Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi has become the world’s biggest carmaker
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

RENAULT unveiled the EZ-GO, a concept for a robotaxi, at the Geneva motor show, which opened on March 5th. Nissan, in conjunction with DeNA, a Japanese software firm, recently began trials of driverless taxis in Japan. The two companies are pursuing their own paths towards the future of mobility. Yet both are bound together in a close alliance, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. In 2016 they were joined by Mitsubishi. Last year the trio sold 10.6m cars between them, one in every nine worldwide.

It is a unique carmaking liaison, neither a full merger nor as loose as the many tie-ups forged to spread the cost of developing pricey pieces of technology. Each firm remains autonomous but shares a growing number of links in the supply chain with the other two. It all looks hugely successful. In 2017 Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi overtook Volkswagen (VW) as the world’s biggest car company (if lorries are included, the German firm is narrowly ahead).

Yet enthusiasm for the alliance...

Online starlets are refashioning Chinese e-commerce
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

Ms Jiang and Mr Liang, salespeople of the year

LIANG TAO shifted 80 pink Givenchy bags in 12 minutes. Becky Fang offloaded 100 turquoise Mini Cooper cars in just five. Both are wanghong, literally “red-hot on the web”. Every day millions of Chinese trawl social media for wanghong posts or tune in to live-streams for opinions on everything from a French fashionista’s essentials to rampant sexism in China. The fans are helping this new breed of Chinese internet star to monetise their popularity—and to shake up the country’s e-commerce industry in the process.

Unlike conventional luxury-and-beauty brand ambassadors, many wanghong have built their fan bases through compelling online content rather than a famous name. Some of the most successful are not especially glamorous. “Pudgy Luo” is a middle-aged man who discusses everything from Chinese emperors to 3D printing on his talk-show. MC Tianyou raps...

Which firms profit most from America’s health-care system
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

EVERY year America spends about $5,000 more per person on health care than other rich countries do. Yet its people are not any healthier. Where does all the money go? One explanation is waste, with patients wolfing down too many pills and administrators churning out red tape. There is also the cost of services that may be popular and legitimate but do nothing to improve medical outcomes. Manhattan’s hospitals, with their swish reception desks and menus, can seem like hotels compared with London’s bleached Victorian structures.

The most controversial source of excess spending, though, is rent-seeking by health-care firms. This is when companies extract outsize profits relative to the capital they deploy and risks they take. Schumpeter has estimated the scale of gouging across the health-care system. Although it does not explain the vast bulk of America’s overspending, the sums are big by any other standard, with health-care firms making excess profits of $65bn a year. Surprisingly, the worst...

The reckoning at Theranos
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

“The Next Steve Jobs”

“THE Next Steve Jobs” is how Inc., an American business magazine, described Elizabeth Holmes when her photograph appeared on its cover in 2015. They may share an affinity for black turtlenecks but the reputations of Ms Holmes and Apple’s celebrated late boss could not be more different. On March 14th Ms Holmes was accused of fraud by America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). She has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine, not serve as an officer of a public company for ten years and turn over much of her stake in Theranos, the startup she founded (she has neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing).

Only a few years ago Ms Holmes, who is 34 years old, was touted as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, a shatterer of Silicon Valley’s reinforced-glass ceiling. She graced magazine covers and speechified about Theranos, which was trying to upend diagnostic testing by using pinprick amounts of blood rather than...

AT&T’s merger with Time Warner goes on trial
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

AN ANTITRUST trial over AT&T’s $109bn acquisition of Time Warner, which begins on March 19th, will have more keen observers than one courtroom can handle. Disney, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, Verizon, Charter Communications, CBS and Viacom will be watching. So will Netflix, Amazon and Google.

The reason is simple. If AT&T wins the case against the Justice Department, and the “vertical merger” of the distribution and content businesses goes through, a wave of consolidation deals will follow. Companies that rely on large numbers of people to watch video will want to bulk up to compete with each other and Silicon Valley’s mightiest.

Comcast may make a hostile bid for Fox’s assets, setting off a bidding war with Disney, which has already agreed a $66bn deal with Fox. (Comcast already wants to buy Sky, a European satellite provider that is part of the Disney-Fox transaction.) Other pay-TV and mobile firms, like Charter and Verizon, will feel emboldened to go after content companies such as CBS or Lionsgate. All are watching...

Germany’s two biggest utilities strike a deal
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

Windy with a chance of profits

WHEN Johannes Teyssen took control of E.ON in 2010, it was Germany’s second-biggest company after Siemens, an industrial giant. From its headquarters in chic Düsseldorf, the utility looked down on RWE, its longtime rival, based in Essen, a down-at-heel former coal-and-steel town 40 minutes’ drive away.

