Posts in category Business and finance


Business and financeGulliver

Legacy airlines are facing new competitors on transatlantic routes

EVEN for a global industry like aviation, Primera Air’s business model seems remarkably cosmopolitan. The Icelandic-owned budget airline is headquartered in Latvia, but mainly operates low-cost flights from Denmark and Sweden to sunny places in the Mediterranean. This summer, it will begin long-haul flights from Britain and France to America. The company bears more than a passing resemblance to Norwegian Air Shuttle, another nominally Scandinavian airline with global aspirations. More than two-thirds of Norwegian’s capacity by passenger-km now bypasses its home country, and the rapid growth of its long-haul operations are proving to be a serious challenge for legacy carriers such as British Airways. And its tentacles are spreading around the world. This autumn, the carrier will begin operating domestic Argentinian flights, 12,000km away from its home base.

Low-cost airlines are not new. Ryanair, founded in the 1980s, has grown to become…Continue reading

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The French government experiments with venture capitalism

Don’t be coy, carp about the food

AS A boy, Antoine Hubert used to catch butterflies. These days, the agro-engineer has eyes only for meal worms. In a demonstration factory near Dole in eastern France, he shows how trayfuls of plump, half-grown worms are fed, left to grow in a darkened dormitory, and then—after two months—slaughtered and cleaned with a blast of steam. A machine divides the resulting mush into oil and protein powder.

Around 70% of a worm is protein, making it ideal for animal feed. Demand is soaring, notably at fish and shrimp farms. Mr Hubert predicts aquaculture businesses will need 70m tons of feed annually in ten years’ time, up from 40m now. The global market for animal feed, he reckons, is already worth €500bn ($610bn).

Ynsect, his firm, thus expects to grow once it opens a new factory this year. He dreams of annual output exceeding 1m tonnes, hinting at a hunger for scale often left unsatisfied in a French entrepreneur: local…Continue reading

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The World Bank’s “ease of doing business” report faces tricky questions

HOW many days does it take to correct a misleading newspaper interview? Four, in the case of Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist. On January 12th a surprising article in the Wall Street Journal alleged that one of the bank’s signature reports—on the ease of doing business around the world—may have been tainted by the political motivations of bank staff. The story was based on an interview with Mr Romer, who pointed out that Chile’s ranking in the yearly report had dropped sharply during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning politician who took office for the second time in 2014. Chile sank so heavily not because doing business had become harder, but because the bank had repeatedly changed its method of assessment.

That method mostly entails answering measurable questions, such as how many days does it take to start a business, register a property or file taxes. The answers determine a country’s score (known as its “distance to…Continue reading

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Why driverless cars may mean jams tomorrow

THE most distractingly unrealistic feature of most science fiction—by some margin—is how the great soaring cities of the future never seem to struggle with traffic. Whatever dystopias lie ahead, futurists seem confident we can sort out congestion. If hope that technology will fix traffic springs eternal, history suggests something different. Transport innovation, from railways to cars, reshaped cities and drove economic advance. But it also brought crowded commutes. Now, as tech firms and carmakers aim to roll out fleets of driverless cars, it is worth asking: might this time be different? Alas, artificial intelligence (AI) is unlikely to succeed where steel rails and internal-combustion engines failed.

More’s the pity. In America alone, traffic congestion brings economic losses estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Such costs will rise unless existing transport systems receive badly needed investment. For example, fixing New York’s beleaguered, overcrowded subway will…Continue reading

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A weak market for football rights suggests a lower value for sport

Might Paul’s wages fall?

FOR years the cost of rights to broadcast major sports in America and Europe has trended in one direction—up. This gravity-defying law shapes the economics of modern sport: as television operators bid ever more substantial sums, teams take in more revenue and star-player salaries (and transfer fees) climb higher. In 2017 that trajectory continued as broadcasters splurged on rights for Champions League football matches for 2018-21.

This year gravity is reasserting itself. Top-flight football rights are out for tender in two major European leagues—England and Italy—and are expected to be put up for sale this year in France and Spain, too. Analysts expect relatively small increases in pay-outs (though Spain’s La Liga boss predicts a 30% rise)—and possibly a decline in Italy. “The happy days are over,” says Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, a research firm.

