All posts on November, 2017


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Tech giants will likely dominate speakers and headphones

MUSIC lovers do not typically go to the opera to buy a speaker. But at the Palais Garnier in Paris they now can: Devialet, a local maker of high-end speakers, on November 29th opened a store in the 19th-century music venue to sell its most sophisticated product, called Phantom. Looking like a dinosaur egg, this supercomputer for sound (priced at $3,000) is considered one of the best wireless speakers available. It also comes with a dedicated streaming service for live performances, including some at the Palais Garnier.

This Phantom at the opera is the latest example of how digital technology is transforming speakers, headsets and other audio devices. Once mostly tethered to hi-fi systems, they are now wireless, increasingly intelligent and capable of supporting other services. As a result, the industry’s economics are changing.

Only a few years ago the audio industry was highly fragmented, says Simon Bryant of Futuresource, a market-research firm. Hundreds of brands offered…Continue reading

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Digital news outlets are in for a reckoning

GREAT expectations attended digital journalism outfits. Firms such as BuzzFeed and Mashable were the hip kids destined to conquer the internet with their younger, advertiser-friendly audience, smart manipulation of social media and affinity for technology. They seemed able to generate massive web traffic and, with it, ad revenues. They saw the promise of video, predicting that advertising dollars spent on television would migrate online. Their investors, including Comcast, Disney and General Atlantic, an investment firm, saw the same, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars each into Vice Media, BuzzFeed and Vox (giving them valuations of $5.7bn, $1.7bn and over $1bn, respectively).

They have had successes. Some became ninjas in “SEO” long before most print journalists knew it stood for “search engine optimisation”. They introduced “clickbait” to the lexicon. Some, like BuzzFeed and Vice, worked out that fortunes were to be made in brand-supported viral hits—or “native advertising” that looks similar to the sites’…Continue reading

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Plant-based “meat” is so tasty that Europe’s meat industry has to bite back

Carroticide

THE “kapsalon” is a healthy mix of chips, melted Gouda cheese, shawarma, lettuce and garlic sauce and is a tried and tested hangover cure in the Netherlands. So naturally, a butcher’s shop on the Spui, in The Hague, put it on its takeaway menu, alongside burgers and sausage rolls. As two young women walk out, tucking into their steaming kapsalons, an elderly gentleman asks how to prepare the steak he has just bought. The scene would have most carnivores fooled. For this butcher deals only in meatless “meat”.

“We want to become the biggest butcher in the world without ever slaughtering an animal,” says Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer and founder of The Vegetarian Butcher. Since opening its first shop in The Hague in 2010 the company has been developing plant-based products that look, smell and taste like meat. “This shouldn’t just taste like real chorizo, it should leave the same red stains on your fingers,” says Maarten…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

India’s new bankruptcy code takes aim at delinquent tycoons

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

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China’s largest online publisher enchants investors and readers alike

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A flattening yield curve argues against higher interest rates

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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In the Trump era, big business is becoming more political

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

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Two more illustrious Japanese firms admit to falsifying quality data

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

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As bitcoin’s price passes $10,000, its rise seems unstoppable

MOST money these days is electronic—a series of ones and zeros on a computer. So it is rather neat that bitcoin, a privately created electronic currency, has lurched from $1,000 to above $10,000 this year (see chart), an epic journey to add an extra zero.

On the way, the currency has been controversial. Jamie Dimon, the boss of JPMorgan Chase, has called it a fraud. Nouriel Roubini, an economist, plumped for “gigantic speculative bubble”. Ordinary investors are being tempted into bitcoin by its rapid rise—a phenomenon dubbed FOMO (fear of missing out). Both the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, America’s largest futures market, and the NASDAQ stock exchange have seemingly added their imprimaturs by planning to offer bitcoin-futures contracts.

It is easy to muddle two separate issues. One is whether the “blockchain” technology that underpins bitcoin becomes more widely adopted. Blockchains, distributed ledgers that record transactions securely, may prove very useful in…Continue reading

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What cheese can tell you about international barriers to trade

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

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

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

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The euro zone’s boom masks problems that will return to haunt it

“WHAT does not kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Nietzsche in “Götzen-Dämmerung”, or “Twilight of the Idols”. Alternatively, it leaves the body dangerously weakened, as did the illnesses that plagued the German philosopher all his life. The euro area survived a hellish decade, and is now enjoying an unlikely boom. The OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, reckons that the euro zone will have grown faster in 2017 than America, Britain or Japan. But, sadly, although the currency bloc has undoubtedly proven more resilient than many economists expected, it is only a little better equipped to survive its next recession than it was the previous one.

Europe’s crisis was brutal. Euro-area GDP is roughly €1.4trn ($1.7trn)—an Italy, give or take—below the level it would have reached had it grown at 2% per year since 2007. Parts of the periphery have yet to regain the output levels they enjoyed a decade ago (see chart). The damage was exacerbated by deep flaws within Europe’s monetary union. Three shortcomings loomed particularly large. First, the union centralised money-creation but left national governments responsible for their own fiscal solvency. So markets came to understand that governments could no longer bail themselves out by printing money to pay off creditors. The risk of default made markets panic in response to bad news, pushing up…Continue reading

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