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Business

Counting Down to ASC 606

There will be little New Year’s Eve celebrating but perhaps a lot of morning-after hangovers for U.S. businesses that haven’t begun preparing for ASC 606, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new rules about revenue recognition. They are set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The news is much the same for Europe, though there the rule’s name is “IFRS 15.” The change is hard to do.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Why McKinsey is under attack in South Africa

An unfamiliar sight for McKinseyites

MCKINSEY, a global management consultancy known for its discreet profile and rarefied air, is unused to the sort of tub-thumping popular revolt it is experiencing in South Africa. Such is public outrage over the Guptas, an Indian-born business dynasty accused of growing rich off their relationship with President Jacob Zuma, that a few professional-services firms linked to the family, including McKinsey—as well as SAP, a German software giant—have become targets of Twitter storms and protest banners.

Anti-corruption groups and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have drawn blood in the case of Bell Pottinger, a British public-relations firm accused of orchestrating a racially divisive public-relations campaign on behalf of the Guptas. A complaint by the DA to a British PR industry association set in motion Bell Pottinger’s swift implosion in September. At KPMG, a global audit firm, eight senior executives in South…Continue reading

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American factories could prosper if they find enough skilled workers

Another way to see the factory floor

“WE ARE always short ten to 20 people,” says Jack Marshall, the manager of PPG’s plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The company makes coatings, paint and speciality materials for customers such as Harley Davidson, a motorcycle manufacturer based in the state, with a palette ranging from black denim to candy orange. His factory employs 550 people, many of whom must work overtime. It is hard to fill jobs, he explains, because many still think factory work involves repetitive assembly-line tasks, as in the candy factory on the old TV sitcom “I Love Lucy”.

As part of trying to shed this outdated image, America’s manufacturing industry has for the past five years celebrated the first Friday in October as National Manufacturing Day. Some 2,800 events across the country were organised this time round, ranging from factory tours to banquets. Intel, a chip giant, displayed its wafer-fabrication equipment at its enormous…Continue reading

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An assessment of the White House’s progress on deregulation

DEREGULATION, along with tax cuts and trade reform, is one of the three pillars of President Donald Trump’s economic agenda. Republicans promise that, freed of red tape, American firms will invest more and unleash faster economic growth. And while Mr Trump has yet to unite his party around a major piece of legislation, the White House has plenty of sway over regulatory policy. For a start, the government agencies Mr Trump commands can regulate and deregulate on their own (subject only to the instructions that Congress has given them in the past). How much red tape have they managed to tear down since Mr Trump took office?

Regulation is difficult to measure precisely, but the long-term trend towards excessive rulemaking has been obvious. In 1970 there were about 400,000 prescriptive words such as “shall” or “must” in the code of federal regulations, according to the Mercatus Centre, a libertarian-leaning think-tank. Today there are 1.1m (see chart). Wonks of many stripes agree…Continue reading

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American politicians’ efforts to control Chinese firms amount to a dangerous game

WARS are fought with weapons, but also with money. To understand the global balance of power in the coming decades, it helps to pay attention to the commercial subplot of the North Korean crisis. For the first time, America is attempting to use its full legal and financial might to change the behaviour of Chinese companies and banks, which it believes are propping up North Korea by breaking UN and American sanctions. Some American politicians have concluded that, as China’s firms have integrated with the global economy, they have become more vulnerable to Uncle Sam’s wrath. America has potent weapons, but the trouble is that China can retaliate in devastating fashion.

North Korea is highly dependent on China. Some 60-90% of its trade is with its northern neighbour. China’s state-run energy giant, CNPC, is thought to have sold it oil in recent years—and is the parent of PetroChina, which has depositary receipts listed in New York. North Korean banks and firms operate in China, and…Continue reading

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Dara Khosrowshahi is off to a strong start but there are miles to go

 

HERE’S the job spec. Unite a deeply divided board. Keep a strong-willed founder under control. Immediately recruit a new chief financial officer. Negotiate with angry local regulators intent on closing down the business in their city. Convince courts that the company does not have to provide its contract workers with the benefits due to full-time employees. Change a cut-throat culture without curbing employees’ drive. On top of all this, deal not only with an intellectual-property (IP) lawsuit that could cost the firm nearly $2bn, but also cope with a criminal investigation by the FBI that could see some managers end up in prison.

