACI), an industry group, show that in 2016 passenger numbers grew by 1% at Europe’s busiest hub, to 75.7m. Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Europe’s second busiest airport, lags way behind (see chart).

Heathrow’s two runways are currently running at the very limit of their capacity. That will change once a third runway opens, perhaps in 2026. But in the meantime the only way for the airport to continue to grow is to service bigger planes. This year Korean Air became the ninth airline to fly A380 superjumbos into the airport….Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Dubai is to test passenger-carrying drones

AT TIMES it can feel like we are living in an episode of “Travel Futurama”. This week: flying drone taxis.

Dubai, a city that sometimes seems to inhabit a time zone five years ahead of the rest of the planet, has embraced another improbable travel innovation, to go alongside its enthusiasm for hyperloop trains and long driverless metro lines. This week, the Emirati metropolis announced it is to test passenger-carrying drones in its skies by July.

The unpiloted drone taxis won’t exactly replace the traditional earthbound sort, since they will be able to carry only one passenger, who together with luggage cannot weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). And it will have a range of just 50 kilometres (31 miles), or half an hour of flying time. But if it works, the long-term implications are huge not only for Dubai, which has among the world’s Continue reading

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Samsung’s boss is arrested on bribery charges

IN ONE of the many interrogations Lee Jae-yong has undergone in connection with a presidential influence-peddling scandal, he said that he would surrender management control of Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant that he is running on behalf of his incapacitated father, Lee Kun-hee, “if there is anyone better than me”. He may now be forced to do so. On February 17th Mr Lee was arrested on suspicion of bribery, embezzlement, perjury, moving assets abroad illegally and concealing evidence of criminal profit, after a local court agreed to a request from a special prosecution team for a pre-trial detention.

Last month investigators accused Mr Lee of paying 43bn won ($36m) in bribes to organisations tied to Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye (who is herself under investigation by the constitutional court). The prosecution team’s first request for a pre-trial arrest warrant was rejected. But the court reversed its decision, it said today, after prosecutors put forward additional evidence. (The court denied, however, a request to arrest another Samsung executive, Park Sang-jin, on similar charges.) The move…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Euphoria returns to markets

LIKE the weather in Chicago, you don’t have to wait long for a new trend in the stockmarkets. Just a few weeks ago, investors seemed to have second thoughts about their Trump-related euphoria (which itself was a contrast to the widespread nervousness ahead of the election). Now they have been recording new highs again.

While the spark for the rally seems to have been a Presidential comment about forthcoming tax cuts, the causes have been much broader; the MSCI World Index has also hit new highs. Commodity prices have perked up, which may be a sign that the Chinese economy is holding up (if you recall, a Chinese slowdown was the big worry 12 months ago). Asian trade has perked up after a long period of sluggishness (the exports of South Korea, a bellwether in this respect, have risen for three months in a row). According to…Continue reading

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France’s PSA Group may plan to buy Opel, GM’s European operation

AFTER sweeping past a significant milestone, drivers rarely slam their vehicles into reverse. Yet General Motors (GM), which last year joined Toyota and Volkswagen in an elite group that sells over 10m vehicles a year, may be on the brink of such a manoeuvre. On February 14th the American firm and PSA Group, which makes Peugeots and Citroëns, sprang a surprise by confirming that they were in talks that could lead to the French carmaker buying GM’s European operation. GM’s decision to downsize has many merits, but the advantages of getting bigger are much less clear-cut for its European counterpart.

The two carmakers say a deal for Opel (which carries the Vauxhall brand in Britain) is only a possibility. But GM’s global might is not reflected at Opel, and it is probably keen to offload a carmaker that it has owned for nearly 90 years. Opel has done little other than disappoint in the recent past. Its 6% share of the European market puts it behind seven other brands and the business has lost money for years.

