ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Ameerpet, India’s unofficial IT training hub

Eat your heart out, Stanford

UNIVERSITY campuses can take a while to get going in the mornings, as students recover from extra-curricular antics. Contrast that with Ameerpet, a squeezed neighbourhood of Hyderabad that has become India’s unofficial cramming-college capital. By 7.30am the place is already buzzing as 500-odd training institutes cater to over 100,000 students looking to improve their IT skills. If there are ivory towers here, they are obscured by a forest of fluorescent billboards promising skills ranging from debugging Oracle servers to expertise in Java coding to handling Microsoft’s cloud.

Expertise in the IT industry erodes fast as software programs are upgraded or become obsolete. Indian outsourcing giants such as Infosys and Wipro spend heavily to keep employees’ skills up to date. But staff looking to change their career paths—to say nothing of those who didn’t crack the interview in the first place—need rapid systems upgrades of their own. Training courses authorised by software providers exist but cost up to 375,000 rupees ($5,765). Fees at Ameerpet’s informal institutes are typically below 25,000 rupees for classes…Continue reading

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The next head of America’s Food and Drug Administration

WHEN the names of potential candidates for the new head of America’s regulatory agency for drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), were first circulated, you could almost hear the sound of jaws hitting desks throughout the pharmaceuticals industry. One contender was Jim O’Neill, head of Mithril Capital Management, an investment firm, who is such a libertarian that he doesn’t think the FDA should insist that medicines have to work. Another was Balaji Srinivasan, an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, who thought roughly the same.

Removing such a core regulation might seem appealing to business. In fact, the idea of not approving drugs for efficacy is as unwelcome to the industry as it is to doctors and patients. It spends billions of dollars every year on research to deliver better treatments; this would be impossible to justify if drugs had merely to be safe. Patients, meanwhile, would face the awful prospect of having to identify which life-saving medications worked.

So, when the name of the FDA nominee was announced in March, there was widespread relief. Scott Gottlieb (pictured) a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative…Continue reading

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Westinghouse files for bankruptcy

Who will see it through?

THERE are few more storied innovators than Westinghouse. Founded in 1886, it is the company that brought electricity to the masses. When you plug in your toaster or flip your light switch, you have George Westinghouse’s alternating-current system to thank. In the 21st century the firm seemed poised to unleash a new revolution in nuclear energy. Its AP1000 pressurised water reactor was supposed to make nuclear plants simpler and cheaper to build, helping to jump-start projects in America and around the world.

But those nuclear ambitions have gone awry. On March 29th the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Its troubles have been a running sore at Toshiba, its Japanese parent, a headache for its creditors, and the latest bad tidings for a nuclear industry beset with problems.

Toshiba was triumphant in 2006 when it paid $5.4bn for Westinghouse after a bidding war, beating out General Electric (founded by George Westinghouse’s archrival, Thomas Edison). Around the same time, Southern and SCANA, two big utilities based in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, chose the AP1000 design for new nuclear…Continue reading

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Masayoshi Son goes on a $100bn shopping spree

IF YOU want to find a spectacular vision of the future, Silicon Valley is not the only place to look. In Tokyo Masayoshi Son, the boss of SoftBank, a Japanese telecoms group, is starting an investment fund worth $100bn which, he hopes, will make him the Warren Buffett of technology. “Masa” is no stranger to risky bets: SoftBank was an early investor in Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company, and has sunk $22bn in Sprint, a struggling American telecoms firm. Now he has been seized by the kind of Utopian fever that would make the Sage of Omaha choke on his Cherry Coke.

Mr Son, who is 59, believes that the world will soon encounter what is known as the Singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence exceeds the human kind. The brains of people and machines will become enmeshed (see article). Every person will have over 1,000 devices linked by a seamless global network, with the data analysed by machines in the cloud. As well as smart glasses, people will wear smart shoes and every car and washing machine will…Continue reading

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Banks’ equity-research operations are in decline

EQUITY research, the business of providing analysis of companies’ financial performance, may be a stodgy industry but it is not a simple one. Regulators fret about the sector’s Byzantine payment structure: investment banks dominate the market, but do not charge for it. They dole it out free to clients in the hope of future trading business. The understandable fear is that this set-up produces conflicts. Banks may be wary of issuing reports critical of companies; fund managers may end up choosing banks because of their research rather than the efficiency of their brokerage services. New regulations will overturn this model entirely.

MiFID 2, an ambitious set of European financial rules coming into effect next January, will force asset managers to disclose how much they spend on research. So banks will have to “unbundle” their services, billing clients for research and trading separately. Although the rules are being introduced by European regulators, banks across the world will have to change their pricing practices to comply.

These rules will be hugely, and beneficially, disruptive to a grossly inefficient industry. At present, banks blast…Continue reading

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Swiss watchmakers try to keep pace

BASELWORLD, a giant watch fair that ended this week, usually runs like clockwork. Companies show off new products; buzz and higher sales follow. However, something seems to have jammed. Exports of Swiss watches sank by a tenth in 2016, the worst performance since the financial crisis. Swatch, the world’s biggest watch company, saw profits plunge by 47%. In February exports were 10% lower than they had been a year earlier.

Swiss watchmakers have been around for long enough not to panic: Blancpain, owned by Swatch, dates back to 1735; Vacheron Constantin, owned by Richemont, a Swiss luxury conglomerate and Swatch’s closest rival, was founded 20 years later. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, a watch-manufacturing hub, workers toil much as they always have, at chin-high desks, using slim instruments to assemble springs, wheels, jewels and other tiny parts. But swings in demand have of late been particularly extreme.