The chief problem is fundamental weakness at the bidding…Continue reading

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Our Big Mac index shows fundamentals now matter more in currency markets

IT IS usually considered quaint to predict foreign-exchange movements by reference to whether currencies are dear or cheap. Metrics such as The Economist’s Big Mac index, a lighthearted guide to exchange rates, hint at how far currency values are out of whack. But they are often driven further out of kilter by capital flows, by fear and greed, by the interventions of policymakers, and so on.

Since our last look at the index in July, cheap currencies have narrowed the valuation gap against the dollar—almost completely in case of the Canadian dollar (see chart). Fundamentals, such as fair value, seem (at last) to have greater sway in the foreign-exchange market.

The index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity, which says exchange rates should move towards the level that would make the price of a basket of goods the same in different countries. Our basket contains only one item, but it is found in around 120 countries: a Big Mac hamburger. If the local cost of…Continue reading

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After a huge loss on old reinsurance contracts, GE contemplates a break-up

Flannery kitchen-sinks it

DECISIONS made long ago, and often long since forgotten, can come back to haunt. General Electric (GE), an American industrial conglomerate, has discovered that to its chagrin. On January 16th the company said it would have to take a $9.5bn charge (before tax) on old reinsurance contracts in its financial arm, GE Capital—despite exiting the insurance business in the mid-2000s. The firm also said it would have to set aside up to $15bn of additional reserves for GE Capital over seven years. The conglomerate had already been struggling, with its share price down by over 40% in the past year. News of the latest hit, which the company’s chief executive, John Flannery, called “deeply disappointing”, sent its shares plunging by a further 3% on January 16th alone.

The issue at hand concerns reinsurance contracts in GE Capital’s American life- and health-insurance portfolio. Jack Welch, an idolised former GE boss, had massively expanded the…Continue reading

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Masayoshi Son may raise yet more cash to pump into tech

AT AN investor briefing in 2015, Masayoshi Son, chief executive of SoftBank, flashed up a picture of a goose. The company is like the bird of legend that produces golden eggs, he explained. In his quest to encourage more laying, Mr Son has taken SoftBank well beyond its telecoms business. The firm also manages the world’s largest tech-investment fund, the $100bn Vision Fund, which has a slew of wealthy backers, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and Apple.

Using both the firm and the fund, Mr Son has acquired stakes in tech companies at a frenetic pace, by one count opening his chequebook once every four days on average in 2017. Such shopping sprees do not come cheap. SoftBank is one of Japan’s most highly leveraged companies, with debt exceeding ¥15trn ($139bn), not least because of its purchase in 2013 of a controlling stake in Sprint, an American mobilenetwork operator.

News reports this week suggest SoftBank is now hatching a plan to raise ¥2trn by…Continue reading

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Why the oil price is so high

PERHAPS the most vexing thing for those watching the oil industry is not the whipsawing price of a barrel. It is the constant updating of theories to explain what lies behind it. In March 2014, when the price of a barrel of Brent crude was in three figures, the then boss of Chevron, an oil giant, observed that the scarcity of cheap oil meant “$100 per barrel is becoming the new $20”. Two years later, when the oil price slumped below $28, the talk was of a global oil glut caused by the furious efforts of the OPEC cartel to regain market share. Now that oil prices have tested $70, analysts are again scratching their heads.

In “1984”, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”, the ability to believe two contradictory things. Oil analysis seems to require similar cognitive gymnastics. Three big questions arise. First, why has the oil price more than doubled in the space of two years, against all expectation? Second, why has this surge been met with cheers from global stockmarkets and not…Continue reading

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Chinese tech companies plan to steal American cloud firms’ thunder

WHICH of the world’s tech giants boasts the fastest-growing computing cloud? Many would guess either Amazon or Google, which operate the world’s largest networks of data centres, but the correct answer is Alibaba. In 2016 the cloud-computing business of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth grew by 126%, to $675m. Growth is unlikely to slow soon. Simon Hu, president of Alibaba Cloud, wants it to “match or surpass” Amazon Web Services (AWS) by 2019.

