Michel Foucault’s lessons for business
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

NOT many businesspeople study post-war French philosophy, but they could certainly learn from it. Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, argued that how you structure information is a source of power. A few of America’s most celebrated bosses, including Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, understand this implicitly, adroitly manipulating how outsiders see their firms. It is one of the most important but least understood skills in business.

Foucault was obsessed with taxonomies, or how humans split the world into arbitrary mental categories in order “to tame the wild profusion of existing things”. When we flip these around, “we apprehend in one great leap…the exotic charm of another system of thought”. Imagine, for example, a supermarket organised by products’ vintage. Lettuces, haddock, custard and the New York Times would be grouped in an aisle called “items produced yesterday”. Scotch, string, cans of dog food and the discounted Celine Dion DVDs would be in the “made in 2008”...

How an algorithm may decide your career
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

WANT a job with a successful multinational? You will face lots of competition. Two years ago Goldman Sachs received a quarter of a million applications from students and graduates. Those are not just daunting odds for jobhunters; they are a practical problem for companies. If a team of five Goldman human-resources staff, working 12 hours every day, including weekends, spent five minutes on each application, they would take nearly a year to complete the task of sifting through the pile.

Little wonder that most large firms use a computer program, or algorithm, when it comes to screening candidates seeking junior jobs. And that means applicants would benefit from knowing exactly what the algorithms are looking for.

Victoria McLean is a former banking headhunter and recruitment manager who set up a business called City CV, which helps job candidates with applications. She says the applicant-tracking systems (ATS) reject up to 75% of CVs, or résumés, before a human sees them. Such...

Yacht-sharing startups vie to rule the waves
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

The yacht-sharing market could be this big

ONE of the busiest times of the year at Arzal marina on the coast of western France is a wooden sailing-boat festival in early summer. Hundreds of enthusiasts join Breton dances on the quayside, but as usual most of the 1,000-or so yachts, catamarans, day-sailers and motor-cruisers remain tied to the pontoons.

Few boat-owners make regular use of their expensive assets. By one estimate, a French yacht slips its moorings on average for just ten days a year, and for America’s 12m recreational boats, typical annual usage is two weeks. Meanwhile, would-be sailors have had few options, beyond pricey short charters.

Marine versions of property-sharer Airbnb or ride-sharer BlaBlaCar are trying to match the two. In Europe a French firm founded in 2013 by Jeremy Bismuth and Edouard Gorioux sets the pace. Click&Boat has 70 staff crammed onto a barge, its headquarters, on the Seine in Paris. They manage bookings for a...

How two-wheelers are weaving their way into urban transport
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

THE streets of Beijing are thronged with two-wheeled contraptions. Some appear to be conventional petrol mopeds but as they zoom through red lights at pedestrian crossings their eerie silence and lack of exhaust reveals them as electric. Executives in suits cruise by on electric kick-scooters, looking like big kids on their way to school, though travelling much more enthusiastically. Electric bicycles, hacked together with a battery strapped to the frame and wired to a back-wheel hub containing a motor, crowd the edges of roads.

China’s cities are at the forefront of a quiet swarm of electric two-wheeled vehicles. Millions now roam their centres. This transformation of urban mobility is also happening in the West, albeit with a notable addition that has yet to take off in China: firms that rent out electric kick-scooters. These are taking many American cities by storm and are arriving in Europe.

In the bike-mad Netherlands nearly one in three newly bought bikes last year was...

Glencore dodges American sanctions rather than spurn its friends
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

AMONG Africa’s many foreign fixers and mining tycoons, few are more colourful than Dan Gertler, an Israeli diamond trader. Just over 20 years ago at the age of 23 he took a punt on Laurent Kabila, the rebel who in 1997 had just seized the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) from Mobutu Sese Seko, its dictator for the previous 32 years. Having met him through his son, Joseph, he lent the president $20m to buy weapons. He could have lost everything, but instead made it back a hundredfold. By the time Joseph Kabila took over from his father, after the latter’s murder in 2001, he had become the man largely in charge of distributing Congo’s mining licences to international mining companies.

