Ford has a clear plan to fix its present failings

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

Hackett plays it safe

LIKE any mechanic with a misfiring car, Ford’s new boss has had his head under the bonnet working out what needs attention. Jim Hackett emerged on October 3rd with a checklist of repairs to present to investors, who have been awaiting his diagnosis since he took over in May. The list is short but the engineering is complicated: restore Ford’s competitiveness while preparing for a future of electric vehicles (EVs), self-driving cars and transport services. But those expecting a radical overhaul were probably disappointed.

Mr Hackett’s predecessor, Mark Fields, was shown the door by Bill Ford, the firm’s chairman, for failing to make a persuasive case that he was reinventing Ford as a mobility firm at the forefront of automotive technology. Despite acknowledging to investors that he and Mr Ford agreed that his new job was “about the future not the past”, Mr Hackett was clearest about how to make Ford fit for the...Continue reading


The bosses of two famous French firms struggle to keep customers

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

You see her after the third glass

ALEXANDRE RICARD wants to talk boxing. He runs Pernod Ricard, a firm that sells Chivas whisky and Absolut vodka, among other drinks. Formed by his grandfather in 1975, with roots in a Pernod distiller set up in 1805, it is the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits, with a market capitalisation of €32bn ($37bn). He brags that Floyd Mayweather, an American pugilist with 19m Instagram followers, recently endorsed one of the company’s tequila brands. Such a “key influencer” on a digital channel “gives us speed and scale”, says Mr Ricard.

Celebrity endorsements are an old ploy: French singers, actors and racing drivers used to push Pernod Ricard’s liquor. But with 90% of sales in markets outside of France, punchier efforts are needed. Two years ago the firm commissioned a global study of boozing habits, which totted up all “moments of consumption” for drinkers, identifying 20 important ones in...Continue reading


Dara Khosrowshahi is off to a strong start but there are miles to go

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54


HERE’S the job spec. Unite a deeply divided board. Keep a strong-willed founder under control. Immediately recruit a new chief financial officer. Negotiate with angry local regulators intent on closing down the business in their city. Convince courts that the company does not have to provide its contract workers with the benefits due to full-time employees. Change a cut-throat culture without curbing employees’ drive. On top of all this, deal not only with an intellectual-property (IP) lawsuit that could cost the firm nearly $2bn, but also cope with a criminal investigation by the FBI that could see some managers end up in prison.

No one sane, you would think, would even apply for such misery. But after some hesitation Dara Khosrowshahi (pronounced cause-ro-SHAH-hee), until recently the chief executive of Expedia, an online travel agency, returned the headhunter’s call. Now he is boss of Uber, which, at $68bn, is the world’s most highly valued privately-held company. Can he...Continue reading


A Chinese carmaker agrees to buy a Danish investment bank

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

A COMPANY that moves up the value chain from refrigerator parts to cars is impressive but not that surprising. A car company that buys an investment bank is audacious. But Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a conglomerate based in Hangzhou, China, did not become big by paring its ambitions. Having successfully made the fridge-parts-to-cars transition at home, it went global in 2010. It acquired Volvo, a Swedish carmaker, from Ford of America. Now Geely is back in Scandinavia for another acquisition. This time it is buying one of Denmark’s biggest banks.

Saxo Bank announced on October 2nd that Geely would acquire 51.5% of its shares. It will spend over $800m on the deal, which still requires regulatory approval. Sampo Group, a Finnish insurance company, will acquire 19.9% of Saxo shares for €265m ($311m), and Kim Fournais, Saxo’s co-founder and chief executive, will retain 25.7%. The sellers are Sinar Mas, an Indonesian conglomerate, and TPG, an American private-equity firm.

Saxo was an early adopter of online securities trading and still invests heavily in financial technology. It makes a substantial portion of its profits from selling trading platforms to other firms. Daniel Donghui Li, Geely’s chief financial officer, says Geely hopes to expand Saxo’s technologies into Asia. Besides facilitating this expansion, Geely does not intend to change how...Continue reading


A new study details the wealth hidden in tax havens

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

SWITZERLAND, which developed cross-border wealth-management in the 1920s, was once in a league of its own as a tax haven. Since the 1980s, however, tax-dodgers have been spoilt for choice: they can hide assets anywhere from the Bahamas to Hong Kong. The percentage of global wealth held offshore has increased dramatically. But it has been hard to say how much that is, and who owns it.

Few offshore centres used to disclose such data. But in 2016 many authorised the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) to make banking statistics publicly available. Using these data, a new study by Annette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman, three economists, concludes that tax havens hoard wealth equivalent to about 10% of global GDP. This average masks big variations. Russian assets worth 50% of GDP are held offshore; countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates climb into the 60-70% range. Britain and continental Europe come in at 15%, but Scandinavia at only a few per cent.

