Monthly Archives: June 2016

From noodles to poodles

Pots of money no more?

SOARING sales of instant noodles have for years been a reliable indicator of the insatiable appetites of China’s rising consumer class. China is the world’s biggest market for these flash-fried snacks infused with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical that makes flavourless food more palatable. Locals slurp down over 40 billion packets each year. Now comes news of a nasty noodle meltdown. It is less a sign that China’s long consumer boom is waning than that Chinese tastes are changing.

The volume of instant noodles gobbled last year fell by 12.5%, according to a new report on China’s consumer market from Bain, a consultancy, and Kantar Worldpanel, a market-research firm. The consequences for firms such as Tingyi, whose Master Kong noodles are found everywhere from railway canteens to kitchen cupboards, have been severe. Profits for China’s biggest instant-noodle firm fell by 36% in 2015, to $256m, as hungry Chinese consumers turned their backs on its wares. Even more shocking, the volume of beer sold in China—the world’s biggest guzzler—fell by 3.6% last year, largely because of plunging...Continue reading

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Grand dodgy

The tax-dodgers are being scrutinised too

JUNE 29th was judgment day in a case that has changed the face of corporate tax-planning. Antoine Deltour (pictured) and Raphaël Halet, two ex-employees of PwC, an accounting firm, and Edouard Perrin, a French journalist, had been tried in Luxembourg for their role in leaking documents that revealed sweetheart tax deals the Grand Duchy had offered to dozens of multinationals. The defendants denied the charges, which included theft of documents and violation of secrecy, arguing that their exposure of dodgy tax practices was in the public interest. Luxembourg insisted the deals were both legal and unremarkable.

The whistle-blowers faced up to ten years behind bars. However, the prosecutor—perhaps sensitive to the strong public and, in some places, political support for them abroad—called for suspended sentences of 18 months. In the end the judge handed Messrs Deltour and Halet suspended sentences of 12 months and nine months, respectively. But a conviction is a conviction; Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, called it “appalling”. Mr Perrin, who had published an...Continue reading

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Faltering flagship

A soggy outlook in the shipyards

HOW best to prop up the companies that power South Korea’s export-driven economy as the rest of the world slows? The government’s previous answer, the so-called “one-shot” bill, aims to help the worst-affected industries to restructure by offering tax breaks for firms that sell subsidiaries and by reducing the red tape around mergers. Parliament approved it in February; it will come into effect in August. But Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president, thinks more is needed. On June 28th she proposed a stimulus of 20 trillion won ($17 billion).

South Korea’s exports have fallen every month year-on-year since January 2015. In early June the central bank trimmed its benchmark interest rate by 0.25 percentage points, taking it to an all-time low of 1.25%. Nonetheless the government this week revised down its forecast of GDP growth this year from 3.1%, which it predicted in December, to 2.8%. Ms Park said that the economic situation inside and outside the country was “more serious than ever”.

Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union, South Korea’s...Continue reading

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Prophets and profiteers

FOUR out of five hedge-fund managers had expected Britain to vote to remain in the European Union, according to a poll by Preqin, a data firm. But a handful saw Brexit coming and invested accordingly. They made hundreds of millions by betting against assets that were likely to suffer from an Out vote. Crispin Odey’s London-based fund, which manages around $10 billion and has had a terrible year, jumped nearly 15% on the day after the vote. That was thanks to short positions on the shares of a number of British firms (including Aberdeen, an asset manager, and Berkeley Group, a builder) and a big investment in gold. Others, such as Atlantic Investment Management, prospered by betting against sterling, which fell this week to its lowest value against the dollar since 1985.

Another successful approach was to do what hedge funds were originally set up to do: hedge (not many do these days). “Did we see it coming? No,” admits Lukas Daalder of Robeco, a Dutch asset manager, who says he was able to limit damage by recognising the vote was too close to call. He tried to surprise-proof his portfolio by betting that sterling would fall against the dollar and by...Continue reading

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Awaiting the data

SHOCK, followed by frantic recalculation. That was how astonished financial markets reacted to the British vote to leave the European Union.

The initial phase saw a worldwide sell-off in riskier assets, such as equities, and a flight to safe ones, prompting further declines in government-bond yields. After the sell-off, equities started to bounce again on June 28th, in part because central banks may respond with easier monetary policy (or, in the case of the Federal Reserve, slower tightening); in part because Brexit may not have much of an impact on, say, the Chinese economy.

The biggest casualty of the vote was sterling, which was edging towards $1.50 on Thursday but on June 27th briefly dropped below $1.32, a 31-year low. In trade-weighted terms, the pound has fallen by 11% this year (see chart). Britain has a large current-account deficit (7% of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2015), which needs financing. A big drop in the pound, to make British assets more appealing to foreign investors and imports less appealing to Britons, is a necessary adjustment.

Equities have not suffered as much. Many companies in London’s...Continue reading

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The consensus crumbles

AFTER the second world war, the leaders of the Western world tried to build institutions to prevent the horrors of the preceding decades from recurring. They sought to foster both prosperity and interdependence, to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”. Their work has borne fruit. There has been no armed conflict in western Europe since. Expanded global trade has raised incomes around the world. Yet, as the Brexit vote demonstrates, globalisation now seems to be receding. Most economists have been blindsided by the backlash. A few saw it coming. It is worth studying their reasoning, in order to work out whether a retrenchment is inevitable or might be avoided.

