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The Economist

Weekly newspaper focusing on international politics and business news
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“AFTER entering a competition a lucky punter wins first prize: a week's holiday in Skegness. Second prize is two weeks there.”For some reason this most ancient of British jokes came to Gulliver's mind when he read about Tom Stuker in the International Business Times. Mr Stuker, it is claimed, is the world's most frequent flyer. He is about to clock up his 18-millionth mile on United Airlines. And as the Boarding Area blog points out, 18m miles with United means just that:United calculates million miler status based on your “butt in seat” revenue miles flown on United. That's right, we're not talking about 10 million award miles, or even 10 million miles taking into account elite bonuses for flying first or business class.Mr Stuker is president of a firm that trains sales staff at car dealerships around the world. He has flown to Australia over 300 times for business and pleasure; he travels to Hawaii “three...Continue reading
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
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
WHEN three explosive devices hit a bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund football team on April 11th, it was immediately assumed that it was another Islamist attack. Notes were found at the scene of the crime alleging that Islam was the motivation, with the author claiming a link to the terrorist group Islamic State. But prosecutors in Germany allege a completely different rationale. They say that the suspect, a 28-year-old man, had borrowed money and taken out put options, which would benefit from a decline in Borussia Dortmund shares (which fell 3% on the day after the attack). As yet, the suspect has not been convicted. But if true, the story would seem to come straight out of Hollywood. In the film “Casino Royale”, James Bond (as played by Daniel Craig) foils a plot to blow up an airliner owned by the fictional firm Skyfleet, after villain Hugo le Chiffre had sold the company's shares short (ie, bet on their price to fall). In “The Fear index”, a Robert Harris novel, a hedge fund's trading programme shorts an airline's stock just before a fatal crash. It was rumoured, after the September 11...Continue reading
THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, government bonds and stockmarket all gained ground as the results came in.It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.In Turkey investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan's proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, rule that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan's tenure, when he was seen as a liberalising democrat, saw rapid economic growth; his transformation into an emerging autocrat has not put investors off. Since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. In 1922, when Mussolini took power in Italy, its equity market returned 29% and its government bonds 18%, according to...Continue reading
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
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, and, in Washington, chirpy forecasts from the IMF that often prove a bit too chirpy. On April 18th the fund released its semi-annual World Economic Outlook (WEO), raising its forecast for global growth in 2017 to 3.5%.Growth forecasts for the emerging world have not changed. The IMF's global optimism is based instead on hopes of increased growth in the rich world. The fund takes a rosy view of the American economy, citing both high levels of consumer confidence and Donald Trump's plans for more government spending. In Britain the IMF now reckons GDP will grow by 2.0% in 2017, up from earlier estimates of 1.5% (issued in January) and 1.1% (last October). The IMF has also raised its forecasts for Japan and the euro area.Snipers point out that IMF forecasts have been far from perfect. Some glitches are excusable. In the spring of 1990, it predicted that Kuwait's economy would grow by 0.8% that year. It actually fell by 26%. The IMF's model did not allow for an Iraqi invasion. But other errors are less easily explained: between 1990 and 2007, the IMF's spring forecasts...Continue reading
WHEN the Indiana Toll Road was opened in 1956, there were eight pairs of travel plazas, or rest stops, along the 156-mile (250km) stretch linking Chicago to Ohio and points eastward. As cars became faster and less thirsty, travellers had less reason to stop regularly for petrol or snacks. Three of the travel plazas closed in the 1970s. Restaurants shuttered, even if offered free rent. The remaining plazas, dwindling in number, fell into disrepair. The abiding memory some road users had of Indiana was of grubby toilets along the toll road.Those rest-stops are at last getting a makeover. IFM, an Australian infrastructure fund, is investing $34m in the toll-road's plazas, part of a $200m-plus upgrade. Half of the road's length, with 57 bridges, is being resurfaced, using a treatment known as “crack-and-feed”, which lasts longer than simply patching the top. IFM, which acquired a 66-year lease on the road in a $5.8bn deal in 2015, says a private-sector operator has the right incentives to invest for the long term. Fewer tyre blowouts mean less gridlock, more road users and more revenue.Politicians across the spectrum agree on the need to upgrade America's...Continue reading
