Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Small flying “cars” come a bit closer to reality

“YOU may smile, but it will come,” said Henry Ford in 1940, predicting the arrival of a machine that was part-automobile and part-aeroplane. For decades flying cars have obsessed technologists but eluded their mastery. Finally there is reason to believe. Several firms have offered hope that flying people in small pods for short trips might become a reality in the next decade. These are not cars, as most are not fit to drive on land, but rather small vehicles, which can rise and land vertically, like quiet helicopters.

A prototype of a small electric plane capable of flying up to 300 kilometres per hour, made by Lilium, a German startup, completed a successful test over Bavaria on April 20th. Lilium is starting work on a five-seat vehicle and hopes to offer a ride-hailing service. Another German firm, e-volo, has been testing a flying vehicle for several years. It recently showed off the second version of its electric Volocopter (pictured), which could be certified for flight as soon as next year.

There are at least a dozen firms experimenting with making small flying vehicles in different guises, including Airbus, an aerospace giant, in partnership with…Continue reading

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Japanese fast-food chains feel a squeeze

Three-star service

SHIMMERING spreads of raw fish sashimi, succulent beef from massaged cows, and, for a decade, the capital with the most Michelin-starred restaurants: few nations rival Japan for fine dining. Its fast-food scene has also thrived for centuries. From the 1700s bowls of cold soba noodles, made from buckwheat, were cycled to wealthy clients on towering trays. Sushi began to glide past customers in 1958, when the first conveyor belt was installed. In 1970 its first homegrown hamburger chain opened, a year before McDonald’s entered the market.

Fast-food chains continued to be a rare bright spot for Japan during its two-decade-long economic slump. Since 2008 the size of the market has increased from $35bn to $45bn (those figures include convenience stores, or konbini); that of restaurants has declined every year in that period. But fast food is now being squeezed: by a combination of higher wages and still-tepid consumption, and by foreign rivals winning over more Japanese stomachs.

Tomoaki Ikeda, president of Yudetaro, a soba chain in the greater Tokyo…Continue reading

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AkzoNobel, under siege, makes unrealistic promises about growth

THE future for AkzoNobel is dazzling—if you believe Ton Büchner, its chief executive. The boss of the Dutch paint-and-coatings firm reported a solid set of quarterly earnings on April 19th, then promised a new era of rapid growth and investments. Shareholders are to get lavish dividends this year. The firm will break up its ungainly conglomerate structure. A speciality-chemicals part of the business will be sold or listed separately next year.

Mr Büchner has no choice but to talk things up, if he is to justify rebuffing two recent takeover offers from a similar-sized American rival, PPG. Its latest bid, of €22.5bn ($24bn) in cash and shares, represented a 40% premium over Akzo’s market value before the first bid. An activist fund, Elliott Management, which has a 3% stake in Akzo, is pushing other shareholders to demand discussion of the bid.

Akzo’s promises were welcome. But like a newly opened tin of paint, they made some heads spin. After years of eking out smallish gains mostly through cost-cutting, the firm is suddenly to boom. Akzo had previously forecast that returns on sales would be 11% by 2018, already well over its average of less than 9%…Continue reading

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How Donald Trump affects America’s tourist business

TRUMP Tower, in midtown Manhattan, has become a modern-day Mount Vernon. Tourists have long visited George Washington’s homestead. Now they venture through Trump Tower’s brass doors to ogle the decor—“it’s so gold,” said a German teenager standing near the lobby’s waterfall on a recent afternoon—or buy souvenirs. The Choi family, visiting from South Korea, wandered the marble expanse with their new “Make America Great” hats (three for $50).

The question for America’s hoteliers and airlines is whether such visitors are just anomalies. A strong dollar is one reason for foreigners to avoid visiting America. Donald Trump may prove another, suggests a growing collection of data. Yet measuring the precise impact of Mr Trump’s presidency on travel is difficult. In addition to the currency effect, many trips currently being taken to America were booked before his election. Marriott, a big hotel company, reported an overall increase, compared with a year earlier, in foreign bookings in America in February.

But Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s boss, has voiced concern about a potential slump in tourism. In February, ForwardKeys, a travel-data…Continue reading

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Another debate about net neutrality in America

THE details around network neutrality, the principle that internet-service providers (ISPs) must treat all sorts of web traffic equally, can be mind-numbingly abstruse. But they fuel passion, nonetheless. After Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC), proposed unpopular net-neutrality rules in late 2014, for instance, protesters blocked his driveway, forcing him to walk to work. Their action was meant to illustrate the threat of big ISPs erecting toll-booths and other choke-points that would relegate less well-off consumers to digital slow lanes.

Now it is the turn of Ajit Pai (pictured), Mr Wheeler’s successor, to stir the hornets’ nest. In the coming days Mr Pai is expected to unveil a proposal for new rules on net neutrality. His plan is anticipated to be a testament both to his deregulatory agenda and to the big ISPs’ lobbying power. It would essentially take the FCC out of the equation when it comes to policing the smooth running of the internet.

Because of the protests in 2014 and because of a court decision that year suggesting that the FCC needed the jurisdiction to be able to mandate net-neutrality…Continue reading

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Why the decline in the number of listed American firms matters

LAST month Schumpeter attended an event at the New York Stock Exchange held in honour of Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, a room-sharing website that private investors value at $31bn. Glittering tables were laid out not far from where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. The well-heeled members of the Economic Club of New York watched as Thomas Farley, the NYSE’s president, hailed Airbnb as an exemplar of American enterprise. Mr Chesky recounted his journey from sleeping on couches in San Francisco to being a billionaire. His mum, a former social worker, looked on. Only one thing was missing. When Mr Chesky was asked if he would list Airbnb on the NYSE, he hesitated. He said there was no pressing need.

Airbnb is not alone. A big trend in American business is the collapse in the number of listed companies. There were 7,322 in 1996; today there are 3,671. It is important not to confuse this with a shrinking of the stockmarket: the value of listed firms has risen from 105% of GDP in 1996 to 136% now. But a smaller number of older, bigger firms dominate bourses. The average listed firm has a lifespan of 18 years, up from 12 years two decades ago, and is worth four times…Continue reading

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New types of driver embrace the recreational vehicle

EARLY spring is the main selling season for recreational vehicles (RVs) and the phone on Tom Troiano’s desk has been ringing incessantly. The owner of Continental RV, a dealership in Farmingdale, a village on Long Island, Mr Troiano is on track to sell more RVs this year than in any other since the early 2000s. Buoyed by cheap financing, rising wages and inexpensive gas, travellers are once again splurging on big-ticket camper vans.

RVs are a quintessentially American invention: more than two-thirds are made in the United States. Nationally, sales surged to 430,000 units last year, a 40-year high. At the inexpensive end they sell for as little as $5,000 for a caravan; deluxe versions cost up to $1m and are typically equipped with a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom that are bigger than in many European flats. The share prices of Thor Industries, the biggest RV-manufacturer in America, and Winnebago, the third-largest, have risen by 43% and 17%, respectively, in the past year.

That is a big change. During the 2008-09 recession, notes Mr Troiano, RV dealerships everywhere closed down, leaving his shop among the very few left serving the New York metropolitan area….Continue reading

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Trends in the air-freight business

WHEN people think of air travel they picture planes full of passengers. But air cargo is as vital—perhaps more—to the global economy. Only 1% of exports by volume go in aircraft but because they tend to be the most expensive goods, they account for 35% of global trade by value. Nearly everyone has used products delivered by aircraft, from vaccinations in poor countries to smartphones in rich ones.

Cargo airlines such as FedEx Express and Emirates Skycargo have had a difficult few years. Global trade growth has stalled, and along with it demand for air freight. Inanimate air cargo mostly rides in the same planes as the live sort; when rising passenger demand encouraged airlines to buy more planes, the additional cargo capacity flooded the industry, causing air-freight prices to slide. Industry revenues have fallen from a peak of $67bn in 2011 to $50bn now, according to IATA, a trade group. Yet the mood at the World Air Cargo Symposium in March in Abu Dhabi was cautiously optimistic. For the first time since the global financial crisis in 2008, demand for air freight has started to expand quickly again.

The industry-by-industry variations within this overall…Continue reading

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Cloudification will mean upheaval in telecoms

IN THE computing clouds, startups can set up new servers or acquire data storage with only a credit card and a few clicks of a mouse. Now imagine a world in which they could as quickly weave their own wireless network, perhaps to give users of a fleet of self-driving cars more bandwidth or to connect wireless sensors.

