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Will robots displace humans as motorised vehicles replaced horses?

 

IN THE early 20th century the future seemed bright for horse employment. Within 50 years cars and tractors made short work of equine livelihoods. Some futurists see a cautionary tale for humanity in the fate of the horse: it was economically indispensable until it wasn’t. The common retort to such concerns is that humans are far more cognitively adaptable than beasts of burden. Yet as robots grow more nimble, humans look increasingly vulnerable. A new working paper concludes that between 1990 and 2007, each industrial robot added per thousand workers reduced employment in America by nearly six workers. Humanity may not be sent out to pasture, but the parallel with horses is still uncomfortably close. 

Robots are just one small part of the technological wave squeezing people. The International Federation of Robotics defines industrial robots as machines that are automatically controlled and re-programmable; single-purpose equipment does not count. The worldwide population of such creatures is below 2m; America has slightly less than two robots per 1,000 workers (Europe has a bit more than two). But their numbers are growing, as is the range of tasks they…Continue reading

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America and Britain prohibit large electronic devices in aircraft cabins on some routes

For whom the belt tolls

NEW intelligence appears to have prompted the decision of the authorities in both America and Britain to prevent the carrying of large electronic devices into the passenger cabins of aircraft flying from several Middle Eastern and North African countries. However, the announcements, which both came on March 21st, raise several unanswered questions. Passengers, and the affected airlines, may be concerned that there is an element of politics behind the new measure, coming as it does in the wake of Donald Trump’s second attempt to ram through a highly controversial executive order restricting travel to America from some Muslim countries.

Some speculate that the intelligence may have been gathered by a raid carried out by American special operations forces on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One such raid took place on January 29th and left a Navy SEAL and up to 30 civilians dead. Some reports suggested that the botched operation yielded no actionable intelligence. But administration officials maintained that material indicating future AQAP targets was seized.

AQAP has…Continue reading

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The unusual gap between American and European bond yields

AMERICA may be the world’s largest economy, but these days its government pays more than many others to borrow money. Its ten-year bond yields are higher than those in Britain, France, Singapore and even Italy.

The gap between American and German ten-year yields has been above two percentage points. For much of the past 25 years, it was very rare for the difference to exceed a single percentage point. On occasions, American yields fell below German levels (see chart).

Go back a generation and you might have expected the country with the higher bond yields to be the one with the weaker currency; investors would demand a higher yield to compensate for the risk of future depreciation. But that is not the case today. The dollar has been strong, relative to the euro, and many people expect it to strengthen further. Indeed, the higher yield on American government debt is one reason why investors might want to buy the dollar.

Instead, the gap may reflect differences in both monetary and fiscal policy. In America the Federal Reserve stopped buying Treasury bonds a while ago and has raised interest rates three times since December 2015; the European…Continue reading

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Companies are racing to add value to water

PRESENTED in an unusually-shaped heavy glass bottle with outsized black lettering, it could be a fine vodka. On sale for £80 ($99) in Harrods, an upmarket department store in London, it has a price tag to match. In fact, it is a bottle of water. Harvested directly from Norwegian icebergs that are up to 4,000 years old, Svalbardi is one of hundreds of water brands that are sourced from exotic places and marketed as luxury products.

From the basic to the expensive, the market for bottled water is an attractive place to be. According to Zenith Global, a consulting firm, the global market has grown by 9% annually in recent years and is worth $147bn. The main reason is changing lifestyles. People are spending more time, and eating more of their meals, away from home. They are also switching from soft drinks and alcohol to healthier fare. Data from Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), another consultancy, show that consumption of bottled water overtook that of sugary soft drinks in America in 2016 (see chart).

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The Trump administration will review all of America’s trade deals

ACCORDING to a document crafted by the Trump administration, a model trade agreement has 24 elements. Second on the list is “trade-deficit reduction”, giving a hint as to why Mr Trump wants to review America’s existing agreements. In January Sean Spicer, his press secretary, said the administration would “re-examine all of the current trade deals.” A presidential order to do just that is reported to be in the offing.

America boasts 14 bilateral and regional free-trade agreements (FTAs). Mr Trump seems to blame these agreements for America’s large trade deficit. Most economists disagree, seeing it as reflecting macroeconomic imbalances. The FTAs are in any case with countries representing just two-fifths of America’s two-way trade in goods, and less than 10% of its goods-trade deficit (see chart). Most (77%) of America’s deficit stems from trade with China, the European Union and Japan. None has an American FTA.

