Posts in category Business and finance


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October 30th marked the 70th birthday of the WTO’s precursor

Britain signs up

SUPERLATIVES surrounded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) when it was signed on October 30th 1947. A press release heralded it as “the most far-reaching negotiation[s] ever undertaken in the history of world trade.” The Economist grumbled it was “one of the longest and most complicated public documents ever issued—and one of the hardest to comprehend.” The Daily Express, a British newspaper, growled: “The big bad bargain is sealed.”

The agreement’s complexity matched the tangle of global trade affairs. In the preceding decades a thicket of protectionism had strangled commerce and slowed recovery from the Depression of the 1930s. The GATT’s length matched its scope. It included both tariff cuts and promises to forswear new duties. Covering 23 countries responsible for 70% of world trade, it came to embody the rules-based multilateral system.

After 48…Continue reading

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Asian households binge on debt

ONE of the more persistent beliefs about the global economy is that Asians are more frugal than others. Explanations have drawn on culture (the self-discipline of Confucianism), history (memories of privation) and public policy (flimsy social safety-nets forcing people to save). For Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, and other theorists of “Asian values”, thrift was one of them. Whatever the true reason, data long supported the basic claim that Asian households were indeed careful with their cash. But over the past few years consumers across the region have done their best to prove that prudence was perhaps just a passing phase.

Household debt in advanced economies has generally declined as a percentage of GDP since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the Bank for International Settlements. In a number of Asian countries, however, it has been going in the opposite direction (see chart). The biggest increase has been in China, where households have borrowed about $4.5trn over the past decade. But Chinese…Continue reading

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Catalonia and the perils of fiscal redistribution

POPULISM is the weapon not just of the downtrodden. As the crisis in Catalonia demonstrates, the rich have economic anxieties of their own. Catalonia has an identity distinct, in important ways, from that of the rest of Spain. But the recent drive for independence has been energised by anger over the flow of fiscal redistribution from rich Catalans to their countrymen: people seen, in parts of the restless north-east, as thankless and lazy as well as alien. Paradoxically, globalisation has inflamed separatism around the world by raising the question Catalans now confront: to whom, exactly, do we owe a sense of social responsibility?

Every country or restive region has its own idiosyncratic history. Yet over the long run national borders are surprisingly malleable. Some circumstances offer better prospects for the small and newly independent than others. The smaller the country, the more easily its government can satisfy its people’s political preferences. A broadly satisfying compromise…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Investors call the end of the government-bond bull market (again)

FOR the umpteenth time in the past decade, a great turning-point has been declared in the government-bond market. Bond yields have risen across the world, including in China, where the yield on the ten-year bond has come close to 4% for the first time since 2014. The ten-year Treasury-bond yield, the most important benchmark, has risen from 2.05% in early September to 2.37%, though that is still below its level of early March (see chart).

Investors have been expecting bond yields to rise for a while. A survey by JPMorgan Chase found that a record 70% of its clients with speculative accounts had “short” positions in Treasury bonds—ie, betting that prices would fall and that yields would rise. Meanwhile a poll of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) in October found that a net 85% thought bonds overvalued. In addition, 82% of the managers expected short-term interest rates to rise over the next 12 months—something that tends to push bond yields…Continue reading

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Many Japanese-made cars enjoy an afterlife in Myanmar, but not for much longer

Gridlock in Yangon

THE Japanese make cars that last but replace them relatively quickly. The average car in Japan is three years younger than in America. This combination of durable manufacturing and dutiful consumption of a prized national product works out well for the rest of the world; many countries import older Japanese cars in bulk. Secondhand vehicles fill vast parking lots in Japan’s port cities, awaiting shipment to New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

The third-most-popular destination is Myanmar, which imported over 80,000 used Japanese vehicles in the first nine months of this year, according to Japan’s International Auto Trade Association. Drivers believe that Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans can stand up to the country’s pockmarked roads, a faith not yet shown in South Korean and Chinese cars.

There is only one problem, which is that Japan drives on the left, Myanmar on the right. As a consequence, most of Myanmar’s…Continue reading

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IKEA undertakes some home improvements

You snooze, you lose

ON A Sunday afternoon, just beyond London’s M25 ring road, shoppers participate in the ritual that is a trip to IKEA. Fuelled by a lunch of Swedish meatballs, they negotiate their way around the 400,000-square-foot maze of a store, past children playing hide and seek and couples arguing over the merits of a PAX over a HEMNES wardrobe. Hours later, they emerge, wearily pushing trolleys loaded with flat-pack furniture and far more tea lights than they had intended to buy. The joy of assembly still awaits them.