As improbable as it sounds, this is the logical endpoint of a development that is picking up speed in the telecoms world. Networks are becoming as flexible as computing clouds: they are being turned into software and can be dialled up and down as needed. Such “cloudification”, as it is known, will probably create as much upheaval in the telecoms industry as it has done in information technology (IT).

IT and telecoms differ in important respects. One is largely unregulated, the other overseen closely by government. Computing capacity is theoretically unlimited, unlike radio spectrum, which is hard to use efficiently. And telecoms networks are more deeply linked to the physical world. “You cannot turn radio towers into software,” says Bengt Nordstrom of Northstream, a consultancy.

The data centres of big cloud-computing providers are packed…Continue reading

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Google is accused of underpaying women

GOOGLE has made a fortune by helping people dig up whatever information they seek. But in a court hearing on April 7th, America’s Department of Labour (DoL) accused the company behind the profitable search engine of burying the fact that it pays its female employees less than their male counterparts. The accusation of lower compensation for women forms part of a lawsuit by the DoL, which has asked Google to turn over detailed information on pay. The department has not released data to back its assertion, and Google denies the allegation.

Whatever the outcome in court, the government’s recriminations risk marring Google’s image. Just three days earlier it had taken to Twitter to boast that it had “closed the gender pay gap globally”. That claim is now under suspicion. It is true that at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, several women hold high positions, including Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer, and Susan Wojcicki, who runs YouTube, an online-video business. But the important question is not only whether a few women get promoted but also how those in the middle and lower ranks fare.

What figures there are paint a depressing picture about the…Continue reading

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How Germany’s Otto uses artificial intelligence

A GLIMPSE into the future of retailing is available in a smallish office in Hamburg. From there, Otto, a German e-commerce merchant, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve its activities. The firm is already deploying the technology to make decisions at a scale, speed and accuracy that surpass the capabilities of its human employees.

Big data and “machine learning” have been used in retailing for years, notably by Amazon, an e-commerce giant. The idea is to collect and analyse quantities of information to understand consumer tastes, recommend products to people and personalise websites for customers. Otto’s work stands out because it is already automating business decisions that go beyond customer management. The most important is trying to lower returns of products, which cost the firm millions of euros a year.

Its conventional data analysis showed that customers were less likely to return merchandise if it arrived within two days. Anything longer spelled trouble: a customer might spot the product in a shop for one euro less and buy it, forcing Otto to forgo the sale and eat the shipping costs.

But customers also dislike multiple…Continue reading

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China’s HNA Group goes on a global shopping spree

Chen keeps spending

NOW it is a conglomerate with more than $100bn-worth of assets around the world. But HNA Group started life as a small local airline. Chen Feng, the Chinese company’s founder, led a coalition including private investors and the government of Hainan, a southern province, to launch Hainan Airlines in 1993.

Despite some help from the local government, the upstart firm was an outsider then. The central government chose three big state-run airlines to receive favoured landing slots, lavish subsidies and other advantages. The scrappy Mr Chen was undeterred. With $25m in early funding from George Soros, an American billionaire, he carved out a profitable niche.

Since then, HNA has grown quickly, mainly through acquisitions. It reported revenues of 600bn yuan ($90bn) last year. In 2016 it acquired a 25% stake in America’s Hilton Worldwide for $6.5bn and paid $10bn for the aircraft-leasing division of CIT Group, a New York-based financial firm. This week it bid nearly $1bn for Singapore’s CWT, a logistics company.

Most deals have been in industries adjacent to its core business, such as travel, tourism and logistics….Continue reading

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Why carmakers need to get bigger

CARS are getting bigger. Motorists worldwide have for years been abandoning four-door saloons in favour of bulkier SUVs. Carmakers have become bigger, too. Four car firms now make around 10m vehicles a year in order to reap economies of scale, particularly in the mass-market bit of the business where profit margins can be painfully thin.

Many executives also believe that size is the only protection against the technological upheaval sweeping the industry. But bulking up fast is easier said than done. Lots of different constituents have to be won over. And most car bosses are still reticent about taking the plunge on mergers because many have been catastrophes. Daimler’s acquisition of Chrysler in 1998, for example, was a notable disaster. The list of past crashes is lengthy. Indeed, one recent deal—General Motors’ sale of Opel, its European arm, to France’s PSA Group for €1.3bn ($1.4bn)—seems to go directly against the imperative to bulk up.

