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Marijuana businesses, excluded from finance, face unusual risks

MANY marijuana growers in northern California, America’s biggest source of the stuff, had expected this autumn’s harvest to be the largest ever. After all, recreational marijuana becomes legal in the state in January. Instead, wildfires in October—spreading so fast they killed 43 people—burned up half the marijuana growing in the area’s tri-county “Emerald Triangle” alone. Some reckon the fires set a record not just for burnt pot, but also for the value of banknotes turned to ash.

Although 29 American states allow sales of marijuana for medical use (or medical and recreational use), federal law still classifies it as a “schedule 1” drug like heroin. Firms handling marijuana proceeds can be prosecuted for money laundering. Ned Fussell of CannaCraft, a maker of marijuana products, says that a few firms open a bank account under an alternative identity. But banks almost always find out. So cannabis businesses operate almost exclusively in cash. Many pot farmers…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

How airlines are squeezing more seats onto their planes

WHEN Gary Leff, a prominent travel blogger, took his first flight on one of the new “no legroom” planes operated by American Airlines, he found that the experience was not nearly as bad as he feared. American had drawn howls of protest from customers when it announced it was reducing the distance between rows of seats—“seat pitch”, in industry jargon—on its new Boeing 737 Max planes to 29 inches, compared with the 31-inch pitch on its existing 737-800s. So in June it capitulated, and settled on 30 inches. Mr Leff tried out these new seats last week and was pleasantly surprised to find that “the seats themselves are no worse than” in American’s current layout in economy. That may seem counterintuitive, but aircraft-interior designers had come to…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Republicans grouse about tax models they once supported

THEY have been at this a long time. In 1994 Republicans, newly in charge of Congress, held hearings on what would come to be called “dynamic scoring”. Bills, they said, should be evaluated using the predictive power of macroeconomic models. If the model predicts more GDP growth, then it could be inferred that the growth would produce more tax revenue. During the hearings, however, came an awkward moment. Alan Greenspan, then in charge of the Federal Reserve, told Congress that macroeconomic models were “deficient”. That is, their predictive power, though interesting, was not good enough to rely on. Last year, after the election of Donald Trump, your blogger contacted Mr Greenspan to see whether the models were good enough yet. Mr Greenspan, his office responded, had not yet changed his opinion.

Neither have Republicans. Over the past two decades, in and out of control of Congress, the party has nudged dynamic scoring successively closer to the official policy process until we arrived, yesterday evening, at as dramatic a moment…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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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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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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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

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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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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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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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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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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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

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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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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Business and financeGulliver

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

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

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Business and financeFree exchange

Why scan-reading artificial intelligence is bad news for radiologists

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

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Unilever dodges the Brexit crossfire

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 (pictured). Paul Polman, its Dutch chief executive, told the Financial Times that he was recommending that the…Continue reading

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Google can no longer count on political goodwill at home

“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

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

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

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A purge of Russia’s banks is not finished yet

Elvira’s mad again

WHEN Elvira Nabiullina took over the governorship of the Russian Central Bank (CBR) in 2013, she faced a bloated and leaky finance sector with over 900 banks. Since then, more than 340 have lost their licences. Another 35 have been rescued, including, in recent months, Otkritie, once the country’s biggest private lender by assets, and B&N Bank, its 12th largest. The costs have been steep. According to Fitch, a ratings agency, over 2.7trn roubles ($46bn, some 3.2% of GDP in 2016) have been spent on loans to rescued banks and payments to insured depositors. Fitch reckons another few hundred banks could go before the clean-up concludes. More large private banks are whispered to be among them.

The CBR has rightly been praised for preventing a wider crisis and undertaking a clean-up during a punishing recession. Non-performing loans are at a manageable level, of around 10%. Bringing Otkritie and B&N under CBR stewardship calmed panicked markets. Yet nationalisation also raises…Continue reading

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

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

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The tumultuous career of Patrick Drahi

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

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Australia is the new frontier for battery minerals

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

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Japan is embracing nursing-care robots

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

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The last media mogul stuns his industry with talk of selling

THE only media mogul still bestriding his industry in old-fashioned style is used to being a predator rather than prey, a builder of empires, not a dismantler of them. So Rupert Murdoch’s reported willingness to sell off much of 21st Century Fox, whether to a rival such as Disney or to a distribution firm like Comcast or Verizon, has come as a shock to many. It should not.

If Fox does follow through with selling the assets—its film and TV studio, its stake in Sky, a European satellite broadcaster, and many of its cable networks—it may well be remembered as one of his cleverest moves. Mr Murdoch would have correctly judged a shifting media and regulatory landscape and sold high (perhaps for $50bn or more; see chart). He would retain lucrative assets in news and sports broadcasting, notably Fox News Channel, which could serve as the base for a new fief of a different sort. Mr Murdoch would also retain plenty of political sway through his newspaper businesses, housed at separately…Continue reading

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Does Hong Kong’s Octopus card have too many tentacles?

Your extensible friend

IN 1997, two months after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, it acquired a cutting-edge payment technology. People could rush through turnstiles with a wave of their colourful Octopus cards—stored-value cards pre-loaded with cash. Its latest advance, however, is risibly low-tech. On October 30th Octopus launched an extensible pole with a plastic hand to help drivers pay at toll booths. Critics of Hong Kong’s cautious approach to fintech snorted in derision. Meanwhile, a government official was quoted as blaming Octopus for stifling the city’s shift to cashlessness. Both criticisms are unfair. Hong Kongers enthusiastically embrace electronic payments and do well from the fierce competition between different platforms.

The Octopus card, designed for journeys on Hong Kong’s trains, buses, trams and ferries, soon stretched its tentacles into shops. In 2016 the company generated revenues of HK$956m ($122m) for its owners (mostly…Continue reading

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Wealth inequality has been widening for millennia

THE one-percenters are now gobbling up more of the pie in America—that much is well known. This trend, though disconcerting, is not unique to the modern era. A new study, by Timothy Kohler of Washington State University and 17 others, finds that inequality may well have been rising for several thousand years, at least in some parts of the world. The scholars examined 63 archaeological sites and estimated the levels of wealth inequality in the societies whose remains were dug up, by studying the distributions of house sizes.

As a measure they used the Gini coefficient (a perfectly equal society would have a Gini coefficient of zero). It rose from about 0.2 around 8000BC in Jerf el-Ahmar, on the Euphrates in modern-day Syria, to 0.5 in around 79AD in Pompeii. Data on burial goods, though sparse, point to similar trends.

The researchers suggest agriculture is to blame. The nomadic lifestyle is not conducive to wealth accumulation. Only when humans switched to farming did people…Continue reading

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