This experience has changed remarkably little since the late 1950s, when IKEA, which is still privately owned, set up its first store in southern Sweden and found that people would travel long distances for low-cost, self-assembled goods. IKEA has become the world’s largest seller of furniture, with over 400 shops around the world and €38bn ($42bn) of revenue.

But now it is acknowledging that customers might want to…Continue reading

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A merger between CVS Health and Aetna could be what the doctor ordered

STANLEY and Sidney Goldstein would scarcely recognise their creation. In 1963 the brothers opened a humble storefront in Lowell, Massachusetts, selling health and beauty products. Determined to put customers first, they named their enterprise Consumer Value Stores. Today the Goldsteins’ startup, soon afterwards sold to a bigger firm, is nothing short of a health-care Goliath.

Revenues at CVS Health reached $177bn last year, riches which come from 9,700 retail pharmacies and from its operations in mail-order drugs and sales of more expensive speciality medicines. The firm commands nearly a quarter of the American market for prescription drug sales (see chart). It is also the biggest pharmacy-benefit manager (PBM) in America, a type of middleman that negotiates bulk discounts on drugs with large pharmaceutical firms on behalf of employers and insurers.

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Japan Inc gingerly embraces more foreigners

MICHAEL WOODFORD, the first non-Japanese president of Olympus, likened the camera-maker’s board members who sacked him in 2011 to “children in a classroom”. Mr Woodford had confronted Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, the company’s imperious chairman, over a $1.7bn hole in its finances. Mr Kikukawa responded by orchestrating a show of hands in a boardroom coup that sent the Englishman packing. It all fitted a cliché of Japan’s boardrooms as an all-Japanese, all-male club where wizened bosses ruthlessly enforce wa, or harmony.

Gradually, the serenity is being disrupted. Nearly 15% of companies in the Nikkei 225 stock index now have at least one non-Japanese on their boards. That is still less than half the share in Britain’s FTSE 100, but it is up from 12% in 2013 and the trajectory seems set. Japan’s biggest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ, and Takeda, its largest pharmaceuticals company (which in 2015 appointed its first foreign chief executive, a Frenchman) announced the appointment of foreign directors this year. Of…Continue reading

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Dark tourism spooks its way into the mainstream

ONE recent morning in Salem in the state of Massachusetts, a witch ran out of wands. Teri Kalgren, the owner of Artemisia Botanicals, an apothecary and magic shop, attributed the shortage to a witch-inspired boom. People have long flocked to Salem to learn about the infamous witch trials of 1692, in which Puritan hysteria led to the executions of 20 people (and two dogs). But since 1982 when the city introduced Haunted Happenings, a daylong Halloween festival for local families, the event has expanded to a commercial celebration lasting a month that attracts 500,000 tourists.

Last year tourism pumped $104m into Salem and funded some 800 jobs. The revenues have been increasing by 5-6% every year, says Kate Fox of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing arm. Tourists can buy a spell kit, visit a witch museum, take a walking tour (ghostly, feminist or literary-themed) and have their fortune told. On the opposite coast, Scott Michaels has watched his…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

A black-rights group warns would-be passengers about American Airlines

TRAVEL advisory notices, which alert passengers to the risks of going to certain places, are standard business for frequent flyers. But last week brought an unusual one. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), America’s oldest civil-rights organisation, warned black flyers about the dangers of travelling with American Airlines.

The NAACP says that  “a pattern of disturbing incidents” has been reported by black passengers specifically about American Airlines. Such incidents “suggest a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias”. Of the four incidents that the NAACP cite, two involved prominent black activists, PR Lockhart notes at Vox, a news site. Although the NAACP does not mention them by name, one is thought to be Rev William Barber, a former NAACP leader in North Carolina. He was removed from a flight from Washington, DC, after he responded to rude comments…Continue reading

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Business and financeGulliver

Military and civil-aviation bosses are stepping up their efforts to recruit new pilots

FOR MANY people, the Hollywood blockbuster “Top Gun” captures the allure of becoming a pilot. In it, fighter-pilot trainees don aviator sunglasses and flight suits, and zipp about the skies to a soaring 1980s soundtrack. But despite such pop-culture appeal, America’s Air Force is struggling to capture the imagination of would-be recruits. This year it will be short of around 900 new airmen.