The illusion of superiority did not last. The following year Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, reacted to the meltdown at Fukushima in Japan by starting a process to shut down Germany’s nuclear-power plants, on which both companies relied. Other aspects of the Energiewende, or energy transition, added to their woes, as lavish support for renewables clobbered the country’s wholesale electricity prices. The companies’ profits slumped, as did their share prices (see chart).

In 2016 E.ON recorded its biggest-ever loss, moved its headquarters from Düsseldorf to Essen, and reinvented itself as a renewable-energy business and a household gas-and-...

Unilever picks Rotterdam
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

PROUDLY overlooking the River Thames, Unilever House looks more royal palace than office building. Built on the site of a Tudor estate, for nine decades it has been the London home to Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer-goods firms. Since a merger of British soapmakers and Dutch margarine merchants in 1929, Unilever has been a dual-nationality company. It is legally domiciled in Britain and the Netherlands, with headquarters in both the London building and in Rotterdam.

The appeal of dual citizenship has faded. After a year-long review, on March 15th Unilever’s board announced plans to move its legal base to Rotterdam. (The firm will continue to have a listing in London, and claims no British jobs will be lost.) Many in the City of London finger Britain’s decision to leave the European Union for the move. But Graeme Pitkethly, the firm’s chief financial officer, insisted Brexit was “absolutely not a factor” in the decision. Over the past decade Unilever has been shifting its production facilities nearer to its customers in other...

Protectionism may impede Delta’s expansion plans
Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:09 GMT

AS AMERICA’S oldest airline still aloft, Delta makes much of its southern roots. At its biggest hub, Atlanta airport, the company museum recounts how it became the world’s second-biggest carrier. The answer: by buying up domestic rivals. With few takeover targets left at home, Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, is looking abroad. But his plans for more foreign joint ventures (JVs) face regulatory headwinds.

Last year Mr Bastian announced a flurry of JVs. In May Delta launched one with Aeromexico and in June another with Korean Air. In July Delta formed one of the world’s biggest JVs with Virgin Atlantic of Britain and Air France-KLM, a European group. In December it sealed one with WestJet, Canada’s biggest low-cost carrier. It wants closer relations with China Eastern and GOL of Brazil, two airlines in which it owns shares. And on March 12th it emerged that Delta and Air France-KLM plan to bid for Air India, an ailing flag carrier. If all these deals come off, one passenger in eight...

Pakistan’s Murree Brewery shrugs off restrictions on its products
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:07 GMT

Tipple from a teetotalitarian land

QUARTER-LITRE bottles of whisky whizz down a conveyor belt past Mukhtar Ali, a quality-control employee at Pakistan’s Murree Brewery, the only legal beer-and-spirit maker in this Islamic country. Nearby labourers pack Vat No.1, a cask-aged spirit, into boxes. An elderly man with a long beard tapes them up. Asked over the roar of imported German machinery if they have ever taken a sip of the amber liquid, each shakes his head. “It’s haram,” (meaning forbidden), says Mr Ali.

The 155-year-old institution causes some spluttering nonetheless. Founded for British troops of the Raj, it can sell only to the 3% of the 207m-strong population that is comprised of foreigners and non-Muslims. But many of its products end up in Muslim hands, as illustrated by the predilections of the former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who ordered a nationwide ban on alcohol in 1977. “He was the biggest consumer of Murree in...

A Chinese oil baron is reportedly detained by the authorities
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:02 GMT

Ye Jianming in bloom

STAFF had routinely been directed to pore over their chairman’s speeches and learn from them. One which Ye Jianming, the 40-year-old founder of CEFC, delivered last autumn—“Only One Step From Midsummer to Harsh Winter”—was a historical tale meant to motivate the troops. In it he compared his firm’s swift rise to that of Hu Xueyan, a 19th-century merchant banker. Hu amassed a fortune trading in salt, tea, arms and silk through close ties to China’s imperial elites, then fell from grace and went bankrupt.

Mr Ye did not mean the lesson to be pertinent to his own situation. CEFC was then enjoying its own midsummer. As China’s largest private oil group, it had just won a 14.2% stake in Russia’s state-backed oil firm, Rosneft, paying $9.1bn for one of the most significant shares of the world’s largest listed oil firm by production. Industry analysts outside China had been scrambling to study CEFC since early 2017 when it joined national oil...

