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The Economist

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RARELY in corporate history has a giant come and gone so quickly. Anbang was founded in 2004 as a small Chinese car-insurance company. By the start of last year it ranked among the world's biggest insurers with some $300bn of assets, including stakes in hotels and financial firms across America, Europe and Asia. Given another ten years, boasted Wu Xiaohui, its swashbuckling founder, Anbang's scale would “exceed your imagination”. But then, just as vertiginous as its ascent, came its fall. Alarmed at its debt-fuelled expansion, regulators started blocking its overseas deals, reined in its insurance business and detained Mr Wu. On February 23rd its disgrace became complete: the Chinese government announced that it had taken over Anbang and would prosecute Mr Wu for economic crimes.The insurance regulator said it had intervened because illegal operations could have “seriously endangered” the company's solvency. It did not spell out the exact nature of Anbang's alleged...Continue reading
KYLIE JENNER, a model and reality TV star best known for being the, er, second most famous Kylie in the world, managed to cause a stir on Wall Street. With this idiosyncratic tweetsooo does anyone else not open Snapchat any more? Or is it just me...ugh this is so sadshe knocked back the share price of Snap, the parent company of the video- and picture-sharing app. Ms Jenner's influence in the target market is deemed to be huge; she has 24.5m Twitter followers, and her message has (at the time of writing) been retweeted 58,000 times and “liked” by 310,000. Snap's share price fell 6%, reducing the company's market value by $1.3bn. The decline was not just down to the influence of Ms Jenner, who recently gave birth to a daughter Stormi, named after the weather/porn star/grime artist. Investors were already worried about the impact of a recent app redesign. More than 1.2m people signed a...Continue reading
ON A clear day, sunset over Lake Zug is magnificent. Snow-dusted mountains cut through the orange glow above and are mirrored in the lake below. “Zug is our spiritual home,” says Jeremy Epstein, from Washington, DC, who has just taken 40 foreigners to tour the small Swiss town south of Zurich. They came not for sunsets, though, but to find out how Zug has become known as “crypto-valley”—meaning the home of many firms dealing in crypto-currencies and related activities.Switzerland's famous banking secrecy is falling to a global assault on money-laundering and tax evasion. But financial security remains in demand. The country should seek to become the “crypto-nation”, said the economy minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, last month. Zug aims to be the capital of that nation.To that end, Switzerland is maintaining loose rules for crypto-businesses, even as other countries are tightening theirs. An industry is developing to store tangible crypto-assets, such as the hard...Continue reading
AMID the name-calling and bluster that mar many fights between economists are a few common tactics. Belligerents may attack the theory used to support a claim, or the data analysis used to quantify an effect. During the debate over President Donald Trump's tax bill, to take a recent example, economists bickered over which side had more credibly calculated the economic effect. They did not, for the most part, argue about whether it was morally acceptable to pass a regressive tax reform after years of wage stagnation and rising inequality. To do so would strike many economists as entirely un-economist-like. Yet economics has not always been so shy about moral philosophy. As well as “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith wrote a “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Great 20th-century economists like Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow also took questions of values very seriously. Their successors would do well to take several pages from their books.Modern economists have attempted...Continue reading
TAKING a business onto the global stage is hard. Doing it with banks can be suicidal owing to their complexity and leverage. For over 100 years an assortment of adventurers and visionaries have almost always tried one of two approaches. Either they spread firms thinly over scores of countries and focus on servicing big companies and facilitating trade. This is the way of Citigroup and HSBC, and the path that China's big lenders are racing down. Or they focus on investment banking from hubs; think of JPMorgan Chase or Deutsche Bank in New York, Hong Kong and London. Both blueprints have often resulted in buckets of tears.In the 1990s a “third way” emerged from provincial Spain; creating a global retail bank with a deep presence in many countries, allowing true economies of scale. The pioneer was Santander, a middle-weight bank from the Bay of Biscay. Today it is the king of the euro zone: the bloc's largest lender by market value, with 133m clients, mainly in Brazil, Britain, Mexico and...Continue reading
