Posts in category Business


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Big tyremakers are regaining their grip

CARS can be objects of desire and the bonnet badge an indicator of wealth and status. Yet the four small patches of rubber that do the vital job of attaching them to the road stir little emotion. A third of drivers cannot name the make of tyre on their car. Nor do they know that the dominant global brands have been fighting a losing battle for 15 or so years against Chinese competitors and now have a chance of winning back ground.

The established tyremakers have advantages over the industry they serve. They have margins that outstrip even Germany’s luxury carmakers. Supplying manufacturers accounts for only a third of revenues of a typical tyre firm and even less of the profits. The rest comes from replacing tyres on vehicles on the road, which wear out every four years or so.

The expansion of the global vehicle fleet, forecast to grow by around 3.5% a year, helps gradually to reduce firms’ dependence on the cyclical market for new cars. Tyremakers also benefit by selling most of their wares to thousands of distributors. They are fragmented and weak compared with carmakers, and less inclined to drive hard bargains.

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

America and Britain prohibit large electronic devices in aircraft cabins on some routes

For whom the belt tolls

NEW intelligence appears to have prompted the decision of the authorities in both America and Britain to prevent the carrying of large electronic devices into the passenger cabins of aircraft flying from several Middle Eastern and North African countries. However, the announcements, which both came on March 21st, raise several unanswered questions. Passengers, and the affected airlines, may be concerned that there is an element of politics behind the new measure, coming as it does in the wake of Donald Trump’s second attempt to ram through a highly controversial executive order restricting travel to America from some Muslim countries.

Some speculate that the intelligence may have been gathered by a raid carried out by American special operations forces on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One such raid took place on January 29th and left a Navy SEAL and up to 30 civilians dead. Some reports suggested that the botched operation yielded no actionable intelligence. But administration officials maintained that material indicating future AQAP targets was seized.

AQAP has…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Companies are racing to add value to water

PRESENTED in an unusually-shaped heavy glass bottle with outsized black lettering, it could be a fine vodka. On sale for £80 ($99) in Harrods, an upmarket department store in London, it has a price tag to match. In fact, it is a bottle of water. Harvested directly from Norwegian icebergs that are up to 4,000 years old, Svalbardi is one of hundreds of water brands that are sourced from exotic places and marketed as luxury products.

From the basic to the expensive, the market for bottled water is an attractive place to be. According to Zenith Global, a consulting firm, the global market has grown by 9% annually in recent years and is worth $147bn. The main reason is changing lifestyles. People are spending more time, and eating more of their meals, away from home. They are also switching from soft drinks and alcohol to healthier fare. Data from Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), another consultancy, show that consumption of bottled water overtook that of sugary soft drinks in America in 2016 (see chart).

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The battle to build Donald Trump’s wall

FEW slogans were chanted with as much passion by Donald Trump’s supporters in the presidential campaign as “Build that wall!”. The construction industry is almost as enthusiastic. Last week America’s Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) issued two invitations for companies to bid to build the wall on the border with Mexico, which is expected to cost anywhere between $12bn and $25bn. The deadline for designs falls on March 29th. One request is for a solid concrete border wall, and the other for a wall using “alternatives” to reinforced solid concrete, suggesting the government has yet to decide what the barrier should be made of.

More than 700 companies, from big general contractors to firms selling materials to niche providers of lighting and surveillance systems, have registered to try to become suppliers. To the surprise of some, about one in ten of the firms bidding are local ones with Hispanic owners, drawn by the scale of the earnings on offer. Cemex, a Mexican cement giant that has plants on both sides of the border, said it would not sell cement for the project, though it had earlier expressed interest in joining the bidding. Another, tiny, Mexican firm…Continue reading

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Uber is facing the biggest crisis in its short history

AS A teenager, Travis Kalanick’s first job was to knock on strangers’ doors and sell them knives. Now he is trying to dodge the daggers aimed at him and at Uber, a ride-hailing firm that is the world’s most valuable startup. On March 19th Jeff Jones, the company’s president, stepped down after six months, declaring that “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” At least six key executives and high-ranking employees have left in the past nine weeks. They include Uber’s head of mapping, a former head of self-driving car technology, and an artificial-intelligence (AI) expert who had been put in charge of the firm’s AI research lab only three months ago.

