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A purge of Russia’s banks is not finished yet

Elvira’s mad again

WHEN Elvira Nabiullina took over the governorship of the Russian Central Bank (CBR) in 2013, she faced a bloated and leaky finance sector with over 900 banks. Since then, more than 340 have lost their licences. Another 35 have been rescued, including, in recent months, Otkritie, once the country’s biggest private lender by assets, and B&N Bank, its 12th largest. The costs have been steep. According to Fitch, a ratings agency, over 2.7trn roubles ($46bn, some 3.2% of GDP in 2016) have been spent on loans to rescued banks and payments to insured depositors. Fitch reckons another few hundred banks could go before the clean-up concludes. More large private banks are whispered to be among them.

The CBR has rightly been praised for preventing a wider crisis and undertaking a clean-up during a punishing recession. Non-performing loans are at a manageable level, of around 10%. Bringing Otkritie and B&N under CBR stewardship calmed panicked markets. Yet nationalisation also raises…Continue reading

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The tumultuous career of Patrick Drahi

WHAT does France’s corporate establishment make of the change in fortunes of Patrick Drahi, a telecoms billionaire who achieved brief greatness before crashing to earth? In August he was reported to be planning a $185bn bid for Charter Communications, America’s second-largest cable operator, which is part-owned by John Malone, a famous cable investor. This month the market value of his indebted firm, Altice, collapsed by half, removing much of his personal wealth.

Mr Drahi’s empire is centred on his control, since 2014, of SFR, France’s second-largest telecoms operator and a big cable firm. It was not his only acquisition; in recent years the Franco-Israeli dealmaker went on a shopping spree, buying dozens of firms and building a transatlantic telecom-and-media empire. He typically sacked 30% of the acquired firms’ employees and squeezed salaries and other costs. Customer service often tended to worsen. In doing so Altice amassed a debt burden of over €50bn ($59bn), far bigger than the value of the firm itself. That made it vulnerable: investors dumped its shares after poor third-quarter figures at SFR.

Mr Drahi is not entirely untypical in France, even if the extent of his activity is. Other swashbuckling dealmakers exist: Vincent Bolloré, a media investor with wide interests, for example, or Xavier Niel, owner of Iliad, another mobile-phone…Continue reading

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Italy’s new savings accounts fuel a boom in stockmarket listings

ITALY seems an unlikely place to be enjoying a boom in new listings on the stockmarket. It is full of family-run small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that mostly rely for their finance on banks; and Italy’s banks are notorious for the bad debts still lingering on their balance-sheets. But Borsa Italiana, Milan’s stock exchange, has already seen 33 share issues so far this year, of which 24 have been full-fledged initial public offerings (IPOs). The number of listings so far already equals that seen in previous boom years in 2007 or 2015. With more expected before January, the exchange is likely to achieve the highest number of listings since the height of the dotcom bubble in 2000 (see chart).

A big reason for the surge is the Italian government’s roll-out in February of new individual savings accounts, known as PIRs, which offer favourable tax treatment. These have done better than expected. Asset managers have amassed €7.5bn ($8.3bn) in new PIR funds in the first three quarters of…Continue reading

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Australia is the new frontier for battery minerals

Recession proofer

FORGET the “resource curse”. Australia is blessed with the stuff. For more than a quarter of a century it has not had a recession, thanks largely to Chinese demand for its raw materials. It is only a few years since the end of one such China-led boom, in base metals such as iron ore. A new speculative flurry has started in minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel to feed another China-related craze—making batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

Ken Brinsden, an Australian mining engineer, says he pinches himself over these remarkable turns of fortune. Until 2015 he was a boss at Atlas Iron, which shipped low-grade iron ore to China. In 2011, at the height of the China-led supercycle, it had a valuation of A$3.5bn ($3.8bn). This has now shrunk to A$167m. But he now heads Pilbara Minerals, whose Pilgangoora lithium mine in the outback of Western Australia lies so close to two of Atlas’s former iron-ore mines that he can see them from…Continue reading

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Google can no longer count on political goodwill at home

“WE USED to be so dismissed,” says Jeremy Stoppelman, the boss of Yelp, an online-review site which has waged a six-year-long battle against Google over how the online giant ranks its search results. Now American regulators are taking concerns about Google more seriously. On November 13th, Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney-general, launched an investigation into the search giant to determine whether it had violated the state’s antitrust and consumer-protection laws. Other entrepreneurs, too, congratulate Mr Stoppelman for speaking out about Google; they would not have done so before.

Until then it had been chiefly in Europe where Google had trouble. In June the European Commission announced a record-breaking €2.4bn ($2.7bn) fine against it for anticompetitive behaviour, concluding it had suppressed online-shopping results from rivals in its search results. Other investigations into Google’s behaviour in European countries are ongoing. America has taken a more benign view of its…Continue reading

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China’s bicycle-sharing giants are still trying to make money

Shades of cycling joy

STEVE JOBS liked to describe computers as “bicycles for the mind”—tools that let humans do things faster and more efficiently than their bodies would allow. The internet-connected bikes flooding the streets of urban China could be called “computers for the road”. Networked, trackable and data-generating, they are ones and zeros in aluminium form.

The cycles belong to Ofo and Mobike, two startups that, taken together, have raised $2.2bn of capital and are valued at more than $4bn. Each has between 7m and 10m bikes in China, averages 30m-35m rides a day and, having entered more than 100 Chinese cities, is expanding abroad. At the start of 2016 neither firm had a single bike on a public road. Ofo’s canary-yellow cycles and Mobike’s silver-and-orange ones can now be found in cities from Adelaide to London and Singapore to Seattle.