In fact, that deal has had the effect of spurring more talk of consolidation. Speculation centred at first on a possible mega-merger between GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), itself the result of a deal in 2014 (FCA’s…Continue reading

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The University of Chicago worries about a lack of competition

ONE sign that monopolies are a problem in America is that the University of Chicago has just held a summit on the threat that they may pose to the world’s biggest economy. Until recently, convening a conference supporting antitrust concerns in the Windy City was like holding a symposium on sobriety in New Orleans. In the 1970s economists from the “Chicago school” argued that big firms were not a threat to growth and prosperity. Their views went mainstream, which led courts and regulators to adopt a relaxed attitude towards antitrust laws for decades.

But the mood is changing. There is an emerging consensus among economists that competition in the economy has weakened significantly. That is bad news: it means that incumbent firms may not need to innovate as much, and that inequality may increase if companies can hoard profits and spend less on investment and wages. It may yet be premature to talk about a new Chicago school, but investors and bosses should pay attention to the intellectual shift, which may change American business.

The fear that big firms might come to dominate the economy and political life has its roots in the era of the robber barons of the…Continue reading

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A passenger is dragged from a United Airlines plane

UNITED AIRLINES urges travellers to “Fly the Friendly Skies”. The company makes no promises about its customer service before take-off. When, on April 9th, a traveller in Chicago refused to give up his seat on an overcrowded flight to Louisville, Kentucky, police yanked him into the aisle and dragged him by his hands along the floor, bleeding after he cut his head on an armrest. Horrified fellow passengers took videos on their phones and posted them to social media.

The company’s initial response was possibly the worst bit of crisis-PR in history, noted one media commentator. As videos of the bloodied man quickly went viral, Oscar Munoz, the carrier’s boss, woodenly apologised for having to “re-accommodate” customers. In an internal letter to staff, Mr Munoz said crew had “no choice” in their action and blamed the flyer for not co-operating.

Overbooking, which is common at many carriers, was not the problem. Rather, it was late-arriving, off-duty airline employees who needed seats at the last moment. The usual way of persuading paying passengers not to fly—offering lots of cash—did not work. Such bargains are best struck before boarding the plane….Continue reading

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Encouraging African entrepreneurship

“YOU are either part of the solution or part of the problem,” it says in painted letters on a wall. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” says the wall opposite. An old rickshaw sits among beanbags and a vase of flowers rests on an ancient oil barrel in the corner. “We wanted the space to feel like Google,” says Eleni Gabre-Madhin, the founder of blueMoon, a new agribusiness incubator that opened in Addis Ababa in February, without a trace of irony.

Incubators and their cousins, accelerators, provide hands-on training and mentoring, and often a physical space, to help early-stage business ideas develop. In Silicon Valley they find capital for startups and take a slice of equity in return for their services. Ms Gabre-Madhin says that blueMoon draws inspiration from Y Combinator, an American accelerator founded in 2005 whose investees include Dropbox and Airbnb. The new firm’s first cohort of startups will train at the office for four months, and it will give each a small cash injection in exchange for a 10% stake.

That is a rarity in Africa’s startup scene. A simpler and more common model is for “tech hubs” to provide office space, some networking…Continue reading

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De La Rue rethinks its strategy

THOMAS DE LA RUE set up shop more than 200 years ago, printing newspapers, then playing cards and stamps. In 1860 a contract to print banknotes for Mauritius started a transformation. Today De La Rue is the largest commercial banknote and passport printer, involved in aspects of the production of currencies for 140 countries, and passports for over 40.

The British firm’s chief executive, Martin Sutherland, is relatively relaxed about the much-heralded death of cash. Despite advances in payments technology, and a shift to cards in Europe, the total demand for cash has proven remarkably resilient. Transaction values are rising rapidly in emerging economies, where hard currency is still the norm. De La Rue expects world demand for banknotes to grow by 3-4% a year for the foreseeable future.