No one sane, you would think, would even apply for such misery. But after some hesitation Dara Khosrowshahi (pronounced cause-ro-SHAH-hee), until recently the chief executive of Expedia, an online travel agency, returned the headhunter’s call. Now he is boss of Uber, which, at $68bn, is the world’s most highly valued privately-held company. Can he…Continue reading

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The bosses of two famous French firms struggle to keep customers

You see her after the third glass

ALEXANDRE RICARD wants to talk boxing. He runs Pernod Ricard, a firm that sells Chivas whisky and Absolut vodka, among other drinks. Formed by his grandfather in 1975, with roots in a Pernod distiller set up in 1805, it is the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits, with a market capitalisation of €32bn ($37bn). He brags that Floyd Mayweather, an American pugilist with 19m Instagram followers, recently endorsed one of the company’s tequila brands. Such a “key influencer” on a digital channel “gives us speed and scale”, says Mr Ricard.

Celebrity endorsements are an old ploy: French singers, actors and racing drivers used to push Pernod Ricard’s liquor. But with 90% of sales in markets outside of France, punchier efforts are needed. Two years ago the firm commissioned a global study of boozing habits, which totted up all “moments of consumption” for drinkers, identifying 20 important ones in…Continue reading

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Tech giants are building their own undersea fibre-optic networks

Only 6,599km to go

WHEN Cyrus Field, an American businessman, laid the first trans-Atlantic cable in 1858, it was hailed as one of the great technological achievements of its time and celebrated with bonfires, fireworks and 100-gun salutes. Alas, the reason for the festivities soon went away. Within weeks the cable failed.

On September 21st the completion of another trans-Atlantic cable was welcomed with much less ado. But it is remarkable nevertheless: dubbed Marea, Spanish for “tide”, the 6,600km bundle of eight fibre-optic threads, roughly the size of a garden hose, is the highest-capacity connection across the ocean. Stretching from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Bilbao, Spain, it is capable of transferring 160 terabits of data every second, the equivalent of more than 5,000 high-resolution movies. It is jointly owned by Facebook and Microsoft.

Such ultra-fast fibre networks are needed to keep up with the torrent of…Continue reading

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Ford has a clear plan to fix its present failings

Hackett plays it safe

LIKE any mechanic with a misfiring car, Ford’s new boss has had his head under the bonnet working out what needs attention. Jim Hackett emerged on October 3rd with a checklist of repairs to present to investors, who have been awaiting his diagnosis since he took over in May. The list is short but the engineering is complicated: restore Ford’s competitiveness while preparing for a future of electric vehicles (EVs), self-driving cars and transport services. But those expecting a radical overhaul were probably disappointed.

Mr Hackett’s predecessor, Mark Fields, was shown the door by Bill Ford, the firm’s chairman, for failing to make a persuasive case that he was reinventing Ford as a mobility firm at the forefront of automotive technology. Despite acknowledging to investors that he and Mr Ford agreed that his new job was “about the future not the past”, Mr Hackett was clearest about how to make Ford fit for the…Continue reading

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Dirt-cheap mobile data is a thrill for Indian consumers

A swami gets the religion

THE security guards at the foot of Antilia, a 27-floor private residence in Mumbai, while away the days just as all bored Indians have been doing in recent months—watching movies on their phone. Using a mobile network to stream endless Bollywood epics would until recently have been an unthinkable luxury, even in the rich world. In India it now costs less than a cup of street-side chai.