BONDS, shares and Treasury bills are all very well, but in the end they are just pieces of paper. They are not assets you can hang on the wall or display to admiring neighbours. Many rich people like to invest their wealth in more tangible form; property, of course, but also collectibles such as art, fine wine and classic cars.Is that wise? Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) have run the numbers for their annual analysis of the financial markets in the Credit Suisse global investment-returns yearbook. Some of these assets have done rather better than others (see chart). Fine wine delivered the best returns; surprising to cynics who might assume that, in the long run, the value of wine vanishes as it turns into vinegar. Really old wine often has historical resonance. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1787 was sold for $156,450 in 1985 because it was thought to belong to Thomas Jefferson.Estimating the returns from these assets, after...Continue reading
OIL bears beware. On February 20thSuhail al-Mazrouei, OPEC's rotating president and energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the 14-member producers' group is working on a plan for a formal alliance with ten other petrostates, including Russia, aimed at propping up oil prices for the foreseeable future. If it comes to anything, it could be OPEC's most ambitious venture in decades.The result will not be, he insists, a “supergroup”. The notion of Saudi Arabia and Russia joining forces as the Traveling Wilburys of the oil world may be a bit jarring. It remains an idea in “draft” form. But whatever its chances, it attempts to shift a belief widely held by participants in oil markets: that non-American oil producers are helpless against the shale revolution.That belief has strengthened because of a renewed flood of American shale production in the latter part of 2017 after prices of West Texas Intermediate climbed above $50 a barrel. The International Energy Agency...Continue reading
TEN months ago the Trump administration took aim at steel and aluminium imports, giving itself a year to decide whether they threatened national security and, if so, what to do about it. On February 16th it concluded that America is indeed under threat. The president has until mid-April to choose whether to respond.The reports handed to Donald Trump by the Department of Commerce, which led the investigations, describe America as effectively under siege. Its steel industry might struggle to respond to a crisis similar to the second world war, they fret, as foreigners are filling a third of American demand for steel, even as 28% of national capacity lies idle. The share of primary aluminium (the kind smelted from ore, rather than recycled metal) that is imported is 91%, and 61% of local smelting capacity lies cold. Doubters can point out that the Department of Defence requires a tiny slice of American steel supply, and that America's largest supplier for both metals, Canada, is an ally (see...Continue reading
GOVERNORS of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) tend not to linger long in their post. Twenty-two people have headed the institution since 1914, compared with 16 at the Federal Reserve and 12 at the Bank of England. The last time a BoJ governor won a second term was 1961, when Japan's economy was growing by over 11% and inflation was over 5%. As Richard Werner, the author of “Princes of the Yen”, a history of the central bank's failures, points out, by tradition the job alternates every five years between a candidate backed by the finance ministry and a “true-born” BoJ insider.This tradition will be broken by the reappointment of Haruhiko Kuroda, who was nominated for a second term on February 16th. If he completes it, he will become the longest-serving governor in the BoJ's history.With luck that might be long enough for him to reach the central bank's elusive inflation target of 2%, a goal set five years ago which he had hoped to meet by 2015. Although the BoJ has...Continue reading
YOU spend 38 years at a mighty global bank, the last seven as chief executive. As boss you clean up a stinking mess, the legacy of ill-conceived acquisitions and shoddy practice. You shell out billions in fines and legal costs. You shed businesses and cut jobs by a quarter. You build a solid capital base. You maintain dividends. On your last day, you announce decent results, with revenue growing after five years of shrinkage and profits up nicely. The market's parting gift to you? The share price falls by 3%.Analysts had expected better from Stuart Gulliver's final report as boss of Britain's HSBC, the world's seventh-biggest bank by assets, on February 20th. They were surprised by charges for impaired loans to two companies, thought to be Carillion, a failed British contractor, and Steinhoff, a troubled South African retailer, and miffed that HSBC put off buying back more shares. That, the bank said, must wait until it has raised $5bn-7bn of “additional tier-1” capital...Continue reading
The coffee's on usWHEN Maria Veikhman, founder of SCORISTA, a Russian credit-scoring startup, was considering expansion abroad, China immediately came to mind. She believes the scope there is vast, for two-fifths of Chinese have no credit records. Ms Veikhman settled in Tianfu Software Park, a state-owned incubator in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province where city authorities “offer almost everything for free”. Complementary facilities range from office space, basic furniture and logistics services to detailed guidance on entrepreneurial methods.Chengdu aims to catch up with Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, which at present are in a different entrepreneurial league—together they have over a hundred unicorns, or private startups worth over $1bn. The south-western city allocated 200m yuan ($30m) in 2016 to an innovation-and-startup fund for overseas founders, and hands out up to 1m yuan in cash to well-capitalised foreign startups and joint ventures. If the...Continue reading