Aggressive and unrelentingly ambitious, Mr Kalanick built his eight-year-old company into America’s largest privately owned technology firm by treading on the toes of different groups, including traditional taxi drivers, other…Continue reading

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America’s shale firms don’t give a frack about financial returns

INSIDE the boardrooms and bars of Houston, the spiritual capital of America’s energy industry, the swagger is back. The oil price may only be at $48, or half the level it was three years ago. But shale fracking—the business of getting oil and gas out of rocks by blasting them with water and sand—is booming once again after the crash of 2014-16. Exploration and production (E&P) companies are about to go on an investment spree. Demand is soaring for the industry’s raw materials: sand, other people’s money, roughnecks and ice-cold beer.

Shale’s second coming is testament to Texan grit. But the industry’s never-say-die spirit may explain why it has done next to nothing about its dire finances. The business has burned up cash for 34 of the last 40 quarters, according to figures on the top 60 listed E&P firms collected by Bloomberg, a data provider. With the exception of airlines, Chinese state enterprises and Silicon Valley unicorns—private firms valued at more than $1bn—shale firms are on an unparalleled money-losing streak. About $11bn was torched in the latest quarter, as capital expenditures exceeded cashflows. The cash-burn rate may well rise again…Continue reading

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A meat scandal in Brazil damages two of its biggest firms

The steaks are high

EVEN amid Brazil’s pungent stew of recent big corporate scandals, the latest is particularly stomach-turning. On Friday March 17th, in time for a traditional weekend churrasco, or barbecue, the federal police accused some of the country’s biggest meat producers of bribing health inspectors to turn a blind eye to grubby practices. These include repackaging beef past its sell-by date, making turkey ham out of soyabeans rather than actual birds and overuse of potentially harmful additives. The police operation, dubbed Weak Flesh, could reduce Brazil’s meat exports, worth $13bn a year, and damage its two big global meat producers, JBS and BRF.

Two days later the president, Michel Temer, treated 27 diplomats from the country’s main export markets to prime Brazilian cuts at a steakhouse (pictured) in the capital, Brasília. Nevertheless, straight after that China, the European Union (EU), Chile and South Korea, which together consume a third of Brazilian meat sold abroad, said they would ban some or all imports from Brazil until it can allay misgivings about its inspection regime. The reactions from…Continue reading

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Elon Musk supercharges progress on energy storage

Storage salesman

HOW much power does a tweetstorm involving two tech tycoons, the prime minister of Australia and 8.5m Twitter followers generate? Enough, at least, to supercharge a debate about the future role of batteries in the world’s energy mix.

Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (pictured), may be best known for his gravity-defying ambition, but his core product is the battery: whether for his Tesla cars, for the home or for grid-scale electricity storage. He gave the last of these an unexpected jolt of publicity on March 10th, by responding to a blackout-inspired challenge on Twitter from an Australian software billionaire, Mike Cannon-Brookes. Mr Musk said he could install 100 megawatt hours (MWh) of battery storage in the state of South Australia in 100 days to help solve an energy crisis it faces, or it would be free of charge. “That serious enough for you?” he asked.

