Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Foreign investors snap up London's iconic buildings

LONDON’S skyline has altered a lot in the last 30 years. While it can’t match Manhattan or Chicago, there are quite a few trophy buildings that can be seen from this columnist’s office window (for the moment*). The British sense of humour means these offices often acquire their own nicknames, regardless of the developer’s intentions—the Cheesegrater or the Gherkin, for example.

And the buildings also tend to get snapped up by foreign investors (see map). The latest to go is the “Walkie talkie” at 20, Fenchurch Street which has been bought by Lee Kum Kee, a Hong Kong food company, for £1.3bn, the highest amount ever paid for a British building. Presumably the company, best known for its oyster sauce, is not planning to transfer production to the site; this is a punt on the London property market.

Ironically, it was only a year ago that many Continue reading

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The link between poor harvests and violence

The very dark ages

LAST year over 102,000 people died in nearly 50 armed conflicts across the world, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think-tank. Much of this violence is caused by tensions between ethnic groups—two-thirds of civil wars have been fought along ethnic lines since 1946. Yet historians differ over whether cultural differences or economic pressures best explain how tensions explode into violence.

A new study* by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama suggests that, historically, economic shocks were more strongly associated with outbreaks of violence directed against Jews than scholars had previously thought. The authors collected data for 1,366 anti-Semitic events involving forced emigration or murderous pogroms in 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800. This was then compared with historical temperature data from a variety of sources, including tree rings, Arctic ice cores and contemporary descriptions of…Continue reading

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The closing of American bank branches

WINDSOR, a community of 6,200 people two hours outside Albany in New York state, offers many of the amenities commonly found in a small town, including a bakery, a car-repair outfit and several restaurants. There is just one thing missing: a bank. The town’s only financial institution, First Niagara Bank, shut its doors in October.

Towns like Windsor are becoming ever more common in America. Since the financial crisis, banks have closed over 10,000 branches, an average of three a day. In the first half of 2017 alone, a net 869 brick-and-mortar entities shut their doors, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, a research firm. Some fret that branch closures risk turning poorer neighbourhoods into “banking deserts”, cut off from current accounts, loans and other basic services.

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Can data predict fashion trends?

World of wardrobe

IN THE film “The Devil Wears Prada”, the character of Miranda Priestly, whose role is based on a feared Vogue editor, scolds her new assistant for not understanding fashion. Fashion, she tells her, is whatever a select group of designers and critics says it is. What she does not say, however, is that their judgments are themselves often influenced by another group: fashion forecasters, who predict what will be “in”. Might these seers of style in turn be undone by artificial intelligence (AI)?

Fashion forecasting has always been a peculiar profession. The business came into its own in Paris in the 1960s when agencies began releasing “trend books”, collections of fabrics and design ideas. Retailers use these books for inspiration as they put together designs.

The biggest of these forecasting firms is WGSN, with a market share of 50%. It employs 150 forecasters who scour the world’s catwalks, bars…Continue reading

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Tech stocks have regained their dotcom-era highs

CAST your mind back to when Bill Clinton was president, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin were fresh-faced new leaders and tweeting was strictly for the birds. That was when technology stocks, as measured by the S&P 500 tech index, last traded at their current levels.

The horrendous decline in share prices that followed the peak in 2000 was the first financial calamity of this millennium. The dotcom crash had much less impact on the broader economy than the mortgage and banking crisis of 2007-08. Nevertheless, the tech revival has caused some twitchiness among investors. Might history be repeating itself?

In the intervening years the world, and the tech industry, have changed a lot. In the late 1990s enthusiasm for tech shares was so great that the sector’s market value rose far faster than its earnings. The gap is nothing like as great today (see chart). Back then, leading firms like Microsoft and Oracle were valued at more than 20 times their annual revenues, let alone earnings….Continue reading

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Making Bitcoin work better

IN DIFFERENT circumstances the two people could be good friends. Each is rather shy and very smart. And each is passionate about bitcoin, a digital currency. One invented hashcash, which foreshadowed components of the crypto-currency; the other is the author of the first Chinese translation of the white paper in which Satoshi Nakamoto, the elusive creator of bitcoin, first described its inner workings.

Adam Back is the chief executive of Blockstream, a British startup, which employs some of the main developers of the software that defines bitcoin’s inner workings. Jihan Wu is the boss of Bitmain, a Chinese firm, which makes about 80% of the chips that power “miners”, specialised computers that keep the bitcoin network secure, confirm payments and mint new digital coins. But far from being fellow-travellers, each represents one of the two main camps in what has come to be called a “bitcoin civil war”, fought over how, if at all, the system should grow.