Spirit and fleshCAN religion make people wealthier? In 1905 Max Weber, a German sociologist, argued that it had happened in Europe. Protestants did not invent capitalism in the 16th century, he suggested. But, by discarding monastic asceticism and embracing the notion that diligence and self-improvement are pleasing to God, they became particularly good at it.Weber's idea is unfashionable these days, partly because so many non-Protestant countries have become rich and partly because of a cause-and-effect problem. Were Protestants truly better at business, or were ambitious, business-minded people drawn to Protestantism? One way of settling that question is through a randomised controlled trial of religion. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released on February 19th reports on an experiment in the Philippines that suggests Weber was onto something.International Care Ministries (ICM), an evangelical charity, tries to help the...Continue reading
“IT'S always a lot of fun when you win,” President Donald Trump enthused after his tax package was approved by Congress in December. Company bosses nodded along. The centrepiece of the reform is a drastic cut to the corporate-tax rate, from 35% to 21%, taking it below the rich-country average. Although its impact is partly offset by some revenue-raising measures, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that American business will gain around $330bn from the reform over the next ten years. Yet within that are sizeable variations in terms of which firms and industries benefit most.The biggest winners are more domestically oriented companies. These typically face higher effective tax rates than American companies with a big presence overseas, which do business in lower-tax countries. Bosses are also evaluating other new measures. So-called “full expensing”, for example, helps those with big spending plans by allowing them to deduct investment costs up front. But using debt will become less attractive, as interest payments are no longer fully deductible.Some firms experienced high volatility in their earnings for the final quarter of 2017 thanks to the treatment of so-called “deferred tax assets”. These are past tax losses carried forward to set against future tax bills, and such assets have shrunk in value because of the lower...Continue reading
IN THE Russian business community Sergei Galitsky served as a rare example of a self-made billionaire who rose with relatively little state help and outside the natural-resources trade. He built his retail company, Magnit, from scratch into Russia's largest network; it has more than 16,000 stores. Rather than moving to Moscow, he kept his headquarters in his hometown of Krasnodar, where he also founded a football club. On February 16th he made a telling exit, announcing he would sell nearly all of his shares in Magnit—29.1%—to VTB, a state bank.That Mr Galitsky (pictured, above) decided to sell is the result of a tough business cycle and some strategic mistakes. More remarkable is that he found a buyer not on the domestic private markets, or from among foreign investors. Selling to a pubic-sector bank reflects the growing role of the state in the Russian economy. Russia's federal anti-monopoly service puts its share at 70%. Yet the retail sector had largely been insulated from the trend....Continue reading
WHEN Ken Frazier, chief executive of Merck, an American pharmaceutical giant, started his job in 2011, he had a hard decision to make. The firm had promising new drugs—such as Januvia, for diabetes, and Gardasil, a vaccine against cervical cancer. But the pharma industry was struggling with dismal returns on R&D and investors were questioning if companies were overspending on science. Some surrendered and started buying in drugs instead. But Mr Frazier opted to carry on backing his labs and promised publicly to spend on R&D for the long term, not for the stockmarket's immediate gratification.An opportunity to implement the pledge soon arrived. Merck's merger with another pharma firm, Schering-Plough, in 2009, had brought it an obscure new cancer drug. At first Merck's scientists were unimpressed and relegated the drug to a list of assets to be licensed out. There was widespread scepticism at the time about whether drugs that attacked cancer using the immune system would...Continue reading
Beretta hits its sales targetIT WAS a blunder by Heckler & Koch, a big German gunmaker. On February 15th the firm apologised for a “mistake” after its American subsidiary posted a Valentine's image showing a handgun surrounded by ammunition arranged in the shape of a heart. The image went out to social media shortly after a deadly school shooting in Florida.The post was also a reminder that although Europeans often criticise lax firearm-ownership laws across the Atlantic, the region's firms are increasingly present in America's market for small arms—defined as revolvers, pistols, rifles and shotguns. Americans buy far more such weapons than any other nationality and their appetites have been growing steadily. This year they are likely to buy 14.5m such firearms, notes Jurgen Brauer of Small Arms Analytics, a consultancy. Europeans have proved deft at grabbing a sizeable portion of all this.
