Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

After a bite of Apple, Margrethe Vestager targets another tech giant

MARGRETHE VESTAGER’S assault on technology firms she deems to have improperly massaged down their tax bills continued this week with a tilt at Amazon. The internet retailer faces a bill of €250m ($293m) for back taxes over what the European Union’s competition commissioner considers to have been an illegal sweetheart deal with Luxembourg.

The order requiring the Grand Duchy to recover the money follows a well-publicised three-year investigation. It is the latest in a series of tax-avoidance cases brought by the European Commission against multinationals, most of them American. Last year, Ireland was ordered to recover €13bn from Apple—smashing all past records for EU corporate-tax cases.

As with Apple, the commission concluded that Amazon received illegal state aid—in the retailer’s case between 2006 and 2014—through a tax-cutting arrangement that was unavailable to its rivals. This came in the form of a ruling from Luxembourg’s tax authority,…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Facebook and the meaning of share ownership

ONE group of Facebook friends that Mark Zuckerberg recently decided were not worth hanging out with were its public shareholders, who expected to cross-examine him (via a lawyer) on September 26th in a Delaware court. At issue would have been Mr Zuckerberg’s plans to refashion the social-media firm’s share-ownership structure more in his favour.

There is not a scintilla of doubt over who controls Facebook. Not only does Mr Zuckerberg, its founder, serve as its CEO and chairman; owning 16% of its shares, he controls 60% of the voting authority through a special class of stock with ten times normal voting rights. A year ago, Mr Zuckerberg decided he would like to sell a large slug of his holdings (worth $74bn) without diluting control. The firm made a plan to distribute non-voting shares enabling him to reduce his economic interest to 3% without affecting control.

That prompted litigation. Shareholder votes can be directly meaningful on many issues, including management pay…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Rivigo is helping the Indian truck-driving industry out of a jam

Time to freshen up the model

THERE are 36 gradations in India’s archaic caste system, from the priestly to the supposedly untouchable. And then, somewhere below that, are the long-haul truck-drivers. Plying the subcontinent’s potholed highways for weeks at a time, few can settle into anything like a home life. Their marriage prospects are grim; venereal diseases and sore backs from sleeping in cramped cabs are but two occupational hazards. Despite an oversupplied national job market, the industry has struggled to attract the roughly 1m new drivers it needs each year to keep everything from Amazon packages to car parts moving. Can technology help?

To fend off shortages, most truck owners have done precisely what economists suggest, which is to increase pay. Drivers can now command nearly 40,000 rupees ($610) a month, a decent white-collar wage—and not far from double the level of trucker pay just three years ago. Rivigo, a startup based in Gurgaon, an…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

A shareholder pact is rocked by Liliane Bettencourt’s death

A face of the firm

DEATH does not end all uncertainties. News that Liliane Bettencourt, a glamorous 94-year-old Parisian heiress, died on September 20th has provoked a flurry of investor speculation over L’Oréal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company. She had held a controlling stake in the firm her father, an inventor of hair dyes, founded in 1909. Its market value has since grown to be a whisker short of €100bn ($117bn).

Her death brings few immediate consequences. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, she had been declared legally unfit to manage her concerns. That followed a scandal, made public in 2010 after her butler secretly recorded politicians, lawyers and friends as they bilked her for millions of euros. The case still haunts Nicolas Sarkozy, an ex-president. He seethed in October that opponents had stymied his return to politics by repeating allegations he profited from the “sordid Bettencourt affair” (he was cleared of charges over it in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

McDonald’s wages a food fight in India

Bakshi gives McDonald’s the shakes

IN MOST ways the McDonald’s outlet in Jangpura, a gentrifying neighbourhood in south Delhi, looks like one anywhere else, with bright displays, plastic seating and a familiar menu. But this week a disconcerting sign warns that “unpredictable” conditions have affected tomato supplies; none are available. Not bad though for a store that McDonald’s has been trying to close since September 6th. Over a third of its 400 or so outlets in India were supposed to shut their doors then—yet nearly all are still slinging McSpicy Paneers to customers.

War rages between McDonald’s India and Vikram Bakshi of Connaught Place Restaurants Limited (CPRL), who first brought the American chain to India in 1996 as a local partner in a 50-50 joint venture, starting in Delhi (along with another franchisee, Hardcastle Restaurants, which went into the southern and western states). Over the next two decades, Mr Bakshi expanded in the north…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

American entrepreneurship is flourishing, if you know where to look

It’s hard to keep them down for long

AT FIRST glance, it seems that America’s economy is losing its mojo. Many economists, most notably Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, have lamented that productivity growth seems to be anaemic when compared with earlier golden eras (see Free exchange). A gloomy chorus of business leaders has echoed what media outlets have by now turned into a mantra, that American entrepreneurship is in steady decline. Surely America’s overall competitiveness, then, is plummeting?

