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Business and financeGulliver

The Ryanair cancellations

SOME strategies are too successful. When Ryanair convinced many of its pilots to take less vacation during peak-travel season, it probably thought it was being clever. However, pilots who ferry tourists to holiday destinations need vacations too. Poor planning and a bit of bad luck have left Ryanair with a shortage of working pilots for the autumn. This shortfall has forced the low-cost airline to cancel around 2,100 flights beginning on September 16th and continuing through October. The abrupt cancellation of last weekend’s flights and the short notice provided to customers has left many angry.

Ryanair’s woes were caused in part by a change in the way the airline determines employee leave. Previously, Ryanair staff took their vacations over an operational year from April to March. In 2016, under pressure from the Irish Aviation Authority, Ryanair adopted the calendar year instead. As part of the transition, it needed to allow its employees to take the entirety of their vacation time between April and December of this year. That…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

The value of credit-card points

THE value of credit-card points has long been a topic of debate among business travellers. The subject is also picked over online on an impressive number of dedicated blogs and forums. Now it is getting an airing in a different sort of venue: the corruption trial of an American senator.

Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, is facing charges for allegedly doing favours for Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based eye doctor and friend of the lawmaker. Prosecutors say that Mr Melgen was trying to avoid repaying the government $8.9m that he had allegedly overbilled Medicare, the public health-care programme for seniors. And he wanted Mr Menendez’s help in exchange for lavish kickbacks. These included flights in a private jet, stays in a fancy hotel and more than $750,000 in campaign contributions. 

But at the centre of the third day of the trial last week was the issue of credit-card points. In 2010, Mr Salomon paid for Mr Menendez to stay for three nights at the Park Hyatt Vendome, a five-star hotel in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A legal vulnerability at the heart of China’s big internet firms

COMPANIES’ legal structures are usually mind-numbing fare. But occasionally it is worth pinching yourself and paying attention. Take “variable interest entities” (VIEs), a kind of corporate architecture used mainly by China’s tech firms, including two superstars, Alibaba and Tencent. They go largely unremarked, but VIEs have become incredibly important. Investors outside China have about $1trn invested in firms that use them.

Few legal experts think that VIEs are about to collapse, but few expect them to endure, either. One sizeable investor admits loving Chinese tech firms’ businesses while feeling queasy about their legal structures. Like scientists appalled by their monstrous creations, even the lawyers who designed VIEs worry. They are “China’s version of too-big-to-fail”, says one. As well as being spooky, VIEs are another instance of how China’s weak property rights hurt its citizens.

What are VIEs? Over 100 companies use them. Since the 1990s private firms have sought to break free of China’s isolated legal and financial systems. Many have done so by forming holding companies in tax havens and listing their shares in New York or Hong Kong. The problem is that they are then usually categorised as “foreign firms” under Chinese rules. That in turn prohibits them from owning assets in some politically sensitive sectors, most…Continue reading

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The business of sperm banks

Fruit of a global supply chain

BROWSING websites that list sperm donors is weirdly similar to online dating. “Sanford is the total package,” begins one online ad, describing his strong jawline and piercing blue eyes. With a degree in finance and a “charming demeanour”, he is more than a pretty face. You can listen to a voice recording from Sanford himself. If all that wins you over, you can have his baby without ever having to go on a date. For $635, Seattle Sperm Bank (SSB) will post you a vial of his frozen swimmers.

The fact that the main customers for many sperm banks are now single women explains the marketing technique. “They tend to be highly educated, impatient and picky,” says Ole Schou, founder of Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm bank, based in Denmark’s second-biggest city, Aarhus. Its website is designed to resemble Match.com, a dating site, because “finding a donor should be as close to finding a natural partner as…Continue reading

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New rail routes between China and Europe will change trade patterns

ASTANA in Kazakhstan is one of the world’s most remote capitals, surrounded by thousands of kilometres of empty steppe. This summer Astana attempted to launch itself onto the global stage by hosting the World Expo, which closed on September 10th and underwhelmed many attendees. But there are other ways to have an impact. On the city’s north side, away from the Expo’s exhibits, a series of diesel trains, each pulling dozens of containers, roll through the old railway station. Most are heading from China to Europe. Last year over 500,000 tonnes of freight went by train between the two, up from next to nothing before 2013. Airlines and shipping firms are watching things closely.