WHEN the stockmarket is close to a record high, the chances are that recent returns will have been very strong. The terrible tendency among investors is to assume that those returns will continue. But the higher you go, the harder it is to keep rising at the same pace. When I visited America for a story on pensions last autumn, I was struck by how few people failed to grasp this point. Public pensions have return targets of 7-8% for their portfolios. When challenged they tend to cite their 30-year record of achieving those numbers. But that record makes it less likely, not more that they will hit their targets. The easiest way to think of this is via the bond market. In 1987 the yield on the ten-year Treasury bond was just under 9%. Since then it has fallen to its current level of just under 3%. So not only did bond investors get a high yield in their early years,...Continue reading
ILMARS RIMSEVICS, governor of Latvia's central bank for the past 17 years, had been due to retire next year. Instead, he is facing calls to resign. On February 17th he was detained by Latvia's anti-corruption authority on suspicion of taking a bribe of at least €100,000 ($123,000). The prime minister, Maris Kucinskis, says the allegations are so serious that Mr Rimsevics cannot possibly return to work. Mr Rimsevics, for his part, is staying put. Released on bail on February 19th, he denies the allegations, saying he was set up and is facing death threats.Just a few days earlier, in an unrelated case, the US Treasury had proposed sanctions on ABLV, one of Latvia's largest banks. It claimed ABLV had “institutionalised money laundering” and facilitated transactions with North Korea, which is under sanctions. In the days that followed €600m was withdrawn by the bank's customers. On February 19th, seeking to stabilise the institution, the European Central Bank (ECB)...Continue reading
A CHINESE new-year message from the American embassy in Beijing looked innocuous. It welcomed the Year of the Dog on Weibo, a microblog, with photos of the embassy staff's pooches and a video greeting from the ambassador and his wife, each with a dog in hand. But it soon attracted 10,000 angry responses. The post had become an unlikely lightning rod for public discontent about the stockmarket.A plunge on February 9th had left Chinese shares down by 10% on the week, their steepest fall in two years. Some punters found solace in blaming the American embassy for the rout, which started on Wall Street. For others it was a matter of convenience, because their real target, the Chinese securities regulator, knew to disable comments on its Weibo account on such a grim day for stocks.Even so, their protests seem to have been heard. Before the market reopened this week, Chinese officials urged big shareholders to buy stocks to restore confidence. The Shanghai Stock Exchange warned...Continue reading
BARS and pubs have not usually been the non-drinker's friend. Knocking back pint after pint of juice or fizzy drink quickly gets boring. But beverage manufacturers are now showing more sympathy for their plight. Many companies regard non-alcoholic drinks as the “biggest opportunity in the market”, says Frank Lampen, who runs Distill Ventures, which helps small producers with investment and advice, and is backed by Diageo, a British drinks giant.One of the fund's recent investments, for example, is in Seedlip, a British firm that makes distilled, non-alcoholic “spirits” flavoured with botanicals, and which last year launched in America. Low-alcohol beer, once maligned for its paucity of flavour, is also in fashion. Technological advances mean alcohol can be filtered out of the beer without ruining its taste; other breweries use “lazy” yeast, which produces less alcohol to start with. Over the past couple of years, non-alcoholic craft breweries, such as Nirvana Brewery in London, or...Continue reading
WHEN Disney struck a deal just before Christmas to buy much of 21st Century Fox for $66bn, it was a career-defining moment for the two firms' bosses, Bob Iger and Rupert Murdoch. A third media mogul, Brian Roberts of Comcast, was left out in the cold. Having tried and failed last autumn to get Mr Murdoch to take a higher offer, Mr Roberts may now be preparing a still richer bid to upend the deal.It is not hard to understand his motivation. Comcast is in an awkward position at a time when the media landscape is shifting. With millions of consumers dropping pay-TV for the likes of Netflix, media companies have suddenly become either buyers, to achieve scale, or sellers, to exit. Mr Roberts has always been a buyer, building the cable business his father started into a diversified empire through acquisitions, including AT&T's broadband business in 2002 and NBC Universal in 2011. Comcast now has heft in a number of businesses—broadband and cable, television networks, a film studio...Continue reading
