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2018-01-21T10:25:47.221Z
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Gridlock in Yangon

THE Japanese make cars that last but replace them relatively quickly. The average car in Japan is three years younger than in America. This combination of durable manufacturing and dutiful consumption of a prized national product works out well for the rest of the world; many countries import older Japanese cars in bulk. Secondhand vehicles fill vast parking lots in Japan’s port cities, awaiting shipment to New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

The third-most-popular destination is Myanmar, which imported over 80,000 used Japanese vehicles in the first nine months of this year, according to Japan’s International Auto Trade Association. Drivers believe that Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans can stand up to the country’s pockmarked roads, a faith not yet shown in South Korean and Chinese cars.

There is only one problem, which is that Japan drives on the left, Myanmar on the right. As a consequence, most of Myanmar’...

WHEN Emmanuel Macron first started work as a mergers-and-acquisitions banker at Rothschild in Paris in 2008, technicians of the trade were not impressed. “He did not know what EBITDA was,” sniffed a former colleague, according to the Financial Times (it is a measure of company profits). Yet Mr Macron had ideas and made things happen, and four years later persuaded Nestlé to spend $12bn buying Pfizer’s nutrition business.

Now that he is France’s president, Mr Macron is trying to revive the grandest idea of all in European business: creating continental champions capable of taking on American and Chinese firms. It is an ambitious mission that will prove highly frustrating.

Mr Macron laid out his vision at the Sorbonne in Paris in September, promising a “re-foundation of Europe”, and that he would bolster its “industrial and monetary power”. The same day Alstom, a French transport firm, agreed to merge with the transport arm of Siemens, a German...

MICHAEL WOODFORD, the first non-Japanese president of Olympus, likened the camera-maker’s board members who sacked him in 2011 to “children in a classroom”. Mr Woodford had confronted Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, the company’s imperious chairman, over a $1.7bn hole in its finances. Mr Kikukawa responded by orchestrating a show of hands in a boardroom coup that sent the Englishman packing. It all fitted a cliché of Japan’s boardrooms as an all-Japanese, all-male club where wizened bosses ruthlessly enforce wa, or harmony.

Gradually, the serenity is being disrupted. Nearly 15% of companies in the Nikkei 225 stock index now have at least one non-Japanese on their boards. That is still less than half the share in Britain’s FTSE 100, but it is up from 12% in 2013 and the trajectory seems set. Japan’s biggest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ, and Takeda, its largest pharmaceuticals company (which in 2015 appointed its first foreign chief executive, a Frenchman) announced the appointment of foreign directors this year. Of the ten...

AIRLINE bosses are often household names due to their attention-seeking behaviour—from the foul-mouthed rants of Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, to the model-flanked antics of Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic. But even in an industry filled with characters, Akbar al-Baker, Qatar Airways’ chief executive, stands out. He is known in the industry for behaving unpredictably at press conferences and for his colourful attacks on rival airlines. The word “crap” often comes up, as a description for new jets from Airbus and Boeing, and also (in a quote from July): “there is no need to travel on these crap American carriers” on which “you will be served by grandmothers”.

Mr Baker could do with some allies just now. Since June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Qatar, banning its flag carrier’s jets from their skies. That has resulted in the cancellation of over 50 daily flights to these countries, costing the airline...

STANLEY and Sidney Goldstein would scarcely recognise their creation. In 1963 the brothers opened a humble storefront in Lowell, Massachusetts, selling health and beauty products. Determined to put customers first, they named their enterprise Consumer Value Stores. Today the Goldsteins’ startup, soon afterwards sold to a bigger firm, is nothing short of a health-care Goliath.

Revenues at CVS Health reached $177bn last year, riches which come from 9,700 retail pharmacies and from its operations in mail-order drugs and sales of more expensive speciality medicines. The firm commands nearly a quarter of the American market for prescription drug sales (see chart). It is also the biggest pharmacy-benefit manager (PBM) in America, a type of middleman that negotiates bulk discounts on drugs with large pharmaceutical firms on behalf of employers and insurers.

...

Gridlock in Yangon

THE Japanese make cars that last but replace them relatively quickly. The average car in Japan is three years younger than in America. This combination of durable manufacturing and dutiful consumption of a prized national product works out well for the rest of the world; many countries import older Japanese cars in bulk. Secondhand vehicles fill vast parking lots in Japan’s port cities, awaiting shipment to New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

The third-most-popular destination is Myanmar, which imported over 80,000 used Japanese vehicles in the first nine months of this year, according to Japan’s International Auto Trade Association. Drivers believe that Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans can stand up to the country’s pockmarked roads, a faith not yet shown in South Korean and Chinese cars.

There is only one problem, which is that Japan drives on the left, Myanmar on the right. As a consequence, most of Myanmar’...

You snooze, you lose

ON A Sunday afternoon, just beyond London’s M25 ring road, shoppers participate in the ritual that is a trip to IKEA. Fuelled by a lunch of Swedish meatballs, they negotiate their way around the 400,000-square-foot maze of a store, past children playing hide and seek and couples arguing over the merits of a PAX over a HEMNES wardrobe. Hours later, they emerge, wearily pushing trolleys loaded with flat-pack furniture and far more tea lights than they had intended to buy. The joy of assembly still awaits them.

