reviews

Tiny HopperGo Neatly Stashes Loads of Mobile Entertainment

Dish Network continues to change the way we view recorded TV. It made location-shifting as easy as time-shifting via its Sling technology, and its Hopper let users transfer recordings to a mobile device. Now it has introduced another option for taking recorded content anywhere: the HopperGO, a compact DVR hard disk drive that lets users transfer content from a set-top box to the portable unit.

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Striking it rich

Keeping a close eye on the barrels

TWO lines of business have stood out of late for their inability to make money: journalism and oil. So when it emerged on May 23rd that Argus Media, a British firm that reports global commodities prices, is to be sold to an American investment firm for $1.4 billion, it aroused a variety of emotions. One was surprise. “Data about oil markets now seem to be worth more than oil itself,” exclaimed one executive of a commodities exchange. Another, in the words of an employee at S&P Global Platts, Argus’s main rival, was “jealousy”. The sale has turned some of Argus’s 750 scribblers, a quarter of whom are said to own shares or options, into millionaires.

Argus began in 1970 as a newsletter reporting on petroleum-product prices in the Netherlands. General Atlantic, which is buying out the family of Jan Nasmyth, its late founder, has made the most aggressive move so far in an industry that is fast consolidating. Its leaders, Platts and Argus, are battling for dominance over reporting prices of the most widely used oil benchmarks, such as Dated Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI),…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Sumner’s lease

UNDER normal circumstances, a nasty public power struggle between a company’s controlling shareholder and its chief executive might put a dampener on the share price. But the circumstances at Viacom, a media conglomerate, are anything but normal. Sumner Redstone (pictured), an ailing 92-year-old mogul, recently kept control of his $42 billion media empire after a humiliating legal battle to prise it from his hands. Now the focus has shifted to the leadership of Philippe Dauman, the CEO of Viacom, prompting another round of lawsuits. Although the drama makes the firm’s future more uncertain, investors seem more excited.

Like many a television soap opera, recent events have been absorbingly far-fetched. First came a lawsuit by Manuela Herzer, a former lover of Mr Redstone’s who had been written out of his will. Her reinstatement would have threatened the tycoon’s control of Viacom and another media giant, CBS. A judge threw out that lawsuit on May 9th. Then, on May 20th, Mr Redstone ejected Mr Dauman from a trust that will decide the fate of his holdings after his death. Three days later Mr Dauman filed a lawsuit to block the move, arguing that Mr…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Upward mobility

Rivals in the pink

CAR companies have long talked a good game when it comes to harnessing technology that threatens to undermine the business of making and selling vehicles. In the 1990s, as the dotcom boom was in full swing, Jac Nasser, then boss of Ford, said that the new business models the internet would enable meant that his firm would outsource the dull task of assembling cars and reinvent itself as a mobility company, selling transport as a service. Mr Nasser was too early with this insight. Only now are most big carmakers teaming up with tech firms that offer transport services, on the road to becoming mobility providers. But they in turn may have left it too late.

In the scramble to reinvent themselves, conventional carmakers have turned their attention of late to ride-hailing apps. These services allow people to use smartphone apps to summon a car and driver to ferry them to their next destination. On May 24th both Toyota and Volkswagen announced tie-ups with taxi-hailing apps. The Japanese firm has made a small, undisclosed investment in Uber, the world’s biggest ride-hailing firm, with operations in over 70…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A pink slip

“WHAT rate of interest…can naturally be more proper than another?” asked Jeremy Bentham in “Defence of Usury” in 1787. Anything less than 36%, answer American activists who want to curtail payday lending—pricey, short-term credit typically used as an advance on a pay cheque. When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unveils its proposals for regulating the industry on June 2nd, it will not set such an interest-rate cap (the Dodd-Frank act, which established the agency, forbids it from doing so). But the regulator will probably impose tough new requirements that could wipe out much of the supply of high-cost, short-term credit.

Around 12m Americans turn to payday lenders in any given year. The typical loan is about $350 and costs about $15 every two weeks for each $100 borrowed. At that interest rate, a $100 loan, with both principal and interest rolled over for a year, would explode into a debt of almost $3,800.

The CFPB’s studies of the market make for uncomfortable reading. Nearly half of customers borrow or roll over debt at least ten times per year. About half of those who borrow online incur bank…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Proof positive

AVENUE PÉTAIN, a tree-lined boulevard of grand mansions and Art Deco towers in Shanghai’s old French concession, was once one of the city’s most prestigious residential streets. Hengshan Road, as it is now called, is today full of bars and restaurants. The most intriguing used to be the Moutai club, a secretive outfit catering to political bigwigs that decorated its walls with pictures of Deng Xiaoping and other luminaries quaffing firewater. Their glasses may have contained a special blend of Moutai, an expensive brand of baijiu, a liquor distilled from sorghum.

Alas, this pleasure palace has since shut down. A crackdown on corruption by the government of President Xi Jinping has made it risky for officials to schmooze with businessmen over bottles of baijiu. Sales of China’s national spirit (and the world’s most popular hard liquor), which rose at double-digit rates from 2007 to 2012, were dealt a big blow. Annual growth in sales plunged to barely 3% in 2014 as purchases for official banquets and other forms of ostentatious boozing plummeted.

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Under scrutiny

Ma ponders

“WE HAVE from time to time been subject to PRC and foreign government inquiries and investigations.” So declared form 20-F, a regulatory filing submitted by Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce firm, to America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on May 24th. It is tempting to dismiss this as boilerplate language. All foreign firms listed in America (Alibaba trades on the New York Stock Exchange) are required to file this document regularly. In fact, it is not inconsequential. The filing revealed that Alibaba is the target of an ongoing SEC investigation into its accounting practices. The company’s shares fell sharply after the news became public.

