Posts in category Business and finance


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Why carmakers need to get bigger

CARS are getting bigger. Motorists worldwide have for years been abandoning four-door saloons in favour of bulkier SUVs. Carmakers have become bigger, too. Four car firms now make around 10m vehicles a year in order to reap economies of scale, particularly in the mass-market bit of the business where profit margins can be painfully thin.

Many executives also believe that size is the only protection against the technological upheaval sweeping the industry. But bulking up fast is easier said than done. Lots of different constituents have to be won over. And most car bosses are still reticent about taking the plunge on mergers because many have been catastrophes. Daimler’s acquisition of Chrysler in 1998, for example, was a notable disaster. The list of past crashes is lengthy. Indeed, one recent deal—General Motors’ sale of Opel, its European arm, to France’s PSA Group for €1.3bn ($1.4bn)—seems to go directly against the imperative to bulk up.

In fact, that deal has had the effect of spurring more talk of consolidation. Speculation centred at first on a possible mega-merger between GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), itself the result of a deal in 2014 (FCA’s…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The University of Chicago worries about a lack of competition

ONE sign that monopolies are a problem in America is that the University of Chicago has just held a summit on the threat that they may pose to the world’s biggest economy. Until recently, convening a conference supporting antitrust concerns in the Windy City was like holding a symposium on sobriety in New Orleans. In the 1970s economists from the “Chicago school” argued that big firms were not a threat to growth and prosperity. Their views went mainstream, which led courts and regulators to adopt a relaxed attitude towards antitrust laws for decades.

But the mood is changing. There is an emerging consensus among economists that competition in the economy has weakened significantly. That is bad news: it means that incumbent firms may not need to innovate as much, and that inequality may increase if companies can hoard profits and spend less on investment and wages. It may yet be premature to talk about a new Chicago school, but investors and bosses should pay attention to the intellectual shift, which may change American business.

The fear that big firms might come to dominate the economy and political life has its roots in the era of the robber barons of the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Rescuing Myanmar’s farmers from the debt trap

Living on borrowed rice

WHEN Myo Than was a young man, his family had 12 hectares of farmland in Dala, a rural township just across the river from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. His mother sold most of it after his father died. Mr Myo Than grows rice on what’s left, but water shortages mean he reaps just one harvest each year. He borrows money from the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank (MADB)—1.5m kyats ($1,100) this year, at an annual rate of 8%—to cover planting costs. But rice is a low-return crop. To repay the bank he borrows from local moneylenders at a rate of around 4% each month. Mr Myo Than owes them $7,300. He has given his land deeds to a moneylender as security.

Mr Myo Than’s predicament is not unusual: poor crop returns and usurious loan terms have kept Myanmar’s farmers trapped in poverty and debt. Around 60% of Myanmar’s population are engaged in agriculture. Most are poor, and farm small plots of land using age-old manual techniques. Farmers scythe rice fields; water buffaloes pull wooden ploughs; hay-laden bullock-carts trundle down narrow roads.

Many farmers borrow to cover planting costs, buy equipment…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The EFTA countries show how hard Brexit will be for Britain

NORWAY offers much to envy. The food is tasty, public services are great and the people are impossibly good-looking. Its trade policy looks equally desirable. Though it trades heavily with the EU, Norway can also strike trade deals all over the world, either operating in concert with the three other members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) or on its own. Members of EFTA have dozens of deals, including two with China, with which the EU cannot even start negotiations.

After it leaves the EU, Britain will look much like an EFTA country: a rich economy with close links to Europe, but also seeking trade deals elsewhere. It is superficially an attractive prospect. Yet EFTA’s half-in-half-out relationship with the EU hinders its trade as much as it helps.