A focus on trade deficits means that tiddly deals such as those with Jordan and Oman will not face much heat. NAFTA (an agreement with Mexico and Canada), and KORUS (South Korea), will face more scrutiny because of chunky…Continue reading

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China’s growing clout in international economic affairs

THE IMF “systematically impoverishes foreigners”, and the World Bank’s advice has “negative value to its best clients”. These harsh words were voiced not by lefty critics of the Washington Consensus, but by two men (David Malpass and Adam Lerrick, respectively) whom Donald Trump has picked to lead his Treasury’s dealings with the rest of the world, including the international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and IMF, and the G20 group of leading economies.

Their future boss, Steven Mnuchin, America’s treasury secretary, is not much more reassuring to the global financial establishment. At his first G20 meeting, in Baden-Baden in Germany on March 17th-18th (pictured), he vetoed a long-standing pledge to “resist all forms of protectionism”. It had often been breached. But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

To veterans of international economic affairs, this combative stance is baffling. America’s government now seems to disdain a set of institutions it nurtured into life—institutions that are more commonly criticised for following America’s will too closely. “The United States is just handing the leadership over…Continue reading

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An earthquake in European banking

IN BRITAIN alone millions of people make formal complaints each year about their banks. For them, Sebastian Siemiatkowski, founder of Klarna, a Swedish payments startup, brings good news. New European rules, he says, will open the door to a host of innovative services that analyse transactions, so “an app could tell you there’s a cheaper mortgage available and start the switching process for you.” Apps could warn account-holders if they spend more than a predetermined amount or are about to become overdrawn, or even nudge them to save more. Customers need barely ever interact with their bank.

To date, despite dire warnings, European retail banking has been remarkably unscathed by technology-driven disruption. Customers stay loyal, and banks still do the most of the lending. Financial-technology (“fintech”) companies are beginning to mount a challenge, most conspicuously in the online-payments industry in northern Europe: Sofort, iDEAL and other fintech firms conduct over half of online transactions in Germany and the Netherlands, for example. But their reach is more limited elsewhere in Europe. Physical payments are still overwhelmingly made with cash or bank…Continue reading

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Uber is facing the biggest crisis in its short history

AS A teenager, Travis Kalanick’s first job was to knock on strangers’ doors and sell them knives. Now he is trying to dodge the daggers aimed at him and at Uber, a ride-hailing firm that is the world’s most valuable startup. On March 19th Jeff Jones, the company’s president, stepped down after six months, declaring that “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” At least six key executives and high-ranking employees have left in the past nine weeks. They include Uber’s head of mapping, a former head of self-driving car technology, and an artificial-intelligence (AI) expert who had been put in charge of the firm’s AI research lab only three months ago.

Aggressive and unrelentingly ambitious, Mr Kalanick built his eight-year-old company into America’s largest privately owned technology firm by treading on the toes of different groups, including traditional taxi drivers, other…Continue reading

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The battle to build Donald Trump’s wall

FEW slogans were chanted with as much passion by Donald Trump’s supporters in the presidential campaign as “Build that wall!”. The construction industry is almost as enthusiastic. Last week America’s Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) issued two invitations for companies to bid to build the wall on the border with Mexico, which is expected to cost anywhere between $12bn and $25bn. The deadline for designs falls on March 29th. One request is for a solid concrete border wall, and the other for a wall using “alternatives” to reinforced solid concrete, suggesting the government has yet to decide what the barrier should be made of.

More than 700 companies, from big general contractors to firms selling materials to niche providers of lighting and surveillance systems, have registered to try to become suppliers. To the surprise of some, about one in ten of the firms bidding are local ones with Hispanic owners, drawn by the scale of the earnings on offer. Cemex, a Mexican cement giant that has plants on both sides of the border, said it would not sell cement for the project, though it had earlier expressed interest in joining the bidding. Another, tiny, Mexican firm…Continue reading

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Big tyremakers are regaining their grip

CARS can be objects of desire and the bonnet badge an indicator of wealth and status. Yet the four small patches of rubber that do the vital job of attaching them to the road stir little emotion. A third of drivers cannot name the make of tyre on their car. Nor do they know that the dominant global brands have been fighting a losing battle for 15 or so years against Chinese competitors and now have a chance of winning back ground.