To counter this, the Air Force is stepping up its efforts to recruit new cadets. This month they introduced a $35,000 signing-on bonus for newly hired military airmen, the first new incentive of its kinds since 1999. Commercial carriers, too, are trying to entice more newcomers with better financial rewards. The average pay for new pilots in that sector has nearly tripled from $20,000 to $59,000 in the past three years.

One of the main barriers for would-be pilots is training. To become a pilot requires an investment of $200,000, often more than student loans will cover. In addition trainees are required by law to fly 1,500 hours…Continue reading

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Firms should make more information about salaries public

SWEDES discuss their incomes with a frankness that would horrify Britons or Americans. They have little reason to be coy; in Sweden you can learn a stranger’s salary simply by ringing the tax authorities and asking. Pay transparency can be a potent weapon against persistent inequities. When hackers published e-mails from executives at Sony Pictures, a film studio, the world learned that some of Hollywood’s most bankable female stars earned less than their male co-stars. The revelation has since helped women in the industry drive harder bargains. Yet outside Nordic countries transparency faces fierce resistance. Donald Trump recently cancelled a rule set by Barack Obama requiring large firms to provide more pay data to anti-discrimination regulators. Even those less temperamentally averse to sunlight than Mr Trump balk at what can seem an intrusion into a private matter. That is a shame. Despite the discomfort that transparency can cause, it would be better to publish more…Continue reading

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India recapitalises its state-owned banks

Pillars to be reinforced

ONE of the perks of owning a bank is the ability to tap it when you need money. The Indian government, which has majority stakes in 21 lenders, is no exception. As it happens, it needs to finance a bail-out of the banks it owns, most of which are in trouble. So under a cunning plan unveiled on October 24th, the ailing banks will lend the government 1.35trn rupees ($21bn), about a third of their combined market value. The government will reinvest this money in bank shares, thus ensuring they no longer need a bail-out.

Steadying a tottering financial system is never a graceful exercise, as American and European authorities discovered after the financial crisis. India’s lenders withstood the meltdown of 2007-08 well, but then embarked on an ill-advised lending spree, backing lots of infrastructure projects that got snarled in bureaucracy. Bad loans piled up. State-owned lenders, which account for around two-thirds of the sector, now have…Continue reading

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Italy’s fourth-biggest bank returns to the stockmarket

A TELEVISION advertisement for Monte dei Paschi di Siena begins with a toddler tumbling and a gymnast stumbling. “Falling is the first thing we learn,” declares the voice-over. “The second is getting up again.” Italy’s fourth-biggest bank and the world’s oldest, which was bailed out by the Italian government in July, has had several bruising falls over the years. On October 25th it returned to the stockmarket after a ten-month hiatus—the latest stage of its plan to get back on its feet. The shares closed higher on the day, at €4.55 ($5.37), but still far below the €6.49 the government paid.

Trading was suspended last December, after a failed private-sector attempt to save the bank through a share issue. The government said it would get involved. In July the European Commission approved a €8.1bn “precautionary recapitalisation”. European rules say banks receiving such aid must be solvent, the capital injection must not distort competition and the capital…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Reports of the MBA’s demise are exaggerated

THE MBA is both revered and reviled. To boosters it has advanced the science of management and helped firms, and countries, to grow. Detractors say it offers little of practical value and instils in students a sense of infallibility that can sink companies, and knock economies sideways. The critics are currently the louder of the two, claiming that particularly the full-time, campus-based MBAs have reached saturation point, with too many mediocre courses chasing too few candidates. The Financial Times recently likened them to “the Grand Tour of business education in an age of Airbnb”.

There is a widespread feeling that full-time MBAs are on their last legs, concedes Sangeet Chowfla, the president of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a business-school association. Decline is allegedly hastened by competing qualifications, such as the Masters in Management. MiMs have much the same syllabus as MBAs, but unlike them, take students…Continue reading

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How leading American newspapers got people to pay for news

Past …

SOMETIMES it feels like the 1970s in the New York Times and Washington Post newsrooms: reporters battling each other to break news about scandals that threaten to envelop the White House and the presidency of Donald Trump. Only now their scoops come not in the morning edition but in a tweet or iPhone alert near the end of the day.