Even economists realise that free trade can be a hard sell politically. The political economy of trade is treacherous: its benefits, though substantial, are diffuse, but its costs are often concentrated, giving those affected a strong incentive to push for protectionism. Since 1776, when Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”, those pressing for global openness have won more battles than they have lost. Yet opposition to globalisation seldom disappears, and often...Continue reading

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From folly to fragmentation

THE bleeding stopped on the third day: sterling steadied and stockmarkets perked up on June 28th, after two sessions of carnage (see article). By then Britain’s vote on June 23rd to leave the European Union had taken a heavy toll (see chart). The shares of Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland, Britain’s biggest domestically oriented banks, were down by around 30% and those of Barclays by slightly more. Continental institutions were clobbered too: BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Santander all lost 20%-plus and Italy’s beleaguered UniCredit 30%-odd. American banks with big operations in London also suffered, though not as much. Nor was the damage confined to banks: American insurers copped double-digit losses and Invesco, a big asset manager, shed 22%. A merger of the London Stock Exchange and Deutsche Börse, its German rival, looks likely to collapse.

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Squeezing the tube

BUSINESS theorists routinely instruct managers to look over the horizon. “Blue Ocean Strategy” is the most successful book on business master-planning in recent years. In it W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne of INSEAD, a business school in France, argue that companies should trawl for profits in “blue oceans” that their rivals ignore rather than “red oceans” that they squabble over. Companies often search for ways to disrupt their industries lest a rival or new entrant does the same and pulls the rug from beneath them. But reinventing a business from the ground up, to avoid being consumed by the fires of new technology, comes with huge risks as well as a potential for great rewards.

Ships that set sail for blue oceans are often becalmed in the middle of nowhere. AOL-Time Warner’s catastrophic merger in 2000 failed to remake the media business for the internet age. News Corp’s foray into social networking ended with the sale of Myspace for a small fraction of its purchase price. Sometimes being cautious, incremental and pragmatic when others are gambling on bold and visionary thinking is more sensible. Why take the chance when there is lots...Continue reading

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Window dressing

BROWSERS, pieces of internet software that people probably spend more time with than they do in bed, have long been boring affairs. Save for occasional innovations such as tabs, these programs have remained fundamentally the same since the release of Mosaic, the first mainstream browser, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Just four browsers account for nearly all users: Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox. It is difficult to tell them apart.

New, more interesting browsers have started cropping up. In August internet users will be able to download the first full version of Brave, the brainchild of a co-founder of Mozilla. Mozilla itself is working on a new type of browser which will give users suggestions on where to navigate next. Both are only the latest in a series of such efforts: last year Microsoft unveiled Edge, meant to replace Internet Explorer; March saw the release of Cliqz, a browser developed in Germany; a month later came Vivaldi.

If most browsers are boring and unwieldy, it is because they are expected to do more than ever before: not just surfing the web, but editing documents, streaming music and much more besides. As a result, priority is given to stability and ease of use. Too many fiddly buttons could scare away novice users. Innovation is outsourced to developers of...Continue reading

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In the rough

“Real is rare”, bidders were rarer

“I’VE seen grown men with tears in their eyes” in front of it, an auctioneer from Sotheby’s said as he opened bidding on June 29th on the 1,109-carat Lesedi La Rona, the biggest diamond to be discovered in over a century. Within minutes the tears were, if anything, of embarrassment. Bidding, which started at $50m, was desultory. A rough stone that Sotheby’s had put in the same league as the 3,107-carat Cullinan diamond, discovered in South Africa in 1905, failed to make its $70m reserve. “I’m a bit disappointed. There were no private buyers and the diamantaires stayed away,” said Lukas Lundin, chairman of Lucara Diamond, a Canadian firm that unearthed the stone in Botswana last year.

It was the latest disappointment to befall an industry that has had little to celebrate. Two days before, William Lamb, Lucara’s chief executive, said he believed the auction would symbolise the allure of diamonds and their promise for African development. He hoped to “dispel the rumour that all diamonds are bad”. That reek of notoriety has clung to the industry in recent years, especially...Continue reading

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Ticking all the boxes

Clicking your rights away

IF A prize were to be awarded for the world’s clunkiest prose, the paragraphs of indecipherable text that make up “terms of use” agreements would surely win. These legal thickets are designed to protect companies from litigious online shoppers and users of web services. Some firms require agreement, as when users are asked to click a box before creating an Apple ID. Other sites explain their policies without seeking customers’ explicit consent. Few consumers read these terms, let alone understand them. Because they involve no negotiation between customer and company, firms often insert language conferring broad protections to lower their risk of liability. But in a new twist, legal disclaimers designed to limit lawsuits are now unleashing litigation.

A surge of lawsuits in America claims that companies’ online agreements violate consumers’ rights. Consumers are banding together in class actions against targets including Apple, Avis, Bed Bath & Beyond, Toys R Us and Facebook. The cases have a tinge of the bizarre, citing a law passed before companies even had websites. And the lawsuits...Continue reading

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The infrastructure of power

AIIB careful with Avicenna

CHINA’s growing global clout can be unsettling for the incumbents who must make room for it. At the same time, China’s recent financial tumult has been unnerving for the investors exposed to it. This combination of vastness and vulnerability has left some people afraid of China and others afraid for it. Both groups have found reason to worry about the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has just held its initial annual meeting in Beijing and approved its first $509m-worth of projects.

The AIIB reflects China’s new eagerness to institutionalise its official lending abroad, which has been generous but contentious. Another example is the sprawling “one-belt, one-road” initiative, which aims to revivify trade routes across and around the Eurasian landmass (see article). Harking back nostalgically to the Silk Road, it envisages a web of bilateral agreements between China and the beneficiaries of its largesse. The AIIB is...Continue reading

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