America’s companies have binged on debt; a reckoning looms
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:02 GMT

AMERICA’s companies have been powering ahead for years. Amid growing profits, the recession that began in 2007 seems an increasingly distant memory. Yet the situation has a dark side: companies have binged on debt. For now, as the good times have coincided with a period of record-low interest rates, markets have been untroubled. But a shock could put corporate America into trouble.

No matter how it is measured, the debt load looks worrying. When calculated as a percentage of GDP, the total debt of America’s non-financial corporations reached 73.3% in the second quarter of 2017 (the latest available data). This is a record high. Measured against earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), the net debt of non-financial companies in the S&P500 hit a ratio of 1.5 at of the end of 2016, a level not seen since 2003. And it remained nearly as high in 2017 (see chart).

To be sure, things are less worrying than they were before the financial crisis. According to a recent analysis by S&P Global...

CFIUS intervenes in Broadcom’s attempt to buy Qualcomm
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:02 GMT

IT WAS only five months ago that President Donald Trump lauded Broadcom, a chipmaker, as “one of the really great, great companies” for announcing its plan to move its legal headquarters to America from Singapore. With such praise in the bank, the firm’s chief executive, Hock Tan, may have expected his subsequent offer for a rival, Qualcomm, to enjoy an easy ride. Its course has been anything but smooth. The $142bn bid, which would be the largest-ever tech deal, was rebuffed by Qualcomm’s management. Broadcom next turned to shareholders, asking them to elect its nominees to Qualcomm’s board at a meeting scheduled for March 6th.

Then, in a dramatic twist, the Committee on Foreign Investment into the United States (CFIUS), which oversees the national-security implications of foreign transactions, stepped in to delay the meeting while it conducts a review. It had been drawn in by Qualcomm, in what its furious suitor has branded a “desperate” attempt to prevent the vote. The panel’s surprise intervention suggests a more activist approach to...

Ericsson and Nokia are now direct rivals. How do they compare?
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:02 GMT

“SUCCESS is toxic,” says Risto Siilasmaa, Nokia’s chairman, as snowflakes swirl in the wind outside. Asked what lesson to draw from his firm’s collapse, which started a decade ago, he underlines the dangers of doing too well. In its heyday, Nokia was a monster; its market capitalisation surpassed $290bn in mid-2000 and by 2007 it accounted for 40% of global handset sales. Yet its dominance in hardware, which encouraged a relaxed attitude towards software, bred failure. It is now worth $33bn.

No executive at Ericsson, Nokia’s big European rival based some 400km to the west near Stockholm, would put it quite that way. But the experience of the Swedish firm has been strikingly similar. Early this decade Ericsson provided 40% of the world’s mobile infrastructure and its market capitalisation hovered above $40bn. Now both numbers are about half that.

The two firms are also direct competitors once again, which invites assessment of who is ahead. Another question is whether European...

An arcane business structure loses its charm
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:02 GMT

WHEN British soapmakers merged with Dutch margarine merchants to form Unilever in 1929, the logic was clear. Both firms shared a key ingredient, animal fat, and were starting to step on each other’s toes as they diversified. Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer-goods firms. A dual-nationality company, it has headquarters in both Britain and the Netherlands and is regarded as a national treasure in both places.

Before the month is out, however, it is expected to plump for Rotterdam as its sole headquarters (Britain’s quandary over Brexit is doubtless a factor). It is not alone in rethinking its arcane arrangement. According to FTI Consulting, a business-advisory firm, of the 15 companies that have used a “dual structure” at one time or other over the past 25 years, only six remain. Some, such as Royal Dutch Shell, an oil giant, unified their structures in the mid-2000s. RELX, an Anglo-Dutch publishing firm, did so last month. BHP, an Anglo-Australian mining firm, faces investor pressure to do the same.


Inside Warren Buffett’s deal machine
Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:01 GMT

SOME things about Warren Buffett never change, including his non-stop jokes, famous annual letter and his reputation as the world’s best investor. What is less understood is that over the past decade Mr Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, has sharply altered its strategy. For its first 40 years Berkshire mainly invested in shares and ran insurance businesses, but since 2007 it has shifted to acquiring a succession of large industrial companies.

In some ways it is hard to criticise Berkshire. Its shares have kept up with the stockmarket and its standing is exalted. It is the world’s seventh-most-valuable publicly traded firm (the other six are tech concerns). But Mr Buffett’s behemoth is a puzzle. Its recent deals have had drab results, suggesting a pivot to mediocrity.

It has been quite a spree. Since 2007 Berkshire has spent $106bn on 158 firms. The share of its capital sunk into industry has risen from a third to over half. The largest deals include BNSF, a North American...