One conclusion is that high tax rates, like those in Denmark or Sweden, do not drive people offshore. Rather, higher offshore wealth is correlated with factors such as political and economic instability and an abundance of natural resources.

Proximity to Switzerland also remains a good indicator. But assets held there have declined since the financial...Continue reading


Dirt-cheap mobile data is a thrill for Indian consumers

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

A swami gets the religion

THE security guards at the foot of Antilia, a 27-floor private residence in Mumbai, while away the days just as all bored Indians have been doing in recent months—watching movies on their phone. Using a mobile network to stream endless Bollywood epics would until recently have been an unthinkable luxury, even in the rich world. In India it now costs less than a cup of street-side chai.

Thank the tycoon lording it in the skyscraper’s upper reaches. As boss of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, has spent more than $25bn on building Jio, a state-of-the-art mobile-telecoms network. The delight of the guards at Antilia, and of the roughly 130m Indians who have signed up to the service since it launched in September 2016, is matched only by the misery of Mr Ambani’s rivals.

Jio’s rise is nothing short of spectacular. It took less than a year for it to be delivering more data than any other mobile...Continue reading


How protectionism sank America’s entire merchant fleet

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

IN APRIL 1956 the world’s first container ship—the Ideal X—set sail from New Jersey. A year later in Seattle the world’s first commercially successful airliner, Boeing’s 707, made its maiden flight. Both developments slashed the cost of moving cargo and people. Boeing still makes half the world’s airliners. But America’s shipping fleet, 17% of the global total in 1960, accounts for just 0.4% today.

Blame a 1920 law known as the Jones Act, which decrees that trade between domestic ports be carried by American-flagged and -built ships, at least 75% owned and crewed by American citizens. After Hurricane Irma, a shortage of Jones-Act ships led President Donald Trump on September 28th to waive the rules for ten days to resupply Puerto Rico. This fuelled calls to repeal the law completely.

Like most forms of protectionism, the Jones Act hits consumers hard. A lack of foreign competition drives up the cost of coastal transport....Continue reading


Taxing fat and subsidising healthy eating widens inequality

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

IN RICH countries, people’s diets are getting worse and they are getting fatter. Hence the increasing popularity of a “fat tax”, to make unhealthy food cost more. Since Hungary led the charge in 2011 with a “chip tax” on fatty and sugary foods, other countries have followed. Britain is to join a long list next year.

Since the poor both spend a higher proportion of their income on food and tend to eat less healthily, they are the main targets of such taxes. In France, for instance, adult obesity is seen in over 20% of households with monthly incomes under €1,500 ($1,765) compared with less than 10% of those who earn over €3,000.

Punishing consumers, however, is politically painful. So “thin subsidies” have been gaining ground. But data on the impact of such policies are scarce. A recent study on the distributional impacts of fat taxes and thin subsidies from researchers at the universities of Oklahoma and Grenoble suggests policymakers should be...Continue reading


Unequal at work, men and women are even more so in retirement

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 16:54

“THE retirement-savings crisis is a women’s crisis,” says Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder of Ellevest, a financial-advice firm for women in America. When it comes to retirement income, women are far worse-off than men. The gender pension-gap may be less well-known than the gender pay-gap, but it is in fact far larger.

Among those retired in the EU, women on average receive 39% less in pension income—from state and workplace pensions—than men do (see chart). This puts women at greater risk of old-age poverty. The European Institute for Gender Equality, a think-tank, warned in a study in 2015 that it also makes them more likely to stay with abusive partners. Reforms to European pensions, tying benefits even closer to individual contributions and thus income, mean the gap may widen further.

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Manias, panics and Initial Coin Offerings

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 10:48

EVERY market mania reaches a point when pitches to would-be investors enter the realm of the surreal. So it goes for “initial coin offerings”, or ICOs. A new one by a firm called POW invites Facebook users to claim tokens for nothing; when they later become convertible into other tokens, the first to take advantage of the offer could “become worth $124bn…making them the richest person on Earth”, the blurb says. Not a bad return for no money invested and no risk borne. However bizarre, bubbles are hard to resist: no one wants to be the only one of their friends left out. They can also be financially ruinous. But gambling on a craze, even a highly dubious one, can be about more than blind greed.

The ICO boom is an outgrowth of the emerging, occasionally inscrutable world of cryptocurrencies. These are a form of money (bitcoin and ether are examples) used in transactions which are recorded on a distributed public ledger called a blockchain. An ICO is a scheme to raise funds for an...Continue reading


After a bite of Apple, Margrethe Vestager targets the e-commerce giant

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 17:09

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


Concerns over charges for checked bags in America miss the point

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 13:32

FEES for checked luggage are working exactly as intended. That is the main thrust of a new report from America’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the recent rise of charges for checking a bag onto a plane when flying. But not everyone is interpreting the study in such a positive light.

