Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

India’s hostels for the upwardly mobile

Rite of passage

IF SEVERAL hundred million Indians do migrate from the countryside to cities between now and 2050, as the UN expects, it will be a fiendishly busy few decades for Vivek Aher, who runs a low-cost hostel, one of five, on the outskirts of Pune, a well-off city three hours’ drive from Mumbai. A fair few of the new arrivals will have their first experience of urban living bunking in one of the hostels’ 1,350 beds. Should recent experience be anything to go by, most of the new arrivals will test Mr Aher’s patience by tacking posters on his hostel’s walls, or endlessly complaining about the Wi-Fi.

India has two main drags on economic growth. One is the difficulty of finding a job, especially in the places people live. The other is a chronic shortage of cheap housing. Aarusha Homes, Mr Aher’s employer, started in 2007 to help people seize economic opportunities far from home. Its rooms are basic and cheap. They include up to six beds, a bathroom for every three or four residents, some common areas and little else. Rent ranges between 3,500 and 10,000 rupees ($52-$149) a month including food.

Most…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The rise of artificial intelligence is creating new variety in the chip market, and trouble for Intel

“WE ALMOST went out of business several times.” Usually founders don’t talk about their company’s near-death experiences. But Jen-Hsun Huang, the boss of Nvidia, has no reason to be coy. His firm, which develops microprocessors and related software, is on a winning streak. In the past quarter its revenues increased by 55%, reaching $2.2bn, and in the past 12 months its share price has almost quadrupled.

A big part of Nvidia’s success is because demand is growing quickly for its chips, called graphics processing units (GPUs), which turn personal computers into fast gaming devices. But the GPUs also have new destinations: notably data centres where artificial-intelligence (AI) programmes gobble up the vast quantities of computing power that they generate.

Soaring sales of these chips (see chart) are the clearest sign yet of a secular shift in information technology. The architecture of computing is fragmenting…Continue reading

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Toymakers bounce back in the land of adult nappies

WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS, an American educator who travelled to Japan in the 1870s, noted that in the previous two and a half centuries, “the main business of this nation was play”. He described toyshops filled as full as Christmas stockings and plenty of grown-ups “indulging in amusements which the men of the West lay aside with their pinafores”.

Griffis would have found it familiar walking today around Hakuhinkan Toy Park, one of the largest toy stores in Tokyo. Teens, office workers and grandparents are mostly to be seen perusing its 200,000-odd knick-knacks across five floors. Its director, Hiroyuki Itoh, says he wants the store to be a place where everyone can play. After work, suited salarymen come to spend ¥200 (under $2) for a five-minute whizz around a 36-metre slot-car racetrack. In another corner a gaggle of university students fiddle with displays of toys from the era of their childhoods.

Playthings aimed at the over-20s make up 27% of Japan’s domestic toy sales, according to figures from Euromonitor, a market-research firm. That grown-up portion of the market has been crucial for Japan’s three biggest players,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

3G missed Unilever but its methods are spreading

Rejected suitor

JORGE PAULO LEMANN (pictured), a Brazilian investor, is ill-accustomed to failure. On February 17th Kraft Heinz, backed by Mr Lemann’s 3G Capital, said it had bid $143bn for Unilever, a maker of food and personal products. 3G has gobbled many a consumer firm, slashed costs, then bought an even bigger one. Even so, the Unilever bid was surprising in its audacity—the merger would have been the second-largest ever. As shocking, it collapsed two days later.

Kraft Heinz had hoped to continue talks in private, but news of its offer leaked out. Its management appeared to have badly misjudged the depth of Unilever’s attachment to its culture and its pursuit of long-term, “sustainable” growth. Unilever’s outright rejection meant that 3G and Warren Buffett, who was expected to help fund a deal, faced the prospect of going hostile against a revered firm. It was a rare stumble. But the episode doesn’t spell the end of its model. More deals are likely. And Kraft Heinz is already changing how Unilever and other rivals operate.

Times are hard for big consumer companies, once among the world’s…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

It has never been so easy to fund an indie film but harder than ever to get people to see it

Atypical success

IT MIGHT seem a great time for indie cinema. The Academy Awards on February 26th will be something of a showcase for films not financed by a major studio. “Manchester by the Sea”, a contender for six Oscars, including best picture, was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival last year. Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece (one scene is pictured) about family and loss has earned $46m in cinemas in America and Canada, a spectacular return on its production costs of $8.5m. Amazon, which bought distribution rights, will benefit.