Two decades on, Mr Gertler’s clout in Congo is undiminished. That was proved on June 15th when Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trader, decided it would rather evade sanctions than not pay the billionaire the royalties he was owed from a Glencore-owned mine. The American government...

A maverick French telecoms firm attempts Italian conquest
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

From Station F to Milano Centrale

“CHOOSE truth. Choose Iliad,” entreats the voice-over of a television advertisement after images of President Donald Trump speechifying and footballers feigning injuries flash across the screen. That may seem pretentious for a mobile provider, but the advert is part of Iliad’s entry into Italy, which began on May 29th. The group, led by one of France’s most prominent businessmen, Xavier Niel (pictured), is credited with having shaken up the telecoms industry at home. He wants to have a similar impact in Italy.

Mr Niel started out with a porn-chat service for Minitel, a French antecedent to the internet. In 2002 he launched his Freebox, which combined cheap web access, TV and fixed-line telephony, and in 2012 started selling low-cost mobile telephony. Growth came easily for years, allowing Mr Niel to spend time on other things, such as launching Station F, the world’s largest startup incubator, in Paris, and free coding schools in...

A wave of new environmental laws is scaring shipowners
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

THE shipping industry has encountered rough seas over the past decade. Between 1985 and 2007 trade volumes shot up at around twice the rate of global GDP but since 2012 their rate of growth has barely kept pace, leaving the industry with overcapacity. Freight rates for containers have plunged by a third since 2008. Worse may be to come. The industry does not regard as good news President Donald Trump’s announcement on June 15th of tariffs of 25% on up to $50bn of Chinese goods, which will slow trade growth further. Now a veritable hurricane of new environmental laws is about to hit.

Shipping accounts for only around 2% of global carbon emissions, but is quite dirty. Burning heavy fuel oil, the industry produces 13% of the world’s sulphur emissions and 15% of its nitrogen oxides. And by 2050 ships will be producing 17% of all carbon emissions if left unregulated, according to research by the European Union.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO...

Canaries in the coal mine
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

IF YOU look only at the headline numbers, populism and protectionism seem to be weirdly good for global business. Since 2015 there has been Brexit, the rise of fringe parties in the euro zone, the election of President Donald Trump and a more nationalistic China under Xi Jinping, its president. Yet over this period the profits of the world’s biggest 3,000 listed firms have risen by 44% in dollar terms. Share prices have soared. As for tariffs, for now they are little more than an irritant for most bosses. Plenty of Western firms are still keen on exotic thrills far beyond their borders—in May, Walmart bid $16bn for Flipkart, an Indian e-commerce company. Starbucks is opening a new shop in China every 15 hours.

Look more closely, however, and you will see that the decay of globalisation is accompanied by a steady demoralisation of multinationals. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subprime crisis some 20 years later, a few thousand corporate cosmopolitans became ever more...

The insecurity of freelance work
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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...

Why Japan’s sharing economy is tiny
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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...

Google runs into more flak on artificial intelligence
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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 thousands of...

Can the solar industry survive without subsidies?
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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...

The murky future of two Latin American oil giants
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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. The...

Trends in extortion payments by companies to Italy’s Mafia
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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 media...

A new breed of German startups
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

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...

Xiaomi’s forthcoming IPO shows how the rules of business are changing
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

IN 1987, when Lei Jun was a computer-science student in Wuhan, on the banks of the Yangtze River, he read a book about Steve Jobs and vowed to emulate him. If all goes to plan, this summer Mr Lei will take a leap towards that dream with the flotation of his firm, Xiaomi, at a valuation of $50bn-75bn. It is set to be the world’s largest initial public offering (IPO) since Alibaba in 2014.

Xiaomi is probably China’s most successful consumer brand, but ever since it started selling smartphones in 2010 it has also been difficult to categorise. Yes, Mr Lei sometimes dresses in black, as Mr Jobs did, but it has never been clear if Xiaomi is China’s Apple or if it is more like Samsung, Sony, Nokia, or even Costco, a bulk-discount retailer.