The established tyremakers have advantages over the industry they serve. They have margins that outstrip even Germany’s luxury carmakers. Supplying manufacturers accounts for only a third of revenues of a typical tyre firm and even less of the profits. The rest comes from replacing tyres on vehicles on the road, which wear out every four years or so.

The expansion of the global vehicle fleet, forecast to grow by around 3.5% a year, helps gradually to reduce firms’ dependence on the cyclical market for new cars. Tyremakers also benefit by selling most of their wares to thousands of distributors. They are fragmented and weak compared with carmakers, and less inclined to drive hard bargains.

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America’s shale firms don’t give a frack about financial returns

INSIDE the boardrooms and bars of Houston, the spiritual capital of America’s energy industry, the swagger is back. The oil price may only be at $48, or half the level it was three years ago. But shale fracking—the business of getting oil and gas out of rocks by blasting them with water and sand—is booming once again after the crash of 2014-16. Exploration and production (E&P) companies are about to go on an investment spree. Demand is soaring for the industry’s raw materials: sand, other people’s money, roughnecks and ice-cold beer.

Shale’s second coming is testament to Texan grit. But the industry’s never-say-die spirit may explain why it has done next to nothing about its dire finances. The business has burned up cash for 34 of the last 40 quarters, according to figures on the top 60 listed E&P firms collected by Bloomberg, a data provider. With the exception of airlines, Chinese state enterprises and Silicon Valley unicorns—private firms valued at more than $1bn—shale firms are on an unparalleled money-losing streak. About $11bn was torched in the latest quarter, as capital expenditures exceeded cashflows. The cash-burn rate may well rise again…Continue reading

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Economic shocks are more likely to be lethal in America

AMERICAN workers without college degrees have suffered financially for decades—as has been known for decades. More recent is the discovery that their woes might be deadly. In 2015 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two (married) scholars, reported that in the 20 years to 1998, the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans fell by about 2% a year. But between 1999 and 2013, deaths rose. The reversal was all the more striking because, in Europe, overall middle-age mortality continued to fall at the same 2% pace. By 2013 middle-aged white Americans were dying at twice the rate of similarly aged Swedes of all races (see chart). Suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse were to blame.

Ms Case and Mr Deaton have now updated their work on these so-called “deaths of despair”. The results, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, are no happier. White middle-age mortality continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, contributing to a fall in life expectancy among the population as a whole. The trend transcends geography. It is found in almost every state, and in both cities and rural areas. The problem seems to be getting worse over time. Deaths from…Continue reading

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A meat scandal in Brazil damages two of its biggest firms

The steaks are high

EVEN amid Brazil’s pungent stew of recent big corporate scandals, the latest is particularly stomach-turning. On Friday March 17th, in time for a traditional weekend churrasco, or barbecue, the federal police accused some of the country’s biggest meat producers of bribing health inspectors to turn a blind eye to grubby practices. These include repackaging beef past its sell-by date, making turkey ham out of soyabeans rather than actual birds and overuse of potentially harmful additives. The police operation, dubbed Weak Flesh, could reduce Brazil’s meat exports, worth $13bn a year, and damage its two big global meat producers, JBS and BRF.  

Two days later the president, Michel Temer, treated 27 diplomats from the country’s main export markets to prime Brazilian cuts at a steakhouse (pictured) in the capital, Brasília. Nevertheless, straight after that China, the European Union (EU), Chile and South Korea, which together consume a third of Brazilian meat sold abroad, said they would ban some or all imports from Brazil until it can allay misgivings about its inspection regime. The…Continue reading

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The business model for the Olympic Games is running out of puff

PIERRE DE COUBERTIN, the French aristocrat who founded the modern Olympics, was seduced by the world’s fair. In 1900, 1904 and 1908 his games were embedded within such exhibitions. He soured on the arrangement eventually because the games were overshadowed, “reduced to the role of humiliated vassal”, as he put it. The Olympics still criss-crosses the globe, but with city after city ditching ambitions to put on the world’s largest sporting event, the model is under threat.

The latest blow comes courtesy of Budapest, which on March 1st withdrew its bid to host the 2024 summer games after public opposition. Its retreat comes on the heels of Boston, Rome and Hamburg canning their bids within the past two years, whittling a once-crowded pool of candidate cities down to only two: Los Angeles—itself a replacement for the torpedoed Boston bid—and Paris.

