Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

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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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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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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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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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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A volatile start for shares in Snap

Filter bubble?

WHEN Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, an app popular among teenagers for its disappearing messages, staged a public offering on March 2nd, Evan Spiegel, its 26-year-old boss, became a self-made billionaire. (Only John Collison of Stripe, an online payments startup, rivals him for such youthful tycoonery). Whether public-market investors will strike it rich remains to be seen. In its first day of trading Snap’s shares rose by 44%; they have since fallen by 16% from their peak, meaning around $5bn of market value vanished in days.

The volatility will probably continue. Optimists reckon that Snap’s market value could increase more than fourfold from around $26bn today as it adds users and advertisers. Very few large internet companies have gone public recently, which gives it tremendous scarcity value, says Roger Ehrenberg of IA Ventures, an early-stage investment firm.

But sceptics are growing in number. Every analyst who has started covering Snap’s stock has issued a negative rating. They question its high valuation and underline all the challenges. Snap’s growth has slowed in recent…Continue reading

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Mukesh Ambani has made the business world’s most aggressive bet

SOME businesspeople are guided by experts, spreadsheets and crunchy questions. What is your three-year target for market share? Will a project deliver a reasonable return on the capital invested? A few hurl all the forecasts and reports into the bin and surrender to their own hunger to make a mark.

One such figure is Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. In September 2016 he placed one of the biggest business bets in the world by launching Jio, a mobile-telecoms network that allows India’s masses to access data on an unprecedented scale. In the past six months it has won 100m customers. Only one other firm on the planet has such an acquisition rate—Facebook. From Kolkata’s slums to the banks of the Ganges, millions of Indians are using social media and streaming videos for the very first time.

To achieve this, Mr Ambani has spent an incredible $25bn on Jio, without making a rupee of profit, terrifying competitors and many investors. The motivation for his gamble probably lies with his turbulent family history. Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), Mr Ambani’s company, was set up by his father, Dhirubhai, in 1957. Born in humble…Continue reading

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Samsung’s strategy office is dismantled

Latest episode of Dynasty

“THE de facto dismantlement of the Samsung Group” was how South Korea’s semi-official news agency, Yonhap, spun the news on February 28th that the sprawling conglomerate would scrap its Future Strategy Office, a management organisation of some 200 senior staff, and devolve power to individual affiliates as part of broad reforms. The office had become for many South Koreans a vexing symbol of Samsung’s secretive goings-on.

Longtime Samsung-watchers were less impressed. The parallels with an earlier disbanding of the same office in 2008, when it was known as the Strategy and Planning Office, were striking. Then, Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s chairman, had been indicted for his involvement in a multi-trillion-won slush-fund scandal. Then, too, the group closed down the office to show it was serious about reform. But by 2010 it was reborn as the Future Strategy Office.

Lee Kun-hee’s son and presumed heir to the Samsung empire, Lee Jae-yong (pictured), is the one now behind bars. This week he was indicted by a special prosecution team on charges of bribery and embezzlement. Prosecutors have…Continue reading

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A corruption probe raises uncertainty over the future of Eni’s boss

Badluck Descalzi?

WHEN Eni, Italy’s oil major, this week revealed a return to profit in the fourth quarter and a long-term commitment to keep the barrels flowing, there was much to cheer. Three years on from Claudio Descalzi’s appointment as CEO, Eni has made spectacular oil and gas discoveries even as its peers retrenched amid the oil-price slump. Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, says only half in jest that it is “evolving into an actual oil company”.

But a cloud hangs over the firm, which is 30% state-owned—and over Mr Descalzi (pictured) personally. He is caught up in an Italian probe into alleged corruption in a deal Eni struck in partnership with Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, just as he is seeking reappointment as CEO in April. The company’s response to the scandal, especially its treatment of independent board members, raises questions about its commitment to good corporate governance.

In 2011, Eni and Shell jointly paid $1.3bn for a huge offshore oil block, known as OPL 245, which has more than 9bn barrels of probable reserves. Over $1bn of this flowed to a shell company. That firm, Malabu,…Continue reading

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Conformity, nostalgia and 5G at the Mobile World Congress

“A SEA of sameness.” A veteran of the Mobile World Congress (MWC), Ben Wood of CCS Insight, a consultancy, was not expecting much from the mobile industry’s main trade show this week in Barcelona. As one product launch followed another, it was easy to lose track. Whether it was LG, Huawei or Wiko, they all showed off yet more black rectangles with slightly varying specifications.

Another reminder of the smartphone business’s maturity was that the most talked-about new device was the Nokia 3310 feature phone (pictured), an updated version of a phone first made 17 years ago. With limited internet connectivity, it appeals partly as a “digital detox”, said Arto Nummela, chief executive of HMD Global, a Finnish startup with ex-Nokia executives which licenses the brand.

The mobile industry is far from done in terms of genuinely new products. But the action has moved to parts of the business that do not lend themselves to splashy events and massive crowds (the tent erected by Huawei, a Chinese maker of all sorts of telecoms gear, to launch its new P10 smartphone was huge, but hundreds were still left waiting outside). Most innovation in…Continue reading

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Shipping’s blues

Scrappy don’t

TOO many new ships, too few old ones scrapped. Since the financial crisis, after which trade growth slowed, the Baltic Dry Index—a measure of bulk freight rates—has fallen by 93%. Prices for transporting containers have plunged by the same amount on some routes. In 2008 it cost $2,000 to send a 20-foot box from China to Brazil; now it costs $50. The industry is drowning in red ink. Hanjin Shipping of South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest line, went bust last August, and even Maersk Line, which has the lowest costs in the industry, lost $367m in 2016.