EFTA’s flexibility in trade stems from its odd relationship with the EU. Switzerland has a series of bilateral agreements, whereas Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the single market through the European Economic Area (though with opt-outs for agriculture and fisheries). Crucially, however, all are outside the EU’s customs union, an agreement which regulates…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The boss of scandal-plagued Barclays gets into trouble himself

IN HIS first 17 months running Barclays, Jes Staley seemed scarcely to put a foot wrong. The American has narrowed the British lender’s ambitions, to focus on retail business at home, corporate and investment banking on both sides of the Atlantic, and credit cards. He is pulling Barclays out of Africa, after a century, and has sped up its retreat from other markets. He has also poached several folk from JPMorgan Chase, where he spent 34 years and ran the investment bank.

On April 10th it emerged that Mr Staley had clumsily planted a boot out of bounds. Last June Barclays’ board and an executive received anonymous letters about a “senior employee” hired earlier in 2016. These, say the bank, raised concerns “of a personal nature” about this person and Mr Staley’s role in dealing with the matter “at a previous employer” (presumably JPMorgan Chase).

Mr Staley, seeing the letters as “an unfair personal attack” on the newcomer, asked Barclays’ security team to find out who had written them, but was told that this should not be done. In July he inquired whether the matter was resolved—and formed the “honestly held, but mistaken” belief…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A passenger is dragged from a United Airlines plane

UNITED AIRLINES urges travellers to “Fly the Friendly Skies”. The company makes no promises about its customer service before take-off. When, on April 9th, a traveller in Chicago refused to give up his seat on an overcrowded flight to Louisville, Kentucky, police yanked him into the aisle and dragged him by his hands along the floor, bleeding after he cut his head on an armrest. Horrified fellow passengers took videos on their phones and posted them to social media.

The company’s initial response was possibly the worst bit of crisis-PR in history, noted one media commentator. As videos of the bloodied man quickly went viral, Oscar Munoz, the carrier’s boss, woodenly apologised for having to “re-accommodate” customers. In an internal letter to staff, Mr Munoz said crew had “no choice” in their action and blamed the flyer for not co-operating.

Overbooking, which is common at many carriers, was not the problem. Rather, it was late-arriving, off-duty airline employees who needed seats at the last moment. The usual way of persuading paying passengers not to fly—offering lots of cash—did not work. Such bargains are best struck before boarding the plane….Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

East Germany’s shrinking population

WERE it not for the graffiti on abandoned buildings, Bitterfeld-Wolfen, two towns north of Leipzig joined as one in 2007, would seem devoid of young people. Pharmacies, physiotherapy surgeries and shops selling garden gnomes line the sleepy streets. In its heyday the place had a booming chemical industry. Today “the air is much cleaner and we can finally hang out laundry,” says an elderly local out on a morning stroll. “But many jobs were lost and so few children are left.” He points out a building that was once a school; today it is one of many care homes.

Despite an influx of 1.2m refugees over the past two years, Germany’s population faces near-irreversible decline. According to predictions from the UN in 2015, two in five Germans will be over 60 by 2050 and Europe’s oldest country will have shrunk to 75m from 82m. Since the 1970s, more Germans have been dying than are born. Fewer births and longer lives are a problem for most rich countries. But the consequences are more acute for Germany, where birth rates are lower than in Britain and France.

If Germany is a warning for others, its eastern part is a warning for its west. If it were still a country,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFinance and economics

The world’s first pot-focused exchange-traded fund

THE launch of the world’s first cannabis-focused exchange-traded fund (ETF), on the Toronto Stock Exchange on April 5th, is welcome news to aficionados of marijuana. As with any ETF, the fund spares would-be investors the need to pick out their own favourite stocks, or indeed weed out dodgy ones, as it will simply replicate and track an index, in this case the North American Medical Marijuana Index.

The fund’s home in Canada is no accident. Medical marijuana has been legal there since 2001, with growing and selling outsourced to licensed firms since 2013. (Justin Trudeau’s administration has also announced plans to legalise recreational use by 2018.) In America, despite state-level legalisation, marijuana is still illegal under federal law, making it nigh-impossible for pot firms to even access the banking system, let alone seek a proper public listing.

