Posts in category Business and finance


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Grab battles Uber in South-East Asia

Overtaking manoeuvres

SCOOTER-DRIVERS in bright green helmets enliven the dusk of rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial centre. This conspicuous fleet is carrying round clients of Grab, a South-East Asian ride-hailing firm. Its operations, connecting travellers with taxis, private cars and motorbike taxis in six countries, straddle a region that is twice as populous as America and swiftly urbanising. Its future seems assured, if it can compete with Uber, a deep-pocketed American competitor.

Grab started life at Harvard Business School, where its 34-year-old boss, Anthony Tan, met his co-founder, Hooi Ling Tan (the pair are unrelated). Its headquarters are in Singapore. Anthony’s father runs Tan Chong Motors, a car assembler and distributor which is among Malaysia’s largest companies, but he does not have funding from the family outfit.

Mr Tan denies that he is building South-East Asia’s answer to Uber, and says he is more inspired by Chinese technology firms such as Tencent, an online-gaming and social-media firm that owns WeChat, a fantastically popular mobile-messaging service, and Alibaba…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Shareholder democracy is ailing

DEMOCRACY is in decline around the world, according to Freedom House, a think-tank. Only 45% of countries are considered free today, and their number is slipping. Liberty is in retreat in the world of business, too. The idea that firms should be controlled by diverse shareholders who exercise one vote per share is increasingly viewed as redundant or even dangerous.

Consider the initial public offering (IPO) of Silicon Valley’s latest social-media star, Snap. It plans to raise $3-4bn and secure a valuation of $20bn-25bn. The securities being sold have no voting rights, so all the power will stay with Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, its co-founders. Snap’s IPO has echoes of that of Alibaba, a Chinese internet giant. It listed itself in New York in 2014, in the world’s largest-ever IPO, raising $25bn. It is worth $252bn today and is controlled by an opaque partnership using legal vehicles in the Cayman Islands. Its ordinary shareholders are supine.

Optimists may dismiss the two IPOs as isolated events, but there is a deeper trend towards autocracy. Eight of the world’s 20 most valuable firms are not controlled by outside shareholders. They…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Brexit: the New Zealand precedent

THE future of British trade after Brexit is shrouded in uncertainty. It is an unprecedented process, so it is hard to know where to look for clues as to how it may work out. One possibility is a country whose trading patterns were perhaps more disrupted than any other’s by Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973: New Zealand.

Just as Brexit is likely to mean the end of British access to the single market, so “Brentry” ended New Zealand’s preferential access to the “mother country”. In 1961, when Britain first announced its intention to join the EEC, it took about half of New Zealand’s exports—a similar proportion to the EU’s share of British exports today.

New Zealand’s prime minister at the time, Keith Holyoake, warned his British counterpart, Harold Macmillan, that, without safeguards for its exports, New Zealand would be “ruined”. After years of negotiations, a transitional deal in 1971 agreed quotas for New Zealand butter, cheese and lamb over a five-year period, which helped to ease the shift away from Britain. Similarly—if in a much shorter time-span—Britain’s prime…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

The elderly, cognitive decline and banking

“THE older the wiser” may ring true for much of life, but not for our ability to handle money. Studies suggest financial decision-making ability tends to reach its peak in a person’s mid-50s, after when deterioration sets in. “Age-friendly” banks are beginning to learn how to protect vulnerable older customers.

The most dramatic forms of age-related mental deterioration are neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s. But even “normal” ageing can cause cognitive change. Financial-management skills are often early casualties, because they demand both knowledge and judgment.

Older people are more likely to struggle with day-to-day banking and are more susceptible to poor investment decisions. They are also more vulnerable to fraud or to financial exploitation, often by relatives. In 2010 the over-65s in America made up 13% of the population but had over a third of the wealth. British pensioners became especially vulnerable when reforms in April 2015 allowed them to withdraw savings previously locked up. Newspapers fretted that people would splurge their pensions on Lamborghinis. A greater concern should have been that they…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

Bubbles are rarer than you think

BUBBLES put the fun into financial history. Who can resist stories about Dutch tulips that were worth more than country estates or the floating of an “undertaking of great advantage but no one to know what it is”?

Ever since the financial crisis of 2007-08, economists have debated whether bubbles can be identified, or indeed stopped, before they can cause widespread damage. That is easier said than done: even tulipmania may have been caused by a quirk in the wording of contracts that meant speculators would, at worst, walk away with only a tiny loss.

