THE ECONOMIST

China’s largest online publisher enchants investors and readers alike

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

WeChat, we read

WHENEVER Xu Jie goes to the cinema to watch mystery and detective films, she leaves disappointed: to help stamp out superstition, China’s censors excise ghosts and zombies from the screens. So for her fill of phantoms, she turns to the flourishing online-literature scene. There, authors are allowed to take liberties from which most of China’s state-owned publishing houses would recoil. Homophones stand in for forbidden words. Danmei, a new online class of homoerotic story, is especially popular among young women. Readers can choose from over 200 established genres such as xianxia, a fantasy world of deities and martial arts.

The corporate prince of this virtual realm is China Literature, a spin-off from Tencent, a gaming and social-media giant. The four-year-old online publisher listed on Hong Kong’s stock exchange on November 8th, raising just over $1bn. The offering was a huge success; at...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

In the Trump era, big business is becoming more political

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

AT THE start of Donald Trump’s presidency bosses rushed onto his business councils, hoping to influence policies in their favour. Their ardour has cooled. When Mr Trump banned travel from Muslim-majority countries, withdrew from the Paris agreement on climate change and equivocated on racist protesters in Charlottesville, to name but a few occasions, chief executives roared their protest.

“Un-American,” declared Reed Hastings, Netflix’s chief executive, of the immigration ban. Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, told a reporter, “I am here because I am a refugee” as he joined protesters against the ban at San Francisco’s airport. “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” wrote Kenneth Frazier, boss of Merck, a pharma giant, after Charlottesville. “Isolate those who try to separate us,” added Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. Other executives have joined lawsuits to overturn Mr Trump’s policies and condemned his actions in memos to...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Two more illustrious Japanese firms admit to falsifying quality data

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

AKIO MORITA, co-founder of Sony, liked to recall his first trip to Germany in 1953, when a waiter stuck a small paper parasol in his ice-cream and sneered: “This is from your country.” Like many of his post-war compatriots, Mr Morita was ashamed that Japan was known for shoddy goods. The fierce drive to reverse that reputation resulted in the Deming Prize, a quality-control award named after an American business guru so revered in Japan that he received a medal from the emperor for contributing to its industrial rebirth. All that hard work is under threat.

Toray Industries, a textiles and chemicals giant, is the latest pillar of corporate Japan to admit to quality problems. This week a subsidiary said it had faked inspections on reinforcement cords used to strengthen car tyres. Sadayuki Sakakibara, a former president of Toray, said he was “ashamed” and apologised on behalf of Keidanren, the powerful business lobby he now heads. On November 23rd, Mitsubishi Materials sheepishly confessed (during a public holiday) that its subsidiaries had falsified data, on aluminium and other products used in aircraft and cars, given to customers in Japan, America, China and Taiwan. Those customers include Japan’s air force, earning a rebuke from Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister.

Kobe Steel, which was founded in 1905, recently revealed that it had sold...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

What cheese can tell you about international barriers to trade

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

Slicely does it

BEN SKAILES, a British cheesemaker, is busy as Christmas ripens demand for his Stilton. Foreigners make up a third of demand for his dairy, Cropwell Bishop Creamery. This exporting achievement is not to be sniffed at when one considers the barriers to the cheese trade.

Some are natural. Perishable food goes better with wine than long journeys. At least Mr Skailes’s Stilton can survive the three-week trip to America. (His is best eaten within 16 weeks.) Softer cheeses struggle, giving American producers an advantage.

Other hurdles are man-made. Tariffs and quotas are supposed to support domestic dairy industries, and are more onerous than in other sectors. The European Union protects its dairy industry with a 34% average duty, compared with an overall average of 5%. In America it is 17%, compared with 3.5%. Stilton escapes American quotas, but full “loaves” are taxed at a 12.8% rate, or 17% if they arrive sliced. (Unprocessed...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

A flattening yield curve argues against higher interest rates

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

CENTRAL bankers may control short-term interest rates, but long-term ones are mostly free to wander. They do not always behave. When Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, was raising short rates in 2005, he described a simultaneous decline in long rates as a “conundrum”. His successor-to-be, Ben Bernanke, blamed foreign investments in American assets because of a “global saving glut”.

Janet Yellen, today’s (outgoing) Fed chair, faces a similar puzzle. Ms Yellen’s Fed has raised rates twice this year, and will probably make it three times in December. In October the Fed began to reverse quantitative easing (QE), purchases of financial assets with newly created money. Despite all this monetary tightening, yields on ten-year Treasury bonds have fallen from around 2.5% at the start of 2017 to about 2.3% today. As a result, the “yield curve” is flattening. The difference between ten-year and two-year interest rates is at its lowest since November 2007 (see chart).