Movie buffs can find all manner of films online that are made more cheaply still. “The Break-In”, a horror film shot by Justin Doescher on his girlfriend’s iPhone for less than $20, has earned him more than $20,000, with more than half a million people having watched at least part of it on Amazon’s streaming-video platform.

For every success story there are thousands of indie films that go unwatched. The digital age has made it easier than ever to make a film, but also harder than ever to break through the clutter of entertainment options to an audience. Chris Moore, a…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Are technology firms madly overvalued?

IS THE technology industry in La La Land? There are alarming signs. House prices in San Francisco have risen by 66% more than in New York over the past five years. Even at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2001, the gap was lower, at 58%. Shares of technology firms trade on their highest ratio to sales since the turn of the century. Four of the world’s most valuable firms are tech companies: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. Snap, a tiddler with $400m of sales and $700m of cash losses in 2016, is expected to list shares on March 1st that will give it a valuation of over $20bn.

For companies and investors in any industry, it is hard to work out if you are living in a bubble. To help, Schumpeter has created three sanity tests for global tech firms. These examine their cashflow, whether investors differentiate between companies, and whether forecasts of their future earnings suffer from a fallacy of composition. The exercise suggests that tech valuations are frothy, but not bubbling.

The first test is cashflow, and the industry passes it with flying colours. In 2001 about half of all listed tech firms were unable to convert…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The rise of “deep-tech” is boosting Paris’s startup scene

EUROPE will never create a hub of tech firms and investors to rival Silicon Valley, many experts on entrepreneurship concur. Its markets are still fragmented along national lines, flows of capital into the region are limited and because of lingering, conservative attitudes to risk, few startups grow to rival American champions. “Europe is toxic”, argues Oussama Ammar, an outspoken founder of an incubator in Paris. “Life that should happen, does not happen”, he says.

But some digital life does flourish, spread among cities rather than fixing in one spot. Fintech firms cluster in London. Gamers and music-sharing sites do well in the Nordic countries. Berlin has a crop of companies that go beyond the kind of me-too consumer sites incubated by Rocket Internet, a notorious startup factory: new companies with expertise in the “internet of things”, for example. Milan, with strong medical universities, has flourishing biotech startups.

The most striking case of fresh growth is in Paris. Mention of France has long elicited sighs from venture capitalists. Its rigid labour laws and hefty taxes on wealth and on stock options have meant that…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Samsung’s boss is arrested on bribery charges

IN ONE of the many interrogations Lee Jae-yong has undergone in connection with a presidential influence-peddling scandal, he said that he would surrender management control of Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant that he is running on behalf of his incapacitated father, Lee Kun-hee, “if there is anyone better than me”. He may now be forced to do so. On February 17th Mr Lee was arrested on suspicion of bribery, embezzlement, perjury, moving assets abroad illegally and concealing evidence of criminal profit, after a local court agreed to a request from a special prosecution team for a pre-trial detention.

Last month investigators accused Mr Lee of paying 43bn won ($36m) in bribes to organisations tied to Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye (who is herself under investigation by the constitutional court). The prosecution team’s first request for a pre-trial arrest warrant was rejected. But the court reversed its decision, it said today, after prosecutors put forward additional evidence. (The court denied, however, a request to arrest another Samsung executive, Park Sang-jin, on similar charges.) The move…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

France’s PSA Group may plan to buy Opel, GM’s European operation

AFTER sweeping past a significant milestone, drivers rarely slam their vehicles into reverse. Yet General Motors (GM), which last year joined Toyota and Volkswagen in an elite group that sells over 10m vehicles a year, may be on the brink of such a manoeuvre. On February 14th the American firm and PSA Group, which makes Peugeots and Citroëns, sprang a surprise by confirming that they were in talks that could lead to the French carmaker buying GM’s European operation. GM’s decision to downsize has many merits, but the advantages of getting bigger are much less clear-cut for its European counterpart.

The two carmakers say a deal for Opel (which carries the Vauxhall brand in Britain) is only a possibility. But GM’s global might is not reflected at Opel, and it is probably keen to offload a carmaker that it has owned for nearly 90 years. Opel has done little other than disappoint in the recent past. Its 6% share of the European market puts it behind seven other brands and the business has lost money for years.