That is a stretch: AWS is estimated to have generated revenues of about $17bn in 2017. But Alibaba’s cloud (known locally as Aliyun) is one of a thriving group: China’s cloud-computing industry as a whole is growing rapidly. Even more intriguing than its speedy expansion is the fact that China’s cloud is different to that of Western firms in important ways.

The technology that China’s cloud-computing providers use is not so dissimilar. Indeed, the fact that Western tech firms have released much of the necessary code as open-source…Continue reading

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The threat of tough regulation in Asia sends crypto-currencies into a tailspin

IT HAS been another week of vertiginous swings in the prices of bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. This time, the moves have mostly been downwards, with some days seeing falls of over 20%. Views on this were as divided as they were during the giddy climb: did it mark the definitive bursting of a bubble as rapidly inflated as any in history (see chart)?

Asia provides both an explanation of this week’s sell-off and a glimpse of crypto-currencies’ future. The threat of a ban in bitcoin-trading in South Korea was the proximate cause of the plunge. As to the future, the question is which Asia? At one end of the spectrum…Continue reading

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The hedge-fund delusion that grips pension-fund managers

HEDGE-FUND managers may be feeling quietly smug about their performance in 2017. They returned 6.5% on average, according to Hedge Fund Research, a data provider, their best year since 2013.

But those returns do not really suggest that they are masters of the investing universe. The S&P 500 index, America’s main equity benchmark, returned 21.8%, including dividends, last year. More tellingly, a portfolio split 60-40 between the S&P 500 and a mixture of government and corporate bonds (an oft-used benchmark for institutional portfolios) would have returned 14.8%. Last year was the fifth in a row when hedge funds underperformed the 60/40 split (see chart).

That ought to be a salutary lesson for those institutions who think that backing hedge funds is the answer to their prayers. Despite the highs recorded by stockmarkets, many employers are struggling to fund their final-salary pension promises. In 2016 the average American public-sector plan was just 68%-funded, according to the Centre for…Continue reading

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Innovative materials from bamboo are helping a new industry to sprout

A bamboo spider rides high

FANNING out from the sodden delta of the Yangtze, and southward to the flanks of the Nanling mountains, over 6m hectares of emerald bamboo groves—one-fifth of the world’s reserves—flourish in China. Giant pandas nibble the softest shoots. Around 40bn pairs of disposable chopsticks are made from bamboo twigs annually in China, for use with everyday meals. Steel scaffolding is still often shunned for bamboo on skyscrapers under construction in even the ritziest parts of Hong Kong. The history of the grass is colourful, too. Before paper, Chinese wrote on bamboo slips; they used bamboo tubes for irrigation, and later stuffed them with gunpowder to ignite muskets.

Yet for all its importance and abundance bamboo is “China’s forgotten plant”, says Martin Tam, an expert in Hong Kong. To demonstrate its potential, he greets visitors with a can of bamboo juice, proffers a bamboo business card, and gestures to a bamboo armchair near his desk….Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

The days of the A380 look numbered

ASK frequent flyers which is their favourite aircraft and most come up with the same answer: the A380 superjumbo made by Airbus, a giant European planemaker. Able to carry 525 passengers in a typical three-class layout, on two full-length decks, the aircraft still feels spacious, with wide aisles and plenty of headroom. Frequent flyers also admire the freshness of the cabin air, the lighting systems that are designed to reduce jet lag and the quietness of the cabin. “You can hardly hear it take off,” one fan recently told Gulliver. “And I can actually go to sleep on the plane unlike any other I’ve been on before.”

