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economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
A new breed of German startups

At a rooftop bar in Berlin on May 29th, the glitterati of Germany’s startup scene toasted a new arrival. Silicon Valley Bank, a commercial lender which counts as customers half of American startups that went public in 2017, has just opened an office in the country. “They are doing unique, cool things here,” gushed Greg Becker, the bank’s boss. One of his first German clients is Lilium Aviation, whose electric flying taxis have mastered the tricky combination of a drone-like vertical take-off and forward jet propulsion.

Silicon Valley Bank arrives as a new breed of German startups is gaining altitude. At first e-commerce firms dominated the scene, often by copying ideas from abroad. Rocket Internet, an early success, went further, cloning American e-commerce models in other countries, too. Rocket and Zalando, a fashion e-tailer, did initial public offerings in 2014. After that only two big stockmarket debuts followed, of HelloFresh (which sells meal-kits) and Delivery Hero (a...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
Google runs into more flak on artificial intelligence

DISCOVERING and harnessing fire unlocked more nutrition from food, feeding the bigger brains and bodies that are the hallmarks of modern humans. Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, thinks his company’s development of artificial intelligence trumps that. “AI is one of the most important things that humanity is working on,” he told an event in California earlier this year. “It’s more profound than, I don’t know, electricity or fire.”

Hyperbolic analogies aside, Google’s AI techniques are becoming more powerful and more important to its business. But its use of AI is also generating controversy, both among its employees and the wider AI community.

One recent clash has centred on Google’s work with America’s Department of Defence (DoD). Under a contract signed in 2017 with the DoD, Google offers AI services, namely computer vision, to analyse military images. This might well improve the accuracy of strikes by military drones. Over the past month or so...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:31 +0000
Can refugees help to plug Europe’s skilled-labour gaps?

THE canteen of Stockholm University could scarcely be more Swedish. Young blond students sip coffee and tap away on Macs. In room 3.89, an outpost of the campus, is another, newer Sweden. Refugees, all of them teachers, from lands far to the south and east are preparing for the classrooms of their new home. Several keep their coats on as Khadije Obeid takes them through the basics of the curriculum and shows a YouTube clip about education law. “In Syria the teacher has much authority,” says Samer, an English teacher, as he raises his hand above his head. “Here he is equal to the students,” he adds as he lowers it.

The ten women and seven men are on a “fast-track” programme for refugees with experience in occupations where labour is short. As well as learning Swedish, they get 26 weeks of daily classes, teaching practice and mentoring. The hope is that they will then train or, if their previous qualifications are recognised, go straight to the classroom. The government is running some 30...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
Trends in extortion payments by companies to Italy’s Mafia

THE toll of “pizzo” protection payments made by firms to Sicily’s Mafia is closely monitored. Nearly half pay up these days, according to estimates from the Confartigianato, a national business association—a big improvement from the early 1990s, when at least four-fifths of Sicilian firms paid it. Back then the levy claimed nearly a tenth of the turnover of victimised businesses. Today’s ratio is around half that. Other regions in Italy’s south, where the pizzo system is most entrenched, have also seen big drops.

For that businesses can thank a clutch of anti-pizzo groups. One is Addiopizzo (“goodbye, pizzo”) in Palermo, which advises businesses on pressing charges against crooks. It also encourages them to publicly forswear pizzo payments. Extortionists now think twice before bullying shopkeepers, knowing there will be a flurry of...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
The murky future of two Latin American oil giants

Truckers’ pricing power

IT SEEMED like such a comeback. When Pedro Parente took over as boss of Petrobras in 2016, Brazil’s state oil firm was drowning in $130bn of debt. It had lost $200bn in shareholder value, and its executive board had been gutted by the massive Lava Jato corruption scandal. Mr Parente slashed subsidies, sold assets and adopted a market-friendly pricing policy. The company’s debt shrank and the share price reached a 3½-year high in May.

Then, on June 1st, Mr Parente resigned and Petrobras’s shares plunged by over 20%. The cause was a ten-day lorry drivers’ strike that crippled Brazil’s economy and forced Petrobras to freeze diesel prices for ten days and the government to subsidise them for two months. That revived a conversation about price controls and fuelled concerns about future state meddling.

The same fears hang over Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, ahead of a general election on July 1st....Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
How open is America?

“JUSTIN has agreed to cut all tariffs and all trade barriers between Canada and the United States,” claimed President Donald Trump to laughter on June 8th, at the G7 summit in Quebec. The next day, in apparent seriousness, Mr Trump—who has slapped tariffs and quotas on imports of aluminium and steel from all the G7 countries, and others—called for unfettered trade within the group: “No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be.”

Over the next two days a more familiar Mr Trump reappeared. After Mr Trudeau said, at a post-summit press conference, that Canada would not be pushed around, he fired off a barrage of tweets calling him “very dishonest & weak”. He blasted Europe too. And he tweeted: “Sorry, we cannot let our friends, or enemies, take advantage of us on Trade anymore.”

