Posts in category Business


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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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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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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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Why the decline in the number of listed American firms matters

LAST month Schumpeter attended an event at the New York Stock Exchange held in honour of Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, a room-sharing website that private investors value at $31bn. Glittering tables were laid out not far from where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. The well-heeled members of the Economic Club of New York watched as Thomas Farley, the NYSE’s president, hailed Airbnb as an exemplar of American enterprise. Mr Chesky recounted his journey from sleeping on couches in San Francisco to being a billionaire. His mum, a former social worker, looked on. Only one thing was missing. When Mr Chesky was asked if he would list Airbnb on the NYSE, he hesitated. He said there was no pressing need.

Airbnb is not alone. A big trend in American business is the collapse in the number of listed companies. There were 7,322 in 1996; today there are 3,671. It is important not to confuse this with a shrinking of the stockmarket: the value of listed firms has risen from 105% of GDP in 1996 to 136% now. But a smaller number of older, bigger firms dominate bourses. The average listed firm has a lifespan of 18 years, up from 12 years two decades ago, and is worth four times…Continue reading

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Trends in the air-freight business

WHEN people think of air travel they picture planes full of passengers. But air cargo is as vital—perhaps more—to the global economy. Only 1% of exports by volume go in aircraft but because they tend to be the most expensive goods, they account for 35% of global trade by value. Nearly everyone has used products delivered by aircraft, from vaccinations in poor countries to smartphones in rich ones.

Cargo airlines such as FedEx Express and Emirates Skycargo have had a difficult few years. Global trade growth has stalled, and along with it demand for air freight. Inanimate air cargo mostly rides in the same planes as the live sort; when rising passenger demand encouraged airlines to buy more planes, the additional cargo capacity flooded the industry, causing air-freight prices to slide. Industry revenues have fallen from a peak of $67bn in 2011 to $50bn now, according to IATA, a trade group. Yet the mood at the World Air Cargo Symposium in March in Abu Dhabi was cautiously optimistic. For the first time since the global financial crisis in 2008, demand for air freight has started to expand quickly again.

The industry-by-industry variations within this overall…Continue reading

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Cloudification will mean upheaval in telecoms

IN THE computing clouds, startups can set up new servers or acquire data storage with only a credit card and a few clicks of a mouse. Now imagine a world in which they could as quickly weave their own wireless network, perhaps to give users of a fleet of self-driving cars more bandwidth or to connect wireless sensors.

As improbable as it sounds, this is the logical endpoint of a development that is picking up speed in the telecoms world. Networks are becoming as flexible as computing clouds: they are being turned into software and can be dialled up and down as needed. Such “cloudification”, as it is known, will probably create as much upheaval in the telecoms industry as it has done in information technology (IT).

IT and telecoms differ in important respects. One is largely unregulated, the other overseen closely by government. Computing capacity is theoretically unlimited, unlike radio spectrum, which is hard to use efficiently. And telecoms networks are more deeply linked to the physical world. “You cannot turn radio towers into software,” says Bengt Nordstrom of Northstream, a consultancy.

The data centres of big cloud-computing providers are packed…Continue reading

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Google is accused of underpaying women

GOOGLE has made a fortune by helping people dig up whatever information they seek. But in a court hearing on April 7th, America’s Department of Labour (DoL) accused the company behind the profitable search engine of burying the fact that it pays its female employees less than their male counterparts. The accusation of lower compensation for women forms part of a lawsuit by the DoL, which has asked Google to turn over detailed information on pay. The department has not released data to back its assertion, and Google denies the allegation.

Whatever the outcome in court, the government’s recriminations risk marring Google’s image. Just three days earlier it had taken to Twitter to boast that it had “closed the gender pay gap globally”. That claim is now under suspicion. It is true that at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, several women hold high positions, including Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer, and Susan Wojcicki, who runs YouTube, an online-video business. But the important question is not only whether a few women get promoted but also how those in the middle and lower ranks fare.

What figures there are paint a depressing picture about the…Continue reading

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How Germany’s Otto uses artificial intelligence

A GLIMPSE into the future of retailing is available in a smallish office in Hamburg. From there, Otto, a German e-commerce merchant, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve its activities. The firm is already deploying the technology to make decisions at a scale, speed and accuracy that surpass the capabilities of its human employees.

Big data and “machine learning” have been used in retailing for years, notably by Amazon, an e-commerce giant. The idea is to collect and analyse quantities of information to understand consumer tastes, recommend products to people and personalise websites for customers. Otto’s work stands out because it is already automating business decisions that go beyond customer management. The most important is trying to lower returns of products, which cost the firm millions of euros a year.

Its conventional data analysis showed that customers were less likely to return merchandise if it arrived within two days. Anything longer spelled trouble: a customer might spot the product in a shop for one euro less and buy it, forcing Otto to forgo the sale and eat the shipping costs.

But customers also dislike multiple…Continue reading

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China’s HNA Group goes on a global shopping spree

Chen keeps spending

NOW it is a conglomerate with more than $100bn-worth of assets around the world. But HNA Group started life as a small local airline. Chen Feng, the Chinese company’s founder, led a coalition including private investors and the government of Hainan, a southern province, to launch Hainan Airlines in 1993.

Despite some help from the local government, the upstart firm was an outsider then. The central government chose three big state-run airlines to receive favoured landing slots, lavish subsidies and other advantages. The scrappy Mr Chen was undeterred. With $25m in early funding from George Soros, an American billionaire, he carved out a profitable niche.

Since then, HNA has grown quickly, mainly through acquisitions. It reported revenues of 600bn yuan ($90bn) last year. In 2016 it acquired a 25% stake in America’s Hilton Worldwide for $6.5bn and paid $10bn for the aircraft-leasing division of CIT Group, a New York-based financial firm. This week it bid nearly $1bn for Singapore’s CWT, a logistics company.

Most deals have been in industries adjacent to its core business, such as travel, tourism and logistics….Continue reading

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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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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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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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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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