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Business and financeGulliver

Public-relations woes may be catching up with Uber

UBER has had a tough year. It has fired staff on the back of sexual-harassment allegations and faced reports of a hostile workplace culture. It has been sued for allegedly stealing self-driving-car technology.  It lost customers when it flouted a New York taxi boycott in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. And, amid all the turmoil, its boss resigned. But despite all this, the company continued to win more and more customers, including business travellers.

Now, however, there are signs that the tide may be turning. Certify, an expense-management software company, has released its latest quarterly report on business-travel spending in America. And for the first time since it started collecting data in 2013, Uber has seen a decline in use among business travellers.

Uber and other ride-hailing apps still dominate the business-travel market for ground transport, accounting for around two-thirds of it. And they are growing at the expense of traditional services. The market share of taxis and rental cars…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Hotels are employing fewer concierges

IF BUSINESS travellers need to reserve a table at a restaurant, they may use OpenTable, a website. If they wish to find a nearby museum, a Google search will probably be their first port of call. And if they want transport into town, they can easily hail an Uber. Given that so many services are just one swipe away, is there a need for a hotel concierge anymore?

Increasingly hoteliers think that there is not. The share of American hotels with concierges has fallen from 27% in 2010 to 20% last year, according to a report by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a trade group. Since 2014 the number of luxury hotels that employ a concierge has declined by 20%.

Though concierges are not extinct quite yet, those that remain tend to work in upmarket establishments. In America 82% of luxury hotels employ concierges, as do 76% of “upper upscale” hotels, the second most glamourous category. After that concierges are a much rarer sight. Just 16% of “upscale” hotels have them. For…Continue reading

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Saudi Aramco’s IPO is a mess

THE proposal to sell shares in Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, stunned the financial markets last year. Muhammad bin Salman, now Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, promised that it would be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) of all time, valuing Aramco at $2trn. It was to be the centrepiece of his plan to transform the Saudi economy, reducing its dependence on oil. It was meant to foster financial transparency and accountability in one of the world’s most hermetic kingdoms. Above all, it would cement the young prince’s image as a bold moderniser soon to inherit the throne.

Alas, youthful impatience appears to have got the better of him. His tendency to micromanage the IPO and vacillate over where Aramco should be listed has caused delay and confusion. Matters came to a head this week when advisers, speaking anonymously, and company executives doing the same, gave conflicting reports, suggesting a mutinous atmosphere.

The kingdom’s advisers say…Continue reading

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A property billionaire rescues Harvey Weinstein’s studio

AS DISTRESSED assets go, the Weinstein Company (TWC) is uniquely distressing. Much of its value was bound up in the brands of its eponymous founding brothers, one of whom, Harvey Weinstein, has been accused of sexual harassment and of assault by dozens of women in the film industry in America and elsewhere. Amazon Studios, Apple and some television networks have hastened to cut ties with the studio, unwind production deals and remove Mr Weinstein’s name from credits. Mr Weinstein’s accusers may well sue the company. It was already heavily indebted after a recent string of box-office flops.

Who would see an opportunity? Aside from TWC’s particular troubles, independent films are a tough business, and the studio has had to haggle with creditors. But for a vulture investor some of the studio’s assets hold value. On October 16th Thomas Barrack (pictured above), chairman of Colony Capital, a private-equity firm, said he would immediately put an undisclosed sum of cash into TWC and look…Continue reading

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A geopolitical row with China damages South Korean business further

Closing time came suddenly

IN A cosmetics emporium in central Seoul, rows of snail-slime face-masks sit untouched. Not long ago, visiting Chinese tourists would snap these up as avidly as a designer handbag in New York or anything from London featuring the Queen. Yet now their rejuvenating properties are failing to lure the country’s shoppers. Seo Sung-hae, a salesman, says business has slowed to a snail’s pace, because of a drop in the number of Chinese visitors. “We used to have 100 customers a day, but after THAAD, there are almost none,” he says.  

THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, is an American missile-defence system designed to guard against North Korea that was installed in South Korea starting in March. Chinese authorities protest that its radar could be used to spy on its territory. Chinese newspapers have encouraged consumers to boycott South Korean goods. The plan was to “bully” Korea into ditching…Continue reading

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Why Airbus’s tie-up with Bombardier is so damaging for Boeing

Alabama bound

LIKE an airliner in service, Bombardier’s C-Series programme has had multiple highs and lows. In 2008 the Canadian firm began its attempt to break Airbus and Boeing’s duopoly on smaller jets, spooking the pair into upgrading their own models. Costs and delays pushed it near bankruptcy in 2015, followed by a bail-out from the Quebec government worth C$2.8bn ($2.2bn). The next year an order for 75 C-Series jets from Delta, the world’s third-biggest carrier, kept the programme aloft. But decisions in September and October by America’s Commerce Department to agree to demands by Boeing, an aerospace giant, to impose a total tariff of 300% on importing those planes into America risked the C-Series project crashing once and for all.

On October 16th came a surprise surge. Bombardier said it would hand over half the project to Airbus, a European aerospace firm, free of charge. Bombardier and Investissement Québec, the province’s…Continue reading

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An Indian aviation visionary runs into bureaucratic turbulence

But India’s not rolling out the red carpet

ALL great aviation ventures start with mavericks willing to defy both the laws of physics and the scepticism of their peers. William Boeing, Oleg Antonov and Howard Hughes are some of the best-known examples. Next, perhaps, is Amol Yadav, who for much of the past decade has been building aeroplanes on the roof of the Mumbai flat he shares with 18 family members, and battling the Indian authorities to let him fly them.

Admittedly, only experts would be able to distinguish the six-seater propeller plane (pictured) Mr Yadav has designed from scratch from a run-of-the-mill Cessna. But his plane is the only one in decades with wholly Indian credentials, he says. Much larger outfits have tried but struggled to get an indigenous craft certified for production, including National Aerospace Laboratories, one of several state-owned aviation mastodons.

Self-identified visionaries are commonplace in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low?

ONE day, perhaps quite soon, it will happen. Some gale of bad news will blow in: an oil-price spike, a market panic or a generalised formless dread. Governments will spot the danger too late. A new recession will begin. Once, the response would have been clear: central banks should swing into action, cutting interest rates to boost borrowing and investment. But during the financial crisis, and after four decades of falling interest rates and inflation, the inevitable occurred (see chart). The rates so deftly wielded by central banks hit zero, leaving policymakers grasping at untested alternatives. Ten years on, despite exhaustive debate, economists cannot agree on how to handle such a world.

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Multilateral lenders vow openness about their carbon footprints

THE World Bank gets a lot of flak. Developing countries clamour for a bigger role in its management. President Donald Trump’s administration lambasts it for lending too much to China. Employees are in open rebellion against their boss, Jim Yong Kim. Now the embattled institution faces criticism from a traditionally friendlier quarter: environmentalists. They accuse it and other multilateral development banks (MDBs) of not being upfront about their true carbon footprint.

That must hurt. After all, MDBs pioneered climate-friendly finance. Ten years ago the European Investment Bank issued the world’s first green bond to bolster renewables and energy-efficiency schemes. The World Bank has not backed a coal-fired plant since 2010. In 2011-16 it and the five big regional lenders in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe offered developing countries a total of $158bn to help combat climate change and adapt to its effects. They disclose the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by their day-to-day…Continue reading

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IBM lags in cloud computing and AI. Can tech’s great survivor recover?

TECHNOLOGY giants are a bit like dinosaurs. Most do not adapt successfully to a new age—a “platform shift” in the lingo. A few make it through two and even three. But only a single company spans them all: IBM, which is more than a century old, having started as a maker of tabulating machines that were fed with punch cards.