GM has considered offloading Opel before. In 2009, as it struggled in bankruptcy protection in the wake of the financial…Continue reading

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Asia’s exports rebound

IT IS easy to be downcast about the state of global trade. It has faced stiff headwinds in recent years: in 2016, for the first time in 15 years, it grew more slowly than the world economy. Regional and global trade deals are going nowhere, slowly. And America’s new president has promised to protect his country from trade-inflicted “carnage”.

Amid all this gloom, optimism seems foolhardy. But in Asia’s export dynamos, trade is picking up steam. In January, Chinese exports rose year-on-year for the first time in ten months; South Korean shipments have increased for three months in a row. Surveys reveal strong export pipelines in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. Healthy order books for Asia’s manufacturers normally bode well for global trade and indeed the global economy. It is too soon to declare a definitive upturn in global trade, but it looks like more than a blip (see chart).

The simplest explanation for the rebound is that global demand is itself on solid ground. Global growth is still slower than before the financial crisis of 2008, but is heading in the right direction. Both the IMF and the World Bank think it will…Continue reading

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New models for new media

Not watching Twitter

FOR months Twitter, the micro-blogging service, has received the kind of free attention of which most companies can only dream. Politicians, corporate bosses, activists and citizens turn to the platform to catch every tweet of America’s new president, who has become the service’s de facto spokesman. “The whole world is watching Twitter,” boasted Jack Dorsey (pictured), the company’s chief executive, as he presented its results on February 9th. He has little else to brag about.

But Donald Trump has not provided the kind of boost the struggling firm really needs. It reported slowing revenue growth and a loss of $167m. User growth has been sluggish, too: it added just 2m users in that period. Facebook added 72m. The day of the results, shares in Twitter dropped by 12%. Because news outlets around the world already report on Mr Trump’s most sensational tweets, many do not feel compelled to join the platform to discover them. Others are put off by mobs of trolls and reams of misinformation.

And not even Mr Trump could change the cold, hard truth about Twitter: that it can never be…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A bullish case for copper

DURING the commodity “supercycle”, prices largely marched up and down in unison, fuelled by the strength (or weakness) of demand in China. Since last year commodities have again been on a tear, but for more idiosyncratic reasons. In the case of copper, strikes and supply disruptions in two of the world’s largest mines have helped push prices this week to their highest level in 20 months. This fits into a narrative of longer-term potential supply shortages that has investors licking their lips over prospects for the red metal.

A strike that began on February 9th at Escondida in Chile, the world’s largest copper mine, has been compounded by a dispute between operators of Grasberg, another huge copper mine, located in the Indonesian province of Papua, and the government. That led to a halt in copper-concentrate production there, too, on February 10th. The two account for 9% of mined copper supply.

Robert…Continue reading

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Traditional media firms are enjoying a Trump bump

DONALD TRUMP calls it the “failing” New York Times in his tweets, but his presidency has breathed new life into the newspaper and other mainstream media outlets. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have all received boosts in subscriptions and page views; cable news networks, such as CNN and the Fox News Channel, are getting huge increases in viewers at a time when most other channels are losing them; and even the long-suffering stocks of newspaper companies are rallying. Since the election shares in the New York Times Co have risen by 42%, outperforming even the mighty Goldman Sachs.

Why the boost? The unprecedented nature of political events has kept American eyeballs glued to pages and screens. The pace of change, especially since the election, compels Mr Trump’s fans and foes alike to stay abreast of developments. Many do so using Twitter (see article). But…Continue reading

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Planet’s satellites offer customers a new world view every day

BUILT by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th. It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.

The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm. The first doves, launched five years ago, could send back pictures of just 3,000 square kilometres a day. But the satellites have followed a trajectory of improvement much closer to that seen in cell-phones—from which they get some of their components—than the established satellite industry. The latest doves can cover 2.5m square kilometres a day.