It is like old times in another way: both newspapers are getting readers to pay, offsetting advertising revenue relinquished to the internet. After years of giving away scoops for nothing online, and cutting staff, the Times and Post are focusing on subscriptions—mostly digital ones—which now rake in more money than ads do.

Their experiences offer lessons for the industry in America, although only a handful of newspapers have a chance at matching their success. A subscription-first approach relies on tapping a…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Silicon speculators

Nail-biting decisions

EXCHANGE-TRADED funds (ETFs) were supposed to make investing easy. Instead of spending hours researching individual stocks and bonds or paying an expert fund manager, investors could simply buy a few ETFs. But now there are too many to choose from. BlackRock offers 346 in America alone. Some investors need help allocating their money between different funds. Many companies now offer “automated wealth managers” (AWMs) that perform this service.

AWMs have been around for less than ten years, but they have proliferated, offering different services in different countries. Often, they are called “robo-advisers”, but this term can be misleading. Some offer clients detailed advice about how to save. For example, Wealthfront, an American AWM, predicts the cost of sending a student to a given college, taking into account increases in tuition fees and likely financial aid. It then suggests how parents can save in a tax-efficient way. Other…Continue reading

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Will corporate tax cuts boost workers’ wages?

THE president’s tax promise has always been clear: he will reduce the amount middle-earners, but not rich Americans, must pay. Yet every time Donald Trump releases a plan, analysts say it does almost the opposite. The Tax Policy Centre, a think-tank, recently filled in the blanks in the latest Republican tax proposals and concluded that more than half of its giveaways would go to the top 1% of earners. Their incomes would rise by an average of $130,000; middle-earners would get just $660. The White House maintains that tax reform will deliver a much heftier boost to workers’ pay packets. Who is right?

The disagreement boils down to who benefits when taxes on corporations fall. The Tax Policy Centre says it is mainly rich investors. But in a report released on October 16th, Mr Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) claimed that cutting the corporate-tax rate from 35% to 20%, as Republicans propose, would eventually boost annual wages by a staggering $4,000-9,000 for the average household.

The claim has sparked a debate among economists that is as ill-tempered as it is geeky. Left-leaning economists are incredulous. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Furman, who led the CEA under Barack Obama, pointed out that if the report is right, wage increases would total about three to six times the cost of the tax cut. Larry…Continue reading

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Millennials are doing better than the baby-boomers did at their age

ALL men are created equal, but they do not stay that way for long. That is one message of a report this month by the OECD, a club of 35 mostly rich democracies. Many studies show how income gaps have evolved over time or between countries. The OECD’s report looks instead at how inequality evolves with age.

As people build their careers, or don’t, their incomes tend to diverge. This inequality peaks when a generation reaches its late 50s. But it tends to fall thereafter, as people draw redistributive public pensions and quit the rat race, a contest that tends to give more unto every one that hath. Old age, the OECD notes, is a “leveller”.

Will it remain so? Retirement, after all, flattens incomes not by redistributing from rich seniors to poor, but by transferring money to old people from younger, working taxpayers. There will be fewer of them around in the future for every retired person, reducing the role of redistributive public pensions.

One logical response to the diminishing number of workers per pensioner is to raise the retirement age. But that will exacerbate old-age inequality, if mildly. Longer careers will give richer workers more time to compound their advantages. And when retirement eventually arrives, the poor, who die earlier, will have less time to enjoy their pensions.

Today’s youngsters may resent having to provide…Continue reading

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Aldi and Lidl grow despite ignoring the internet

THE aisles are wide, the lights bright and shelves low. Most obviously, however, the apples shine and the broccoli beckons. For those used to the cramped, dimly lit Aldi stores of yore, all expense spared, the new supermarket in Herten, Germany, is almost shocking.

Opened in April this is the prototype for a vast new renovation and expansion programme across Europe, Britain and America. It is the discount giant’s big bet on the future of shopping, all the more daring as the money is going almost entirely on bricks and mortar. Defying the conventional wisdom that customers want both in-store and online shopping (“omnichannel” in the jargon) Aldi wants to conquer the retail world by ignoring the internet. As too, to a lesser extent, does its great German rival Lidl. Plenty of other grocers reckon this may be the miscalculation that eventually brings them down.