Yet after 21 quarters with falling year-on-year revenues (see chart), doubts had been growing about whether IBM would manage the latest big shifts: the move into the cloud, meaning computing delivered as an online service; and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), which is a label for…Continue reading

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Workers are not switching jobs more often

EVERYBODY knows—or at least thinks he knows—that a millennial with one job must be after a new one. Today’s youngsters are thought to have little loyalty towards their employers and to be prone to “job-hop”. Millennials (ie, those born after about 1982) are indeed more likely to switch jobs than their older colleagues. But that is more a result of how old they are than of the era they were born in. In America at least, average job tenures have barely changed in recent decades.

Data from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics show workers aged 25 and over now spend a median of 5.1 years with their employers, slightly more than in 1983 (see chart). Job tenure has declined for the lower end of that age group, but only slightly. Men between the ages of 25 and 34 now spend a median of 2.9 years with each employer, down from 3.2 years in 1983.

It is middle-aged men whose relationship with their employers has changed most dramatically. Partly because of a collapse in the…Continue reading

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A rash of bankruptcies hits Chinese lenders backed by state firms

THE Communist Party dominates China’s economy and uses state-run companies, which it controls with an iron fist, to enforce its diktats. Or so the theory goes. Reality is messier: the party often struggles to monitor state-owned enterprises (SOEs), let alone to get them to toe its line. As it convenes its five-yearly congress, one of the financial system’s dodgiest corners has served up a reminder of the limits to its power.

In the past two months at least seven online lenders backed by SOEs have collapsed. It was a business none should have been in, far removed from the industries they were supposed to focus on. The money potentially lost is trivial—roughly 1bn yuan ($150m), compared with government assets worth more than 100trn yuan. Still, these cases highlight how hard it is for the party to stamp its authority on the vast state sector.

The troubled SOEs include distant subsidiaries of the national nuclear company, an aviation company and a big energy company in…Continue reading

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A Lloyd’s report urges insurers to ask “what if?”

ON JULY 7th disaster was narrowly averted when an Air Canada passenger plane, trying to land on a full taxiway at San Francisco airport, pulled up just in time. Five seconds longer, and it might have crashed into fully loaded planes and killed over 500 people, in potentially the deadliest aviation disaster ever. Instead, the incident became a non-event—not just in collective memory but also in insurance. With no losses, there was nothing to log. Yet ignoring such near-misses, argues a report published this week by Lloyd’s of London, an insurance market, and RMS, a risk-modeller, is a missed opportunity.

Counterfactual “what if” thinking may be an enjoyable pastime for historians—“What if Hitler had been assassinated?” being one favourite—but is not common among underwriters. They prefer to base estimates of future risk—and hence premiums—on hard data of what happened in the past, eg, the number of aeroplanes that crashed and the total losses incurred. Since actual…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Private jets are getting cheaper

ONE of the first corporate jets was owned by Harry Ogg, the president of a washing-machine company. Bought in 1929, the four-passenger plane was named “Smilin’ Thru” and was decked out with a desk, a typewriter and space for washing machines. On sales trips Ogg told the pilot to fly low over a town, with the plane’s siren wailing. The commotion drew residents to the airport, where Ogg demonstrated the benefits of his white goods in a slick sales pitch.

Most aspects of corporate jet setting have changed since Ogg’s day. Planes are more likely to be owned by a hedge-fund manager than a white-goods salesman. They are kitted out with televisions rather than typewriters. Moreover, they tend to be too costly for entrepreneurs to use as clever marketing tools. Yet even though such stunts remain a dream for many, their revival may be edging slightly closer. That is because the price of private jets has tumbled in the last few years, Continue reading

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Companies that burn up $1bn a year are sexy, dangerous, and statistically doomed

YVES SAINT LAURENT, Lady Gaga, David Bowie. Some people do not operate by the same rules as everyone else. Might the same be true of companies? Most bosses complain of being slaves to short-term profit targets. Yet a few flout the orthodoxy in flamboyant fashion. Consider Tesla, a maker of electric cars. This year, so far, it has missed its production targets and lost $1.8bn of free cashflow (the money firms generate after capital investment has been subtracted). No matter. If its founder Elon Musk muses aloud about driverless cars and space travel, its shares rise like a rocket—by 66% since the start of January. Tesla is one of a tiny cohort of firms with a licence to lose billions pursuing a dream. The odds of them achieving it are similar to those of aspiring pop stars and couture designers.