The situation ought to feel familiar by now to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the games. After lots of cities bowed out of the competition for the 2022 winter games it was again left with two options: Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China….Continue reading

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Chinese pharma firms target the global market

The way things were

WALK into the Shanghai laboratories of Chi-Med, a biotech firm, and you encounter the sort of shiny, cutting-edge facilities common in any major pharma company in America, Europe or Japan. Chi-Med has just had positive results in a late-stage trial of its drug for colorectal cancer, which is called Fruquintinib. If the drug is approved both in China and in Western markets it could be the very first prescription drug to be designed and developed entirely in China that will be on a path to global commercialisation.

Given China’s ageing population, higher incomes and rising demand for health care it is clear why innovation in drugs is a priority for the country. Its national market for drugs has grown rapidly in recent years to become the world’s second-largest. It could grow from $108bn in 2015 to around $167bn by 2020, according to an estimate from America’s Department of Commerce. By comparison, America spends about $400bn a year on drugs.

Chinese firms mainly sell cheap, generic medicines that earn only razor-thin margins. The pharma industry is extremely fragmented, with thousands of tiny…Continue reading

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Elon Musk supercharges progress on energy storage

Storage salesman

HOW much power does a tweetstorm involving two tech tycoons, the prime minister of Australia and 8.5m Twitter followers generate? Enough, at least, to supercharge a debate about the future role of batteries in the world’s energy mix.

Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (pictured), may be best known for his gravity-defying ambition, but his core product is the battery: whether for his Tesla cars, for the home or for grid-scale electricity storage. He gave the last of these an unexpected jolt of publicity on March 10th, by responding to a blackout-inspired challenge on Twitter from an Australian software billionaire, Mike Cannon-Brookes. Mr Musk said he could install 100 megawatt hours (MWh) of battery storage in the state of South Australia in 100 days to help solve an energy crisis it faces, or it would be free of charge. “That serious enough for you?” he asked.

In response, Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, communicated with Mr Musk and appeared to turn from pro-coal sceptic into battery believer. On March 14th Jay Weatherill, the premier of South Australia, went further. Declaring…Continue reading

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What Satya Nadella did at Microsoft

A DECADE ago, visiting Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle was like a trip into enemy territory. Executives would not so much talk with visitors as fire words at them (one of this newspaper’s correspondents has yet to recover from two harrowing days spent in the company of a Microsoft “brand evangelist”). If challenged on the corporate message, their body language would betray what they were thinking and what Bill Gates, the firm’s founder, used often to say: “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Today the mood at Microsoft’s campus, a sprawling collection of more than 100 buildings, is strikingly different. The word-count per minute is much lower. Questions, however ignorant or critical, are answered patiently. The firm’s boss, Satya Nadella (pictured), strikes a different and gentler tone from Mr Gates and Steve Ballmer, his immediate predecessor (although he, too, has a highly competitive side).

Both these descriptions are caricatures. But they point to an underlying truth: how radically the world’s biggest software firm has changed in the short time since Mr Nadella took charge in early 2014. Back…Continue reading

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Mobileye and Intel join forces

Data trafficking

CARMAKING in Israel has amounted to little more than some unstylish models put together in the latter half of the last century and a few rugged off-roaders still assembled for the country’s security forces. A reluctance to make them, however, has not stopped Israel from becoming a thriving centre for the high-tech kit with which cars now bristle, and also for mobility services such as ride-hailing.

The latest evidence of Israel’s pre-eminence in the field came on March 13th, when Intel, a giant American chipmaker, paid $15.3bn for Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based firm that is at the forefront of autonomous-car technology. With the acquisition, Intel joins the ranks of technology companies that are trying to outmanoeuvre carmakers and auto-parts suppliers to develop the brains of vehicles of the future.

Mobileye is an attractive target because of what it does now and what it will soon be capable of. Its EyeQ software is already used by most of the world’s carmakers to help their vehicles stay in their lanes and brake in emergencies, precisely what will also be required in autonomous vehicles. This…Continue reading

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Citigroup’s decade of agony is almost over

IF YOU ask financial types in New York for their views on the world’s big banks, they usually come up with similar vignettes for each one. They agree that JPMorgan Chase is an unstoppable force under its boss, Jamie Dimon. Goldman Sachs is on a roll, with its shares up by 36% since the election (even if some worry that its Darwinian culture is going soft given all the regulation it faces). Across the pond Deutsche Bank is struggling to keep its head above water; its leader, John Cryan, embarked on a capital-raising and cost-cutting plan on March 5th. Yet one big bank elicits shrugs of bafflement: Citigroup. Its managers are anonymous and they get paid about a fifth less than their peers at other financial groups. No one is quite sure what Citi is up to or what it exists for. Once too big to fail, it is now too drab to mention.