Sweden tries to increase gender equality on the web
Thu, 08 March 2018 10:50:24 GMT

EVER since Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, referred to Sweden as a “hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism” and as a “Saudi Arabia of feminism”, Swedes have worn this as a badge of honour. Now its foreign ministry has an ambitious plan to increase gender equality on the internet.

Its precise target is Wikipedia, a user-generated online encyclopedia on which some 90% of the content is created by men. Of its biographies, 80% are about males. On International Women’s Day on March 8th (as The Economist went to press) the Swedes were hosting “WikiGap” edit-a-thons and seminars in 54 of its embassies, from Abuja to Vilnius, in partnership with Wikimedia, the foundation behind the platform. The hope was that participants would write more entries about notable women.

“Knowledge is power,” explains Margot Wallström, the foreign minister, and because these days knowledge and information come from the “clearly unbalanced” internet, this is a problem, she adds...

Two oil majors face trial over a controversial deal in Nigeria
Thu, 01 March 2018 15:44:28 GMT

Better uses for $1.1bn

RESOURCE-RICH Nigeria has long ignited interest from oil firms, but it can be a dangerously combustible environment when it comes to the risk of corruption. Two firms caught up in scandals are Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, Italy’s state-backed energy group. In 2010 both entered into deferred-prosecution agreements with America’s Department of Justice after being implicated in separate Nigerian bribery schemes. But those pale beside a case involving the two companies that is set to go to trial in Milan on March 5th.

The case centres on the purchase of a big offshore oil field known as OPL 245, and touches the top ranks of both firms. In the dock will be, among others, Eni’s current CEO, Claudio Descalzi, and Shell’s former exploration chief, Malcolm Brinded. Also on trial are the firms themselves, charged with failing to prevent bribery. The individuals face jail if convicted; the companies face fines. All deny wrongdoing.

In 2011...

A new boss for McKinsey
Thu, 01 March 2018 15:44:28 GMT

THE Jesuits, the US Marines and the Freemasons: McKinsey has been compared to them all, at one time or other. The firm prides itself on being the most prestigious management consultancy, sending out its bright, young footsoldiers to advise executives and policymakers on tricky strategic issues. It is everywhere, counselling 90 of the top 100 firms (as ranked by Forbes magazine). Among its many government assignments it is helping Britain to leave the EU, Lebanon to fix its economy and the Saudis to wean themselves off oil.

Occasionally the company needs new leadership itself. On February 25th the result of a long election process was made public. Kevin Sneader, the Scottish chairman of McKinsey’s Asia unit, will replace Dominic Barton as managing partner—the top job. He inherits a thriving business. The firm remains by far the biggest of the premium consultancies (see table). Over the past decade, annual revenues have doubled to $10bn; so too has the size of the partnership, to more than 2,000.


Some airport terminals are learning from the luxury-hotel business
Thu, 01 March 2018 15:44:28 GMT

Harder to expense

THE private-jet industry advertises itself as the height of luxury for the rich. But travelling through the ramshackle, ugly buildings it used to use as terminals was rather like going commercial. No longer. At one of Dubai’s newest facilities for private jets—built by Jetex, a fast-growing chain—passengers strum guitars on hammock-shaped sofas around a coffee table dressed up as a campfire, before being whisked away to their planes in limousines. Others amuse themselves playing table football or having elaborate spa treatments.

It is unsurprising that such a facility has emerged in Dubai. But the boom in luxurious terminals that look more like playpens for adults than somewhere to fly from is spreading. Jetex has opened 39 of them in more than 20 countries since 2005. Adel Mardini, the firm’s boss, is clear about how he wants to disrupt the industry. He says he wants airport facilities to feel “like a five-star hotel”.

Often little...

Comcast announces a surprise offer for a British television firm
Thu, 01 March 2018 15:44:28 GMT

HAVING failed to get Rupert Murdoch’s attention before, Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast, certainly has it now. On February 27th the American pay-television giant said it would make a £22.1bn ($30.7bn) offer for Sky, the European satellite broadcaster, potentially disrupting Disney’s agreed $66bn purchase of much of 21st Century Fox.

The surprise announcement comes as Fox, which owns 39% of Sky, is trying to get regulatory approval in Britain for its own purchase of the remaining 61% of the satellite broadcaster, which it would then hand over to Disney after shareholders and regulators approve that deal (perhaps by the end of this year). By putting himself in the middle of that complex transaction, with an all-cash offer 16% richer than that of Fox, Mr Roberts is causing people to wonder what his goal is. He had tried to outbid Disney for Fox’s assets in the autumn, but gave up due to a lack of engagement from Mr Murdoch. He may now only be after Sky, or he may intend to make a still bigger hostile bid to top Disney’s.