For many investors, the more important question is whether it is possible to avoid being sucked into a bubble at the top, and suffering declines like the 80% drop experienced by the NASDAQ 100 index of technology stocks between March 2000 and August 2002. Two essays in a new book*, from the CFA Institute Research Foundation and the Cambridge Judge Business School, indicate just how difficult market timing can be.

The first, from William Goetzmann of Yale School of Management, looks at the history of 21 stockmarkets since 1900. Mr Goetzmann defines a bubble as a doubling in a…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Travel firms can afford to upset supporters of President Trump

WRITING a few weeks ago, Gulliver envisioned a close partnership between the then president-elect, Donald Trump, and the bosses of tech firms; one that could remove regulation and pave the way to a future of autonomous electric vehicles.

Since then politics has intervened. Specifically, Mr Trump signed an executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to America. Upon the announcement of the order, the transportation industry sprang into action. New York taxicab drivers staged a boycott of sorts, refusing to pick up passengers from John F Kennedy Airport to show solidarity with those affected by the ban. In response, Uber, a ride-hailing firm, sensed a business opportunity and dropped surge pricing for JFK pickups, effectively cutting the cost of hailing an Uber from the airport.

That proved to be a mistake. Progressives across America accused the firm of breaking the strike. Some noted that Travis Kalanick, Uber’s boss, had joined Mr Trump’s economic advisory council in December. A #DeleteUber campaign was launched. More than…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Why Marriott is turning some of its rooms into communal apartments

JUST as Airbnb has started to take on hotels at their own game, the tables seem to be turning. The short-term lodging rental site was once known for its un-hotel-like offerings. Hosts lived alongside their guests, who were often put up in quirkily decorated spare rooms. Nowadays it offers “business travel ready” listings, for properties that have Wi-Fi, 24-hour check-in and other basic amenities. Entire houses can now be rented, not only box bedrooms. And as cities crack down on illegal Airbnb listings, it has even starting to play by the rules. As a result, the number of business bookings through the site has rocketed.

Unsurprising, then, that some hotels are returning the favour and becoming a bit more like Airbnb. At a recent conference in Los Angeles, Marriott International unveiled a concept for a hotel room that could take on short-term rental firms. Under a row of tents on a city street, the hotel chain…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Thermostat controls in hotel rooms are often placebos

PLACEBOS are everywhere. Drugs firms sell red pills because customers are convinced that they are stronger than white ones. Pressing the button at some pedestrian crossings makes no difference to when the green man appears, but makes us feel proactive. And the “doors close” request in a lift serves no purpose other than to soothe the frustration of impatient riders.

Add another placebo to the list: thermostat controls in hotel rooms. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal has confirmed what many of us already knew deep down: “It’s not your imaginations. Hotel thermostats often aren’t under your control.”

The Journal reports:

The humble hotel wall thermostat, once just a mechanical temperature sensor and fan-speed switch,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Beating Apple, Xiaomi and the gang in China

DONGGUAN, a southerly Chinese city near Hong Kong, is better known for cranking out cheap trinkets than for producing high-end equipment of any kind. And yet, amid the grit and grime is a gleaming low-rise factory producing some 50m smartphones a year for OPPO, a firm started by China’s BBK Electronics but which is now run independently.

Inside, as well as the usual assembly lines and serried workers, the factory has dozens of staff in quality engineering and testing, conducting 130 different tests on OPPO’s phones before they are released to the market. Such zealous pursuit of quality would be expected of factories that produce phones for Apple—the world-class facilities run by Taiwan’s Foxconn in nearby Shenzhen house similar teams. But it is unusual at a firm that makes relatively inexpensive handsets for the local market.

OPPO, and its sister firm, Vivo, also a child of BBK, started out in 2004 and 2009 respectively, making cheap and cheerful phones like plenty of other obscure Chinese manufacturers. They probably didn’t even register on Apple’s radar. Xiaomi was the Chinese handset-maker to watch; urban sophisticates, enticed by…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

America’s booming pet health-care business

AT THE 42,000-square-foot clinic in Hollywood that is owned by VCA, an animal-hospital chain, you may find a Pomeranian on a course of stem-cell therapy or a Shih Tzu having a hip replacement. There is even an underwater treadmill for cats. As pets are treated more and more like members of the family, so they are getting more health care. That also means they are racking up bigger vet bills for their owners.