That Citi has become the world’s half-forgotten bank is surprising. It was America’s biggest firm before the financial crisis, measured by size of assets; it is now the fourth-largest. After suffering huge losses on loans and subprime securities, in 2008-09 it received the biggest bail-out of any American bank. Citi can still…Continue reading

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A battle over Euro Disney

IF YOU judge only by the volume of screams and the beaming faces of those taking rides at Europe’s most-visited, privately-owned tourist destination, then it is clear that Disneyland Paris has much to celebrate. In the three decades since Disney, an American media firm, agreed to put its European theme park on a site east of Paris, and the 25 years since its doors swung open, in 1992, 320m customers have queued for attractions such as “Space Mountain”, a stomach-twisting rollercoaster, and photo-ops with Disney characters.

To mark these anniversaries the firm is making bold claims for the park’s economic and social benefits. Nearly €8bn ($8.6bn) has been invested in or near the site, which includes a second Disney studio-themed park, 8,500 hotel rooms, convention centres and a golf course. France’s economy has supposedly seen gains worth €68bn and the creation of 56,000 jobs. Politicians pay it heed: François Hollande, the retiring president, made an end-of-term visit late last month.

But investors tell a different story. Shares in Euro Disney (the French parent company) have performed like a raft on the…Continue reading

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Do smart-beta investment funds work?

IN THE world of investing, everyone is always looking for a better mousetrap—a way to beat the market. One approach that is increasingly popular is to select shares based on specific “factors”—for example, the size of companies or their dividend yield. The trend has been given the ugly name of “smart beta”.

A recent survey of institutional investors showed three-quarters were either using or evaluating the approach. By the end of January some $534bn was invested in smart-beta exchange-traded funds, according to ETFGI, a research firm. Compound annual growth in assets under management in the sector has been 30% over the past five years.

The best argument for smart-beta funds is that they simply replicate, at lower cost, what fund managers are doing already. For example, many fund managers follow the “value” approach, seeking out shares that look cheap. A computer program can pick these stocks more methodically than an erratic human. A smart-beta fund does what it says on the tin.

But does it work? The danger here is “data mining”. Carry out enough statistical tests, and you will always find some strategy that worked in the…Continue reading

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Is the Federal Reserve giving banks a $12bn subsidy?

EVERY time the Federal Reserve has raised rates since the financial crisis, as it did on March 15th, it has done so in part by increasing “Interest On Excess Reserves” (IOER). This obscure policy rate is surprisingly controversial. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chair of the congressional committee that oversees the Fed, has called it a “subsidy” to some of the largest banks in America.

To understand the argument, consider the Fed’s year-end financial statement. In 2016 it earned $111.1bn in interest income on its vast portfolio of securities. But it also paid JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and other mostly big banks $12bn in interest on excess cash deposited at regional Federal Reserve banks. Such IOER payments are both woefully unpopular and critical to the Fed’s monetary policy.

Over a decade ago, to give the Fed better control of short-term interest rates, Congress authorised it to pay interest on funds in excess of those banks need to meet reserve requirements. The policy was first used during the financial crisis in 2008. But today, IOER is the Fed’s primary monetary-policy tool, essential to its setting of…Continue reading

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The South Korea-US trade agreement turns five

IT SHOULD have been a happy anniversary. On March 15th 2012, KORUS, a trade deal between America and South Korea, came into effect. It slashed tariffs, tightened intellectual-property rights and opened up South Korea’s services market. When it was signed, the head of an American manufacturing lobby hailed it as meaning “jobs, jobs and jobs”. Wendy Cutler, its American negotiator, calls it “the highest standard deal we have in force”.

Five years on, jubilation has given way to anxiety. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump referred to the deal as a “job-killer”. On March 1st his administration’s official trade-strategy document singled it out for criticism. America’s trade deficit in goods with South Korea has more than doubled since 2011. “This is not the outcome the American people expected,” it lamented.