The trains rumbling through Astana result from a Chinese initiative, in tandem with countries like Kazakhstan, to build a “New Silk Road” through Central Asia. The earlier overland routes were once the conduits for most trade between Europe and China and India; they faded into irrelevance…Continue reading

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Global LNG giants turn to poor countries for new markets

Bringing rivers of the liquefied stuff

WHEN it comes to liquefied natural gas (LNG), the supermajors have supersized appetites. The likes of Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and BP make discoveries described as “elephants”; their cost overruns alone can run into the tens of billions of dollars; and projects take the best part of a decade to complete. For years, the industry has demanded fixed, long-term contracts from their customers to justify the size of these megaprojects.

The producers also have pretty big problems. They are in the midst of a vast expansion in Australia and elsewhere just as the shale revolution and the start of American LNG exports has brought an unexpected burst of gas onto markets, clobbering prices for the foreseeable future and forcing producers into concessions. Demand in rich countries such as Japan and much of western Europe appears to be in long-term decline.

At least one big customer, China, is making life easier….Continue reading

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China moves towards banning the internal combustion engine

“A DEFINING moment for the auto industry.” That is how usually restrained analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, described the news that China’s government wants to move towards a ban on gas guzzlers. On September 9th, Xin Guobin, vice minister of industry and information technology, told an automotive conference in Tianjin, a grimy industrial city near Beijing, that the government is developing a long-term plan to phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

The news reverberated around car firms, for which China is the largest market. William Russo of China’s Gao Feng Advisory, a consultancy, who was previously a senior executive at Chrysler, says China is simply far too big to lose out on. “If China says no more fossil-fuel powered cars, global carmakers must follow.”

No timeline for a ban was suggested. China already has ambitious medium-term goals for automotive efficiency and climate change, including a cap on carbon emissions by 2030. Experts…Continue reading

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Rivalry between Apple and Samsung in smartphones will grow fiercer

NEVER shy about hype, on September 12th Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, presented the firm’s latest iPhones to a packed auditorium in its glitzy new headquarters in Cupertino. He made a grand prediction: its new, premium phone, the iPhone X (pronounced “ten”), will “set the path of technology for the next decade”. Set to be released this November, ten years after the first iPhone launched, the iPhone X has new features such as an edge-to-edge OLED screen (a thinner screen that does not use a backlight), wireless charging, facial-recognition technology and a dual-lens camera.

On the same day, Samsung, a rival smartphone-maker, held a lower-key event in Seoul. Koh Dong-jin, president of Samsung Electronics’ mobile business, announced that next year Samsung could reimagine the smartphone entirely and launch a new design with a foldable screen, which can close like a small book. On September 15th its latest premium smartphone, the Galaxy Note 8, will go on sale, boasting many of the features offered by the iPhone X.

Both are trying to convince consumers to spend around $1,000 for their new gadgets. Samsung’s new phone will cost $960; Apple’s high-end iPhone X will cost $999, 45% more than the average selling price of an iPhone in 2016. (The iPhone 8, simpler than the X and available for sale in September, will start at $699.)

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Why do European companies bother to hire ex-politicians?

THIS month Gerhard Schröder starts a new job. Shareholders in Rosneft, a Russian energy giant with a market value of nearly $60bn, are set to appoint Germany’s ex-chancellor as a board director on September 29th. Russia’s government, Rosneft’s majority-owner, nominated Mr Schröder, who is pals with Vladimir Putin. Despite Western sanctions imposed on the firm after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Mr Schröder’s move is no surprise. He has worked for years with Gazprom, another energy arm of the Russian state, to promote a gas pipeline to western Europe.

His ties to Russia win him few friends at home. His successor as Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, calls his behaviour “not OK”. She also vows to reject offers of “any posts in industry once I am no longer chancellor”. Other politicians are happier to follow Mr Schröder’s example. It emerged last month that a former German president, Christian Wulff (pictured), is also employed by a foreign company. He advises…Continue reading

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Is Margrethe Vestager championing consumers or her political career?