GM has considered offloading Opel before. In 2009, as it struggled in bankruptcy protection in the wake of the financial…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Planet’s satellites offer customers a new world view every day

BUILT by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th. It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.

The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm. The first doves, launched five years ago, could send back pictures of just 3,000 square kilometres a day. But the satellites have followed a trajectory of improvement much closer to that seen in cell-phones—from which they get some of their components—than the established satellite industry. The latest doves can cover 2.5m square kilometres a day.

The expanded fleet of satellites will send over 3 terabytes of data a day to more than 30 receiver stations spread around the Earth. After processing to remove distortions and to locate each image, the data will be in the cloud and ready for the company’s…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Traditional media firms are enjoying a Trump bump

DONALD TRUMP calls it the “failing” New York Times in his tweets, but his presidency has breathed new life into the newspaper and other mainstream media outlets. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have all received boosts in subscriptions and page views; cable news networks, such as CNN and the Fox News Channel, are getting huge increases in viewers at a time when most other channels are losing them; and even the long-suffering stocks of newspaper companies are rallying. Since the election shares in the New York Times Co have risen by 42%, outperforming even the mighty Goldman Sachs.

Why the boost? The unprecedented nature of political events has kept American eyeballs glued to pages and screens. The pace of change, especially since the election, compels Mr Trump’s fans and foes alike to stay abreast of developments. Many do so using Twitter (see article). But…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

New models for new media

Not watching Twitter

FOR months Twitter, the micro-blogging service, has received the kind of free attention of which most companies can only dream. Politicians, corporate bosses, activists and citizens turn to the platform to catch every tweet of America’s new president, who has become the service’s de facto spokesman. “The whole world is watching Twitter,” boasted Jack Dorsey (pictured), the company’s chief executive, as he presented its results on February 9th. He has little else to brag about.

But Donald Trump has not provided the kind of boost the struggling firm really needs. It reported slowing revenue growth and a loss of $167m. User growth has been sluggish, too: it added just 2m users in that period. Facebook added 72m. The day of the results, shares in Twitter dropped by 12%. Because news outlets around the world already report on Mr Trump’s most sensational tweets, many do not feel compelled to join the platform to discover them. Others are put off by mobs of trolls and reams of misinformation.

And not even Mr Trump could change the cold, hard truth about Twitter: that it can never be…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Electric cars are set to arrive far more speedily than anticipated

THE high-pitched whirr of an electric car may not stir the soul like the bellow and growl of an internal combustion engine (ICE). But to compensate, electric motors give even the humblest cars explosive acceleration. Electric cars are similarly set for rapid forward thrust. Improving technology and tightening regulations on emissions from ICEs is about to propel electric vehicles (EVs) from a niche to the mainstream. After more than a century of reliance on fossil fuels, however, the route from petrol power to volts will be a tough one for carmakers to navigate.

The change of gear is recent. One car in a hundred sold today is powered by electricity. The proportion of EVs on the world’s roads is still well below 1%. Most forecasters had reckoned that by 2025 that would rise to around 4%. Those estimates are undergoing a big overhaul as carmakers announce huge expansions in their production of EVs. Morgan Stanley, a bank, now says that by 2025 EV sales will hit 7m a year and make up 7% of vehicles on the road. Exane BNP Paribas, another bank, reckons that it could be more like 11% (see chart). But as carmakers plan for ever more battery power, even…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Sales of green vehicles are booming in Norway

TO JUDGE by the gleaming rows of Teslas, Nissan Leafs and other electric cars parked in the snow in central Oslo, Norwegians might already have given up on the internal combustion engine. Before long they probably will. Battery-powered cars and plug-in hybrids together accounted for 29% of all new car sales last year. The 100,000th battery-powered unit sold in December.

Norway first introduced tax perks to boost the electric-car market in the 1990s. But sales only sparked in the past five years or so after slicker vehicles with better batteries appeared. Now the country’s 5m citizens constitute the most developed national market for electric cars anywhere. Christina Bu, who heads the country’s association for electric cars, expects 400,000 electric-only vehicles on the roads by 2020, and predicts 70% of new sales will be of zero-emission cars. As range increases and price falls, demand will rise faster.

Though less than 5% of the total fleet of cars in Norway are electric, the country’s transport minister calls it “realistic” to expect an end to sales of new cars powered by fossil fuels by 2025. Fiscal incentives, not an…Continue reading

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