That is the backdrop to the purchase in January of VCA by Mars, a firm best known for selling chocolate and sweets, for $9.1bn. Analysts whistled at the 31% premium Mars offered on VCA’s share price at the time, but they also agreed that the deal reflects the industry’s vitality. Spending on animal clinic visits in America has increased from a total of $13.7bn in 2012 to almost $16bn last year.

The deal is not as out of character for Mars as it may appear. Sales of chocolate are declining. The company is second only to Nestlé in the market for pet food in America, but competition from sellers on Amazon has sent the firm towards animal health. It was in 2007 that Mars bought Banfield Pet Hospital, then VCA’s largest rival. Since then…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The market for alternative-protein products

MOST people like to eat meat. As they grow richer they eat more of it. For individuals, that is good. Meat is nutritious. In particular, it packs much more protein per kilogram than plants do. But animals have to eat plants to put on weight—so much so that feeding livestock accounts for about a third of harvested grain. Farm animals consume 8% of the world’s water supply, too. And they produce around 15% of unnatural greenhouse-gas emissions. More farm animals, then, could mean more environmental trouble.

Some consumers, particularly in the rich West, get this. And that has created a business opportunity. Though unwilling to go the whole hog, as it were, and adopt a vegetarian approach to diet, they are keen on food that looks and tastes as if it has come from farm animals, but hasn’t.

The simplest way to satisfy this demand is to concentrate on substitutes for familiar products. “Meat” made directly from plants, rather than indirectly, via an animal’s metabolism, is already on sale for the table and barbecue. Impossible Foods, a Californian firm, has deconstructed hamburgers, to work out what gives them their texture and…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

TVs: the next testing scandal?

Plug and pay

VOLKSWAGEN, a German carmaker, has been disgraced for designing clever software that allowed it to cheat on emissions tests for diesel cars. A different scandal, with shades of the VW affair, has been building up in America’s television market. South Korea’s Samsung and LG, along with Vizio, a Californian firm, stand accused of misrepresenting the energy efficiency of large-screen sets. Together, they sell over half of all TVs in America.

In September 2016 the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), an environmental group, published research on the energy consumption of TVs, showing that those made by Samsung, LG and Vizio performed far better during short government tests than they did the rest of the time. Some TVs consumed double the amount of energy suggested by manufacturers’ marketing bumpf. America’s Department of Energy (DoE) has also conducted tests of its own that have turned up big inconsistencies.

Not all TV-makers are at fault: the NRDC found no difference in energy-consumption levels for TVs made by Sony and Philips. But class-action lawsuits have already been filed against the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Logistics companies fear the return of hard borders

DURING the day, Leipzig’s airport is quiet. It is at night that the airfield comes to life. Next to the runway a yellow warehouse serves as the global sorting hub for DHL, a delivery firm owned by Deutsche Post of Germany. A huge extension, which opened in October, means it can sort 150,000 parcels each hour, says Ken Allen, DHL’s CEO. It was built as business soared. But the express-delivery industry faces a new challenge: the return of trade barriers due to the protectionist bent of Donald Trump and because of Brexit.

The slower-moving shipping and air-cargo business has long been in the doldrums as a result of slow overall growth in trade in recent years. Yet the rise of cross-border e-commerce has still meant booming business for express-delivery firms. On January 31st UPS revealed record revenues for the fourth quarter of 2016; FedEx and DHL are expected to report similarly buoyant results next month. Since 2008 half of the increase in express-delivery volumes has come from shoppers buying items online from another country.

Falling trade barriers have greatly helped them. When DHL and FedEx were getting going, in the 1970s,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The challenges for ExxonMobil’s new boss

WITH an institutional culture that lies somewhere between the marines and the boy scouts, ExxonMobil tends to avoid personality cults. Even so, it is surprising how little is known about Darren Woods, the chief executive who last month succeeded Rex Tillerson, America’s new secretary of state. Mr Woods’s Wikipedia biography is a few lines long. Rather than reveal the year of his birth, ExxonMobil just says he is 52. Never mind: the most significant fact about him is that he comes from the refining and chemicals side of the business, which hums along so efficiently that ExxonMobil is widely considered the world’s best “integrated” oil company. Yet it is upstream—the exploration and production part—where his hardest tasks lie.

On January 31st the company reported another year of plunging profits, which have buffeted its share price since 2014 (see chart). It earned less in a year than it used to earn in a quarter, and also less than Exxon made before its $80bn merger with Mobil in 1999. Profits among its “Big Oil” peers have likewise been clobbered by falling oil prices over the past two and a half years. It is also not…Continue reading

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