But less than a decade after it carried its first paying passengers, the age of the superjumbo looks like coming to an end. When Airbus announced its plans to build the plane in 2000, it hoped to sell up to 1,200 of them over two decades. Eighteen years later it has sold just a quarter of that figure, and has…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Turkish Airlines bounces back to growth

A LITTLE over a year ago, Gulliver gave a downbeat assessment of the prospects for Turkey’s aviation sector. Having enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted growth of more than 10% a year, Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag-carrier, was grounding aircraft and closing routes amid growing unrest at home and violence across its border with Syria. Concerns about regional security were also making life difficult in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, two other countries that have built aviation empires by connecting far-flung parts of the globe through their hub airports. Yet whereas the Gulf carriers remain in the doldrums, Turkish is gaining altitude again.

There had been just cause for concern about Turkey at the end of 2016. The year unleashed a failed military coup, a resultant purge of dissenters, and a wave of attacks mounted by Islamic State terrorists. When Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport was struck by bombers in June, even transit passengers started to…Continue reading

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How China won the battle of the yuan

“THE horse may be out of the proverbial barn.” So wrote Ben Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, in early 2016, arguing that capital controls might be powerless to save China from a run on its currency. He was far from alone at the time. As cash rushed out of the country, analysts debated whether the yuan would collapse, and some hedge funds bet that day was coming fast. But two years on, the horse is back in the barn: the government’s defence of the yuan has succeeded, in part through tighter capital controls.

The latest evidence was an 11th consecutive monthly increase in foreign-exchange reserves in December. During that time China’s stockpile of official reserves, the world’s biggest, climbed by $142bn, reaching $3.14trn, roughly double the cushion usually regarded as needed to ensure financial stability. Another sign of China’s success is the yuan itself. At the start of 2017 the consensus of forecasters was that the currency would continue to weaken; it finished the year up by 6% against the dollar.

Investors and analysts were not wrong in viewing Chinese capital controls as porous. Enterprising types had—and have—umpteen ways to sneak money out, from overpaying for imports to smuggling cash across the border in luggage. But there is a wide spectrum between a fully open and fully closed capital account, and China has…Continue reading

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India’s tea industry is going through tepid times

Tasseography in progress

BULK tea sales at the offices of J Thomas in Kolkata, which first started auctioning the stuff in 1861, lack the boisterousness of years past. Gone is the noisy trading pit, replaced by a handful of buyers sitting behind their laptops in a silent auditorium. Armed with tasting notes, they bid electronically on hundreds of lots drawn from the city’s hilly hinterlands in Assam and West Bengal. To passing visitors, it appears as if everyone in the room could do with a little caffeination. Yet within only three hours or so, enough tea changes hands to brew 24 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

If Indian tea delights those who get to drink the country’s finest blends, it frustrates all those who plant, pluck and peddle it. Archaic government regulations have in recent years pushed up production costs to around 175 rupees ($2.70) per kilogram, well above average auction prices of 140 rupees, which makes large cultivators grumble. Pickers complain about…Continue reading

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Artificial intelligence dominated the Consumer Electronics Show

WHEN the electronics industry meets in Las Vegas at CES, its main trade show, buzzwords abound. But rarely has one been as pervasive as this week. “Artificial intelligence” or variations on the theme (“AI-driven”, “AI-powered” and so on) were slapped across most new products—although often the artificial overcame the intelligence.

Those attending gawped at an interactive bathroom mirror on the stand of Haier, a giant Chinese white-goods maker. Look into it, like the Wicked Queen in Snow White, and instead of being told you are the fairest, your data profile appears on the glass. It displays weight (from an interactive scale), urine-test results (from a sensor on a connected lavatory) and other health-related things.

For those attentive visitors who could see past the AI assault, another theme could be identified: firms innovating around how they innovate. Haier’s stand also had a new device that is the result of combining its product development with that of…Continue reading

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Companies are moving faster than many governments on carbon pricing

Disney offsets its air miles

ECONOMISTS have long argued that the most efficient way to curb global warming is to put a price on the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it. A total of 41 OECD and G20 governments have announced either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, or both. Add state and local schemes, and they cover 15% of the world’s emissions, up from 4% in 2010. Voters concerned about climate change are egging them on. So, too, are corporate bosses. More firms are imposing such pricing on themselves, even in places where policymakers are dragging their feet.