Thank the tycoon lording it in the skyscraper’s upper reaches. As boss of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, has spent more than $25bn on building Jio, a state-of-the-art mobile-telecoms network. The delight of the guards at Antilia, and of the roughly 130m Indians who have signed up to the service since it launched in September 2016, is matched only by the misery of Mr Ambani’s rivals.

Jio’s rise is nothing short of spectacular. It took less than a year for it to be delivering more data than any other mobile…Continue reading

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After a bite of Apple, Margrethe Vestager targets another tech giant

MARGRETHE VESTAGER’S assault on technology firms she deems to have improperly massaged down their tax bills continued this week with a tilt at Amazon. The internet retailer faces a bill of €250m ($293m) for back taxes over what the European Union’s competition commissioner considers to have been an illegal sweetheart deal with Luxembourg.

The order requiring the Grand Duchy to recover the money follows a well-publicised three-year investigation. It is the latest in a series of tax-avoidance cases brought by the European Commission against multinationals, most of them American. Last year, Ireland was ordered to recover €13bn from Apple—smashing all past records for EU corporate-tax cases.

As with Apple, the commission concluded that Amazon received illegal state aid—in the retailer’s case between 2006 and 2014—through a tax-cutting arrangement that was unavailable to its rivals. This came in the form of a ruling from Luxembourg’s tax authority,…Continue reading

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Facebook and the meaning of share ownership

ONE group of Facebook friends that Mark Zuckerberg recently decided were not worth hanging out with were its public shareholders, who expected to cross-examine him (via a lawyer) on September 26th in a Delaware court. At issue would have been Mr Zuckerberg’s plans to refashion the social-media firm’s share-ownership structure more in his favour.

There is not a scintilla of doubt over who controls Facebook. Not only does Mr Zuckerberg, its founder, serve as its CEO and chairman; owning 16% of its shares, he controls 60% of the voting authority through a special class of stock with ten times normal voting rights. A year ago, Mr Zuckerberg decided he would like to sell a large slug of his holdings (worth $74bn) without diluting control. The firm made a plan to distribute non-voting shares enabling him to reduce his economic interest to 3% without affecting control.

That prompted litigation. Shareholder votes can be directly meaningful on many issues, including management pay…Continue reading

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Rivigo is helping the Indian truck-driving industry out of a jam

Time to freshen up the model

THERE are 36 gradations in India’s archaic caste system, from the priestly to the supposedly untouchable. And then, somewhere below that, are the long-haul truck-drivers. Plying the subcontinent’s potholed highways for weeks at a time, few can settle into anything like a home life. Their marriage prospects are grim; venereal diseases and sore backs from sleeping in cramped cabs are but two occupational hazards. Despite an oversupplied national job market, the industry has struggled to attract the roughly 1m new drivers it needs each year to keep everything from Amazon packages to car parts moving. Can technology help?

To fend off shortages, most truck owners have done precisely what economists suggest, which is to increase pay. Drivers can now command nearly 40,000 rupees ($610) a month, a decent white-collar wage—and not far from double the level of trucker pay just three years ago. Rivigo, a startup based in Gurgaon, an…Continue reading

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A shareholder pact is rocked by Liliane Bettencourt’s death

A face of the firm

DEATH does not end all uncertainties. News that Liliane Bettencourt, a glamorous 94-year-old Parisian heiress, died on September 20th has provoked a flurry of investor speculation over L’Oréal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company. She had held a controlling stake in the firm her father, an inventor of hair dyes, founded in 1909. Its market value has since grown to be a whisker short of €100bn ($117bn).

Her death brings few immediate consequences. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, she had been declared legally unfit to manage her concerns. That followed a scandal, made public in 2010 after her butler secretly recorded politicians, lawyers and friends as they bilked her for millions of euros. The case still haunts Nicolas Sarkozy, an ex-president. He seethed in October that opponents had stymied his return to politics by repeating allegations he profited from the “sordid Bettencourt affair” (he was cleared of charges over it in…Continue reading

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