The answer from one influential think-tank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), is no. In its latest update to its long-running annual ranking of global economic competitiveness, published on September 27th, America rose from third place to second, ranking below only Switzerland.

This is partly…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Yandex, Russia’s biggest technology company, celebrates 20 years

ARKADY VOLOZH, the bearded co-founder of Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, bristles at his company being branded the “Google of Russia”. Far from emulating the American firm, Yandex launched in 1997, a full year before Google, he points out. More crucially, the moniker poorly describes what Yandex offers today, which is a group of products and services that includes taxis, shopping, payments, music and education. “Really we’re the Silicon Valley of Russia,” says Mikhail Parakhin, Yandex’s chief technology officer.

That may only be a slight overstatement. Yandex’s Russian presence is immense; it accounts for just over half of the search market and 61% of online advertising, and its sites attract over 60m visitors each month. Like American tech giants, it is also expanding its offline logistical capabilities, signing recent deals with Uber, a ride-hailing firm, and with Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, to build out its transportation and e-commerce…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Who’s afraid of disruption?

LAST week Schumpeter met two tech tycoons who control businesses in total worth $600bn. In both cases the mayhem around them was what you would expect if Beyoncé hit town, minus the musical talent and looks. Hotel floors were locked down by the official secret service; the corridors were crammed with lines of petitioners and in one case a Wall Street boss gatecrashed the room in order to hug his idol.

The message from both titans—you ain’t seen nothing yet—was imperious. Over the next decade, they say, conventional industries will face an onslaught from tech competitors wielding vast financial resources, new technologies and massive reserves of data. It is a view that has swept through traditional firms’ boardrooms, too, where enthusing about virtual reality and singing the praises of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, is almost obligatory. The notion of disruption, with its promise to destroy the status quo and then renew it, is the most fashionable idea in global business since the…Continue reading

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Business

Innovation Requires Market Enablement

In this age of tech industry consolidation, one has to wonder what will happen with the pace of innovation as a few large companies begin to dominate. In personal computers, the WinTel marriage continues to control the technology, while Dell, HP and Lenovo control the devices. Similarly, in smartphones, Apple and Samsung, which both design their own chips and devices, dominate the market, especially in North America.

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Online matchmaking businesses in India have many ways to woo

Arranged by algorithm

“IT WAS 2012…I was number 37,” says Ashwini, referring to the badge that was pinned on her shirt pocket. Her task was to go onto the stage and introduce herself to around 70 eligible bachelors and their parents. Families then conferred and, provided caste and religious background proved no obstacle, would approach the event’s moderator asking to meet number 37. At midday girls would wait for prospects to swing by, again with parents on either side. A brief exchange might establish the potential bride’s cooking skills or her intention to work after marriage. If the two sides hit it off, they would exchange copies of their horoscopes. Nearly 50 men lined up to meet Ashwini that day, speed-dating style. No one made the cut. She later married a colleague.

Such gatherings form an important part of the wedding industry, worth around $50bn a year, in a country where arranged marriages continue to be the norm. India has 440m…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Streaming has pushed Latin music into the mainstream

“MI GENTE” lures listeners with a mesmerising hook, a thumping beat and lyrics about breaking down barriers. A collaboration between J Balvin, a Colombian reggaeton star (pictured), and Willy William, a French producer, the latest product of this summer’s Latin craze is crooned almost entirely in Spanish. (The title means “My People”; reggaeton borrows from hip hop, reggae and rap.) The song topped the charts on Spotify, a streaming service, for weeks. “To be a crossover artist, you used to have to sing in English,” said John Reilly, Mr Balvin’s publicist. Now six of YouTube’s top ten music videos are predominantly in Spanish. In August the Billboard Hot 100, which tracks streams, sales and radio plays, sported seven Latin hits. Just five graced the chart in all of 2016.

Latin music is helping the music industry to arrest years of decline. Its growth is far outpacing that of other genres. Last year Latin America yielded just $598m out of total global recorded-music…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Behind the veil of Saudi Aramco

IF SAUDI ARAMCO is a state within a state in Saudi Arabia, then the blandly named Oil Supply Planning and Scheduling (OSPAS) is its deep state. To enter it, you pass tight security at Aramco’s suburban-style headquarters in Dhahran, in the east of the kingdom. The transition is eye-opening. Suddenly, English is the common tongue even among Saudi “Aramcons”, as its workers are known. Female employees, their faces uncovered, lead meetings of male colleagues. The crisp banter is common to engineers everywhere. A toilet break is called a “pressure-relief” exercise.