The expanded fleet of satellites will send over 3 terabytes of data a day to more than 30 receiver stations spread around the Earth. After processing to remove distortions and to locate each image, the data will be in the cloud and ready for the company’s…Continue reading

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Sales of green vehicles are booming in Norway

TO JUDGE by the gleaming rows of Teslas, Nissan Leafs and other electric cars parked in the snow in central Oslo, Norwegians might already have given up on the internal combustion engine. Before long they probably will. Battery-powered cars and plug-in hybrids together accounted for 29% of all new car sales last year. The 100,000th battery-powered unit sold in December.

Norway first introduced tax perks to boost the electric-car market in the 1990s. But sales only sparked in the past five years or so after slicker vehicles with better batteries appeared. Now the country’s 5m citizens constitute the most developed national market for electric cars anywhere. Christina Bu, who heads the country’s association for electric cars, expects 400,000 electric-only vehicles on the roads by 2020, and predicts 70% of new sales will be of zero-emission cars. As range increases and price falls, demand will rise faster.

Though less than 5% of the total fleet of cars in Norway are electric, the country’s transport minister calls it “realistic” to expect an end to sales of new cars powered by fossil fuels by 2025. Fiscal incentives, not an…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Electric cars are set to arrive far more speedily than anticipated

THE high-pitched whirr of an electric car may not stir the soul like the bellow and growl of an internal combustion engine (ICE). But to compensate, electric motors give even the humblest cars explosive acceleration. Electric cars are similarly set for rapid forward thrust. Improving technology and tightening regulations on emissions from ICEs is about to propel electric vehicles (EVs) from a niche to the mainstream. After more than a century of reliance on fossil fuels, however, the route from petrol power to volts will be a tough one for carmakers to navigate.

The change of gear is recent. One car in a hundred sold today is powered by electricity. The proportion of EVs on the world’s roads is still well below 1%. Most forecasters had reckoned that by 2025 that would rise to around 4%. Those estimates are undergoing a big overhaul as carmakers announce huge expansions in their production of EVs. Morgan Stanley, a bank, now says that by 2025 EV sales will hit 7m a year and make up 7% of vehicles on the road. Exane BNP Paribas, another bank, reckons that it could be more like 11% (see chart). But as carmakers plan for ever more battery power, even…Continue reading

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A new paper finds China more unequal than France but less so than America

JUST as China’s GDP has converged towards America’s, levels of inequality have also been catching up. That is one of the conclusions of research* from five authors, including Thomas Piketty, a French economist famous for his work on wealth and inequality. Their new paper compares the evolution of inequality in China, America and France over four decades.

Inequality has soared since China opened the door to private enterprise and growth took off. In 1978 the highest-earning tenth in China received just over a quarter of overall income before tax, significantly below the proportion in America and France at the time. By 2015, however, those top 10% of Chinese earners were paid two-fifths of total income—above the share in France, but still just below that in America (47%). Wealth, too, is concentrated in fewer hands: the richest 10% own nearly 70% of private wealth in China, up from 40% in 1995 (and not far below the American level of nearly 80%).

Rises at the top mean that the share of pre-tax income going to the poorest half of the Chinese population has shrunk dramatically and is now, at 15%, not much higher than the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Carbon tariffs and the EU’s steel industry

Fuel for a dirty war

THE European Union wants to slash greenhouse-gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. It is on course to cut just half that amount. To get back on track, on February 15th, the European Parliament voted for a plan to raise the cost for firms to produce carbon. It has prompted growing calls for the bloc to tax the carbon emissions embodied in the EU’s imports. At best, such a levy will barely curb emissions. At worst, it could cause a trade war.

The EU’s latest reforms try to put up the price of carbon by cutting the emissions allowances firms are granted. They include the EU’s first border tax on carbon, levied on cement imports. Steel firms, also heavy users of carbon, say their exclusion from this scheme is unfair. This week Lakshmi Mittal, the CEO of ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, offered his support for the tax. Similar proposals in America are also gaining support. This month a group including two Republican former treasury secretaries, James Baker and George Shultz, proposed a similar carbon tax on all imports at the border.