As a result, the index itself ends up having a strong Canadian bent. Eleven of its 16 companies are based there, and all but three are licensed suppliers of medical marijuana in Canada, though a few also have American operations. Three of the others are American, though none of them deal directly with…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Encouraging African entrepreneurship

“YOU are either part of the solution or part of the problem,” it says in painted letters on a wall. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” says the wall opposite. An old rickshaw sits among beanbags and a vase of flowers rests on an ancient oil barrel in the corner. “We wanted the space to feel like Google,” says Eleni Gabre-Madhin, the founder of blueMoon, a new agribusiness incubator that opened in Addis Ababa in February, without a trace of irony.

Incubators and their cousins, accelerators, provide hands-on training and mentoring, and often a physical space, to help early-stage business ideas develop. In Silicon Valley they find capital for startups and take a slice of equity in return for their services. Ms Gabre-Madhin says that blueMoon draws inspiration from Y Combinator, an American accelerator founded in 2005 whose investees include Dropbox and Airbnb. The new firm’s first cohort of startups will train at the office for four months, and it will give each a small cash injection in exchange for a 10% stake.

That is a rarity in Africa’s startup scene. A simpler and more common model is for “tech hubs” to provide office space, some networking…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

De La Rue rethinks its strategy

THOMAS DE LA RUE set up shop more than 200 years ago, printing newspapers, then playing cards and stamps. In 1860 a contract to print banknotes for Mauritius started a transformation. Today De La Rue is the largest commercial banknote and passport printer, involved in aspects of the production of currencies for 140 countries, and passports for over 40.

The British firm’s chief executive, Martin Sutherland, is relatively relaxed about the much-heralded death of cash. Despite advances in payments technology, and a shift to cards in Europe, the total demand for cash has proven remarkably resilient. Transaction values are rising rapidly in emerging economies, where hard currency is still the norm. De La Rue expects world demand for banknotes to grow by 3-4% a year for the foreseeable future.

But there are problems nonetheless. Even at the best of times, note production, which accounts for over 70% of the company’s revenues, is a volatile business. Contracts are lumpy. State-owned printers often call in commercial printers at short notice to manage spikes in demand, which are unpredictable. On top of that, national authorities are demanding better value. They are…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Growth at Indian internet consumer firms has stalled

THE promise of virgin commercial territory up for grabs, startups vying to lure investors’ money even faster than they burn through it, and Amazon trying to capture all the spoils: the recent scramble for the Indian online consumer has had more than a whiff of the late-90s dotcom boom about it. The exuberance seemed justified. India is the world’s fastest-growing large economy, its consumers increasingly clutching smartphones and fattening wallets. Online shopping, worth just $1bn five years ago, seemed to be growing so fast that it would exceed $100bn by 2020.

The boom has ended not with a pop, as in 2000, but a whimper. Online sales, after more than doubling in 2014 and nearly trebling in 2015, were nearly flat in 2016 (see chart). Analysts are scrambling to lower their forecasts. Given that total retail consumption in India grows by around 18% a year, and internet penetration went up by two-fifths last year, e-commerce if anything looks to be losing ground.

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Bill O’Reilly faces allegations of sexual harassment

Lights, camera, where’s the action?

EVEN for Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, no strangers to controversy, the allegations against Bill O’Reilly present an extreme test. On April 1st the New York Times published an investigative report that described accusations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour from at least seven women against the presenter. He and the network, the paper said, have paid about $13m to five women since 2002 to settle cases where they alleged such behaviour. Mr O’Reilly denied the merits of the claims.

The news came less than nine months after Roger Ailes, the network’s founding boss, stepped down following multiple sexual-harassment claims against him. This week around 50 advertisers left Mr O’Reilly’s programme, “The O’Reilly Factor”, among them several car brands, including Mercedes-Benz and Toyota’s Lexus, as well as GlaxoSmithKline, a drugs company. The National Organisation for Women has called for him to be fired.

All eyes are on Mr Murdoch, who has been running Fox News himself since he pushed out his friend, Mr Ailes. Mr O’Reilly has probably been…Continue reading

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