But there was some optimism this week at European Shipping Week in Brussels, an industry event. Bosses at bigger lines reckon the worst is over. Higher levels of scrapping will cut overcapacity, argues Rolf Habben Jansen, CEO of Hapag-Lloyd, a German line. The industry may break even this year, predicts Rahul Kapoor of Drewry, a consultancy.

But many shipowners are still too reluctant to send their hulks to the scrapheap. The problem can be clearly seen in the container-shipping business. Last year firms scrapped 194 ships, accounting for 3% of…Continue reading

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The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s business empire

RWANDA has a reputation for enterprise. Its government has largely stamped out small-scale corruption and trimmed regulations, making the country the second-best place in Africa to do business, according to the World Bank’s widely-followed ranking. But the dominant political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), does more than help business: it runs its very own conglomerate.

Crystal Ventures, the RPF’s holding company, has investments in everything from furniture to finance. It owns the country’s biggest milk processor, its finest coffee shops and some of its priciest real estate. Its contractors are building Kigali’s roads. There are several firms offering security services in Rwanda but the guards from ISCO, part of Crystal Ventures, are the only ones who tote guns. The company is reckoned to have some $500m of assets.

Its expansion is aided by the fact that its chief rival is Horizon, a similar group that is accountable to the ministry of defence, with interests in construction and logistics. Critics argue that Crystal Ventures and Horizon both get cushy government deals which mask the failures of their enterprises, several of…Continue reading

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Britain has second thoughts about foreign takeovers

ONE question prompted by Kraft Heinz’s failed $160bn bid for Unilever is whether Britain still wants to be the world’s entrepot for buying and selling companies. For decades it has been more open to mergers and acquisitions than any other big economy. Britain accounts for 3% of global GDP and its firms make up just 5% of global market capitalisation, but the latter have been involved in a quarter of cross-border M&A activity since 1997, either as buyers or as targets, according to Dealogic, a data firm.

Now Blighty is getting cold feet. The government frowned on the Kraft bid, aware, probably, of the dwindling number of large British firms that are left. Another proposed deal, the $11bn takeover of the London Stock Exchange by Deutsche Börse, its German rival, is on the rocks, partly because of the British firm’s insistence that the headquarters be in London, not Frankfurt.

Brexiteers promise that Britain is on the verge of a new, golden age of global commerce. But many of its captains of industry fret that its past wide-open policy on takeovers means that it now has too few big firms to hold its own. To understand the country’s…Continue reading

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A digital revolution in health care is speeding up

WHEN someone goes into cardiac arrest, survival depends on how quickly the heart can be restarted. Enter Amazon’s Echo, a voice-driven computer that answers to the name of Alexa, which can recite life-saving instructions about cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a skill taught to it by the American Heart Association. Alexa is accumulating other health-care skills, too, including acting as a companion for the elderly and answering questions about children’s illnesses. In the near future she will probably help doctors with grubby hands to take notes and to request scans, as well as remind patients to take their pills.

Alexa is one manifestation of a drive to disrupt an industry that has so far largely failed to deliver on the potential of digital information. Health care is over-regulated and expensive to innovate in, and has a history of failing to implement ambitious IT projects. But the momentum towards a digital future is gathering pace. Investment into digital health care has soared (see chart).

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Travis Kalanick’s uber-apology

“I MUST fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” It is rare for the boss of a big technology firm to be so contrite. It is even more of a surprise to have Travis Kalanick (pictured), the chief executive of Uber, a popular ride-hailing company, go that far: he is one of the most pugnacious entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it,” he added.

Mr Kalanick had little option but to grovel. On February 28th Bloomberg, a media group, released a video showing a heated discussion between him and an Uber driver, Fawzi Kamel, about the fact that the firm has lowered the rates its drivers receive. Mr Kamel told Mr Kalanick that he had lost $97,000 and gone bankrupt because of him, at which point Mr Kalanick lost his cool: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”

The video capped a terrible month for Mr Kalanick. First, more than 200,000 subscribers deleted their Uber app after the firm was accused of breaking a strike by taxi drivers protesting Donald Trump’s executive order against refugees. Then a former…Continue reading

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Taxi drivers overcharge when passengers are on expenses

MORAL hazard is a problem that crops up frequently in economics. People behave differently if they do not face the full costs or risks of their actions: deposit insurance makes customers less careful about choosing their banks, for example.

Moral hazard can also be second-hand. Take medicine. A patient with private insurance may be happy to sit through extra tests, and a doctor may be happy to order them. Doctors might be more reluctant to order tests if they know that the patient would bear the full cost.

A newly published paper* sets out to test this secondary problem by examining a common-enough situation—taking a taxi ride in a strange city. The authors, a trio of academics at the University of Innsbruck, sent researchers on 400 taxi rides, covering 11 different routes, in Athens, Greece. In all cases, the researchers indicated they were not familiar with the city. But in half the cases, the researchers indicated that their employers would be reimbursing them for the journey. The researchers in the latter group were 17% more likely to be overcharged for their trip and paid a fare that was, on average, 7% higher.

The most…Continue reading

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

Atypical success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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India’s hostels for the upwardly mobile

Rite of passage

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

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

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Toymakers bounce back in the land of adult nappies

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

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

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

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3G missed Unilever but its methods are spreading

Rejected suitor

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

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

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

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Are technology firms madly overvalued?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Samsung’s boss is arrested on bribery charges

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

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

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Traditional media firms are enjoying a Trump bump

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

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

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