Of the 6,100-odd firms which report climate-related data to CDP, a British watchdog, 607 now claim to use “internal carbon prices”. The number has quadrupled since CDP first began posing the query in its annual questionnaire three years ago. Another 782 companies say they will introduce similar measures within two years. Total annual revenues of these 1,389 carbon-price champions amount to a hefty…Continue reading

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Spotify opts for an unusual way of going public

FOR seasoned bankers and starry-eyed entrepreneurs alike, doing an IPO, or initial public offering, is synonymous with the very idea of taking a firm public. No wonder, then, that the decision by Spotify, a music-streaming service, to opt for an unconventional alternative called a “direct listing” has prompted debate. Instead of paying investment banks hefty fees to arrange an IPO, Spotify plans to have existing shares simply switch one day to being tradable on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

IPOs themselves have become rarer, as startups such as Uber and Airbnb have chosen to raise money through private markets instead. Although there was an uptick in the number of IPOs in America in 2017—108, compared with 74 in 2016—the average number of IPOs has remained at around 100 annually since 2000, compared with over 300 in the course of the two previous decades. But until now no big company had contemplated direct listing as an alternative. The structure has been seldom used: in…Continue reading

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Having rescued recorded music, Spotify may upend the industry again

IN JUST a few short years Spotify has evolved from bête noir of some of the world’s most prominent recording artists to perhaps their greatest benefactor. The Swedish company transformed the way people listen to music, and got them used to paying for it again after digital piracy had crippled sales. Global revenues from music streaming, which Spotify dominates with 70m subscribers, more than tripled in three years, to an estimated $10.8bn last year, for the first time surpassing digital and physical sales of songs and albums.

But if it is earning billions for others, Spotify is losing money for itself—with an operating loss of nearly $400m in 2016—because it pays out at least 70% of its revenues to the industry, mostly in royalties. As it prepares for a “direct” listing on the New York Stock Exchange (see article) it must convince…Continue reading

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Taiwanese bosses are the Chinese-speaking world’s oldest

DESPITE her father’s pleas, Cherry Liu refused to work for the family business, a small electronic-components company founded in 1979 on the outskirts of Taipei. A 34-year-old diamond dealer based in Sydney, Ms Liu says she is simply not passionate about gadgets such as circuit-breakers. Nor are her siblings. Her 64-year-old father cannot find a successor, but he will not even consider recruiting someone outside the family, she says. He fears that a newcomer might leave and take the family’s precious list of customers and suppliers with him.  

Taiwan’s economic boom was fuelled by people like Ms Liu’s father, entrepreneurs who started from nothing to build successful family-run companies, many of which are now huge. These firms still dominate Taiwan’s export-reliant economy, which specialises in high tech. Of all listed firms, 70% are family-run, compared with 33% for Chinese firms and 40% for Hong Kong-based ones. Almost three-quarters of family concerns are operated…Continue reading

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Donald Trump’s difficult decision on steel imports

EVERY Tuesday, senior members of the administration gather in the White House to discuss trade. They are divided between hawks, who argue that America needs to be tougher in its defence against what they see as economic warfare waged by China, and doves, who worry about the costs of conflict. So far, against all expectations when President Donald Trump entered the White House, the doves have prevailed. The first of a series of legal deadlines could soon unleash the hawks.

Last April Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, initiated a probe into whether steel imports were a threat to America’s national security. His department pointed to a “dramatic” increase in steel imports over the previous year and to the idling of nearly 30% of America’s steel-production capacity, as imports feed a quarter of its consumption. If the report, due by January 15th, finds imports are a threat, Mr Trump, under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, will have 90 days to respond.

The…Continue reading

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Natural disasters made 2017 a year of record insurance losses

THAT 2017 suffered from more than its fair share of natural catastrophes was known at the time. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the streets of Houston, Texas, were submerged under brown floodwater; Hurricane Irma razed buildings to the ground on some Caribbean islands. That the destruction was great enough for insurance losses to reach record levels has only just been confirmed. According to figures released on January 4th by Munich Re, a reinsurer, global, inflation-adjusted insured catastrophe losses reached an all-time high of $135bn in 2017 (see chart). Total losses (including uninsured ones) reached $330bn, second only to losses of $354bn in 2011.

