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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

The Bank of Japan sticks to its guns

SEVENTH time lucky? Minutes of the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) policy meeting in July, published on September 26th, showed that the central bank had, for the sixth time since 2013, pushed back the date at which it expected prices to meet its 2% inflation target—to the fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Four-and-a-half years since Haruhiko Kuroda took office as governor and embarked on an unprecedented experiment in quantitative easing (QE), the bank is still far from its goal. It has swept up 40% of Japanese government bonds and a whopping 71% of exchange-traded funds. The bank’s balance-sheet has tripled. It is now roughly the size of the American Federal Reserve’s.

Yet, despite his apparent failure, and despite a snap general election, Mr Kuroda may yet stay for another five years when his term runs out next April. If not, most of his likely successors are signed up to the same reflationary policy. At least one member of the bank’s board gave warning at its…Continue reading

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Three trade cases facing the Trump administration spell trouble

Ruinously competitive

IN 1845 Frédéric Bastiat, a French economist, wrote an open letter to his national parliament, pleading for help on behalf of makers of candles and other forms of lighting. The French market was being flooded with cheap light, he complained. Action was necessary: a law closing all windows, shutters and curtains. Only that would offer protection against the source of this “ruinous competition”, the sun.

Three similar pleas are facing the administration of President Donald Trump. But these are not parodies. On September 22nd the United States International Trade Commission paved the way for import restrictions on solar panels, ruling that imports had injured American cell manufacturers. On September 26th the Department of Commerce pencilled in tariffs of 220% on airliners made by Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer. A third decision on washing machines is due by October 5th.

This cluster of cases represents around $15bn of…Continue reading

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Once a leader in virtual currencies, China turns against them

BITCOIN and China always made odd bedfellows. Devotees of bitcoin love its independence from central authorities; in China the central authorities love their power. That they would accept a cryptocurrency that weakened their control over something as fundamental as the management of money seemed unlikely. Yet China had become the world’s biggest bitcoin market, dominating both its trading and computer-powered “mining”.

It was not meant to be. Bitcoin’s surprising success in China appears to be nearing its end. A series of bans announced over the past month have made clear that bitcoin and all fellow travellers, from ethereum to litecoin, have little place within its borders. Some hope that the bans are temporary. The government has, after all, declared an ambition to make China a leader in the blockchain technology that is integral to bitcoin. But its seems more likely that officials will tighten their grip on China’s remaining crypto-coin bastions.

Bitcoin had been in trouble in China since February, when the central bank, aiming to stem illicit capital flows, ordered exchanges to halt virtual-currency withdrawals until they could identify their customers. China’s share of global bitcoin-trading went from more than 90% to just about 10% (see chart).

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Nordic payments firms have become acquisition targets

THE Vikings were slow to adopt coins. They preferred to pay by cutting pieces off silver bars, at least until contact with the rest of Europe convinced them of the benefits of standardised coins. Today their Nordic descendants are abandoning coins and notes in favour of electronic payments. Two Nordic e-payments firms have recently announced that they will be acquired by foreign companies. The rest of the world, too, is using less cash. And they want the financial backing to enter new markets.

On September 25th Nets, a payments firm based in Denmark, announced that Hellman & Friedman, an American private-equity firm, had offered to acquire it for DKr33.1bn ($5.3bn). Nets is following Bambora, a Swedish-based payments firm, for which Ingenico, a French electronic-payments firm, offered €1.5bn ($1.7bn) in July.

Nets was created in 2010 from the merger of payments companies in Denmark and Norway. It has a strong presence in both countries. Dankort, Denmark’s national…Continue reading

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McDonald’s wages a food fight in India

Bakshi gives McDonald’s the shakes

IN MOST ways the McDonald’s outlet in Jangpura, a gentrifying neighbourhood in south Delhi, looks like one anywhere else, with bright displays, plastic seating and a familiar menu. But this week a disconcerting sign warns that “unpredictable” conditions have affected tomato supplies; none are available. Not bad though for a store that McDonald’s has been trying to close since September 6th. Over a third of its 400 or so outlets in India were supposed to shut their doors then—yet nearly all are still slinging McSpicy Paneers to customers.

