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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

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

For whom the belt tolls

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

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

AQAP has…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The battle to build Donald Trump’s wall

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The unusual gap between American and European bond yields

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

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

An earthquake in European banking

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Big tyremakers are regaining their grip

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Companies are racing to add value to water

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

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

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Uber is facing the biggest crisis in its short history

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

China’s growing clout in international economic affairs

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

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

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

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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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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Economic shocks are more likely to be lethal in America

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A meat scandal in Brazil damages two of its biggest firms

The steaks are high

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

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

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Donald Trump, trade and the new world order

TWO months into the Trump administration and we have had more sound and fury than concrete proposals about its economic agenda. The most alarming sign so far is that America forced the G20 to drop a pledge about resisting “all forms of protectionism” from a joint statement but this may be purely symbolic.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s determination to shake up the status quo may yet have global consequences. In a research note, Chris Watling of Longview Economics suggests that

Trump’s policies might inadvertently bring about a new international monetary order as the administration struggles to fulfil campaign promises in the light of the original misdiagnosis of the ‘trade deficit’ problem.

The current monetary system emerged from the downfall of Bretton Woods in the 1970s. Under the Bretton Woods system, devised in part by John Maynard Keynes (pictured, left), currencies were fixed to the dollar (with scope for occasional devaluations or revaluations) and the dollar was fixed against gold. But this required America to act as the anchor of the system; other…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Podcast: A most unusual company

The one-time bookseller Amazon accounts for more than half of every new dollar spent online in the US. But how did it get to be the fifth most valuable company in the world? Also: why it costs the American government more to borrow money on the bonds market than European ones. And the big brands used to account for two-thirds of the tyre market. Now China has massively deflated their share. Simon Long hosts.

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Business and financeGulliver

Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts would have serious implications for travellers

THREE months into his presidency, Donald Trump has engendered little but despair among among travel-industry types. Restrictions announced today on taking laptops and iPads aboard airlines originating from eight Middle Eastern countries are probably reasonable (see Gulliver). But an ill-considered attempt in January to ban travellers from seven mostly-Muslim countries seems to have affected visitor numbers. When that order was shot down by the courts, and a revised one proposed, it turned out that it might cause longer waits for foreigners leaving the country. Then last week in his budget blueprint, Mr Trump proposed big cuts to domestic spending to help fund the military. Several of the programmes on the chopping block have implications for business travellers.

One such is a call to privatise the country’s air traffic control system. The budget outline says privatisation would make air traffic control “more efficient and innovative while…Continue reading

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