Posts in category Business and finance


Business and financeGulliver

IAG enters the low-cost, long-haul market

WILLIE WALSH has spent much of the past few years stripping the frills from British Airways planes, at least on short-haul routes. The boss of IAG, BA’s parent firm, seems keen to ape the success of Europe’s low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair. Hence, everything that once distinguished it as a “full-service” carrier—whether a complimentary sandwich, a free checked bag or to the right to choose your seat—has been deplaned. The strategy has proved a success. Despite the weak pound, British Airways posted an operating profit of £1.5bn in 2016—about 80% of IAG’s total.

When it comes to long-haul flights, however, Mr Walsh has had to contain his cost-cutting zeal. On such routes, BA must compete against carriers that boast sparkling amenities, particularly at the front of the plane, such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines. So although BA has managed to skimp a bit in the premium cabins (by, for example, reducing the food options and downsizing the washbag) it is also investing £400m to upgrade its posh Club World service.

On transatlantic flights, however, the full-service carriers are facing a new threat to their business: low-cost long-haul operators….Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Free health cover for Britons in Europe is under threat

BUSINESS travellers face several uncertainties after Brexit. Will travelling to the European Union in future require a visa? Given the state of the pound, will companies start to crack down on expenses? And what happens if you get ill abroad?

This last question has perhaps been farthest from the front of road warriors’ minds—until this week. On March 15th, David Davis, the minister in charge of Brexit, told a parliamentary committee that it was “probably right” that once Britain leaves the EU British travellers would lose access to free or subsidised health care within the European Economic Area (EEA). Currently, British travellers are entitled to be treated as if they were a national of the EEA country (plus Switzerland) they are visiting if they have a European Health Insurance Card, or EHIC. Some 200,000 Brits received medical aid through the scheme while travelling last year, according to ABTA, a travel agents’ association. The card covers those who get ill or have an accident while abroad, or have a serious pre-existing condition that needs…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Citigroup’s decade of agony is almost over

IF YOU ask financial types in New York for their views on the world’s big banks, they usually come up with similar vignettes for each one. They agree that JPMorgan Chase is an unstoppable force under its boss, Jamie Dimon. Goldman Sachs is on a roll, with its shares up by 36% since the election (even if some worry that its Darwinian culture is going soft given all the regulation it faces). Across the pond Deutsche Bank is struggling to keep its head above water; its leader, John Cryan, embarked on a capital-raising and cost-cutting plan on March 5th. Yet one big bank elicits shrugs of bafflement: Citigroup. Its managers are anonymous and they get paid about a fifth less than their peers at other financial groups. No one is quite sure what Citi is up to or what it exists for. Once too big to fail, it is now too drab to mention.

That Citi has become the world’s half-forgotten bank is surprising. It was America’s biggest firm before the financial crisis, measured by size of assets; it is now the fourth-largest. After suffering huge losses on loans and subprime securities, in 2008-09 it received the biggest bail-out of any American bank. Citi can still…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Elon Musk supercharges progress on energy storage

Storage salesman

HOW much power does a tweetstorm involving two tech tycoons, the prime minister of Australia and 8.5m Twitter followers generate? Enough, at least, to supercharge a debate about the future role of batteries in the world’s energy mix.

Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (pictured), may be best known for his gravity-defying ambition, but his core product is the battery: whether for his Tesla cars, for the home or for grid-scale electricity storage. He gave the last of these an unexpected jolt of publicity on March 10th, by responding to a blackout-inspired challenge on Twitter from an Australian software billionaire, Mike Cannon-Brookes. Mr Musk said he could install 100 megawatt hours (MWh) of battery storage in the state of South Australia in 100 days to help solve an energy crisis it faces, or it would be free of charge. “That serious enough for you?” he asked.

In response, Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, communicated with Mr Musk and appeared to turn from pro-coal sceptic into battery believer. On March 14th Jay Weatherill, the premier of South Australia, went further. Declaring…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

What Satya Nadella did at Microsoft

A DECADE ago, visiting Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle was like a trip into enemy territory. Executives would not so much talk with visitors as fire words at them (one of this newspaper’s correspondents has yet to recover from two harrowing days spent in the company of a Microsoft “brand evangelist”). If challenged on the corporate message, their body language would betray what they were thinking and what Bill Gates, the firm’s founder, used often to say: “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Today the mood at Microsoft’s campus, a sprawling collection of more than 100 buildings, is strikingly different. The word-count per minute is much lower. Questions, however ignorant or critical, are answered patiently. The firm’s boss, Satya Nadella (pictured), strikes a different and gentler tone from Mr Gates and Steve Ballmer, his immediate predecessor (although he, too, has a highly competitive side).