EVEN her enemies admire the bloody-mindedness of Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner in charge of competition policy. Last autumn, not long after she had ordered Apple to pay €13bn ($14.5bn) in back-taxes to Ireland, to the fury of many in America, she flew across the Atlantic on a charm offensive. The Americans were not charmed; Ms Vestager was unmoved. Buckling up for the flight home, she tweeted that she had never felt so European.

Since she assumed her current role in November 2014, Ms Vestager has had several high-profile clashes with American tech firms. In May she fined Facebook €110m for misleading EU trustbusters about its takeover of WhatsApp, a messaging service. In June a long-running investigation resulted in a €2.4bn fine on Google for using its search engine to promote its own comparison-shopping service. EU trustbusters have also charged Google with using its Android operating system to promote its mobile-phone apps and services over those of rivals. That…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

How to protect yourself against the theft of your identity

AS IDENTITY theft has proliferated, so has the number of businesses hoping to make money selling protection against it. Companies such as LifeLock, Identity Guard and PrivacyGuard sell products similar to Equifax’s TrustedID Premier identity-theft protection. That was the service Equifax offered to every American with a Social Security number in the aftermath of its big data breach.

Those who enroll in TrustedID are promised notification if their information is offered for sale on the internet. Their credit reports with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” credit-reporting agencies (CRAs), are also monitored for suspicious activity, such as the opening of new accounts or failures to pay a bill on time. If such activity is detected, users can “freeze” their Equifax credit reports, ie, make them unavailable to lenders. And TrustedID offers $1m-worth of insurance to compensate users for losses incurred as a result of identity theft. Equifax is offering the service free…Continue reading

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The big data breach suffered by Equifax has alarming implications

UNTIL something goes wrong, few people give much thought to the surveillance they undergo by credit-reporting agencies (CRAs). Yet these agencies’ business is deeply intrusive: quantifying character. They assign individuals credit scores based on how they previously managed debt. The scores are then sold to lenders. In America, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” CRAs, have gathered credit histories and identifying information for nearly every adult.

On September 7th Equifax admitted that something had indeed gone very wrong: hackers had gained access to personal information on about 143m people, mostly Americans. It reported that, from mid-May to July, hackers exploited a vulnerability in its website. The data compromised included Social Security numbers (SSNs), dates of birth and driving-licence numbers, and for 209,000 people, possibly their credit-card numbers as well. Equifax also noted that data about some Britons and Canadians may have been stolen.

The…Continue reading

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Putting a new face on an American banknote is oddly difficult

IT WOULD be hard to find a better example of long-term gridlock in Washington than its treatment of banknotes, whose appearance has essentially been frozen since 1929. The administration of Barack Obama took a half-hearted step towards a new look, proposing the replacement of Alexander Hamilton’s portrait on the $10 bill with a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became a civil-war hero.

Problems cropped up at once. It seemed ludicrous to scrap the portrait of the one person on a note who helped create America’s financial system. It did not help that he was also the hero of a smash-hit Broadway musical. So the administration decided instead to replace Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, on the $20 bill. But by then it was too close to the election to push the change through.

President Donald Trump has since lent his support to keeping Jackson. In a recent interview, his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, made it clear he had little interest in pursuing…Continue reading

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Goldman Sachs announces a change in strategy

IT IS not easy to feel pity for Goldman Sachs. Its alumni lord it in pivotal government positions around the world; from every prestigious business school, applicants queue in hope of a job; its senior executives earn eye-watering amounts; and it has a presence, it seems, in every corner of the global economy. Yet these are troubling times for the bank. It is facing fundamental questions about its business model.

Its investors are particularly worried by a precipitous decline in the fortunes of its core fixed-income, currencies and commodities unit (FICC). That is the business from which Goldman’s current leadership graduated. The bank’s president, Harvey Schwartz, used a conference on September 12th to give an unusually detailed account of how it is changing. He outlined plans for igniting growth in an apparently stagnant business, and for preserving profitability despite that stagnation.