A large portion of the losses in 2011 was caused by one catastrophe: the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Losses in 2017 were largely traceable to extreme weather. Fully 97% were weather-related, well above the average since 1980 of 85%. If climate change brings more frequent extreme weather, as Munich Re and others expect, last year’s loss levels may…Continue reading

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Accountancy takes root in the inhospitable soil of Afghanistan

Waiting for the auditor

WHEN Afghan lawmakers were debating rules of conduct for accountants, some were confounded by their strictness. Why should those found guilty of murder, asked one member of parliament, be struck off? That is a sign of the challenges facing the professional body for bean-counters, Certified Professional Accountants (CPA) Afghanistan, which was launched last month.

Attempts to establish a home-grown profession start from a low base. Back in 2009 Kabul, a city of around 4m, had fewer than 20 qualified accountants. Neither standards nor oversight for the profession were in place. Most local outfits were branches of firms from elsewhere in South Asia or farther afield.

Boring old accountancy might not seem a priority for a war-torn country. But in business it can foster trust and transparency—scarce commodities in a country where corruption is systemic. Because of the difficulty of verifying borrowers’ financial positions and valuing…Continue reading

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Bitcoin is no long the only game in crypto-currency town

IT STARTED as a joke. Dogecoin was launched in 2013 as a bitcoin parody, using as its mascot a Japanese shiba inu dog, a popular internet meme. The crypto-currency was never really used, except for tipping online, and one of its founders has called it quits. But recently its price has soared: on January 7th the dollar value of all Dogecoins in circulation reached $2bn, a sign of how crazy crypto-currency markets have become. It is also a reminder that, for all the focus on bitcoin, it is no longer the only game in town. Its market capitalisation now amounts to only about one-third of the crypto-market (see chart).

A new crypto-currency is born almost daily, often through an “initial coin offering” (ICO), a form of online crowdfunding. CoinMarketCap, a website, lists about 1,400 digital coins or tokens, including UFO Coin, PutinCoin, Sexcoin and InsaneCoin (worth $7m). Most are no more than curiosities, but by January 10th, around 40 had a market capitalisation of more than…Continue reading

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As gyms hit peak season, the market does the splits

EVERY year, like clockwork, swathes of humanity go through the same routine. On December 26th and January 1st, as the fog of cheese, chocolate oranges and champagne lifts, remorse creeps in. Online searches for “get fit” and “lose weight” surge (see chart). Health clubs of all shapes and sizes stand ready to respond. “Intent typically takes seven to 14 days to turn into reality,” notes Humphrey Cobbold, chief executive of Pure Gym, Britain’s largest gym chain. So this week will be one of the busiest for the gym industry globally.

There will be other ripple effects, too. According to recent data from Cardlytics, which monitors spending in Britain, people spend 18% more in sports shops the week before joining a gym (compared with the week prior), and 16% more in speciality health shops. Spending on fashion items also increases around the time of joining a gym.

Many gym recruits will wear their new togs for an ordeal known as high-intensity interval training. In the basement of…Continue reading

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BlackRock v Blackstone

THE two most successful entrepreneurs on Wall Street of the past two decades work on opposite sides of Park Avenue. Larry Fink, 65, is a Democrat whose hand is glued to a Starbucks cup and who runs BlackRock from 52nd Street. Stephen Schwarzman, 70, is a Republican who wears striped shirts with plain collars and runs Blackstone from between 51st and 52nd. The two are ex-colleagues, but have sharply opposing views on investment and management. Their trajectories illustrate how finance is changing. Mr Fink, once the underdog, is on top.

His firm, BlackRock, is the world’s largest asset manager, with $6trn of assets. It stands for computing power, low fees and scale, and is booming. Mr Schwarzman’s firm, Blackstone, is the largest “alternative” manager, focused on private equity and property, with $387bn of assets. It stands for a time-honoured formula of brain power, high fees and specialisation. Lately, it has trod water.

When Mr Fink was a securities trader in his 30s he joined…Continue reading

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