The worst seems…Continue reading

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The world’s largest online-travel company

NOT since the dotcom boom at the turn of the century have technology shares been on such a tear. On July 19th the S&P 500 index of information-technology stocks hit a record high, closing above its previous peak in March 2000 (see Buttonwood). As titans like Google, Facebook and Amazon hog the limelight, other firms can go unnoticed. One that deserves more attention is Priceline, the world’s largest onlinetravel company.

Those old enough to remember the dotcom boom may still associate Priceline, which was founded in 1997, with its “name your own price” feature, which let consumers bid for hotel rooms and flights. Today it is a Goliath. Its stable of online sites for booking hotels, cars, flights and restaurants spans the world and includes Booking.com, Kayak, Agoda and OpenTable. Over the past decade Priceline’s pre-tax earnings…Continue reading

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A bad week for Germany’s carmakers

STRENGTH and reliability were once the watchwords of Germany’s carmakers. Tardiness and scheming seem more apt terms now. Nearly two years after Volkswagen (VW) was caught rigging emissions tests, the difficulties continue to pile up. Europe is turning against diesel, and even petrol. And German firms are facing accusations of collusive behaviour, including claims of more widespread rigging of emissions tests for diesel engines.

Diesel’s days look numbered. Sales in Europe are falling fast. Before VW’s misdemeanours came to light, they accounted for over half the market in large European countries. No longer: Morgan Stanley, a bank, notes that diesel passenger cars took less than 39% of sales in Germany in June. Another bank predicts that diesel’s share will soon drop to 30% across Europe.

Dismay over premature deaths caused by pollution is one reason. The European Environment Agency says smog causes nearly half a million early deaths in Europe annually. Diesel engines…Continue reading

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Foreign executives need to get their feet dirty to succeed in Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya’s capital, is also known as the “Green City in the Sun”. It might as well be called the city of malls: it has never had such a wide choice. The newest outlet, named Two Rivers, sits on a road near the American embassy and contains no less than three different malls in the space of a square mile or so. Here, you can scoff a Burger King before wandering around a huge new Carrefour supermarket to stock up on French cheese, British-made breakfast cereals and Turkish-made clothes. The owners proudly proclaim that it is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest mall. It is certainly among the glitziest.

And yet walking into Two Rivers is an odd experience. The scale is huge, but the place is eerily quiet. More than a few shopfronts are empty, with hoardings instead of windows. Those that are occupied have a mere trickle of customers, and the goods they sell—furniture, clothes, electronics—are ambitiously priced. Two Rivers feels a bit like a Potemkin village, projecting an illusion…Continue reading

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The wage gap between men and women varies depending on job types

IT HAS been a turbulent few days for the BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster. On July 19th it published the names of those to whom it pays £150,000 ($195,000) or more a year. The ensuing furore was less over the level of pay, but the differences between men and women. Some female presenters discovered that they earned much less than their male peers. Of the 96 people listed, two-thirds are men; across the BBC, just over half are.

In a petition, female presenters said this was evidence that women at the BBC are paid less than men “for the same work”. Although this may be true for people on the BBC’s list, it is much less clear for the rest of its 9,000 female employees: a gender pay gap at the top of an organisation does not necessarily mean that similar gaps exist at lower levels.

In Britain, as in other European countries, the average gap in pay between men and women in exactly the same jobs is tiny or non-existent, according to data for 8.7m employees worldwide gathered by…Continue reading

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Pandemic bonds, a new idea

Better coverage needed

WHEN the Ebola virus hit west Africa in 2014, it took months to get together the money needed to combat the outbreak. Donors ended up committing more than $7bn. But the money came too late and too inefficiently, says Tim Evans, who directs the World Bank’s global health practice. Lives that could have been saved were lost. The bank estimates that GDP in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was reduced by $2.8bn.

Such outbreaks are likely to become more common: they have increased in frequency and diversity over the past 30 years, in step with the increased mobility of people, products and food. The World Bank says the probability of another pandemic in the next 10 to 15 years is high. That is why it has issued $425m in pandemic bonds to support its new Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF), which is intended to channel funding to countries facing a deadly disease.

The bonds cover six viruses likely to spark outbreaks: new…Continue reading

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