Trade between America and South Korea has indeed fallen short of expectations. When the deal was signed, the United States International Trade Commission predicted that it would boost American goods exports to South Korea by around $10bn. In fact they fell by $3bn between 2011 and 2016. The deal suffered…Continue reading

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The progressive case for immigration

“WE CAN’T restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.” Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa, could hardly have been clearer in his meaning in a tweet this week supporting Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician with anti-immigrant views. Across the rich world, those of a similar mind have been emboldened by a nativist turn in politics. Some do push back: plenty of Americans rallied against Donald Trump’s plans to block refugees and migrants. Yet few rich-world politicians are willing to make the case for immigration that it deserves: it is a good thing and there should be much more of it.

Defenders of immigration often fight on nativist turf, citing data to respond to claims about migrants’ damaging effects on wages or public services. Those data are indeed on migrants’ side. Though some research suggests that native workers with skill levels similar to those of arriving migrants take a hit to their wages because of increased migration, most analyses find that they are not harmed, and that many eventually earn more as competition nudges them to specialise in more demanding occupations. But as a slogan, “The data say…Continue reading

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As the Fed raises rates, Janet Yellen’s legacy is pondered

THIRD time lucky. In each of the past two years, the Federal Reserve has predicted multiple interest-rate rises, only to be thrown off-course by events. On March 15th the central bank raised its benchmark Federal Funds rate for the third time since the financial crisis, to a range of 0.75-1%. This was, if anything, ahead of its forecast, which it reaffirmed, that rates would rise three times in 2017. “Lift-off” is at last an apt metaphor for monetary policy. But as Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairwoman, picks up speed in terms of policy, she must navigate a cloudy political outlook. The next year will define her legacy.

Ms Yellen took office in February 2014 after dithering by the Obama administration over a choice between her and Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary. Left-wingers preferred Ms Yellen, in part because she seemed more likely to give jobs priority over stable prices. Indeed, Republicans in Congress worried that she would be too soft on inflation. The Economist called her the “first acknowledged dove” to lead the central bank.

Today Ms Yellen looks more hawkish—certainly than Mr Summers, who…Continue reading

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As the Fed raises rates, Janet Yellen’s legacy is pondered

THIRD time lucky. In each of the past two years, the Federal Reserve has predicted multiple interest-rate rises, only to be thrown off-course by events. On March 15th the central bank raised its benchmark Federal Funds rate for the third time since the financial crisis, to a range of 0.75-1%. This was, if anything, ahead of its forecast, which it reaffirmed, that rates would rise three times in 2017. “Lift-off” is at last an apt metaphor for monetary policy. But as Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairwoman, picks up speed in terms of policy, she must navigate a cloudy political outlook. The next year will define her legacy.

Ms Yellen took office in February 2014 after dithering by the Obama administration over a choice between her and Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary. Left-wingers preferred Ms Yellen, in part because she seemed more likely to give jobs priority over stable prices. Indeed, Republicans in Congress worried that she would be too soft on inflation. The Economist called her the “first acknowledged dove” to lead the central bank.

Today Ms Yellen looks more hawkish—certainly than Mr Summers, who regularly urges the Fed to…Continue reading

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America’s pot industry shrugs off Donald Trump’s harder line on legal drugs

THESE are high times for America’s marijuana-industrial complex. More than half the country’s states have legalised medical cannabis, often rather loosely defined. Eight have voted to legalise the drug for recreational purposes. The industry was worth about $6bn last year, a figure that is likely to rise sharply in 2018 when recreational sales begin in California.

Yet in Washington, DC, the mellow mood has been harshed. Donald Trump may have said in 1990 that “You have to legalise drugs to win that war.” But after entering politics he became more conservative. While campaigning for the presidency he called Colorado’s legal cannabis market a “real problem”. Last month his press secretary, Sean Spicer, said he expected to see “greater enforcement” of the laws that still ban cannabis at the federal level.

That worries pot peddlers. The fact that they are in breach of federal law means that in theory their profits are criminal proceeds, subject to forfeiture. In 2013 the deputy attorney-general of the day, James Cole, published a memo reassuring states that had legalised cannabis that federal agents would not interfere…Continue reading

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Can a railway legend deliver at America’s CSX?