The period from around 2004 to 2012 saw high growth. Chinese shoppers accounted for about half of Swiss watch sales during that time, reckons Thomas Chauvet of Citi, a bank. Manufacturers introduced pricier products and raised the cost of existing ones. The financial…Continue reading

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Luxury-goods companies in the digital era

IT TAKES at least a month to wash, comb, spin and otherwise prepare fine mohair to become cloth that is stitched into suits by Ermenegildo Zegna, a 107-year-old Italian brand. In Trivero, an Alpine village west of Milan, 150 artisans in an elegant factory work at carding, dying, weaving and warping. As looms rattle, bespectacled women stretch cloth over illuminated screens and check for imperfections. Others use a rack crammed with dried Spanish thistles to remove excess hair from fabric.

Zegna, run by its fourth generation of family owners, is distinctive in many ways. Big corporate successes are rare in Italy, which tends to nurture smaller firms. Sales from Zegna’s 500-odd shops worldwide, plus earnings from selling to other producers, amount to an annual €1.2bn ($1.3bn) or so. It controls its entire supply chain, which is unusual even in an industry that cherishes raw materials. Three years ago it bought a 6,300-acre farm with 10,000 sheep in Australia. A spokeswoman brags that vertical integration at Zegna runs “from sheep to shop”.

The company is also unusual because it has stayed independent of the few swaggering giants that bestride the luxury-goods…Continue reading

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YouTube highlights problems with digital advertising

EVEN advertisers can be seduced by slick marketing. Google and Facebook have built huge businesses by promising that online ads are more effective and easily measured than traditional media, such as television, radio and print. This year the amount spent on internet advertising, globally and in America, is forecast to surpass television advertising for the first time (see chart). But a controversy at YouTube, an online-video site owned by Google, shows how digital advertising still has problems to sort out before it lives up to the dazzling sales pitch.

A slew of advertisers, including stalwarts such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and General Motors, have announced plans to suspend usage of, or move ad spending away from, YouTube because ads (in some cases their own) were appearing alongside offensive content, including videos by jihadist and neo-Nazi groups. Google’s own brand has suffered: the damage to the firm’s sales could be as much as $1bn in 2017, or around 1% of its gross advertising revenue. Shares of its parent company, Alphabet, have fallen by around 3% owing to the controversy.

It is not the first time that brands have fretted about where…Continue reading

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Lacklustre power demand in Asia throws a cloud over coal

THE Hazelwood power station in Australia’s state of Victoria started generating electricity 52 years ago. The stark symbol of an era when coal was king, Hazelwood was one of Australia’s dirtiest: its fuel was the Latrobe valley’s brown coal, a bigger polluter than the black sort. The station was due finally to close on March 31st. Days earlier, chimney stacks were demolished at Munmorah, a black-coal station north of Sydney, already closed. Australia has shut ten coal-fired power stations over the past seven years, yet coal still generates about three-quarters of its electricity.

This fits a pattern across much of Asia, which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s coal demand. The biggest economies besides Japan, which hopes to replace nuclear with “clean” coal, are either closing down old plants or rethinking plans to build new ones. This is casting a deepening cloud over the coal industry.

Two reasons explain the looming overcapacity in countries ranging from China and India to Australia (South-East Asia remains hooked on coal). Firstly, electricity demand is stagnant, falling or growing less strongly than expected, which has put considerable financial…Continue reading

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The life and times of an Italian non-performing loan

MARIO (not his real name) from the pretty Italian city of Vicenza opened an account at a local bank in 1992. It afforded him an overdraft of the equivalent of €10,000. He needed it to pay the bills of his wholesale textiles company. Over the years his firm’s cash problems worsened. In 2013, after Mario had exceeded his overdraft limit by €7,000 ($9,300), the bank gave him an unsecured loan of €50,000.

The first repayment was due in January 2014, yet by June Mario had filed for voluntary bankruptcy. The bank—now owed €70,300—presented itself to the court as a creditor. It entered into an arrangement, but in December sold the loan for 5% of its book value to Banca IFIS, an Italian lender building a portfolio of soured debts. Banca IFIS employed an external debt collector and by the following April, Mario had repaid €17,000. Having made a tidy profit on its investment, Banca IFIS told the bankruptcy court the debt had been cleared.

It seems puzzling that Mario was granted a loan after being overdrawn for so long. Andrea Clamer, head of Banca IFIS’s bad-loans division, says such mysteries are central to understanding Italy’s bad-loan…Continue reading

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Indonesia’s tax amnesty passes its deadline

LAST year Indonesia’s finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, invited chief executives, directors and shareholders from the country’s leading industries to banquets at her ministry. As they munched, she would give presentations setting out who among them had—and, by omission, who had not—signed up to the government’s tax amnesty. “This may be the most expensive dinner in your lifetime,” the 54-year-old economist recalls telling them.

Indonesia’s tax amnesty, which began in July 2016, ended on March 31st. More than 800,000 evaders declared 4,700trn rupiah ($350bn) in assets previously hidden from the authorities. That is a staggering sum, equivalent to 40% of Indonesia’s GDP and 90% of the money supply, and revealing of the epic scale of tax-dodging.

The willingness of tax cheats to come clean partly reflects the generous terms on offer. Assets declared in the first three months were taxed at just 2-4%, compared with the individual income-tax rate of up to 30%. Those declared in the next three months were taxed at 3-6%, and those in the final three months at 5-10%. The government collected additional revenue of 125trn rupiah, equivalent to less than…Continue reading

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