War rages between McDonald’s India and Vikram Bakshi of Connaught Place Restaurants Limited (CPRL), who first brought the American chain to India in 1996 as a local partner in a 50-50 joint venture, starting in Delhi (along with another franchisee, Hardcastle Restaurants, which went into the southern and western states). Over the next two decades, Mr Bakshi expanded in the north…Continue reading

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American entrepreneurship is flourishing, if you know where to look

It’s hard to keep them down for long

AT FIRST glance, it seems that America’s economy is losing its mojo. Many economists, most notably Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, have lamented that productivity growth seems to be anaemic when compared with earlier golden eras (see Free exchange). A gloomy chorus of business leaders has echoed what media outlets have by now turned into a mantra, that American entrepreneurship is in steady decline. Surely America’s overall competitiveness, then, is plummeting?

The answer from one influential think-tank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), is no. In its latest update to its long-running annual ranking of global economic competitiveness, published on September 27th, America rose from third place to second, ranking below only Switzerland.

This is partly…Continue reading

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Yandex, Russia’s biggest technology company, celebrates 20 years

ARKADY VOLOZH, the bearded co-founder of Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, bristles at his company being branded the “Google of Russia”. Far from emulating the American firm, Yandex launched in 1997, a full year before Google, he points out. More crucially, the moniker poorly describes what Yandex offers today, which is a group of products and services that includes taxis, shopping, payments, music and education. “Really we’re the Silicon Valley of Russia,” says Mikhail Parakhin, Yandex’s chief technology officer.

That may only be a slight overstatement. Yandex’s Russian presence is immense; it accounts for just over half of the search market and 61% of online advertising, and its sites attract over 60m visitors each month. Like American tech giants, it is also expanding its offline logistical capabilities, signing recent deals with Uber, a ride-hailing firm, and with Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, to build out its transportation and e-commerce…Continue reading

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Who’s afraid of disruption?

LAST week Schumpeter met two tech tycoons who control businesses in total worth $600bn. In both cases the mayhem around them was what you would expect if Beyoncé hit town, minus the musical talent and looks. Hotel floors were locked down by the official secret service; the corridors were crammed with lines of petitioners and in one case a Wall Street boss gatecrashed the room in order to hug his idol.

The message from both titans—you ain’t seen nothing yet—was imperious. Over the next decade, they say, conventional industries will face an onslaught from tech competitors wielding vast financial resources, new technologies and massive reserves of data. It is a view that has swept through traditional firms’ boardrooms, too, where enthusing about virtual reality and singing the praises of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, is almost obligatory. The notion of disruption, with its promise to destroy the status quo and then renew it, is the most fashionable idea in global business since the…Continue reading

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Streaming has pushed Latin music into the mainstream

“MI GENTE” lures listeners with a mesmerising hook, a thumping beat and lyrics about breaking down barriers. A collaboration between J Balvin, a Colombian reggaeton star (pictured), and Willy William, a French producer, the latest product of this summer’s Latin craze is crooned almost entirely in Spanish. (The title means “My People”; reggaeton borrows from hip hop, reggae and rap.) The song topped the charts on Spotify, a streaming service, for weeks. “To be a crossover artist, you used to have to sing in English,” said John Reilly, Mr Balvin’s publicist. Now six of YouTube’s top ten music videos are predominantly in Spanish. In August the Billboard Hot 100, which tracks streams, sales and radio plays, sported seven Latin hits. Just five graced the chart in all of 2016.

Latin music is helping the music industry to arrest years of decline. Its growth is far outpacing that of other genres. Last year Latin America yielded just $598m out of total global recorded-music…Continue reading

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Online matchmaking businesses in India have many ways to woo

“IT WAS 2012…I was number 37,” says Ashwini, referring to the badge that was pinned on her shirt pocket. Her task was to go onto the stage and introduce herself to around 70 eligible bachelors and their parents. Families then conferred and, provided caste and religious background proved no obstacle, would approach the event’s moderator asking to meet number 37. At midday girls would wait for prospects to swing by, again with parents on either side. A brief exchange might establish the potential bride’s cooking skills or her intention to work after marriage. If the two sides hit it off, they would exchange copies of their horoscopes. Nearly 50 men lined up to meet Ashwini that day, speed-dating style. No one made the cut. She later married a colleague.