Critics are crying foul because these fees cost some passengers more money. Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator who requested the study and sits on the committee that oversees the airline industry, has described the charges as a “last-minute shakedown”. William McGee of Consumer Reports, a non-profit organisation that reviews products, told USA Today that “consumers should be able to shop for airline seats without being nickel-and-dimed.”

Media outlets are also making the same point. When the Associated Press Continue reading


Monarch Airlines goes into administration

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 20:18

JUST before dawn on October 2nd, passengers booked to fly on Monarch Airlines began to receive texts informing them that their flights had been cancelled. This was the first news that Britain’s fifth-biggest airline had ceased trading and is now in administration.

It is the country’s biggest airline ever to collapse. Monarch had been in last-ditch talks with the Civil Aviation Authority, a regulator, to renew its licence to sell package holidays, but failed to reach a deal. About 110,000 passengers have been left stranded, although the government has hired over 30 planes, in effect creating another airline, to bring holiday-makers back over the next two weeks. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, is calling it the “biggest ever peacetime repatriation”. A further 860,000 have lost future bookings, and with it weddings, vacations and more, although many should be able to reclaim some of their costs. Monarch also employs about 2,100 people, all now...Continue reading


Facebook and the meaning of share ownership

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 12:18

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


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

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 12:18

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


A shareholder pact is rocked by Liliane Bettencourt’s death

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 12:03

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


Venture capitalists with daughters are more successful

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 12:03

RICHARD NESBITT, a former chief operating officer at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, has long been an evangelist for women in business. In “Results at the Top”, a book he wrote with Barbara Annis, he describes his efforts to convince men to promote women. When speaking to bosses, he stresses data showing that companies with more senior women are more successful. But he has noticed that men with daughters tend to be more receptive to his message. At least for venture-capital (VC) firms, recent research confirms this observation, as well as the assertion that gender diversity boosts performance.

Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang at Harvard University wanted to determine whether VC firms with more women managers do better. Answering this question is tricky—firms that hire more women may have other characteristics that lead to success. VC-investing remains a predominantly male activity. In the authors’ sample of 988 VC funds in 301 firms, around 8% of new hires were women. Very few firms...Continue reading


The Bank of Japan sticks to its guns

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 12:03

SEVENTH time lucky? Minutes of the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) policy meeting in July, published on September 26th, showed that the central bank had, for the sixth time since 2013, pushed back the date at which it expected prices to meet its 2% inflation target—to the fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Four-and-a-half years since Haruhiko Kuroda took office as governor and embarked on an unprecedented experiment in quantitative easing (QE), the bank is still far from its goal. It has swept up 40% of Japanese government bonds and a whopping 71% of exchange-traded funds. The bank’s balance-sheet has tripled. It is now roughly the size of the American Federal Reserve’s.

Yet, despite his apparent failure, and despite a snap general election, Mr Kuroda may yet stay for another five years when his term runs out next April. If not, most of his likely successors are signed up to the same reflationary policy. At least one member of the bank’s board gave warning at its...Continue reading


Three trade cases facing the Trump administration spell trouble

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 11:48

Ruinously competitive

IN 1845 Frédéric Bastiat, a French economist, wrote an open letter to his national parliament, pleading for help on behalf of makers of candles and other forms of lighting. The French market was being flooded with cheap light, he complained. Action was necessary: a law closing all windows, shutters and curtains. Only that would offer protection against the source of this “ruinous competition”, the sun.

Three similar pleas are facing the administration of President Donald Trump. But these are not parodies. On September 22nd the United States International Trade Commission paved the way for import restrictions on solar panels, ruling that imports had injured American cell manufacturers. On September 26th the Department of Commerce pencilled in tariffs of 220% on airliners made by Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer. A third decision on washing machines is due by October 5th.

This cluster of cases represents around $15bn of...Continue reading


Once a leader in virtual currencies, China turns against them

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 11:48

BITCOIN and China always made odd bedfellows. Devotees of bitcoin love its independence from central authorities; in China the central authorities love their power. That they would accept a cryptocurrency that weakened their control over something as fundamental as the management of money seemed unlikely. Yet China had become the world’s biggest bitcoin market, dominating both its trading and computer-powered “mining”.

It was not meant to be. Bitcoin’s surprising success in China appears to be nearing its end. A series of bans announced over the past month have made clear that bitcoin and all fellow travellers, from ethereum to litecoin, have little place within its borders. Some hope that the bans are temporary. The government has, after all, declared an ambition to make China a leader in the blockchain technology that is integral to bitcoin. But its seems more likely that officials will tighten their grip on China’s remaining crypto-coin...Continue reading