But there are problems nonetheless. Even at the best of times, note production, which accounts for over 70% of the company’s revenues, is a volatile business. Contracts are lumpy. State-owned printers often call in commercial printers at short notice to manage spikes in demand, which are unpredictable. On top of that, national authorities are demanding better value. They are…Continue reading

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Growth at Indian internet consumer firms has stalled

THE promise of virgin commercial territory up for grabs, startups vying to lure investors’ money even faster than they burn through it, and Amazon trying to capture all the spoils: the recent scramble for the Indian online consumer has had more than a whiff of the late-90s dotcom boom about it. The exuberance seemed justified. India is the world’s fastest-growing large economy, its consumers increasingly clutching smartphones and fattening wallets. Online shopping, worth just $1bn five years ago, seemed to be growing so fast that it would exceed $100bn by 2020.

The boom has ended not with a pop, as in 2000, but a whimper. Online sales, after more than doubling in 2014 and nearly trebling in 2015, were nearly flat in 2016 (see chart). Analysts are scrambling to lower their forecasts. Given that total retail consumption in India grows by around 18% a year, and internet penetration went up by two-fifths last year, e-commerce if anything looks to be losing ground.

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Bill O’Reilly faces allegations of sexual harassment

Lights, camera, where’s the action?

EVEN for Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, no strangers to controversy, the allegations against Bill O’Reilly present an extreme test. On April 1st the New York Times published an investigative report that described accusations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour from at least seven women against the presenter. He and the network, the paper said, have paid about $13m to five women since 2002 to settle cases where they alleged such behaviour. Mr O’Reilly denied the merits of the claims.

The news came less than nine months after Roger Ailes, the network’s founding boss, stepped down following multiple sexual-harassment claims against him. This week around 50 advertisers left Mr O’Reilly’s programme, “The O’Reilly Factor”, among them several car brands, including Mercedes-Benz and Toyota’s Lexus, as well as GlaxoSmithKline, a drugs company. The National Organisation for Women has called for him to be fired.

All eyes are on Mr Murdoch, who has been running Fox News himself since he pushed out his friend, Mr Ailes. Mr O’Reilly has probably been…Continue reading

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Time Warner’s boss is the anti-mogul

THERE is a hawk in Central Park that sometimes dismembers its prey on the balcony outside Jeff Bewkes’s office. Guts are splattered around in the kind of Darwinian spectacle that any self-respecting media baron should appreciate as he plots plans for future world domination. Mr Bewkes, however, only manages a laconic shrug when he mentions the feathered predator.

The boss of Time Warner is an anti-mogul in more ways than one. In an industry long-dominated by imperious tycoons intent on amassing power—think of Rupert Murdoch, or Viacom’s Sumner Redstone in his heyday—Mr Bewkes has shrunk a content empire, not expanded it. He is about to sell it to AT&T for $109bn in the fifth-biggest takeover of all time. If the deal goes through shareholders will have made a 341% return during his tenure (including spin-offs and dividends), making Time Warner one of the best-performing big firms in America during that time.

Beneath his laid-back surfer persona, Mr Bewkes has been ruthless but in the rational pursuit of his owners’ interests, not his own vanity. His tenure can be split into three parts—culling, defending and preparing to exit on a high.

Back in…Continue reading

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Tesla increases deliveries of electric cars

Why on Earth did you park here?

ELON MUSK, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has had two bits of good news recently about his various bets on new technology. SpaceX, his privately-held launch company, last month became the first successfully to reuse a rocket to put a satellite into orbit. And this week Tesla, his electric-car manufacturer, at last hit its production targets.

Some analysts doubted Tesla would meet its goals after a series of production difficulties. But the carmaker said first-quarter deliveries were just over 25,000 vehicles, a record for the firm and a 69% increase over the same period in 2016. Some 13,450 were its sleek Model S saloons and about 11,550 were the firm’s new SUV, the Model X. This puts Tesla on track to produce the 50,000 vehicles it has promised to make in the first half of this year. That is good progress. But Tesla is going to have to crank production up by an awful lot more to make the 500,000 cars a year which Mr Musk wants to see pouring off the production line by 2018, let alone the 1m intended for just two years later.

To reach those volumes, Tesla is counting on its forthcoming Model 3. Priced at…Continue reading

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Oil struggles to enter the digital age

Off to new platforms

IT SOUNDS like a spectacular feat of engineering. Employees of Royal Dutch Shell located in Calgary, Canada, recently drilled a well 6,200 miles (10,000km) away in Vaca Muerta, Argentina. In fact, the engineers of the Anglo-Dutch oil major were using computers to perform what they call “virtual drilling”, based on their knowledge of Fox Creek, a shale bed in Alberta, which has similar geological features to Argentina’s biggest shale deposit. They used real-time data sent from a rig in Vaca Muerta to design the well and control the speed and pressure of the drilling. On their second try, they completed the well for $5.4m, down from $15m a few years ago. “It’s the cheapest well we’ve drilled in Argentina,” says Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive.