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Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

What if the unwashed masses got to vote on companies’ strategies?

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

ANGLO-SAXON capitalism has had a bad decade. It is accused of stoking inequality and financial instability. A relentless pursuit of shareholder value has led big firms to act in ways that often seem to make the world a worse place. Aeroplane seats get smaller, energy firms pollute the air, multinationals outsource jobs and Silicon Valley firms avoid tax. Some people think that governments should exert more control over private enterprise. But what if the answer to a deficit of corporate legitimacy was to give shareholders even more—not less—power?

That is the intriguing possibility raised by a new paper by Oliver Hart of Harvard University and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago. Their argument has two parts. First, the concept of shareholder capitalism should be expanded, so that firms seek to maximise shareholders’ welfare, not just their wealth. Second, technology might allow firms to make a deeper effort to discover what their true owners want. Over 100m Americans invest...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

India’s new bankruptcy code takes aim at delinquent tycoons

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

A SMOOTH bankruptcy process is akin to reincarnation: a company at death’s door gets to shuffle off its old debts, often gain new owners, and start a new life. Might the idea catch on in India? A first wave of cadaverous firms are seeking rebirth under a bankruptcy code adopted in December 2016. In a hopeful development, tycoons once able to hold on to “their” businesses even as banks got stiffed seem likely to be forced to cede control.

India badly needs a fresh approach to insolvent businesses. Its banks’ balance-sheets sag under 8.4trn rupees ($130bn) of loans that will probably not be repaid—over 10% of their outstanding loans. But foreclosure is fiddly: it currently takes over four years to process an insolvency, and recovery rates are a lousy 26%. Partly as a result, bankers have often turned a blind eye to firms they ought to have foreclosed on.

This is bad for the banks and worse for the economy, which has slowed markedly, in part as credit to companies has dried up. The problem festered for years, not...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Brazil puts its state development bank on a diet

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

Lula spots an Anglo-Saxon

IN 2009, as Brazil was buffeted by the global financial crisis, its president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was seething. The mess, he complained, was the fault of “blue-eyed white people, who previously seemed to know everything, and now demonstrate they know nothing at all”. For him the crisis was a repudiation of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and a vindication of state capitalism. Like many countries, Brazil cut interest rates and increased spending. Unlike many other governments, however, Brazil’s used its state development bank, BNDES, to funnel subsidised credit to Brazil’s largest companies. Thanks to cheap loans from the Treasury, the bank doubled its lending, which reached a peak of 4.3% of GDP in 2010. For most loans the interest rates were half the level of Selic, the central bank’s benchmark.

The plan worked, for a while. Brazil emerged from the crisis relatively unscathed: after a short recession in 2009 the economy...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

A regulatory tempest lashes China’s markets

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:56

IT IS is the kind of company that for years was a safe bet for investors. China City Construction is big, government-owned and focused on building basic infrastructure such as sewers. But the bet, it turns out, was not so safe after all. In November China City missed interest payments on three separate bonds, after failing to refinance its hefty debts. It is one of a growing number of victims of the government’s clean-up of the financial system, or what is known in China as the “regulatory storm”.

The storm has been gathering strength for the better part of a year but its intensity over the past couple of weeks has caught many off-guard. The government wasted little time after an important Communist party meeting in October before taking on some of the riskier parts of the financial system. As a result, China’s risk-free interest rate—ie, the yield on government bonds— has shot up. Overall, it has risen by a percentage point since the start of 2017.

For firms, even those closely tied to the state, the rise in borrowing costs has been even steeper. The yield on ten-year bonds issued by China Development Bank, a “policy bank” that finances state projects at home and abroad, has soared to nearly 5%, the highest in three years (see chart).

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Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

American Airlines risks 15,000 flight cancellations after a rostering mishap

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 16:13

IT IS a challenge for many organisations when too many employees request time off around the Christmas period. But it is a headache for a lot more than just company staff when this happens at airlines. In September, Ryanair had to announce the cancellation of more than 20,000 flights after it messed up its system for allocating pilots’ leave. Due to regulatory changes, the airline changed its holiday schedule from the calendar year to April to December, and then persuaded pilots to take fewer days off during the peak travel season in the summer. The result was that far too many pilots requested time off between September to December, forcing the airline to scrap 20,000 flights and angering hundreds of thousands of customers who had booked tickets.