In response, Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, communicated with Mr Musk and appeared to turn from pro-coal sceptic into battery believer. On March 14th Jay Weatherill, the premier of South Australia, went further. Declaring…Continue reading

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What Satya Nadella did at Microsoft

A DECADE ago, visiting Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle was like a trip into enemy territory. Executives would not so much talk with visitors as fire words at them (one of this newspaper’s correspondents has yet to recover from two harrowing days spent in the company of a Microsoft “brand evangelist”). If challenged on the corporate message, their body language would betray what they were thinking and what Bill Gates, the firm’s founder, used often to say: “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Today the mood at Microsoft’s campus, a sprawling collection of more than 100 buildings, is strikingly different. The word-count per minute is much lower. Questions, however ignorant or critical, are answered patiently. The firm’s boss, Satya Nadella (pictured), strikes a different and gentler tone from Mr Gates and Steve Ballmer, his immediate predecessor (although he, too, has a highly competitive side).

Both these descriptions are caricatures. But they point to an underlying truth: how radically the world’s biggest software firm has changed in the short time since Mr Nadella took charge in early 2014. Back…Continue reading

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Mobileye and Intel join forces

Data trafficking

CARMAKING in Israel has amounted to little more than some unstylish models put together in the latter half of the last century and a few rugged off-roaders still assembled for the country’s security forces. A reluctance to make them, however, has not stopped Israel from becoming a thriving centre for the high-tech kit with which cars now bristle, and also for mobility services such as ride-hailing.

The latest evidence of Israel’s pre-eminence in the field came on March 13th, when Intel, a giant American chipmaker, paid $15.3bn for Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based firm that is at the forefront of autonomous-car technology. With the acquisition, Intel joins the ranks of technology companies that are trying to outmanoeuvre carmakers and auto-parts suppliers to develop the brains of vehicles of the future.

Mobileye is an attractive target because of what it does now and what it will soon be capable of. Its EyeQ software is already used by most of the world’s carmakers to help their vehicles stay in their lanes and brake in emergencies, precisely what will also be required in autonomous vehicles. This…Continue reading

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Citigroup’s decade of agony is almost over

IF YOU ask financial types in New York for their views on the world’s big banks, they usually come up with similar vignettes for each one. They agree that JPMorgan Chase is an unstoppable force under its boss, Jamie Dimon. Goldman Sachs is on a roll, with its shares up by 36% since the election (even if some worry that its Darwinian culture is going soft given all the regulation it faces). Across the pond Deutsche Bank is struggling to keep its head above water; its leader, John Cryan, embarked on a capital-raising and cost-cutting plan on March 5th. Yet one big bank elicits shrugs of bafflement: Citigroup. Its managers are anonymous and they get paid about a fifth less than their peers at other financial groups. No one is quite sure what Citi is up to or what it exists for. Once too big to fail, it is now too drab to mention.

That Citi has become the world’s half-forgotten bank is surprising. It was America’s biggest firm before the financial crisis, measured by size of assets; it is now the fourth-largest. After suffering huge losses on loans and subprime securities, in 2008-09 it received the biggest bail-out of any American bank. Citi can still…Continue reading

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A battle over Euro Disney

IF YOU judge only by the volume of screams and the beaming faces of those taking rides at Europe’s most-visited, privately-owned tourist destination, then it is clear that Disneyland Paris has much to celebrate. In the three decades since Disney, an American media firm, agreed to put its European theme park on a site east of Paris, and the 25 years since its doors swung open, in 1992, 320m customers have queued for attractions such as “Space Mountain”, a stomach-twisting rollercoaster, and photo-ops with Disney characters.

To mark these anniversaries the firm is making bold claims for the park’s economic and social benefits. Nearly €8bn ($8.6bn) has been invested in or near the site, which includes a second Disney studio-themed park, 8,500 hotel rooms, convention centres and a golf course. France’s economy has supposedly seen gains worth €68bn and the creation of 56,000 jobs. Politicians pay it heed: François Hollande, the retiring president, made an end-of-term visit late last month.