Most city bike-sharing systems, such as the Vélib scheme in Paris, depend on fixed…Continue reading

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Japan is embracing nursing-care robots

AT SHINTOMI nursing home in Tokyo, men and women sit in a circle following exercise instructions before singing along to a famous children’s song, “Yuyake Koyake” (“The Glowing Sunset”). They shout out and clap enthusiastically even though the activities are being led, not by a human fitness guru, but by Pepper, a big-eyed humanoid robot made by SoftBank, a telecoms and internet giant.

Japan leads the world in advanced robotics. Many of its firms see great potential in “carerobos” that look after the elderly. Over a quarter of the population is over 65, the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. Care workers are in desperately short supply, and many Japanese have a cultural affinity with robots.

For now the market is small. Although the government expects it will more than triple between 2015 and 2020, to ¥54.3bn ($480m), that is a long way below the revenues from industrial and service robots. One big reason for that is expense; few individuals can afford their own robots. Private firms partly rely…Continue reading

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Does Hong Kong’s Octopus card have too many tentacles?

Your extensible friend

IN 1997, two months after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, it acquired a cutting-edge payment technology. People could rush through turnstiles with a wave of their colourful Octopus cards—stored-value cards pre-loaded with cash. Its latest advance, however, is risibly low-tech. On October 30th Octopus launched an extensible pole with a plastic hand to help drivers pay at toll booths. Critics of Hong Kong’s cautious approach to fintech snorted in derision. Meanwhile, a government official was quoted as blaming Octopus for stifling the city’s shift to cashlessness. Both criticisms are unfair. Hong Kongers enthusiastically embrace electronic payments and do well from the fierce competition between different platforms.

The Octopus card, designed for journeys on Hong Kong’s trains, buses, trams and ferries, soon stretched its tentacles into shops. In 2016 the company generated revenues of HK$956m ($122m) for its owners (mostly…Continue reading

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The last media mogul stuns his industry with talk of selling

THE only media mogul still bestriding his industry in old-fashioned style is used to being a predator rather than prey, a builder of empires, not a dismantler of them. So Rupert Murdoch’s reported willingness to sell off much of 21st Century Fox, whether to a rival such as Disney or to a distribution firm like Comcast or Verizon, has come as a shock to many. It should not.

If Fox does follow through with selling the assets—its film and TV studio, its stake in Sky, a European satellite broadcaster, and many of its cable networks—it may well be remembered as one of his cleverest moves. Mr Murdoch would have correctly judged a shifting media and regulatory landscape and sold high (perhaps for $50bn or more; see chart). He would retain lucrative assets in news and sports broadcasting, notably Fox News Channel, which could serve as the base for a new fief of a different sort. Mr Murdoch would also retain plenty of political sway through his newspaper businesses, housed at separately…Continue reading

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How tech giants are ruled by control freaks

THIS month Schumpeter visited the Barnes Foundation, a gallery in Philadelphia full of paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh. Albert Barnes, born in 1872, is notable for two things. He made a fortune from an antiseptic that cured gonorrhoea. And he stipulated exactly how his art collection should be posthumously displayed. The result is hundreds of paintings jammed together nonsensically, often in poky rooms, and the creepy feeling of a tycoon controlling you from the grave.

Barnes’s string-pulling comes to mind when considering today’s prominent tycoons, who often hail from technology, e-commerce and media. At the moment they seem omnipotent. But many founders are gradually cashing in shares in their companies. The consequences will vary by firm, with some tycoons gradually ceding control, and others clinging on to it.

A flurry of selling activity has been in evidence of late. On September 13th Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce…Continue reading

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Sustainable investment joins the mainstream

IN 2008, when she was in her mid-20s and sitting on a $500m inheritance, Liesel Pritzker Simmons asked her bankers about “impact investing”. They fobbed her off. “They didn’t understand what I meant and offered to screen out tobacco,” recalls the Hyatt Hotels descendant, philanthropist and former child film star. So she fired her bankers and advisers and set up her own family office, Blue Haven Initiative. It seeks investments that both offer market-rate returns and have a positive impact on society and the environment. “Financially it’s sensible risk mitigation,” she says. “Our philanthropy becomes far more efficient if we don’t need to undo damage done in our investment management.”

Such ideas are gaining ground, particularly among the young. Fans of “socially responsible investment” (SRI) hope that millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, will drag these concepts into the investment mainstream. SRI is a broad-brush term, that can be used to…Continue reading

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Wealth inequality has been widening for millennia

THE one-percenters are now gobbling up more of the pie in America—that much is well known. This trend, though disconcerting, is not unique to the modern era. A new study, by Timothy Kohler of Washington State University and 17 others, finds that inequality may well have been rising for several thousand years, at least in some parts of the world. The scholars examined 63 archaeological sites and estimated the levels of wealth inequality in the societies whose remains were dug up, by studying the distributions of house sizes.

As a measure they used the Gini coefficient (a perfectly equal society would have a Gini coefficient of zero). It rose from about 0.2 around 8000BC in Jerf el-Ahmar, on the Euphrates in modern-day Syria, to 0.5 in around 79AD in Pompeii. Data on burial goods, though sparse, point to similar trends.

The researchers suggest agriculture is to blame. The nomadic lifestyle is not conducive to wealth accumulation. Only when humans switched to farming did people…Continue reading

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