The SEC appears to have three areas of concern. It wants to know more about the Cainiao Network, a logistics joint venture worth $7.7 billion in which Alibaba has a 47% stake. The agency also wants data on “Singles’ Day”, an annual marketing promotion that last year apparently generated $14.3 billion in gross merchandise value (GMV) on one day. As GMV is not a recognised term in GAAP, the accounting standard used in America, the SEC may be digging into…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Taming the beasts

TALK to Axelle Lemaire, a French secretary of state in charge of all things digital, and one topic quickly comes up: online platforms of the kind operated by tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Uber. “France is very open to them,” she insists, “but consumers have to be protected.”

Ms Lemaire’s words will soon be put into action. The French parliament is about to pass a law, sponsored by her, which will create the principle of loyauté des plateformes, best translated as platform fairness. Once it takes effect, operators of online marketplaces will, among other things, be required to signal when an offer is given prominence because the operator has struck a deal with the firm in question, as opposed to it being the best available.

In Brussels, too, the regulation of platforms is on the agenda. On May 25th the European Commission announced plans for how it intends to deal with such services. Its proposals cover everything from what tech firms should do to rid their digital properties of objectionable content, such as hate speech, to whether users can move data they have accumulated on one platform to…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

That sinking feeling

THE fear that a creaking pension system will fail to provide for swelling ranks of retirees is held by some economists to be one reason why many Japanese prefer hoarding their cash to spending it. Any meddling with the ¥140 trillion ($1.27 trillion) pot that funds the state pension is politically fraught—as Hiromichi Mizuno, the first chief investment officer of the ultra-conservative Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), is finding out.

In October 2014 the GPIF made an historic shift in its asset allocation, trimming its pile of Japanese government bonds and doubling its holding of stocks (see chart). For the next three quarters, its returns duly rose along with stockmarkets. In the financial year that ended on March 31st 2015 the fund made its highest-ever return, of 12.27%. The intention, however, was not so much to juice returns as to prepare for the return of inflation. The Bank of Japan’s massive monetary easing was supposed to be on the verge of pushing prices up again after a decade of deflation, thereby eroding the value of Japanese bonds.

Since those heady beginnings, however, Japanese shares, and some…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Heist finance

BARELY an eyebrow is raised these days when the credit-card details of retailers’ customers are stolen en masse; such crimes are attempted or committed daily. But when banks’ own funds are pinched, it is time to pay attention—especially when the theft involves hijacking banks’ connections to the global payments system. This week the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), a network that thousands of banks around the world use to move money, described a recent spate of cyber-heists, which netted $90m. Gottfried Leibbrandt, SWIFT’s boss, described them as a “watershed moment”. The threat now, he said, is not just to banks’ reputations, but to the very existence of those that fail to protect themselves.

Investigators are still trying to piece together how thieves pulled off a spectacular hack that siphoned $81m out of Bangladesh’s central bank in February, let alone who was behind it. This was one of the biggest-ever bank robberies, but it could have been worse: $850m of the bogus transfer requests were blocked. The stolen money went to a bank in the Philippines, then on to casinos. Where most of it went from…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Make me

“IF VOTING made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it,” quipped Mark Twain, an American writer. Some governments, however, think voting makes such a difference that they oblige voters to do it. Voting is compulsory in 26 countries around the world, from Argentina to Belgium. To those elsewhere worried about declining voter turnout, compulsory voting may seem tempting. But it is not a shortcut to a healthy democracy.

Turnout has fallen from around 85% of eligible voters across the OECD in the late 1940s to 65% today, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an NGO. For many, the changing composition of the voting electorate is as worrying as its dwindling size. Voters in Britain and America are disproportionately rich, well-educated and old. That, studies suggest, skews policymaking. In late-19th-century America, for example, rules barring most blacks in the South from voting seem to have resulted in a much lower ratio of teachers to children in black schools. Government…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Wait and hope

OPINION polls suggest that Brexit won’t happen. Ladbrokes, a bookmaker, is offering 4-to-1 against. But pollsters and bookies have been wrong before: what if on June 23rd Britain chooses to quit the European Union? The world’s biggest banks, for which London is a second home if not their first, have plenty of other worries: profits are thin, regulators nagging, investors impatient. The referendum is an extra headache they could do without. Banks must nevertheless be braced for turmoil should the odds be upset. And if Britain votes to leave, they will face an awkward decision: should they shift business away from Europe’s financial capital?

Banks do not have to answer that question yet. They hope they never will. Already under pressure to cut costs, they are not spending oodles on contingency plans and won’t until they have to. For now, they regard the referendum chiefly as a market event, with a known date, which could cause volatility and strain liquidity. The most obvious place to look for trouble is in the exchange rate, where there has been some pre-poll turbulence. Between the turn of the year and early April sterling slid by 9% against the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Ignorance isn’t bliss

IT IS not the “unknown unknowns” that catch people out, but the truths they hold to be self-evident that turn out to be completely wrong. On many issues, the gap between public perceptions and reality is very wide. The polling company Ipsos Mori found that Americans think 33% of the population are immigrants, for example, when the actual number is 14%. A 2013 poll found that Britons thought 24% of the population was Muslim—almost five times the correct figure of 5%.

Misperceptions about economic policy are common, too. Asked to name the top two or three areas of government spending, 26% of Britons cited foreign aid, more than picked pensions or education. In fact, aid spending is a small fraction of the other two and only 1% of the total.

Some of this is to do with innumeracy. Only a quarter of Britons could work out that the odds of throwing two consecutive heads in a coin toss was 25%. People are also heavily influenced by anecdotal evidence and by fears for themselves or their families—hence the tendency to overestimate the prevalence of crime or teenage pregnancy. (Asked how many teenage girls get pregnant each year, Americans…Continue reading

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