Both these descriptions are caricatures. But they point to an underlying truth: how radically the world’s biggest software firm has changed in the short time since Mr Nadella took charge in early 2014. Back…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A battle over Euro Disney

IF YOU judge only by the volume of screams and the beaming faces of those taking rides at Europe’s most-visited, privately-owned tourist destination, then it is clear that Disneyland Paris has much to celebrate. In the three decades since Disney, an American media firm, agreed to put its European theme park on a site east of Paris, and the 25 years since its doors swung open, in 1992, 320m customers have queued for attractions such as “Space Mountain”, a stomach-twisting rollercoaster, and photo-ops with Disney characters.

To mark these anniversaries the firm is making bold claims for the park’s economic and social benefits. Nearly €8bn ($8.6bn) has been invested in or near the site, which includes a second Disney studio-themed park, 8,500 hotel rooms, convention centres and a golf course. France’s economy has supposedly seen gains worth €68bn and the creation of 56,000 jobs. Politicians pay it heed: François Hollande, the retiring president, made an end-of-term visit late last month.

But investors tell a different story. Shares in Euro Disney (the French parent company) have performed like a raft on the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Mobileye and Intel join forces

Data trafficking

CARMAKING in Israel has amounted to little more than some unstylish models put together in the latter half of the last century and a few rugged off-roaders still assembled for the country’s security forces. A reluctance to make them, however, has not stopped Israel from becoming a thriving centre for the high-tech kit with which cars now bristle, and also for mobility services such as ride-hailing.

The latest evidence of Israel’s pre-eminence in the field came on March 13th, when Intel, a giant American chipmaker, paid $15.3bn for Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based firm that is at the forefront of autonomous-car technology. With the acquisition, Intel joins the ranks of technology companies that are trying to outmanoeuvre carmakers and auto-parts suppliers to develop the brains of vehicles of the future.

Mobileye is an attractive target because of what it does now and what it will soon be capable of. Its EyeQ software is already used by most of the world’s carmakers to help their vehicles stay in their lanes and brake in emergencies, precisely what will also be required in autonomous vehicles. This…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The business model for the Olympic Games is running out of puff

PIERRE DE COUBERTIN, the French aristocrat who founded the modern Olympics, was seduced by the world’s fair. In 1900, 1904 and 1908 his games were embedded within such exhibitions. He soured on the arrangement eventually because the games were overshadowed, “reduced to the role of humiliated vassal”, as he put it. The Olympics still criss-crosses the globe, but with city after city ditching ambitions to put on the world’s largest sporting event, the model is under threat.

The latest blow comes courtesy of Budapest, which on March 1st withdrew its bid to host the 2024 summer games after public opposition. Its retreat comes on the heels of Boston, Rome and Hamburg canning their bids within the past two years, whittling a once-crowded pool of candidate cities down to only two: Los Angeles—itself a replacement for the torpedoed Boston bid—and Paris.

The situation ought to feel familiar by now to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the games. After lots of cities bowed out of the competition for the 2022 winter games it was again left with two options: Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China….Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Chinese pharma firms target the global market

The way things were

WALK into the Shanghai laboratories of Chi-Med, a biotech firm, and you encounter the sort of shiny, cutting-edge facilities common in any major pharma company in America, Europe or Japan. Chi-Med has just had positive results in a late-stage trial of its drug for colorectal cancer, which is called Fruquintinib. If the drug is approved both in China and in Western markets it could be the very first prescription drug to be designed and developed entirely in China that will be on a path to global commercialisation.

Given China’s ageing population, higher incomes and rising demand for health care it is clear why innovation in drugs is a priority for the country. Its national market for drugs has grown rapidly in recent years to become the world’s second-largest. It could grow from $108bn in 2015 to around $167bn by 2020, according to an estimate from America’s Department of Commerce. By comparison, America spends about $400bn a year on drugs.

Chinese firms mainly sell cheap, generic medicines that earn only razor-thin margins. The pharma industry is extremely fragmented, with thousands of tiny…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Do smart-beta investment funds work?

