All posts on February, 2017


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

India’s hostels for the upwardly mobile

Rite of passage

IF SEVERAL hundred million Indians do migrate from the countryside to cities between now and 2050, as the UN expects, it will be a fiendishly busy few decades for Vivek Aher, who runs a low-cost hostel, one of five, on the outskirts of Pune, a well-off city three hours’ drive from Mumbai. A fair few of the new arrivals will have their first experience of urban living bunking in one of the hostels’ 1,350 beds. Should recent experience be anything to go by, most of the new arrivals will test Mr Aher’s patience by tacking posters on his hostel’s walls, or endlessly complaining about the Wi-Fi.

India has two main drags on economic growth. One is the difficulty of finding a job, especially in the places people live. The other is a chronic shortage of cheap housing. Aarusha Homes, Mr Aher’s employer, started in 2007 to help people seize economic opportunities far from home. Its rooms are basic and cheap. They include up to six beds, a bathroom for every three or four residents, some common areas and little else. Rent ranges between 3,500 and 10,000 rupees ($52-$149) a month including food.

Most…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Investors in America’s housing-finance giants lose in court

ONE unresolved issue from the financial crisis is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two firms that stand behind much of America’s housing market. Fannie and Freddie purchase mortgages, bundle them into securities and sell them on to investors with a guarantee. When America’s housing market collapsed a decade ago, the government had to bail them out. Its treatment of the firms since then has created a titanic legal struggle. Shareholders have cried foul. On February 21st, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling in the government’s favour.

At issue is the Obama administration’s decision in 2012 to hoover up all of Fannie and Freddie’s profits. Until then, it had received a fixed dividend on its investment. The timing of the shift was striking—just before a surge in the firms’ profitability. Since 2008 the Treasury has sucked in about $250bn from the firms, 30% more than the cost of the bail-out.

The change enraged hedge funds who had bought Fannie and Freddie’s shares and found themselves expropriated. The investors’ lawsuit held that the government overstepped its authority by seizing all profits….Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Why national budgets need to take gender into account

A good investment

LIKE many rich-country governments, Britain’s prides itself on pursuing policies that promote sexual equality. However, it fails to live up to its word, argues the Women’s Budget Group, a feminist think-tank that has been scrutinising Britain’s economic policy since 1989. A report in 2016 from the House of Commons Library, an impartial research service, suggests that in 2010-15 women bore the cost of 85% of savings to the Treasury worth £23bn ($29bn) from austerity measures, specifically cuts in welfare benefits and in direct taxes. Because women earn less, rely more on benefits, and are much more likely than men to be single parents, the cuts affected them disproportionately.

The government does not set out to discriminate, says Diane Elson, the budget group’s former chair. Rather, it overlooks its own bias because it does not take the trouble to assess how policies affect women. Government budgets are supposed to be “gender-neutral”; in fact they are gender-ignorant. Ms Elson is one of the originators of a technique called “gender budgeting”—in which governments analyse fiscal policy in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The rise of “deep-tech” is boosting Paris’s startup scene

EUROPE will never create a hub of tech firms and investors to rival Silicon Valley, many experts on entrepreneurship concur. Its markets are still fragmented along national lines, flows of capital into the region are limited and because of lingering, conservative attitudes to risk, few startups grow to rival American champions. “Europe is toxic”, argues Oussama Ammar, an outspoken founder of an incubator in Paris. “Life that should happen, does not happen”, he says.

But some digital life does flourish, spread among cities rather than fixing in one spot. Fintech firms cluster in London. Gamers and music-sharing sites do well in the Nordic countries. Berlin has a crop of companies that go beyond the kind of me-too consumer sites incubated by Rocket Internet, a notorious startup factory: new companies with expertise in the “internet of things”, for example. Milan, with strong medical universities, has flourishing biotech startups.

The most striking case of fresh growth is in Paris. Mention of France has long elicited sighs from venture capitalists. Its rigid labour laws and hefty taxes on wealth and on stock options have meant that…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Are technology firms madly overvalued?

IS THE technology industry in La La Land? There are alarming signs. House prices in San Francisco have risen by 66% more than in New York over the past five years. Even at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2001, the gap was lower, at 58%. Shares of technology firms trade on their highest ratio to sales since the turn of the century. Four of the world’s most valuable firms are tech companies: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. Snap, a tiddler with $400m of sales and $700m of cash losses in 2016, is expected to list shares on March 1st that will give it a valuation of over $20bn.

For companies and investors in any industry, it is hard to work out if you are living in a bubble. To help, Schumpeter has created three sanity tests for global tech firms. These examine their cashflow, whether investors differentiate between companies, and whether forecasts of their future earnings suffer from a fallacy of composition. The exercise suggests that tech valuations are frothy, but not bubbling.

The first test is cashflow, and the industry passes it with flying colours. In 2001 about half of all listed tech firms were unable to convert…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Why taxing robots is not a good idea

BILL GATES is an unlikely Luddite, however much Microsoft may have provoked people to take a hammer to their computers. Yet in a recent interview with Quartz, an online publication, he expressed scepticism about society’s ability to manage rapid automation. To forestall a social crisis, he mused, governments should consider a tax on robots; if automation slows as a result, so much the better. It is an intriguing if impracticable idea, which reveals a lot about the challenge of automation.

In some distant future robots with their own consciousnesses, nest-eggs and accountants might pay income taxes like the rest of us (presumably with as much enthusiasm). That is not what Mr Gates has in mind. He argues that today’s robots should be taxed—either their installation, or the profits firms enjoy by saving on the costs of the human labour displaced. The money generated could be used to retrain workers, and perhaps to finance an expansion of health care and education, which provide lots of hard-to-automate jobs in teaching or caring for the old and sick.

A robot is a capital investment, like a blast furnace or a…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

In fintech, China shows the way

CHINESE banks are not far removed from the age of the abacus. In the 1980s they used these ancient counting boards for much of their business. In the 1990s many bank employees had to pass a basic abacus test. Today the occasional click-clack, click-clack can still be heard in villages as tellers slide their abacus beads up and down the rack.

But these days the abacus is mainly a symbol, more likely to be used in the branding of China’s online-finance companies than as a calculating tool. At least three internet lenders have paid homage to it in their names: Abacus Loans, Small Abacus and Modern Abacus. The prominence, so recently, of the abacus is testament to how backward Chinese banking was a short time ago. The rise of the online lenders shows how quickly change has come.

By just about any measure of size, China is the world’s leader in fintech (short for “financial technology”, and referring here to internet-based banking and investment). It is far and away the biggest market for digital payments, accounting for nearly half of the global total. It is dominant in online lending, occupying three-quarters of the global market. A…Continue reading

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