One factor in Goldman’s problems has been a change in its staff structure. In the hunt…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

ICO stands for Investor Caution Obligatory

HERE is the deal. You can buy an entry in a computer ledger issued by a startup company on the basis of an unregulated prospectus. It is called an “initial coin offering” or ICO. But though the ledger entry is called a coin, you cannot spend it in any shop. And whereas the use of the term ICO makes it sound like an IPO (initial public offering), the process whereby a firm lists on a stockmarket, coin ownership does not necessarily get you equity in the company concerned.

This sounds like the kind of bargain that would appeal only to people who reply to e-mails from Nigerian princes offering to transfer millions to their accounts. But ICOs may well be the most popular investment craze since the dotcom boom of 1999-2000; even Paris Hilton, a celebrity heiress, has jumped on the bandwagon. The list of active, upcoming and recent ICOs on the website “ICO alert” covers 31 pages of A4 paper and includes around 600 companies. More than $2bn has been raised in…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

More business travellers are booking their own trips

A friend of Gulliver’s recently received some devastating news, in the form of a change to company policy. No longer would he and his co-workers be able to book their own flights and file for reimbursements. Instead, the firm would buy all employees’ plane tickets from the start.

On the face of it, this is a convenient change. It saves staff time by ensuring that they do not have to fill in tedious expense forms. But many business travellers may not see it that way. A study from Phocuswright, a travel-research firm, finds that more and more employees are booking their own travel and filing for reimbursements. Sometimes doing so allows for a better itinerary: travellers can avoid annoying layovers and airlines for which they reserve particular ire. Sometimes, if they are feeling generous towards their employer, it can save money too. 

But the most-compelling reason is often the credit-card reward points. Say you are booking a flight from London to New York. On United Airlines, the round-trip will earn you…Continue reading

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Mobile technology is revamping loyalty schemes

THOSE of a cynical bent might think Tom Stuker a glutton for punishment. Over the years, Mr Stuker has flown more than 18m miles (29m kilometres) on United Airlines, a carrier not always renowned for treating its passengers tenderly. Mr Stuker may possess the world’s most impressive frequent-flyer account. Over the past half-decade he has averaged over 1m miles a year with United.

Mr Stuker is extreme in his devotion. But engendering customer loyalty is something that nearly all firms strive for. Most fail. The average American household belongs to 28 loyalty schemes. The country is home to 3.8bn scheme memberships in total, according to Colloquy, a research firm, up from 2.6bn in 2012. More than half of these accounts go unused.

Frequent-flyer programmes, introduced in the 1970s, were the first examples of modern loyalty schemes. They proved to be a clever bit of marketing. Flyers value plane seats highly, so a free one feels like a substantial reward. But…Continue reading

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A craft-beer boom with Chinese characteristics

EVIDENCE unearthed at Mijiaya in Shaanxi province proved that the Chinese have an ancient tradition of making beer. Brewers were operating 5,000 years ago, using grains such as millet and Job’s tears (a kind of pearl barley). This year a couple of small-scale brewers lovingly recreated that Neolithic ale. The cloudy, hop-free beverage would challenge even the bravest microbrew devotee. Ladislao Raphael of Moonzen Brewery in Hong Kong describes it as “sour and funky”.

Yet Mr Raphael and his fellow craft-beer evangelists are winning converts. The Chinese market, which is the world’s largest, is dominated by mass-produced lager. But craft breweries are sprouting up around the country—by 2016 there were around 150, up threefold from 2015. Consumption of their brews has surged by two-thirds over the past five years, figures from GlobalData show, even as overall beer-swilling declines. This mirrors a global pattern: consumers often crave better beers as they get richer. Trend-setters…Continue reading

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Panipat, the global centre for recycling textiles, is fading

Tools of the shoddy trade

WHEN the doors open to the warehouse at Ambey Spinning Mills in Panipat, a city 90km from Delhi, it seems as if its contents might tumble out like those of an overstuffed cupboard. Heaps of clothes are piled to the ceiling. Ten women meticulously extract zips, chains and buttons from T-shirts, winter jackets and denims using long blades usually used to chop vegetables. Outside, a teenage boy wields a knife to bash synthetic fibre against a tree stump. In another workshop clothes are shredded, spun into yarn and woven by power looms into blankets. Bullock carts take them for further processing; they are then sent off for sale in India and beyond.