Schumpeter’s answer is that Xiaomi does not resemble any rich-world firm. For decades a particular American ideal of the public company has dominated: focused, widely owned and predictable. Xiaomi is a supercharged champion of a new Chinese model that...

A judge blames many parties in the Gulf’s biggest-ever corporate scandal
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

Follow the Maany

THE glitzy Gulf states take pride in superlatives. They have the world’s tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, even (for a time) the most expensive cocktail. To that list, add a slightly less glamorous entry: what a judge has called one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. On June 1st a court in the Cayman Islands issued a verdict in the long-running saga of Ahmad Hamad Algosaibi & Brothers Company (AHAB), a conglomerate. When the Saudi company defaulted in 2009, its creditors scrambled to recoup billions in losses. The effective bankruptcy touched off lawsuits from Saudi Arabia to Switzerland. At last, after the longest trial in Cayman Islands’ history, it is one step closer to resolution.

No one emerged from court looking good. Central to the case was whether the founding Gosaibi family knew about fraud carried out by Maan al-Sanea, one of their firm’s executives. Born to a Kuwaiti family, Mr Sanea married into the family in 1980 and...

Buying GitHub takes Microsoft back to its roots
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

ALMOST to the day 17 years ago Steve Ballmer, then boss of Microsoft, the world’s biggest software firm, called Linux a “cancer”, meaning that the open-source operating system would spell the death of proprietary software. On June 4th, his successor, Satya Nadella, announced that the firm would take over GitHub, the main source of such tumours today, for $7.5bn. The deal is yet another sign of Microsoft’s startling recent metamorphosis.

GitHub is no household name, but among programmers it is as important as Facebook—which explains the impressive price tag for a firm that earned only an estimated $200m of revenues last year. More than 28m developers globally keep their code on the website, which offers all kinds of tools and services. Most important of these is allowing software projects, whether open-source or not, easily to pull together code from different contributors.

For Microsoft the deal is a homecoming. It used to be a kind of GitHub itself. When Windows, its...

Artificial intelligence is awakening the chip industry’s animal spirits
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

SUPERCOMPUTERS usually fill entire rooms. But the one on the fifth floor of an office building in the centre of Bristol fits in an average-sized drawer. Its 16 processors punch more than 1,600 teraflops, a measure of computer performance. This puts the machine among the world’s 100 fastest, at least when solving certain artificial-intelligence (AI) applications, such as recognising speech and images.

The computer’s processors, developed by Graphcore, a startup, are tangible proof that AI has made chipmaking exciting again. After decades of big firms such as America’s Intel and Britain’s ARM ruling the semiconductor industry, the insatiable demand for computing generated by AI has created an opening for newcomers. And it may even be big enough to allow some startups to establish themselves as big, independent firms.

New Street, a research firm, estimates that the market for AI chips could reach $30bn by 2022. That would exceed the $22bn of revenue that Intel is expected to earn...

A tax-evasion scandal ensnares Chinese film-production companies
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

Fan Bingbing, on location in Khorgos

IT IS hard to go a day in China without seeing Fan Bingbing. The doe-eyed starlet gazes from film posters (she has averaged four films a year for the past decade), airbrushed ads for global brands and glossy magazine covers. But in the past week she has graced articles about tax evasion. Shares in a film-production firm that she partly owns fell by 10% on fears that it might be ensnared in a scandal in which actors have allegedly concealed their salaries. Ms Fan has denied wrongdoing. On June 3rd the government began a probe into tax compliance in the entertainment industry.

The controversy began when Cui Yongyuan, a TV presenter, described two anonymous contracts on Weibo, a microblog, one for 10m yuan ($1.6m) and another, linked to the first, for 50m yuan. He said it was a case of the “yin-and-yang” payments prevalent in the film business: reporting a low salary for taxation and pocketing a larger sum. Share prices of big film...