A one-time goof? Not quite. On November 29th, a similar embarrassment struck American...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

How to spot the next crisis

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 15:44

WHILE the world of geopolitics looks as risky as ever, the markets seem to go on their sweet way, recording new highs for equity indices. In large part, of course, this is down to signs of an improving global economy and sense that politics doesn't really matter, despite the tweets of President Trump (defending Vladimir Putin and attacking Theresa May is a first for American diplomacy).

Where might trouble first emerge? The most likely venue is the corporate bond market. This has changed a lot over the last 10 years. As late as 2008, more than 80% of non-financial corporate bond issuance was rated A or above, according to Torsten Slok of Deutsche Bank; in the last five years, the proportion has been consistently under 60%. That means the average corporate bond is riskier than before. At the same time, the reforms that followed the crash of 2008 mean that banks have to hold more capital (quite rightly). But this also means they are less willing to devote capital to market-making; as a result, the bond market is less liquid than before....Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Why scan-reading artificial intelligence is bad news for radiologists

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 19:47

THE better artificial intelligence gets, the greater the popular concern that smart machines will soon usher in a labour-market catastrophe. In Chandler, Arizona, Americans can at this moment hail a ride from a car without a human at the wheel. Web users can read high-quality, instant translations of foreign-language newspapers—no professional translation service needed. And developers of machine-learning technologies are moving rapidly to apply their tools across a vast array of medical tasks.

Despite this, economists, with rare exceptions, are relatively sanguine about the possible labour-market effects of AI. Technological change always raises fears of mass unemployment, after all, and yet there are more people working worldwide than ever. Count me among those who reckon this approach is a bit too dismissive of the threat. On the one hand, while the very broad story of technological progress over the past two centuries has been one in which employment has grown massively, across...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Unilever dodges the Brexit crossfire

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 19:11

IN 1929 the Lever Brothers, a British soapmaker, merged with Margarine Unie, a Dutch margarine manufacturer, to form Unilever. The company has an annual turnover of over €50bn ($59bn), and a portfolio of brands that is recognisable worldwide, from its Flora spread to its Persil detergent. It has retained dual nationality for nearly 90 years, with holding companies and share listings in both Britain and the Netherlands.

Now Unilever says that for the sake of its business, it needs to pick a side. But it is hesitating. On November 28th, ahead of its annual investor meeting, the board provided an update on an ongoing review of its corporate structure. Unifying the company’s share structure, it said, would offer “strategic flexibility” and be in the best interests of both the company and its shareholders—but the announcement left unanswered whether the firm’s new headquarters would be in London or Rotterdam. Paul Polman, its Dutch chief executive, told the Financial Times that he was recommending that the decision be...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Germans get little in reward for booking their flights early

Mon, 11/27/2017 - 17:57

HOW far in advance should you book a flight to get the best price? That is a question that many travellers agonise about. Yet people around the world do not respond in the same way to the incentives they are given.

New data from Concur, a travel-software firm, compared flight-booking trends from five countries. Their researchers found that the penalty for booking at the last minute is by far the greatest in America. For domestic flights in America, tickets booked fewer than eight days in advance of travel tended to cost 39% more last year than those purchased at least 15 days ahead of time. The equivalent figure for France was 27%, 19% for Canada and 16% for Germany. In Britain (where there are comparatively few domestic flights), waiting to buy a ticket until the final eight days actually saved travellers an average of 3%.

Economists, then, would expect Americans to be the most careful about booking flights ahead of time, and German and British people to be the most lax. But this is not the case. In the average month...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Google can no longer count on political goodwill at home

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

“WE USED to be so dismissed,” says Jeremy Stoppelman, the boss of Yelp, an online-review site which has waged a six-year-long battle against Google over how the online giant ranks its search results. Now American regulators are taking concerns about Google more seriously. On November 13th, Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney-general, launched an investigation into the search giant to determine whether it had violated the state’s antitrust and consumer-protection laws. Other entrepreneurs, too, congratulate Mr Stoppelman for speaking out about Google; they would not have done so before.

Until then it had been chiefly in Europe where Google had trouble. In June the European Commission announced a record-breaking €2.4bn ($2.7bn) fine against it for anticompetitive behaviour, concluding it had suppressed online-shopping results from rivals in its search results. Other investigations into Google’s behaviour in European countries are ongoing. America has taken a more benign view of its...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Japan is embracing nursing-care robots

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

AT SHINTOMI nursing home in Tokyo, men and women sit in a circle following exercise instructions before singing along to a famous children’s song, “Yuyake Koyake” (“The Glowing Sunset”). They shout out and clap enthusiastically even though the activities are being led, not by a human fitness guru, but by Pepper, a big-eyed humanoid robot made by SoftBank, a telecoms and internet giant.