Known as the “cast-off capital”, Panipat is home to 150-200 such mills, which take in discarded clothes from Western countries and turn them into recycled cloth. The industry employs around 20,000 people and brings in annual revenues of $62m, according to Pawan Garg of All India Woollen and…Continue reading

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America’s utilities prepare for a nuclear threat to the grid

When the lights go out

WHEN North Korea said on September 3rd that it had developed a hydrogen bomb, adding that it could be used for a “super-powerful” high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) attack, America’s electricity industry was already on alert. Sceptics tend to dismiss as far-fetched the idea that the rogue regime would knock out the electricity grid by detonating a nuclear bomb high in the atmosphere. Regulators have not mandated safety measures. But the utilities are taking it seriously enough.

They are more than a year into a three-year programme, funded by about 60 electricity firms, to understand the potential impact of a HEMP attack on the generation and transmission of electricity, and to find ways to shield the network. Such concerns are not new. In 1962, when America exploded nuclear devices high above the Pacific, electrical damage was found in Hawaii. The industry has also studied analogous space-weather effects on power systems,…Continue reading

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An infrastructure for charging electric vehicles takes shape

A NEW phrase, “range anxiety”—the fear that an electric vehicle (EV) will run out of power before it reaches a charging-point—entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. At the time a Nissan LEAF, the world’s best-selling EV, could travel only 120km between charges. A car with a full tank of fuel will travel 650-800km between refills. A motorist relying on batteries has to find a public charger, a rare sight in 2013, or plug in at home to cover the same distance. Range anxiety has not gone away as EVs have advanced. But the problem now feels much more soluble.

Many governments are pushing hard to replace the internal combustion engine (ICE) with cleaner EVs—this summer both Britain and France said that by 2040 new cars completely reliant on petrol or diesel will be illegal. By 2050, half the cars on the road globally, a billion in total, will be battery-powered, reckons Morgan Stanley, a bank. Falling battery costs mean that the total cost of EV ownership will soon hit…Continue reading

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United Technology merges with Rockwell Collins

WHEN passengers board an aircraft, only a few care whether it was built by Airbus or Boeing, two giants that make all the world’s big airliners. Fewer still would recognise the names of the thousands of suppliers that produce the 2m or so parts that go into a modern jet. Surprisingly little of the work is done by Boeing and Airbus. Boeing has outsourced 70% of the parts for its 787 aircraft. The job of assembling Airbus’s A380 superjumbo in its Toulouse factory accounts for only 4% of the work required to make it. The balance of power between aerospace firms and their suppliers is causing ructions.

Near hostilities have broken out due to a run of big mergers among parts-makers. On September 4th, United Technologies (UTC), an American conglomerate that makes Pratt & Whitney engines and other aerospace parts, announced that it had agreed to buy Rockwell Collins, an avionics firm, for $30bn. Although it is one of the biggest-ever mergers in the aerospace business, the deal…Continue reading

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A year on, Wells Fargo cannot shake off its mis-selling scandal

ON SEPTEMBER 8th 2016, Wells Fargo’s reputation plummeted abruptly from that of America’s finest bank to that of yet another dodgy company. It was revealed to have opened an enormous number of potentially unauthorised retail deposit, current (checking) and credit-card accounts. A year on, two questions have yet to be put to rest. How much harm did Wells do to its customers? And how much did the scandal hurt the bank itself?

Wells has not been passive in its response. It has produced report after report on its misdeeds and submitted to investigations by two federal regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It has purged its chief executive and the head of its retail bank, clawed back executive bonuses, transformed its board and simplified its formerly decentralised structure. It has created a comprehensive process for restitution and settled a class-action suit.