Suspend disbelief and suppose that Mr Trump’s offer of a barrier-free world is serious. He may want to tear down tariffs and quotas out of a yearning for open markets and lower...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
Can the solar industry survive without subsidies?

A LITTLE over a decade ago, when JinkoSolar, a Shanghai-based company, entered the solar business, it was such a novice that when it visited international trade fairs, all it had was a bare table and a board with its name scribbled on it. But it also had luck, a technological edge and lots of public money on its side.

The industry globally was riding high on subsidies. Generous feed-in-tariffs (FITs), financial incentives for installing solar, made Germany the world’s largest solar market by around 2010. Germans turned to China for cheap sources of crystalline silicon solar panels, not least because subsidised land and loans enabled China’s fledgling manufacturers to undercut European and American competitors.

When European solar subsidies slumped during the euro crisis, the Chinese government once again stepped in to support its renewable-energy champions. It offered FITs to slather the remote west of China with solar farms. By 2013 China had eclipsed Germany as the world’s largest...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
How to play Argentina

THERE is a type of footballer who inspires the affection of fans and the ire of coaches. He is talented, usually extravagantly so. But he is also wayward to the same lavish degree. Discipline seems beyond him, on or off the pitch. It was said of one of this kind, Stan Bowles of Queens Park Rangers and England, that if he could pass a betting shop as well as he passed a ball he’d be a rich man.

Which brings us, naturally, to Argentina—not to its footballers, who have mostly fulfilled their potential, but to its economy, which has not. A century ago, it was the country of the future. It betrayed that promise without ever quite extinguishing hopes that it might eventually live up to it. Like a talented but troublesome sportsman, it keeps being given another chance. The board of the IMF will soon approve a $50bn support package for Argentina. It has had countless such programmes in the past without much changing. The fund is betting that this time is different. Should investors make a similar...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
Why Japan’s sharing economy is tiny

AIRBNB, an American platform for booking stays in other people’s houses, can barely conceal its frustration. A law passed last year for the first time legalised minpaku, or home-sharing, in Japan, but also sharply restricted it. From June 15th hosts can rent out their property for a maximum of 180 days each year, provided they register with the local authorities. Most hosts will not meet that deadline because they are still obtaining their registration numbers, and on June 1st Japan’s main tourism body unexpectedly decreed that any without them had to cancel reservations at once. Airbnb accordingly eliminated four-fifths of its roughly 60,000 listings in Japan. Holidays are at risk.

The experience illustrates the country’s hesitant approach to the sharing economy, in which people rent goods and services from one another through internet platforms (a broader definition includes companies renting out goods they own, such as bikes, for a short time). A generous estimate of...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
China’s tighter regulation of shadow banks begins to bite

THE teller at ICBC, China’s (and the world’s) biggest bank, ushers a new, well-heeled customer into a private room. It is not for VIP treatment but a stern warning. The customer wants to invest in products offering higher returns than a basic savings account. The teller fixes a camera on her and reels off a series of questions. Are you aware that prices can go down as well as up? Do you understand that the bank does not guarantee this product? Only when the customer has been recorded saying “yes” does she get her wish.

Some complain that these videotaped agreements, now mandatory at Chinese banks selling similar investment products, feel like interrogations. But for the financial system, they are a step away from the precipice. Banks have used such transactions to channel cash into off-balance-sheet loans, serving riskier corners of the economy. Firms with little lending expertise have also muscled into the same space.

The catch-all phrase to describe this is shadow banking. It is...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
The insecurity of freelance work

THE decline of the conventional job has been much heralded in recent years. It is now nearly axiomatic that people will work for a range of employers in a variety of roles over their lifetimes, with a much more flexible schedule than in the past. Opinion is still divided over whether this change is a cause for concern or a chance for workers to be liberated from the rut of office life.

Is the shift really happening? Some figures from the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), released on June 7th, showed that only 10.1% of American workers were in “alternative employment” last year, a lower proportion than the 10.7% recorded in 2005. In contrast, a study of the British economy by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that the self-employed sector has been growing, with the number of self-employed sole traders rising by 25% between 2007-08 and 2015-16.

These two measures are different. But getting a good statistical fix is not easy when the jobs are hard to define. The ecology of...Continue reading

   
economist Thu, 14 Jun 2018 15:09:30 +0000
Other American banks may have misbehaved as Wells Fargo did. Which ones?

Role model

IF THERE is a single example of how dramatically the regulatory environment has changed for American banks in the past 18 months, it may be the trickle of information that has recently emerged about an inquiry into their sales practices. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a banking watchdog, began it in 2016 after widespread malpractice was uncovered at Wells Fargo, one of the country’s biggest banks. It ended the inquiry quietly by writing to several banks on June 4th; it sent the letters to Congress on June 11th. The public learned of the probe only because of diligent reporting by American Banker, a trade publication which appears to have gleaned its information mainly from banking consultants.

The OCC responded to American Banker’s report by releasing enough information to suggest that some banks were guilty of at least minor jiggery-pokery. It confirmed as much in testy exchanges between...Continue reading