IN THE world of investing, everyone is always looking for a better mousetrap—a way to beat the market. One approach that is increasingly popular is to select shares based on specific “factors”—for example, the size of companies or their dividend yield. The trend has been given the ugly name of “smart beta”.

A recent survey of institutional investors showed three-quarters were either using or evaluating the approach. By the end of January some $534bn was invested in smart-beta exchange-traded funds, according to ETFGI, a research firm. Compound annual growth in assets under management in the sector has been 30% over the past five years.

The best argument for smart-beta funds is that they simply replicate, at lower cost, what fund managers are doing already. For example, many fund managers follow the “value” approach, seeking out shares that look cheap. A computer program can pick these stocks more methodically than an erratic human. A smart-beta fund does what it says on the tin.

But does it work? The danger here is “data mining”. Carry out enough statistical tests, and you will always find some…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Is the Federal Reserve giving banks a $12bn subsidy?

EVERY time the Federal Reserve has raised rates since the financial crisis, as it did on March 15th, it has done so in part by increasing “Interest On Excess Reserves” (IOER). This obscure policy rate is surprisingly controversial. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chair of the congressional committee that oversees the Fed, has called it a “subsidy” to some of the largest banks in America.

To understand the argument, consider the Fed’s year-end financial statement. In 2016 it earned $111.1bn in interest income on its vast portfolio of securities. But it also paid JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and other mostly big banks $12bn in interest on excess cash deposited at regional Federal Reserve banks. Such IOER payments are both woefully unpopular and critical to the Fed’s monetary policy.

Over a decade ago, to give the Fed better control of short-term interest rates, Congress authorised it to pay interest on funds in excess of those banks need to meet reserve requirements. The policy was first used during the financial crisis in 2008. But today, IOER is the Fed’s primary monetary-policy tool, essential to its setting of…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The progressive case for immigration

“WE CAN’T restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.” Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa, could hardly have been clearer in his meaning in a tweet this week supporting Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician with anti-immigrant views. Across the rich world, those of a similar mind have been emboldened by a nativist turn in politics. Some do push back: plenty of Americans rallied against Donald Trump’s plans to block refugees and migrants. Yet few rich-world politicians are willing to make the case for immigration that it deserves: it is a good thing and there should be much more of it.

Defenders of immigration often fight on nativist turf, citing data to respond to claims about migrants’ damaging effects on wages or public services. Those data are indeed on migrants’ side. Though some research suggests that native workers with skill levels similar to those of arriving migrants take a hit to their wages because of increased migration, most analyses find that they are not harmed, and that many eventually earn more as competition nudges them to specialise in more demanding occupations. But as a slogan, “The data say…Continue reading

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Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The hole in Western finances

HAVE western governments, faced with angry voters, lost the ability to raise taxes? The question is raised by a farcical U-turn by the British government over a budget measure announced a week previously. The government retreated in the face of backbench opposition and the right-wing press. It seems eerily reminiscent of America, where Republicans have an absolute abhorrence of tax-raising measures.

The planned British increase (aligning the tax rates of the employed and self-employed) was perfectly sensible. Unless closed, this gap will erode the tax base over the long run. Most economists agree that differential tax treatments tend to distort behaviour for no long-term gains. But the government had promised at the 2015 election not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT—three taxes that raise around two-thirds of revenues—and this (foolish) promise was used against it.

As the graph shows, British tax revenues have…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

As the Fed raises rates, Janet Yellen’s legacy is pondered

THIRD time lucky. In each of the past two years, the Federal Reserve has predicted multiple interest-rate rises, only to be thrown off-course by events. On March 15th the central bank raised its benchmark Federal Funds rate for the third time since the financial crisis, to a range of 0.75-1%. This was, if anything, ahead of its forecast, which it reaffirmed, that rates would rise three times in 2017. “Lift-off” is at last an apt metaphor for monetary policy. But as Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairwoman, picks up speed in terms of policy, she must navigate a cloudy political outlook. The next year will define her legacy.

Ms Yellen took office in February 2014 after dithering by the Obama administration over a choice between her and Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary. Left-wingers preferred Ms Yellen, in part because she seemed more likely to give jobs priority over stable prices. Indeed, Republicans in Congress worried that she would be too soft on inflation. The Economist called her the “first acknowledged dove” to lead the central bank.

Today Ms Yellen looks more hawkish—certainly than Mr Summers, who…Continue reading

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