Shell is not alone in deploying computer wizards alongside geologists in an attempt to lower costs in an era of moderate oil prices. The industry as a whole is waking up to the fact that digitisation and automation have transformed other industries, such as commerce and manufacturing, and that they have been left behind. Technology firms and consultancies are knocking on…Continue reading

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Looking good can be extremely bad for the planet

STYLE is supposedly for ever. But the garments needed to conjure up eternal chic are spending less time on shop racks and in homes than ever before. Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, as apparel firms’ operations became more efficient, their production cycles became quicker and fashionistas got more for their money. From just a few collections a year, fast-fashion brands such as Zara, owned by Spain’s Inditex, now offer more than 20; Sweden’s H&M manages up to 16.

Dressing to impress has an environmental cost as well as a financial one. From the pesticides poured on cotton fields to the washes in which denim is dunked, making 1kg of fabric generates 23kg of greenhouse gases on average, according to estimates by McKinsey, a consultancy. Because consumers keep almost every type of apparel only half as long as they did 15 years ago, these inputs go to waste faster than ever before. The latest worry is shoppers in the developing world, who have yet to buy as many clothes as rich-world consumers but are quickly catching up.

Most apparel companies know that sooner or later, consumers’ awareness of this subject will rise. That is a…Continue reading

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Westinghouse files for bankruptcy

Who will see it through?

THERE are few more storied innovators than Westinghouse. Founded in 1886, it is the company that brought electricity to the masses. When you plug in your toaster or flip your light switch, you have George Westinghouse’s alternating-current system to thank. In the 21st century the firm seemed poised to unleash a new revolution in nuclear energy. Its AP1000 pressurised water reactor was supposed to make nuclear plants simpler and cheaper to build, helping to jump-start projects in America and around the world.

But those nuclear ambitions have gone awry. On March 29th the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Its troubles have been a running sore at Toshiba, its Japanese parent, a headache for its creditors, and the latest bad tidings for a nuclear industry beset with problems.

Toshiba was triumphant in 2006 when it paid $5.4bn for Westinghouse after a bidding war, beating out General Electric (founded by George Westinghouse’s archrival, Thomas Edison). Around the same time, Southern and SCANA, two big utilities based in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, chose the AP1000 design for new nuclear…Continue reading

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The next head of America’s Food and Drug Administration

WHEN the names of potential candidates for the new head of America’s regulatory agency for drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), were first circulated, you could almost hear the sound of jaws hitting desks throughout the pharmaceuticals industry. One contender was Jim O’Neill, head of Mithril Capital Management, an investment firm, who is such a libertarian that he doesn’t think the FDA should insist that medicines have to work. Another was Balaji Srinivasan, an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, who thought roughly the same.

Removing such a core regulation might seem appealing to business. In fact, the idea of not approving drugs for efficacy is as unwelcome to the industry as it is to doctors and patients. It spends billions of dollars every year on research to deliver better treatments; this would be impossible to justify if drugs had merely to be safe. Patients, meanwhile, would face the awful prospect of having to identify which life-saving medications worked.

So, when the name of the FDA nominee was announced in March, there was widespread relief. Scott Gottlieb (pictured) a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative…Continue reading

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YouTube highlights problems with digital advertising

EVEN advertisers can be seduced by slick marketing. Google and Facebook have built huge businesses by promising that online ads are more effective and easily measured than traditional media, such as television, radio and print. This year the amount spent on internet advertising, globally and in America, is forecast to surpass television advertising for the first time (see chart). But a controversy at YouTube, an online-video site owned by Google, shows how digital advertising still has problems to sort out before it lives up to the dazzling sales pitch.

A slew of advertisers, including stalwarts such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and General Motors, have announced plans to suspend usage of, or move ad spending away from, YouTube because ads (in some cases their own) were appearing alongside offensive content, including videos by jihadist and neo-Nazi groups. Google’s own brand has suffered: the damage to the firm’s sales could be as much as $1bn in 2017, or around 1% of its gross advertising revenue. Shares of its parent company, Alphabet, have fallen by around 3% owing to the controversy.