E. HUNTER HARRISON, a veteran railway executive, tried retiring in 2010, after he made Canadian National (CN), a formerly state-owned company, the best-performing of the large railways in North America. But once he pocketed the gold watch and attended the retirement party he faced a void that raising and training horses for showjumping did not fill. By mid-2012 he was back at the helm of another railway, Canadian Pacific (CP), whose glory days were long past. Once he had turned around CP, he didn’t make the same mistake again. On January 18th the 72-year-old Tennesseean both announced his departure and entered negotiations with Florida-based CSX to become that railway’s CEO.

Just the rumour that Mr Harrison might be moving to CSX caused the share price to rise by 23% in 24 hours. It continued to rise when the negotiations became public. At last, on March 6th, CSX appointed Mr Harrison as CEO and met the condition set by Mantle Ridge, an activist hedge fund with which he has partnered, to name five new board directors. Mr Harrison made long-term shareholders in CP and CN rich, tripling profits at both during his tenures. CSX shareholders expect…Continue reading

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New technologies could slash the cost of steel production

ALTHOUGH he is best known for developing a way to mass-produce steel, Henry Bessemer was a prolific British inventor. In the 1850s in Sheffield his converters blasted air through molten iron to burn away impurities, making steel the material of the industrial revolution. But Bessemer knew he could do better, and in 1865 he filed a patent to cast strips of steel directly, rather than as large ingots which then had to be expensively reheated and shaped by giant rolling machines.

Bessemer’s idea was to pour molten steel in between two counter-rotating water-cooled rollers which, like a mangle, would squeeze the metal into a sheet. It was an elegant idea that, by dint of having fewer steps, would save time and money. Yet it was tricky to pull off. Efforts to commercialise the process were abandoned.

Until now. Advances in production technology and materials science, particularly for new types of high-tech steel, mean that Bessemer’s “twin-roll” idea is being taken up successfully. An alternative system that casts liquid steel directly onto a single horizontally moving belt is also being tried. Both techniques could cut energy…Continue reading

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Mining companies have dug themselves out of a hole

FOR mining investors there is something sinfully alluring about Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss metals conglomerate. It is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, a singularly unfashionable commodity. It goes where others fear to tread, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has an unsavoury reputation for violence and corruption. It recently navigated sanctions against Russia to strike a deal with Rosneft, the country’s oil champion.

Yet Glencore could still acquire a halo for itself. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of copper and the biggest of cobalt, much of which comes from its investment in the DRC. These are vital ingredients for clean-tech products and industries, notably electric vehicles (EVs) and batteries.

The potential of “green” metals and minerals, which along with copper and cobalt include nickel, lithium and graphite, is adding to renewed excitement about investing in mining firms as they emerge from the wreckage of a $1trn splurge of over-investment during the China-led commodities supercycle, which began in the early 2000s. The most bullish argue that clean energy could be an even bigger source of…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A deal sparks talk of car-industry mega-mergers

THE Peugeot 3008, a striking SUV, was voted European car of the year on March 6th, the eve of the opening of the Geneva motor show, an annual industry shindig. PSA Group, the maker of Peugeots and Citroëns, would doubtless view it as the second prize it scooped that day. News also came that the French carmaker was buying Opel (branded as Vauxhall in Britain), the European operation of America’s General Motors (GM). Few of the car-industry experts at the show, however, would call Opel a trophy.

The consensus was that GM was right to rid itself of a business that had lost money for 16 years straight. Opel has around 6% of the European market; that makes it too small and inefficient in a business where scale is key. It has been confined mostly to Europe for three reasons: the particular tastes of the region’s car buyers (for instance, for small diesel cars); tighter emissions regulations outside Europe; and GM’s fear of taking sales from its other brands further afield. The result has been to leave it boxed in and isolated.

Shorn of Opel, the American firm can redirect investment to China and America, where its profit margins are…Continue reading

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Foreign buyers push up global house prices

MANY Americans were taken aback when news broke in January that Peter Thiel, an internet billionaire and adviser to Donald Trump, had New Zealand citizenship. For five years this backer of an “America first” president had kept his Kiwi passport quiet. Then the government released details of his $10m-lakeside estate (pictured).

A growing horde of rich foreigners see New Zealand as a safe haven. In 2016 overseas investors bought just 3% of all properties. But their purchases were concentrated at the expensive end of the market, which is growing fast: sales involving homes worth more than NZ$1m ($690,000) increased by 21%. That helped push prices in the country up by 13% over the past year, to lead The Economist’s latest tally of global house-price inflation (see table).

