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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Small flying “cars” come a bit closer to reality

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Fast-food chains in Japan

Three-star service

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

AkzoNobel makes unrealistic promises about growth

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Another debate about net neutrality is brewing

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

How Donald Trump affects America’s tourist business

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Managing financial risk on London’s massive Crossrail project

THE eastbound platform on the Elizabeth line at Farringdon Station in central London is 30 metres below ground. Its length is as striking as its depth. At more than 200 metres, it is almost twice as long as the typical platform on the Tube. When service begins in December 2018, it will increase rail capacity in central London by 10%, thanks to the longer trains. Travellers nearest to the terminal stations at Reading and Heathrow, to the west of the city, and Shenfield and Abbey Wood, to the east, have a shot at the acme of commuter luxury: a seat.

Crossrail, as the £14.8bn ($19bn) infrastructure project is known, is on track to deliver other small miracles. With 85% of the work completed, the project is on-budget and on-time, in spite of its size and complexity. The programme required ten new stations, some with passenger tunnels linking them to existing Tube lines. The Elizabeth line itself will snake through 13 miles (21km) of twinned tunnels, including a section under the Thames. Tunnelling is a risky business. You never can tell if you’ll run into a hold-up. The Crossrail dig has yielded 10,000 items of interest to archaeologists. At Farringdon the diggers found 25…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The IMF nudges up its forecast for global growth

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

How and when to use private money in infrastructure projects

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

New types of driver embrace the recreational vehicle

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Digitisation shakes up corporate-bond markets

JUST a few decades ago, an asset manager wanting to trade shares, bonds or derivatives almost always had to call up the trading desk at a big investment bank. Today shares and many derivatives can be traded with a few simple clicks (or even in fully automated fashion, using algorithms). But buying and selling bonds, especially corporate bonds, is still an old-fashioned business. Over four-fifths of trading in American corporate bonds still takes place with a dealer, usually over the phone. Yet digitisation is at last beginning to change the structure of bond markets: witness the announcement on April 11th by Tradeweb, an electronic-trading platform, that it is to offer “all-to-all” trading in European corporate bonds, ie, a system in which any market participant can trade with any other.

Electronic bond-trading is not in itself new. Tradeweb’s platform, initially limited to trading of American Treasuries, was unveiled in 1998. Around half of Treasuries, and nearly 60% of European government bonds, are now traded electronically, reckons Greenwich Associates, a consultancy. But for corporate bonds, progress has been slower: only 25% of global trading volume in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Why the decline in the number of listed American firms matters

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

Markets cheer Turkey’s referendum result

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, cliché that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s rule saw rapid economic growth; since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. When Mussolini took power in Italy in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

Europe is liberalising its sugar regime

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Trends in the air-freight business

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Cloudification will mean upheaval in telecoms

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

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

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

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

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Google is accused of underpaying women

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

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

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

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