BULL markets always climb a wall of worry, or so the saying goes. For much of 2017, the main concerns were political and the markets seemed to surmount them as easily as a robot dog opens doors (the latest internet sensation).But February has shown that the market is still vulnerable. The immediate trigger seems to have been the fear that inflationary pressures would cause bond yields to rise and central banks to push up interest rates; this week's surprisingly high American inflation numbers will only add to the worries. In a narrow sense, that makes bonds look cheaper, compared with equities. In a broader sense, it increases the discount rate investors apply to future profits, lowering the present value of shares. (A caveat is needed: if higher rates reflect stronger growth, then estimates of future profits should rise, offsetting the discount-rate effect.)The immediate effect has been to create uncertainty for investors about the direction of central-bank policy, after many years in which it could reliably be assumed that rates would stay low. This translates into a more volatile market, as illustrated by the sharp jump in the Vix, or volatility index, in early February.The danger is that many investors seem to have treated volatility as an asset class, and have organised their portfolios accordingly. Eric Lonergan of M&G, a...Continue reading
DESPITE its oft-professed pro-market orthodoxy, America has always had an unusually large non-profit sector. Americans gave $390bn to charity in 2016, with the bulk of contributions coming from individual donors. Historically, revenues at non-profits tend to track GDP growth. The recent tax reforms imply that despite strong economic growth, charitable contributions in America are poised to fall for the first time since the financial crisis.The most significant threat to charities comes from changes to income tax. American taxpayers can choose either to “itemise” specific expenses, such as charitable gifts or mortgage payments, or take a “standard deduction”. In an effort both to simplify the tax code and to lower overall tax rates, the Republican-led Congress almost doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples. This will make filing taxes a lot easier for many. But it also means that far fewer Americans will have a financial incentive...Continue reading
Pulls a heavy weight of expectationELECTRIC commercial vehicles were once a common sight in Britain's towns and cities. A fleet of 25,000 battery-powered milk floats roved the early-morning streets delivering a crucial part of the nation's breakfast. Short ranges and low top speed were unimportant for a milk round but near-silent running meant customers could sleep. Their demise came as supermarkets expanded, but electrification of business vehicles is gathering pace anew.Just as better battery technology is bringing down the cost and boosting the range of passenger electric vehicles (EVs), those advances are making electrification of commercial vehicles more appealing. The purchase price is still far higher than a comparable vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE). But businesses are more focused than ordinary motorists on the total costs of ownership, and on other reasons to shift to electric power.Much attention has been paid to...Continue reading
“PRESS for progress” is the theme of this year's International Women's Day on March 8th. As our sixth glass-ceiling index shows, disparity between countries remains wide. But women have made some progress towards equality in the workplace in the past year.The index ranks the best and worst countries to be a working woman. Each score is based on average performance in ten indicators: educational attainment, labour-market attachment, pay, child-care costs, maternity and paternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs (in managerial positions, on company boards and in parliament).Equality-conscious Nordics typically do well while workplace parity for women in Japan, South Korea and Turkey still lags badly. America under President Donald Trump rose from 20th to 19th place thanks in part to a higher female labour-force participation rate. This year Sweden ranks first, scoring well in female labour-force participation, which is over 80%, and the share of...Continue reading
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