Three-star serviceSHIMMERING 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
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
PEOPLE often enter a public toilet with a sense of trepidation; after all, who knows what horror might await behind the cubicle door. Even so, a passenger on a service between Manchester, Britain, and New York got a nasty surprise. Earlier this month an American air marshal accidentally left her loaded gun in the loo of a Delta Air Lines plane bound for JFK. According to the New York Times, the weapon was found by a passenger, who handed it over to the flight's crew. The crew then returned it to the officer. The Times says that the air marshal did not report her oversight to authorities for several days, as is required, and had been assigned to other planes in the meantime. Using unimpeachable logic, one former air marshal explained to the paper: “You can't have inept people leaving weapons in a lavatory. If someone with ill intent gets hold of that weapon on an aircraft, they are now armed.”The idea of placing armed air marshals on commercial flights is a divisive one. We have discussed the issue on this blog several...Continue reading
HOUSE Resolution 67, which Donald Trump signed last week, rolls back a rule that the Labor Department finalised late last year, which would have made it easier for cities and counties to run retirement savings plans for citizens who couldn't get them through work. It is an odd choice for Republicans to kill plans that would encourage private, voluntary, tax-deferred saving, which they tend to approve of. But a trade group for investment funds opposes the city-run retirement plans. The Democrats on Capitol Hill, beset with other problems, are not picking a fight. They should. The resolution itself is nothing more than a kick in the shins for the three cities, all run by Democrats, that had considered setting up plans—New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. But it points to a larger problem, which neither party has confronted. The United States has a retirement crisis, which it is treating like a savings crisis. They are not the same thing. In traditional macroeconomics, all saving serves the same purpose: investment in the capital stock, or new machines to make stuff. Workers either spend from their paychecks on rent and food, or put money away in bonds, shares or savings...Continue reading
UBER has many virtues. The ride-hailing app has disrupted the cosy taxi cartels that care little for customers; it has made travel around cities cheaper, more convenient and reliable; and it has called into question the notion that taxi drivers must be tipped simply for doing their job. Sadly, a proposal in New York might pose a serious threat to the last of these qualities.Currently, Uber's smartphone app, which charges users automatically at the end of a journey, does not give the option of adding a tip. But Uber drivers in New York are petitioning officials to force the firm to change this. The chance to add a tip is already standard among many of the firm's competitors, including Lyft. The city's Taxi and Limousine Commission is hoping to write this approach into law. It will put forward a formal proposal in July.Any such change in the rules would be a step back. The New York Times writes that there has “long been confusion” whether or not customers are supposed to tip Uber...Continue reading
IN A rickety warehouse on the banks of London's Thames, sit mountains of caramel-coloured raw cane-sugar. Following a pattern of trade that is centuries old, they have been shipped across the oceans to Tate & Lyle Sugars' dockside factory, where they will be refined into the white stuff. Cane reigns supreme worldwide, accounting for four-fifths of sugar production. In Europe, though, it accounts for only a fifth; most sugar is made instead from beet, thanks to a technique developed in the Napoleonic wars, when an English blockade halted French cane-sugar imports.It is no surprise, then, that the sugar-beet industry was well guarded by Europe's Common Agricultural Policy. But in recent years the EU has reformed its system of quotas and subsidies to lower food prices and enhance its farmers' competitiveness; production quotas for milk were dismantled in 2015, for example. Now it is sugar's turn. From October this year, the EU will abolish its minimum price and production quota for beet. Its complex restrictions on sugar imports will remain, however, as will its income support for farmers.The beet sector has already been restructured in preparation...Continue reading
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
WHAT sort of reception can travellers to America expect to receive? The answer is, overwhelmingly, a warm one. Americans are among the most helpful and friendly bunch on the planet. But unfortunately for this most hospitable of peoples, potential visitors must judge the country from a distance. And their impressions are coloured by reports of how its officials behave.Hence, after watching the now-famous United Airlines video (see article), a Chinese person considering a trip to America might wonder why paying Asian passengers are dragged semi-conscious from planes to make way for off-duty airline staff. (They may also try—and fail—to imagine something similar happening on Cathay Pacific.) People of certain ethnicities will worry that travellers such as Juhel Miah, a British teacher supervising a school trip, are stopped from entering America simply because they have a foreign-sounding name or subscribe...Continue reading