Boosters say such proposals remove…Continue reading

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Sovereign-bond issuers shrug off downgrades

ONCE upon a time, countries jealously guarded their credit ratings. Before the 2010 British election, George Osborne, soon to be the chancellor of the exchequer, emphasised the importance of cutting the budget deficit in order to maintain the country’s top AAA rating.

But despite the spending cuts and the tax increases he imposed, Britain was downgraded in 2013. There are only 11 countries with AAA status, according to Fitch, a rating agency, down from 16 in 2009. By value, only 40% of global sovereign debt has the highest rating, down from 48% a decade ago.

There has been an even more dramatic downward trend in corporate debt ratings. There were 99 AAA-rated American corporations in 1992, according to S&P Global, another ratings group; now there are just two. That trend is linked to the tax deductibility of interest: in terms of tax efficiency, it has made sense to increase the amount of debt, and reduce the equity, on the balance-sheet.

Clearly, at the sovereign level, the deterioration has been driven by the global financial crisis, which dented both economic growth and tax revenue. But with bond yields very…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

European financial centres after Brexit

“WHEN the vote took place,” says Valérie Pécresse, “it was an opportunity for us to promote Île de France”, the region around Paris of which she is the elected head. Two advertising campaigns were prepared, depending on the result of Britain’s referendum last June on leaving the European Union. The unused copy ran: “You made one good decision. Make another. Choose Paris region.”

Brexit has made Paris bolder. Once Britain leaves Europe’s single market, the many international banks and other firms that have made London their EU home will lose the “passports” that allow them to serve clients in the other 27 states. Possibly, mutual recognition by Britain and the EU of each other’s regulatory regimes will persist. But no one can rely on the transition to Brexit being smooth, rather than a feared “cliff edge”. Best to assume the worst.

Britain is expected to start the two-year process of withdrawal next month. Given the time needed to get approval from regulators, find offices and move (or hire) staff, financial firms have long been weighing their options. London will remain Europe’s leading centre, but other cities…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

International visitors are already turning their back on Trump-era America

WHEN President Donald Trump announced his travel ban last month, affecting people from seven majority-Muslim countries, this blog wondered what effect it would have on tourism and business travel to America. “The direct impact to tourism of a travel ban from these countries will be small,” a fellow Gulliver noted, since “each sends a piddling number of visitors to America.” But there was a bigger concern: “Will the decree—easily interpreted as a deep hostility to the world beyond America’s shores—put off global travellers?”

Two weeks later, it has become clear that the answer is yes.

Last week, the travel ban was blocked temporarily by a federal judge and the suspension upheld by a panel of appeals court judges. But that hasn’t stopped Mr Trump’s executive order from having an effect on travel to the United States.

Hopper, a market research firm, looked at online searches for flights into America, comparing the final weeks of the Obama administration with the…Continue reading

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Investors flock to buy a piece of Mexico’s leading tequila-maker

OVER the course of more than 200 years in the tequila business, Jose Cuervo will have been responsible for a fair few moments of giddy pleasure. Last week, it got one of its own thanks to a successful initial public offering (IPO). It was eight times oversubscribed and raised 18.6bn pesos ($920m) in exchange for 15% of the company.

Jose Cuervo, which is based in the western state of Jalisco, is one of the country’s best-known brands, and has been run by the same family for 11 generations. It dominates the Mexican tequila industry; sales in 2015 came to 18.5bn pesos. It also holds an assured place in the history of mixology: the original margarita cocktails were purportedly made with Jose Cuervo tequila.

Long considered a candidate for flotation, it eventually published a prospectus in September 2016. The IPO was delayed, though, seemingly to allow the company to take stock of the impact of Donald Trump’s election victory in November. Since then the peso has dropped over 10% against the dollar, and Mr Trump’s desire to rework, even to rip up, the North Atlantic Free-Trade Agreement, and perhaps impose a border tax on Mexican exports to America has sent…Continue reading

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