Yet it cannot put the scandal behind it. In July it…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Hurricane Harvey has exposed the inadequacy of flood insurance

THOSE who live on America’s coasts know to prepare for wrathful hurricanes in late summer—nailing plywood to their windows as the storm approaches. America’s property insurers and reinsurers are ready, too, using sophisticated models to track storms and estimate potential losses. But wind is not the only danger from hurricanes. Ask Houstonians who saw their homes inundated by Hurricane Harvey’s 52 inches (132cm) of rain in the six days to August 30th. Or those in tthe path of Hurricane Irma, which, as The Economist went to press, was wreaking havoc across the Caribbean. But whereas wind damage is covered under most standard insurance policies in America, flood insurance is a government-run add-on that far from all homeowners buy. As a result, of over $30bn in property losses in Texas, only 40% may be insured.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was set up in 1968, after a series of large losses led private insurers to pull back. Those living within a…Continue reading

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Governments need to rethink their attitudes to debt

GOVERNMENTS do not always make the best budget managers. Assuming it avoids an accidental debt default, America will run a bigger budget deficit this year than the last, despite a booming economy. Germany runs a surplus—but scrimps on critical investments and annoys its euro-area neighbours in the process. Japan, cowering under a mammoth public-debt pile, is weighing raising its consumption tax, though the last rise strangled a tenuous economic recovery. It is awkward, therefore, that the role of fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool is only growing. The next downturn will be a painful and dangerous learning experience for many politicians.

When that comes, at some point in the next few years, the initial policy response is easily foreseeable. Central banks, nimbler than parliaments, will again move first. But markets reckon that two years from now the Fed’s benchmark rate will remain below 2%, the Bank of England’s below 1% and the European Central Bank’s close to zero. Rates can only go so negative before people abandon the banking system for cash. So cuts to interest rates will be limited. By contrast, in the relatively mild recession of 2001 the Fed cut rates by more than six percentage points. Central-bank asset purchases will follow, assuming they are not already happening, as they might well still be in Europe and Japan. Their effects will be less…Continue reading

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Exchange-rate shifts have helped the global economy

STICKLERS for value have plenty of reasons to frown at financial markets. Much feels out of whack, from squashed bond yields to pricey stockmarkets. Yet currency markets, at least, seem to have shifted in line with fundamentals this year. Take the euro, for instance. Since the start of 2017 it has risen by almost 15% against the dollar, to $1.19 (see chart). That has taken it much closer to fair value by benchmarks such as purchasing-power parity (PPP), the exchange rate at which a basket of goods is worth the same in different countries. The OECD puts the euro’s PPP at $1.33. That is quite a stretch from $1.04 in January. “The elastic had to snap back,” says Kit Juckes of Société Générale, a French bank.

Of course, the euro’s revival is a result of more than its being cheap. The anxiety that elections in Europe might bring to power anti-euro populists, such as Marine Le Pen in France, has dissipated. The euro-zone economy has further strengthened, raising the prospect that monetary…Continue reading

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BusinessBusiness and financeIncoming

Ever better and cheaper, face-recognition technology is spreading

TOURING the headquarters of Megvii in Beijing is like visiting Big Brother’s engine room. A video camera in the firm’s lobby recognises visitors in the blink of an eye. Other such devices are deployed around the office. Some of the images they capture are shown on a wall of video called “Skynet”, after the artificial-intelligence (AI) system in the “Terminator” films. One feed shows a group of employees waiting in front of an elevator with a white frame around every face and the name of each person next to it. Quizzed on the Orwellian overtones of the set-up, Yin Qi, the startup’s chief executive, simply remarks that “this helps catch bad guys.”

Even if Mr Yin wanted to ponder the implications of the technology, he would not have the time. Megvii is busy building what he describes as a “brain” for visual computing. The firm has come a long way since its founding in 2011 (its name stands for “mega vision”). More than 300,000 companies and individuals around the…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

What effect is Donald Trump really having on American tourism?

WHEN Donald Trump was inaugurated in January, he wasted no time in trying to bar people from certain Muslim-majority countries entering America. He swiftly, too, promised to make good on his pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border. The nation’s travel industry shuddered. It did not feel like the actions of a man keen to woo visitors from abroad.