Investing today for profits tomorrow is what capitalism is all about. Amazon lost $4bn in 2012-14 while building an empire that now makes money. Nonetheless, it is rare for big companies to…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Carriers in America are doubling down on budget airfares

GLEN HAUENSTEIN, the president of Delta, is optimistic about the future of basic economy. On a conference call this week, he boasted that the stripped-down airfares actually act as an incentive for passengers to upgrade to the more expensive standard economy tickets. Despite Mr Hauenstein describing it as a product that “people don’t really want”, the airline says it will expand the revenue-boosting basic-fares system in 2018.

Delta was the first carrier to roll out basic economy fares—sometimes called “last class”—in America in 2012. Since then the model has caught on. Both American and United quickly introduced similar services on some domestic routes. By taking away a perk here and adding another there, each airline has created a unique version of the same miserable experience.

The new fare system is not without its critics. Many have Continue reading

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Kobe Steel admits falsifying data on 20,000 tonnes of metal

THE port city of Kobe, on the southern side of Japan’s main island, is known for luxury beef from pampered cattle, fine sake and precision engineering. Its reputation for the last of those products took a blow on October 8th when one of its oldest industrial firms, Kobe Steel, admitted that that it had falsified data on many of its aluminium, copper and steel products. By October 11th, the company’s shares had fallen by a third, reducing its market value by ¥180bn ($1.6bn).

 Kobe Steel has admitted to falsification over the past year relating to large quantities of four types of material; 19,300 tonnes of aluminium sheets and poles; 19,400 aluminium components; 2,200 tonnes of copper products and an unspecified amount of iron powder that was supplied to over 200 customers. These items were certified as having properties—such as a level of tensile strength, meaning stiffness—that they did not in fact possess.

No deaths or accidents have yet resulted, but the…Continue reading

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In dirt-poor Myanmar, smartphones are transforming finance

For chats and kyats

MYANMAR’S democratic transition sometimes seems marked as much by continuity as by change. Depressingly, the army continues its bloody persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the west, for example (see article). But elsewhere moves to open the country’s markets, started by the preceding military regimes, have gathered pace. New commercial and financial services are springing up.

Take Khin Hlaing, who owns Global Mobile Shop, a small store surrounded by tarpaulin-covered stalls selling fresh fruit in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial area outside Yangon, the biggest city. He is one of almost 12,000 agents for Wave Money, Myanmar’s largest mobile-money transfer platform. Most days about 20 people use his shop to send funds to friends or family elsewhere in the country. One…Continue reading

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An epic but inconsequential proxy vote at Procter & Gamble

SHAREHOLDER meetings in Ohio are not usually the stuff of high drama, but a recent gathering was a nail-biter. Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management, an activist hedge fund, sought a seat on the board of Procter & Gamble (P&G), the world’s largest consumer-goods company, in a proxy vote on October 10th. It was the biggest such battle ever. In the weeks leading up to P&G’s shareholder meeting, the fight resembled a political contest, complete with carefully crafted videos, lengthy white papers, mass mailings and tens of thousands of phone calls urging shareholders to vote blue (P&G) or white (Trian).

As The Economist went to press, P&G said it had won and Mr Peltz was contesting the tally. “Everybody but [P&G’s] current employees voted for us,” he said after P&G declared victory. “Maybe that’s why they keep so much overhead.” So the brawl is not over. Yet the outcome may not matter much. Mr Peltz will push P&G for…Continue reading

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