Chen keeps spendingNOW 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
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
IN HIS first 17 months running Barclays, Jes Staley seemed scarcely to put a foot wrong. The American has narrowed the British lender's ambitions, to focus on retail business at home, corporate and investment banking on both sides of the Atlantic, and credit cards. He is pulling Barclays out of Africa, after a century, and has sped up its retreat from other markets. He has also poached several folk from JPMorgan Chase, where he spent 34 years and ran the investment bank.On April 10th it emerged that Mr Staley had clumsily planted a boot out of bounds. Last June Barclays' board and an executive received anonymous letters about a “senior employee” hired earlier in 2016. These, say the bank, raised concerns “of a personal nature” about this person and Mr Staley's role in dealing with the matter “at a previous employer” (presumably JPMorgan Chase).Mr Staley, seeing the letters as “an unfair personal attack” on the newcomer, asked Barclays' security team to find out who had written them, but was told that this should not be done. In July he inquired whether the matter was resolved—and formed the “honestly held, but mistaken” belief...Continue reading
WITH her phone in one hand and a live chicken in the other, Brenda Deeomba comes for her money. Her husband is a builder in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and sends his wages home through Zoona, a money-transfer company. She receives them at a roadside booth in Chongwe, a nearby town, using a PIN number sent to her phone. It is a safe way to get the money, says Ms Deeomba, above muffled squawks.Money-transfer businesses are proliferating in Africa. But Zoona is unusual. Unlike M-PESA, the best-known, in Kenya, it is not run by a phone company. Nor is it owned by a bank. Instead, Zoona has built a business from scratch. It processed $200m in transactions last year and bubbles with ambition: Mike Quinn, its (Canadian) chief executive, talks of reaching 1bn customers.Zoona was founded in Zambia in 2009 by two brothers, Brad and Brett Magrath. As a startup, they were at a disadvantage, having to recruit their own agents. Zoona did so by seeing them as its core customers, giving them credit and training to set up their own franchises. Some are impressively successful. In central Lusaka, Misozi Mkandawire presides over an empire of kiosks. She started with Zoona while at college. Her profits can now reach 50,000 kwacha ($5,200) a month. That is exceptional. Last year the average agent made $548 in monthly commission, before costs. Globally, nearly half of...Continue reading
NORWAY offers much to envy. The food is tasty, public services are great and the people are impossibly good-looking. Its trade policy looks equally desirable. Though it trades heavily with the EU, Norway can also strike trade deals all over the world, either operating in concert with the three other members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) or on its own. Members of EFTA have dozens of deals, including two with China, with which the EU cannot even start negotiations.After it leaves the EU, Britain will look much like an EFTA country: a rich economy with close links to Europe, but also seeking trade deals elsewhere. It is superficially an attractive prospect. Yet EFTA's half-in-half-out relationship with the EU hinders its trade as much as it helps.EFTA's flexibility in trade stems from its odd relationship with the EU. Switzerland has a series of bilateral agreements, whereas Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the single market through the European Economic Area (though with opt-outs for agriculture and fisheries). Crucially, however, all are outside the EU's customs union, an agreement which regulates...Continue reading
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
Living on borrowed riceWHEN Myo Than was a young man, his family had 12 hectares of farmland in Dala, a rural township just across the river from Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. His mother sold most of it after his father died. Mr Myo Than grows rice on what's left, but water shortages mean he reaps just one harvest each year. He borrows money from the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank (MADB)—1.5m kyats ($1,100) this year, at an annual rate of 8%—to cover planting costs. But rice is a low-return crop. To repay the bank he borrows from local moneylenders at a rate of around 4% each month. Mr Myo Than owes them $7,300. He has given his land deeds to a moneylender as security.Mr Myo Than's predicament is not unusual: poor crop returns and usurious loan terms have kept Myanmar's farmers trapped in poverty and debt. Around 60% of Myanmar's population are engaged in agriculture. Most are poor, and farm small plots of land using age-old manual techniques. Farmers scythe rice fields; water buffaloes pull wooden ploughs; hay-laden bullock-carts trundle down narrow roads.Many farmers borrow to cover planting costs, buy equipment...Continue reading
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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