Such gatherings form an important part of the wedding industry, worth around $50bn a year, in a country where arranged marriages continue to be the norm. India has 440m millennials—roughly, the generation born between…Continue reading

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What if large tech firms were regulated like sewage companies?

THREE-QUARTERS of Americans admit that they search the web, send e-mails and check their social-media accounts in the bathroom. That is not the only connection between tech and plumbing. The water and sewage industry offers clues to the vexed question of how to regulate the Silicon Valley “platform” firms, such as Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook. The implications are mildly terrifying for the companies, so any tech tycoons reading this column might want to secure a spare pair of trousers.

In America and in Europe a consensus is emerging that big tech firms must be tamed. Their dominance of services such as search and social media gives them huge economic and political clout. The $3trn total market value of America’s five biggest tech firms (Apple and Microsoft are the other two) suggests that investors believe they are among the most powerful firms in history, up there with the East India Company and Standard Oil.

Trustbusters in need of instant gratification want to break…Continue reading

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Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark

A year earlier than expected, Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund, the world’s largest, surpassed $1trn in assets on September 19th. It had gained over $100bn in the past year, thanks in large measure to the global stockmarket boom in 2017: around two-thirds of its assets are held as equities (over 1% of shares globally). It helps that Norwegians continue to earn fat revenues from pumping North Sea oil and gas, which go to the fund to be invested abroad. The fund is so big it is becoming a tool for 5m-odd Norwegians to shape values abroad. It is an increasingly activist shareholder, speaking out on executive pay, ethical behaviour, companies’ use of water, child labour and more. Both its size and influence are likely to keep on growing.

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America holds the World Trade Organisation hostage

EIGHT months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the rules-based system of global trade remains intact. Threats to impose broad tariffs have come to nothing. Some ominous investigations into whether imports into America are a national-security threat are on hold. Mr Trump looks less a hard man than a boy crying wolf. All the same, supporters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the guardian of that rules-based system, are worried. Other dangers are lurking. There is more than one way to undermine an institution.

The WTO is meant to be a forum for reaching deals and resolving disputes. But all 164 members must agree to new rules, and agreement has largely been elusive. So if members do not like today’s rules, as interpreted by judges, they have little prospect of negotiating better ones. That puts pressure on the WTO’s judicial function, the bit that has been working fairly well.

Trouble is brewing at the WTO’s court of appeals. It is meant to have seven serving…Continue reading

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China sets its sights on dominating sunrise industries

IN RECENT days China set the record for the world’s fastest long-distance bullet train, which hurtled between Beijing and Shanghai at 350kph (217mph). This was a triumph of industrial policy as much as of engineering. China’s first high-speed trains started rolling only a decade ago; today the country has 20,000km of high-speed track, more than the rest of the world combined. China could not have built this without a strong government. The state provided funds for research, land for tracks, aid for loss-making railways, subsidies for equipment-makers and, most controversially, incentives for foreign companies to share commercial secrets.

High-speed rail is a prime example of the Chinese government’s prowess at identifying priority industries and deploying money and policy tools to nurture them. It inspires awe of what it can accomplish and fear that other countries stand little chance against such a formidable competitor. Yet there have also been big industrial-policy misses, notably…Continue reading

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Toys “R” Us files for bankruptcy

ASK young American parents about Toys “R” Us and they are likely to be able to sing a jingle from their childhood: “I don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys “R” Us kid”. For children of the 1980s, Toys “R” Us was a mecca at the strip mall, an awe-inspiring array of dolls, trucks, board games, bikes, art supplies and much more. Many of them noticed when on September 18th, the chain filed for bankruptcy.

Dave Brandon, the company’s chief executive, emphasised that shops would carry on operating as usual and claimed that Toys “R” Us was at the start of a new, brighter era. “These are the right steps to ensure that the iconic Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us brands live on for many generations,” he declared. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy, many analysts agree, is a sensible way to deal with the chain’s $5bn of long-term debt. So Toys “R” Us is not dead. But its future is hardly certain.

The company’s tale…Continue reading

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