The predicted “Trump slump” quickly appeared to materialise. Within months, several online travel firms, including Kayak and Hopper, reported that fewer people were searching for flights to America. That seemed plausible. The country was getting terrible press abroad and the firms that sell flights online seemed the best placed to monitor demand for travel in real time. Come July, however, the U.S. Travel Association revealed that everything was rosy. Instead of a Trump slump, the country was in fact enjoying a Trump bump. The organisation’s Travel Trends Index, which tracks flight and hotel bookings, plane boardings and other data, suggested that the number of…Continue reading

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The lessons of fidget spinners

YOU can spin it on your nose, chin, finger or tongue. Some include LED lights, others resemble a ship’s wheel, or even a skull and crossbones. The fidget spinner has three paddle-shaped blades attached to a central, weighted disc containing ball bearings. Flick a blade and it spins, for anything up to 12 minutes in an advanced version from Japan. It was originally designed to help calm children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, but swept the world earlier this year as a toy that everyone can play with.

Retail sales have undoubtedly slowed recently, says Mark Austin of ToyWorld, a trade publication—good news for the schools that have banned it as too distracting for pupils. But the spinner has created a new “fidget” category of toys. And the global toy industry, which was surprised by its success, has learned lessons.

The fad started in America in February. By May, all 20 of the top-selling toys on Amazon, an online retailer,…Continue reading

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A survey finds support for both globalisation and import tariffs

IN JANUARY 2000, George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, said: “If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, this economy will grow.” His eloquence did little for the cause of free trade. Tariffs have consistently retained broad global support despite the spoonerism.

GlobeScan, a consultancy, has regularly conducted surveys in several developing and developed countries. They measure support for trade barriers, globalisation and free markets. Since 2002, average global support for trade barriers has remained relatively stable at around two-thirds of respondents (see chart 1). Support for globalisation and the free market has been…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Is there a wage growth puzzle in America?

TODAY’S labour market report showed that the American economy created 156,000 net new jobs in August. That was a bit less than expected, but payrolls are still growing comfortably faster than the working-age population. Despite having created over 2m jobs in the last year, pushing unemployment below 4.5% for the last five months, wage growth remains muted, at around 2.5%, compared to more like 3.5% the last time unemployment was comparably low. In a recent article for the print edition, I anlysed one potential explanation for weak wage growth: retirements of high-earnings baby-boomers.

Scott Sumner has taken issue with the premise of my piece. He…Continue reading

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Russia’s largest private bank is rescued by the central bank

VADIM BELYAEV’S start in business in the mid-1980s was to sell foreign watches on the black market in the Soviet Union. He became a financier, and by 2015 had transformed his bank, Otkritie, into post-Soviet Russia’s largest private lender. Named “Businessman of the Year” by a Russian magazine, he used an English term to describe himself: “Risk-taker”. The risks have caught up with Otkritie. A run on its deposits led this week to its takeover by the central bank (CBR). The rescue is likely to be the largest in modern Russian history.

Russian banking has been plagued by lenders with bad loans and inadequate capital, and “pocket” banks that function as money-laundering hubs for influential businessmen. The CBR has embarked on a campaign to clean up the sector, taking on formerly untouchable banks with powerful shareholders and clients. Since 2013 it has shut down more than 300 banks.

Otkritie rose rapidly, out of a small predecessor bank acquired in 2006. It has…Continue reading

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Naspers comes under fire for free-riding on Tencent

SOUTH AFRICA’S stockmarket has Naspers largely to thank for its recent record highs. Shares in the media and internet group have soared by 45% this year; even before then it was Africa’s most valuable firm. So recent unrest among shareholders in Naspers might seem unwarranted. But in the days before its annual general meeting in Cape Town on August 25th, noisy debate erupted, chiefly about executive pay. Many investors reckon that Bob van Dijk, its boss, is being rewarded for success that he did little to create.

The source of good fortune for Naspers lies about 7,000 miles (11,265km) away. In 2001 Koos Bekker, Mr van Dijk’s predecessor, made a brilliant investment of $32m in a little-known Chinese technology firm called Tencent. Today its 33% stake is worth $130bn, as measured by Tencent’s value on the Hong Kong stock exchange; that dwarfs the $100bn valuation of Naspers itself on the Johannesburg stock exchange. Shares in the latter rise and fall on news from Hong Kong. In its…Continue reading

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