It is not the first time that brands have fretted about where…Continue reading

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Luxury-goods companies in the digital era

IT TAKES at least a month to wash, comb, spin and otherwise prepare fine mohair to become cloth that is stitched into suits by Ermenegildo Zegna, a 107-year-old Italian brand. In Trivero, an Alpine village west of Milan, 150 artisans in an elegant factory work at carding, dying, weaving and warping. As looms rattle, bespectacled women stretch cloth over illuminated screens and check for imperfections. Others use a rack crammed with dried Spanish thistles to remove excess hair from fabric.

Zegna, run by its fourth generation of family owners, is distinctive in many ways. Big corporate successes are rare in Italy, which tends to nurture smaller firms. Sales from Zegna’s 500-odd shops worldwide, plus earnings from selling to other producers, amount to an annual €1.2bn ($1.3bn) or so. It controls its entire supply chain, which is unusual even in an industry that cherishes raw materials. Three years ago it bought a 6,300-acre farm with 10,000 sheep in Australia. A spokeswoman brags that vertical integration at Zegna runs “from sheep to shop”.

The company is also unusual because it has stayed independent of the few swaggering giants that bestride the luxury-goods…Continue reading

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Masayoshi Son goes on a $100bn shopping spree

IF YOU want to find a spectacular vision of the future, Silicon Valley is not the only place to look. In Tokyo Masayoshi Son, the boss of SoftBank, a Japanese telecoms group, is starting an investment fund worth $100bn which, he hopes, will make him the Warren Buffett of technology. “Masa” is no stranger to risky bets: SoftBank was an early investor in Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company, and has sunk $22bn in Sprint, a struggling American telecoms firm. Now he has been seized by the kind of Utopian fever that would make the Sage of Omaha choke on his Cherry Coke.

Mr Son, who is 59, believes that the world will soon encounter what is known as the Singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence exceeds the human kind. The brains of people and machines will become enmeshed (see article). Every person will have over 1,000 devices linked by a seamless global network, with the data analysed by machines in the cloud. As well as smart glasses, people will wear smart shoes and every car and washing machine will…Continue reading

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Ameerpet, India’s unofficial IT training hub

Eat your heart out, Stanford

UNIVERSITY campuses can take a while to get going in the mornings, as students recover from extra-curricular antics. Contrast that with Ameerpet, a squeezed neighbourhood of Hyderabad that has become India’s unofficial cramming-college capital. By 7.30am the place is already buzzing as 500-odd training institutes cater to over 100,000 students looking to improve their IT skills. If there are ivory towers here, they are obscured by a forest of fluorescent billboards promising skills ranging from debugging Oracle servers to expertise in Java coding to handling Microsoft’s cloud.

Expertise in the IT industry erodes fast as software programs are upgraded or become obsolete. Indian outsourcing giants such as Infosys and Wipro spend heavily to keep employees’ skills up to date. But staff looking to change their career paths—to say nothing of those who didn’t crack the interview in the first place—need rapid systems upgrades of their own. Training courses authorised by software providers exist but cost up to 375,000 rupees ($5,765). Fees at Ameerpet’s informal institutes are typically below 25,000 rupees for classes…Continue reading

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Swiss watchmakers try to keep pace

BASELWORLD, a giant watch fair that ended this week, usually runs like clockwork. Companies show off new products; buzz and higher sales follow. However, something seems to have jammed. Exports of Swiss watches sank by a tenth in 2016, the worst performance since the financial crisis. Swatch, the world’s biggest watch company, saw profits plunge by 47%. In February exports were 10% lower than they had been a year earlier.

Swiss watchmakers have been around for long enough not to panic: Blancpain, owned by Swatch, dates back to 1735; Vacheron Constantin, owned by Richemont, a Swiss luxury conglomerate and Swatch’s closest rival, was founded 20 years later. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, a watch-manufacturing hub, workers toil much as they always have, at chin-high desks, using slim instruments to assemble springs, wheels, jewels and other tiny parts. But swings in demand have of late been particularly extreme.

The period from around 2004 to 2012 saw high growth. Chinese shoppers accounted for about half of Swiss watch sales during that time, reckons Thomas Chauvet of Citi, a bank. Manufacturers introduced pricier products and raised the cost of existing ones. The financial…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 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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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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