Founded in 1945 and 1973 respectively, Aldi (split into two legally separate companies, Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd)…Continue reading

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For American Express, competition will only intensify

HE IS leaving with the share price rising and the announcement, on October 18th, of earnings that were largely well received. Better still, Kenneth Chenault, American Express’s chief executive for 16 years, accomplished a feat rare in the upper reaches of American finance: to stand down without an obvious helping shove. No grandstanding senators hounded him out (see Wells Fargo). No boardroom coup hastened the end (Citigroup). The financial crisis left him untouched (take your pick). His successor, Stephen Squeri, promoted from within and apparently groomed for the job, takes over in February.

For all that, Mr Chenault’s long tenure has not been an unequivocal triumph. Though generating strong returns on assets and equity, American Express has continued its slide within the fast-changing and competitive payments industry. According to Nilson, an industry bible, in 1974 the amount of money for purchases channelled through American Express was equivalent to 50% of what went through…Continue reading

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Sauce for a Brussels goose

DIVORCES are rarely easy. In the 16 months since Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum, the negotiations have made little progress. One of the trickiest aspects is the amount that Britain should pay to meet its existing spending commitments for EU programmes.

This is not analogous to dividing up the bill in a restaurant, and deciding who had the lobster and who stuck to the mixed green salad. Take the cost of EU officials’ pensions. The tricky bit in calculating it is that pensions are long-term commitments; a bureaucrat who starts work in Brussels today might still be collecting a pension 70 years from now. Working out the cost is fiendishly complicated, requiring estimates of how much wages will rise (if the pension is linked to salary) and how long employees will live. Then the sum of future benefits has to be discounted at some rate to work out the current cost; the higher the discount rate, the lower the presumed expense.

The EU doesn’t pre-fund pensions for…Continue reading

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American business schools dominate our MBA ranking

American business schools dominate The Economist’s 2017 Which MBA? ranking, taking 16 of the top 20 places. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management returns to the top spot for the first time since 2004. Kellogg students praise its facilities and collaborative culture. Their career opportunities are among the best, thanks in part to one of the largest alumni networks in the world; 97% of students find a job within three months of graduation, pocketing a 72% pay bump. All of the top ten slots in the ranking are now occupied by large, prestigious American schools, for which students are happy to pay extra. Their average tuition fee is $134,600, and has risen quickly in recent years. Employers, too, are willing to shell out for the best students. Their average basic salary was $127,300, a 70% increase on their pre-MBA pay cheques. But life, like rankings, isn’t just about money. So we weight data according to what students tell us is important. The four categories covered are: opening new career…Continue reading

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Apple should shrink its finance arm before it goes bananas

IT IS fashionable to say that tech firms will conquer the financial services industry. Yet in the case of Apple, it seems that the opposite is happening and finance is taking over tech by stealth. Since the death of Steve Jobs, its co-founder, in 2011, the world’s biggest firm by market value has sold hundreds of millions of phones with bionic chips and know-it-all digital assistants. But it has also grown a financial operation that is already, on some measures, roughly half the size of Goldman Sachs.

Apple does not organise its financial activities into one subsidiary, but Schumpeter has lumped them together. The result—call it “Apple Capital”—has $262bn of assets, $108bn of debt, and has traded $1.6trn of securities since 2011. It appears to be run fairly cautiously and is part of a thriving firm, but it still deserves scrutiny. Companies have a history of being hurt by their financial arms; think General Electric (GE) or General Motors (GM).

Apple Capital has lots…Continue reading

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Fears that Xi Jinping is bad for private enterprise are overblown

FOR a moment it seemed China was reverting to Maoist economic management. On the sidelines of the Communist Party congress this month, an official told Xi Jinping that her village distillery sells baijiu, a potent spirit, for 99 yuan ($15) a bottle. Mr Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, remarked that this seemed a bit dear. The chastened official thanked him and pledged to follow his guidance. But Mr Xi gestured her to stop. “This is a market decision,” he chuckled. “Don’t cut the price to 30 yuan just because I said so.” The audience, perhaps relieved that Mr Xi had no intention of dictating the price of booze, broke into laughter.

This rare spot of levity at the dreary five-yearly congress was telling. The occasion cemented Mr Xi’s unrivalled position at China’s apex. For companies, the question is what he will do with it. His vision can seem ominous. “North, south, east and west—the party is leader of all,” he intoned in a speech laying out his…Continue reading

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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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