Posts in category Business and finance


Business and financeGulliver

Alitalia is bankrupt again. This time perhaps it’s terminal

WHEN employees of Alitalia were offered the chance on April 25th to vote for pay cuts and redundancies to save the troubled airline, they spurned the opportunity. In some ways it is difficult to blame them. After all, in the past they have been able to rely on the Italian government to come to the rescue of the country’s flag carrier. 

That may not happen this time. Alitalia has lost billions of euros over the past decade. (Indeed, over its 70-year history its accountants have barely had need for a black pen.) The firm had pinned its hopes on a €2bn ($2.2bn) capatilisation plan. But that had been dependent workers accepting cuts that were negotiated by the government and agreed with trade unions. With the workers’ no vote, that cash is now off the table.

Alitalia has been here many times before. In 2008 it was placed into bankruptcy after the government blocked plans for a sell-off. In 2014, with the airline on the verge of failing yet again, the government helped broker a deal with Etihad, a Middle Eastern superconnector, which took a 49% stake. A plan to make Alitalia Continue reading

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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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Business and financeFree exchange

Reducing rates for “pass-through” businesses will be tough to justify

THERE are two main reasons for a country to paw around in its tax code: to create more economic growth, or to repair a structural deficit. Any politician who wishes to quietly give money to friends or kill a troublesome programme will supply one of them. He will either say “businesses need tax certainty to grow” (meaning: “certainty that they will like the tax code”), or “we don’t have the money”. So as the Trump administration releases its tax plan on April 26th, there are only two questions to ask: whether it will speed up America’s current economic recovery, and whether it will begin to fill in the country’s long-term deficits. If the early leaks from the White House are any guide, it will do neither.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House wants to reduce the top tax rate on pass-through businesses to 15%. “Pass through” means the business itself has no…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Reports of populism’s death are premature

MONDAY was a day when, in the latest jargon, the markets went “risk on”. Equities rose, the spread between the yields of French and German bonds narrowed and the euro rebounded. The reason was the first round of the French presidential election. As the results emerged on Sunday night, it was clear that a) the nightmare of a second round between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon had been avoided and b) Ms Le Pen’s vote was no better than her poll rating, indicating there was no reservoir of shy, far-right voters. The centrist Emmanuel Marcon (pictured) topped the poll and is predicted to get more than 60% of the vote in the second round, far outside the pollsters’ margin of error.

So France will not follow the US and Britain down the path that led to the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. But it is way too early to say, as some do, that populism is in retreat. First, France has a much greater tradition of support for the far left…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

An air marshal leaves her loaded gun in a plane toilet

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

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

A market-related twist to the Dortmund bombing

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

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Business and financeGulliver

Is Tom Stuker the world’s most frequent flyer?

“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

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Business and financeGulliver

Emirates cuts services to America as Donald Trump’s actions bite

WHEN American officials announced last month that laptops and tablets would be banned from aeroplane cabins on flights from certain Muslim countries, many questioned the administration’s motive. Was it a proportionate response to specific intelligence about a terrorist threat? Or had the government taken the opportunity to clobber swanky foreign operators that compete with the country’s own woeful airlines?

If the latter view is too cynical, we can at least say that, for America’s carriers, it has been a serendipitous byproduct. On April 19th, Emirates announced that it is cutting its services to the United States by 20%. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the airline’s home, was one of ten Muslim countries covered by the laptop ban. By happy coincidence, no American carriers served airports that were affected.

The restrictions on electronic devices are a particular problem for Emirates and the other Middle Eastern “superconnectors”, Etihad, also of the UAE, and Qatar Airways. Direct traffic between America and these airlines’ hubs is modest: most passengers use them to connect to or from other…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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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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