New Zealand is one of several countries where the impact of foreign money on housing is under scrutiny. Prices have also risen rapidly in Australia and Canada. Central bankers fret about the dangers fickle capital flows pose to financial stability. London’s mayor has ordered a study on foreign ownership in the capital after property prices…Continue reading

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Deutsche Bank raises capital, and changes course

THREE times since the financial crisis, Deutsche Bank’s bosses have turned to its shareholders for cash: €10.2bn ($13.6bn) in 2010, €3bn in 2013 and €8.5bn in 2014. Since becoming chief executive in 2015, John Cryan has had no plans to ask for more. Deutsche still needed to thicken its equity cushion, but disposals, cost cuts and earnings (if any: it has made losses for the past two years) would provide the stuffing.

Well, plans change. On March 5th Mr Cryan announced an €8bn rights issue. Some comfort for investors: the price, €11.65 a share, is 39% below the previous close; and Mr Cryan, who had suspended the dividend, promises a return to “competitive” payouts next year. In another reversal, Deutsche will keep rather than sell Postbank, a mass-market retail business that was once part of the post office. Deutsche has owned it since 2010.

Postbank and the posher “blue” Deutsche Bank brand will be more closely integrated—notably, sharing computer systems. Mr Cryan is also selling a slice of Deutsche’s asset-management division and some lesser assets. And he is reorganising its corporate and investment bank to…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Chinese startups push into foreign markets

They’re coming your way

ON THE outskirts of Guangzhou, a city in southern China, lies an abandoned park filled with crumbling replicas of the wonders of the world. To the right are fading golden spires that are meant to represent Angkor Wat, a temple in Cambodia. On the left, a row of dusty Egyptian statues towers over a desolate Greek amphitheatre. Adding to the surrealism, the tops of the trees have been lopped off and a buzzing noise fills the night air.

This strange place is the testing ground for EHang, a Chinese startup that makes drones. (The treetops were chopped off, an employee explains, because drones kept crashing into them.) Hu Huazhi, EHang’s founder, is beaming. His firm has just set a world record for a drone-swarm light show in Guangzhou, where it flew a thousand small drones in perfect unison. Next it plans to launch an autonomous flying-taxi service with a giant drone big enough to take a person (pictured). Dubai has just signed a deal with EHang to launch drone taxis this summer.

EHang is an example of a new kind of Chinese firm, labelled “micro-multinationals” by some. In the past,…Continue reading

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The retreat of globalisation threatens the Dutch economy

AS ANY football fan knows, little delights the Dutch more than beating the Germans. So, as the country prepares for an election on March 15th, it should be cheering an economy that, after lagging behind Germany’s for years, is at last outpacing it. GDP grew by 2.1% last year, which was the fastest rate since 2007 and a stronger performance than its neighbours, including Germany. Unemployment has fallen to 5.3% and more people are in work than before the crisis in 2007-08.

After years of belt-tightening, households are spending again, thanks to a strong housing-market recovery and rising wages. Government finances are sound. This year the budget may be in balance—perhaps even in surplus—and public debt may drop below 60% of GDP. Yet this sunny outlook has not brightened the mood of a tetchy election campaign.

That is not so surprising. Marieke Blom, the chief economist at ING, a bank, attributes the positive forecast mostly to tough government reforms over the past few years—particularly raising the retirement age to 67 (from 2021) and reforming the financing of the health-care system. Years of reform, austerity and…Continue reading

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Green finance for dirty ships

Smokestack lightening

SHIPPING may seem like a clean form of transport. Carrying more than 90% of the world’s trade, ocean-going vessels produce just 3% of its greenhouse-gas emissions. But the industry is dirtier than that makes it sound. By burning heavy fuel oil, just 15 of the biggest ships emit more oxides of nitrogen and sulphur—gases much worse for global warming than carbon dioxide—than all the world’s cars put together. So it is no surprise that shipowners are being forced to clean up their act. But in an industry awash in overcapacity and debt, few have access to the finance they need to improve their vessels. Innovative thinking is trying to change that.

A new report from the Carbon War Room (CWR), an international NGO, and UMAS, a consultancy, highlights the threat that new environmental regulations pose to the industry. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN’s regulatory agency for shipping, has agreed to cap emissions of sulphur from 2020. Last month the European Parliament voted to include shipping in the EU’s emissions-trading scheme from 2021. Without any retrofitting of ships to meet the…Continue reading

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