Japan leads the world in advanced robotics. Many of its firms see great potential in “carerobos” that look after the elderly. Over a quarter of the population is over 65, the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. Care workers are in desperately short supply, and many Japanese have a cultural affinity with robots.

For now the market is small. Although the government expects it will more than triple between 2015 and 2020, to ¥54.3bn ($480m), that is a long way below the revenues from industrial and service robots. One big reason for that is expense; few individuals can afford their own robots. Private firms partly rely...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Australia is the new frontier for battery minerals

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

Recession proofer

FORGET the “resource curse”. Australia is blessed with the stuff. For more than a quarter of a century it has not had a recession, thanks largely to Chinese demand for its raw materials. It is only a few years since the end of one such China-led boom, in base metals such as iron ore. A new speculative flurry has started in minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel to feed another China-related craze—making batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

Ken Brinsden, an Australian mining engineer, says he pinches himself over these remarkable turns of fortune. Until 2015 he was a boss at Atlas Iron, which shipped low-grade iron ore to China. In 2011, at the height of the China-led supercycle, it had a valuation of A$3.5bn ($3.8bn). This has now shrunk to A$167m. But he now heads Pilbara Minerals, whose Pilgangoora lithium mine in the outback of Western Australia lies so close to two of Atlas’s former iron-ore mines that he can see them from...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

China’s bicycle-sharing giants are still trying to make money

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

Shades of cycling joy

STEVE JOBS liked to describe computers as “bicycles for the mind”—tools that let humans do things faster and more efficiently than their bodies would allow. The internet-connected bikes flooding the streets of urban China could be called “computers for the road”. Networked, trackable and data-generating, they are ones and zeros in aluminium form.

The cycles belong to Ofo and Mobike, two startups that, taken together, have raised $2.2bn of capital and are valued at more than $4bn. Each has between 7m and 10m bikes in China, averages 30m-35m rides a day and, having entered more than 100 Chinese cities, is expanding abroad. At the start of 2016 neither firm had a single bike on a public road. Ofo’s canary-yellow cycles and Mobike’s silver-and-orange ones can now be found in cities from Adelaide to London and Singapore to Seattle.

Most city bike-sharing systems, such as the Vélib scheme in Paris, depend on fixed...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Italy’s new savings accounts fuel a boom in stockmarket listings

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

ITALY seems an unlikely place to be enjoying a boom in new listings on the stockmarket. It is full of family-run small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that mostly rely for their finance on banks; and Italy’s banks are notorious for the bad debts still lingering on their balance-sheets. But Borsa Italiana, Milan’s stock exchange, has already seen 33 share issues so far this year, of which 24 have been full-fledged initial public offerings (IPOs). The number of listings so far already equals that seen in previous boom years in 2007 or 2015. With more expected before January, the exchange is likely to achieve the highest number of listings since the height of the dotcom bubble in 2000 (see chart).

A big reason for the surge is the Italian government’s roll-out in February of new individual savings accounts, known as PIRs, which offer favourable tax treatment. These have done better than expected. Asset managers have amassed €7.5bn ($8.3bn) in new PIR funds in the first three quarters of...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

The tumultuous career of Patrick Drahi

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:52

WHAT does France’s corporate establishment make of the change in fortunes of Patrick Drahi, a telecoms billionaire who achieved brief greatness before crashing to earth? In August he was reported to be planning a $185bn bid for Charter Communications, America’s second-largest cable operator, which is part-owned by John Malone, a famous cable investor. This month the market value of his indebted firm, Altice, collapsed by half, removing much of his personal wealth.

Mr Drahi’s empire is centred on his control, since 2014, of SFR, France’s second-largest telecoms operator and a big cable firm. It was not his only acquisition; in recent years the Franco-Israeli dealmaker went on a shopping spree, buying dozens of firms and building a transatlantic telecom-and-media empire. He typically sacked 30% of the acquired firms’ employees and squeezed salaries and other costs. Customer service often tended to worsen. In doing so Altice amassed a debt burden of over €50bn ($59bn), far bigger than the value of the firm itself. That made it vulnerable: investors dumped its shares after poor third-quarter figures at SFR.

Mr Drahi is not entirely untypical in France, even if the extent of his activity is. Other swashbuckling dealmakers exist: Vincent Bolloré, a media investor with wide interests, for example, or Xavier Niel, owner of Iliad, another mobile-phone...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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