Deep within, OSPAS is even further removed from the kingdom outside. The few executives with clearance to enter call it the “nerve centre” of the world’s largest oil company. Using 100,000 sensors and data points on wells, pipelines, plants and terminals, it directs every drop of oil and cubic foot of gas that comes out of the kingdom (10% of the world’s oil supply), monitors it on giant screens as it heads to…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Ryanair cancels more than 2,000 flights over the next six weeks

Not his biggest cock-up said O’Leary

RYANAIR, an Irish airline, is known for three things: low fares, the brash way in which Michael O’Leary, its chief executive, advertises them, and its record for sticking to its flight schedules. The last of these is key to its appeal: many businessmen chose Ryanair more for its punctuality than its cheapness. And so the announcement on September 15th that it is cancelling over 2,000 flights between now and the end of October—around 2% of its capacity over the period—is more serious than it may at first seem. Ryanair’s share price fell by more than 5% in the aftermath.

The problems began in early September when Ryanair’s on-time record plunged, owing to a pilot shortage. To restore punctuality, it cancelled many flights at short notice; passengers were marooned around Europe. Up to 400,000 people booked on the 2,000 scrapped flights risk missing business trips and holidays.

Mr O’Leary says the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

What if large tech firms were regulated like sewage companies?

THREE-QUARTERS of Americans admit that they search the web, send e-mails and check their social-media accounts in the bathroom. That is not the only connection between tech and plumbing. The water and sewage industry offers clues to the vexed question of how to regulate the Silicon Valley “platform” firms, such as Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook. The implications are mildly terrifying for the companies, so any tech tycoons reading this column might want to secure a spare pair of trousers.

In America and in Europe a consensus is emerging that big tech firms must be tamed. Their dominance of services such as search and social media gives them huge economic and political clout. The $3trn total market value of America’s five biggest tech firms (Apple and Microsoft are the other two) suggests that investors believe they are among the most powerful firms in history, up there with the East India Company and Standard Oil.

Trustbusters in need of instant gratification want to break…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Boeing takes off on a flight of hypocrisy against Bombardier

“WE WON’T do business with a company that is busy trying to sue us.” So said an uncharacteristically stern Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, alongside his British counterpart, Theresa May, in Ottawa on September 18th. The two had teamed up to take on Boeing. The giant American aeroplane-maker is pressing Donald Trump’s administration to impose duties on commercial jets made by Canada’s Bombardier. Boeing says its smaller rival is using Canadian government subsidies to sell aircraft to Delta, an American carrier, at below cost price.

Few in either country question that Bombardier has had vital financial support from the Canadian and British governments since 2005 for its small jetliner, the C-Series. As the plane’s development costs soared, to $5.4bn, Bombardier struggled to find buyers for it; financial trouble followed. An estimated C$4bn ($3.4bn) in state support, including C$2.8bn in 2015, stopped a nosedive. It was not until 2016 that the aircraft’s future seemed…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Big technology firms are newly in the hot seat at home

Jane Doe and friend

ANTITRUST, privacy, hate speech—whenever the European Union tries to rein in tech giants, Americans accuse it of protectionism. That argument has always been simplistic, but now it is harder to make; scarcely a week passes in Washington when companies like Apple and Google are not in politicians’ crosshairs.

The latest target is Facebook. Earlier this month the firm revealed that 470 accounts that appeared to be controlled from Russia had bought advertisements worth a total of $100,000 on the social network between June 2015 and May 2017. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, said they aimed at “amplifying divisive social and political messages”.

This was the first time Facebook had acknowledged that Russia may have used the social network, leading the team of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible links between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, to issue a…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Toys “R” Us files for bankruptcy

ASK young American parents about Toys “R” Us and they are likely to be able to sing a jingle from their childhood: “I don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys ‘R’ Us kid”. For children of the 1980s, Toys “R” Us was a mecca at the strip mall, an awe-inspiring array of dolls, trucks, board games, bikes, art supplies and much more. Many of them noticed when on September 18th, the chain filed for bankruptcy.

Dave Brandon, the company’s chief executive, emphasised that shops would carry on operating as usual and claimed that the best era of Toys “R” Us was still to come. “These are the right steps to ensure that the iconic Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us brands live on for many generations,” he declared. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy, many analysts agree, is a sensible way to deal with the chain’s $5bn of long-term debt. So Toys “R” Us is not dead. But its future is hardly certain.

The company’s tale in many…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Global LNG giants turn to poor countries for new markets

Bringing rivers of the liquefied stuff

WHEN it comes to liquefied natural gas (LNG), the supermajors have supersized appetites. The likes of Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and BP make discoveries described as “elephants”; their cost overruns alone can run into the tens of billions of dollars; and projects take the best part of a decade to complete. For years, the industry has demanded fixed, long-term contracts from their customers to justify the size of these megaprojects.

The producers also have pretty big problems. They are in the midst of a vast expansion in Australia and elsewhere just as the shale revolution and the start of American LNG exports has brought an unexpected burst of gas onto markets, clobbering prices for the foreseeable future and forcing producers into concessions. Demand in rich countries such as Japan and much of western Europe appears to be in long-term decline.

At least one big customer, China, is making life easier….Continue reading

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