But investors tell a different story. Shares in Euro Disney (the French parent company) have performed like a raft on the…Continue reading

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The business model for the Olympic Games is running out of puff

PIERRE DE COUBERTIN, the French aristocrat who founded the modern Olympics, was seduced by the world’s fair. In 1900, 1904 and 1908 his games were embedded within such exhibitions. He soured on the arrangement eventually because the games were overshadowed, “reduced to the role of humiliated vassal”, as he put it. The Olympics still criss-crosses the globe, but with city after city ditching ambitions to put on the world’s largest sporting event, the model is under threat.

The latest blow comes courtesy of Budapest, which on March 1st withdrew its bid to host the 2024 summer games after public opposition. Its retreat comes on the heels of Boston, Rome and Hamburg canning their bids within the past two years, whittling a once-crowded pool of candidate cities down to only two: Los Angeles—itself a replacement for the torpedoed Boston bid—and Paris.

The situation ought to feel familiar by now to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the games. After lots of cities bowed out of the competition for the 2022 winter games it was again left with two options: Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China….Continue reading

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Chinese pharma firms target the global market

The way things were

WALK into the Shanghai laboratories of Chi-Med, a biotech firm, and you encounter the sort of shiny, cutting-edge facilities common in any major pharma company in America, Europe or Japan. Chi-Med has just had positive results in a late-stage trial of its drug for colorectal cancer, which is called Fruquintinib. If the drug is approved both in China and in Western markets it could be the very first prescription drug to be designed and developed entirely in China that will be on a path to global commercialisation.

Given China’s ageing population, higher incomes and rising demand for health care it is clear why innovation in drugs is a priority for the country. Its national market for drugs has grown rapidly in recent years to become the world’s second-largest. It could grow from $108bn in 2015 to around $167bn by 2020, according to an estimate from America’s Department of Commerce. By comparison, America spends about $400bn a year on drugs.

Chinese firms mainly sell cheap, generic medicines that earn only razor-thin margins. The pharma industry is extremely fragmented, with thousands of tiny…Continue reading

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America’s pot industry shrugs off Donald Trump’s harder line on legal drugs

THESE are high times for America’s marijuana-industrial complex. More than half the country’s states have legalised medical cannabis, often rather loosely defined. Eight have voted to legalise the drug for recreational purposes. The industry was worth about $6bn last year, a figure that is likely to rise sharply in 2018 when recreational sales begin in California.

Yet in Washington, DC, the mellow mood has been harshed. Donald Trump may have said in 1990 that “You have to legalise drugs to win that war.” But after entering politics he became more conservative. While campaigning for the presidency he called Colorado’s legal cannabis market a “real problem”. Last month his press secretary, Sean Spicer, said he expected to see “greater enforcement” of the laws that still ban cannabis at the federal level.

That worries pot peddlers. The fact that they are in breach of federal law means that in theory their profits are criminal proceeds, subject to forfeiture. In 2013 the deputy attorney-general of the day, James Cole, published a memo reassuring states that had legalised cannabis that federal agents would not interfere…Continue reading

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Can a railway legend deliver at America’s CSX?

E. HUNTER HARRISON, a veteran railway executive, tried retiring in 2010, after he made Canadian National (CN), a formerly state-owned company, the best-performing of the large railways in North America. But once he pocketed the gold watch and attended the retirement party he faced a void that raising and training horses for showjumping did not fill. By mid-2012 he was back at the helm of another railway, Canadian Pacific (CP), whose glory days were long past. Once he had turned around CP, he didn’t make the same mistake again. On January 18th the 72-year-old Tennesseean both announced his departure and entered negotiations with Florida-based CSX to become that railway’s CEO.

Just the rumour that Mr Harrison might be moving to CSX caused the share price to rise by 23% in 24 hours. It continued to rise when the negotiations became public. At last, on March 6th, CSX appointed Mr Harrison as CEO and met the condition set by Mantle Ridge, an activist hedge fund with which he has partnered, to name five new board directors. Mr Harrison made long-term shareholders in CP and CN rich, tripling profits at both during his tenures. CSX shareholders expect…Continue reading

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