This experience has changed remarkably little since the late 1950s, when IKEA, which is still privately owned, set up its first store in southern Sweden and found that people would travel long distances for low-cost, self-assembled goods. IKEA has become the world’s largest seller of furniture, with over 400 shops around the world and €38bn ($42bn) of revenue.

But now it is acknowledging that customers might want to...

The new Bali

ONE recent morning in Salem, in the state of Massachusetts, a witch ran out of wands. Teri Kalgren, the owner of Artemisia Botanicals, an apothecary and magic shop, attributed the shortage to a boom in visitors. People have long flocked to Salem to learn about the infamous witch trials of 1692, in which Puritan hysteria led to the executions of 20 people (and two dogs). But since 1982, when the city introduced Haunted Happenings, a day-long Halloween festival for local families, the event has expanded into a celebration that lasts for a month and attracts 500,000 tourists. In 2016 tourism pumped $104m into Salem and funded some 800 jobs.

On America’s opposite coast, Scott Michaels can also attest to the allure of the macabre. He has watched his Hollywood-based company, Dearly Departed Tours, grow from a one-man gig to an operation with seven employees who take tourists to celebrity grave sites every day of the week. “Just a few...

IT IS fashionable to say that tech firms will conquer the financial services industry. Yet in the case of Apple, it seems that the opposite is happening and finance is taking over tech by stealth. Since the death of Steve Jobs, its co-founder, in 2011, the world’s biggest firm by market value has sold hundreds of millions of phones with bionic chips and know-it-all digital assistants. But it has also grown a financial operation that is already, on some measures, roughly half the size of Goldman Sachs.

Apple does not organise its financial activities into one subsidiary, but Schumpeter has lumped them together. The result—call it “Apple Capital”—has $262bn of assets, $108bn of debt, and has traded $1.6trn of securities since 2011. It appears to be run fairly cautiously and is part of a thriving firm, but it still deserves scrutiny. Companies have a history of being hurt by their financial arms; think General Electric (GE) or General Motors (GM).

Apple Capital has lots...

FOR a moment it seemed China was reverting to Maoist economic management. On the sidelines of the Communist Party congress this month, an official told Xi Jinping that her village distillery sells baijiu, a potent spirit, for 99 yuan ($15) a bottle. Mr Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, remarked that this seemed a bit dear. The chastened official thanked him and pledged to follow his guidance. But Mr Xi gestured her to stop. “This is a market decision,” he chuckled. “Don’t cut the price to 30 yuan just because I said so.” The audience, perhaps relieved that Mr Xi had no intention of dictating the price of booze, broke into laughter.

This rare spot of levity at the dreary five-yearly congress was telling. The occasion cemented Mr Xi’s unrivalled position at China’s apex. For companies, the question is what he will do with it. His vision can seem ominous. In a speech laying out his plans, he made it clear that the party is all-powerful...

Alabama bound

LIKE an airliner in service, Bombardier’s C-Series programme has had multiple highs and lows. In 2008 the Canadian firm began its attempt to break Airbus and Boeing’s duopoly on smaller jets, spooking the pair into upgrading their own models. Costs and delays pushed it near bankruptcy in 2015, followed by a bail-out from the Quebec government worth C$2.8bn ($2.2bn). The next year an order for 75 C-Series jets from Delta, the world’s third-biggest carrier, kept the programme aloft. But decisions in September and October by America’s Commerce Department to agree to demands by Boeing, an aerospace giant, to impose a total tariff of 300% on importing those planes into America risked the C-Series project crashing once and for all.

On October 16th came a surprise surge. Bombardier said it would hand over half the project to Airbus, a European aerospace firm, free of charge. Bombardier and Investissement Québec, the province’s...

THE proposal to sell shares in Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, stunned the financial markets last year. Muhammad bin Salman, now Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, promised that it would be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) of all time, valuing Aramco at $2trn. It was to be the centrepiece of his plan to transform the Saudi economy, reducing its dependence on oil. It was meant to foster financial transparency and accountability in one of the world’s most hermetic kingdoms. Above all, it would cement the young prince’s image as a bold moderniser soon to inherit the throne.

Alas, youthful impatience appears to have got the better of him. His tendency to micromanage the IPO and vacillate over where Aramco should be listed has caused delay and confusion. Matters came to a head this week when advisers, speaking anonymously, and company executives doing the same, gave conflicting reports, suggesting a mutinous atmosphere.

The kingdom’s advisers say...

AS DISTRESSED assets go, the Weinstein Company (TWC) is uniquely distressing. Much of its value was bound up in the brands of its eponymous founding brothers, one of whom, Harvey Weinstein, has been accused of sexual harassment and of assault by dozens of women in the film industry in America and elsewhere. Amazon Studios, Apple and some television networks have hastened to cut ties with the studio, unwind production deals and remove Mr Weinstein’s name from credits. Mr Weinstein’s accusers may well sue the company. It was already heavily indebted after a recent string of box-office flops.

Who would see an opportunity? Aside from TWC’s particular troubles, independent films are a tough business, and the studio has had to haggle with creditors. But for a vulture investor some of the studio’s assets hold value. On October 16th Thomas Barrack (pictured above), chairman of Colony Capital, a private-equity firm, said he would immediately put an undisclosed sum of cash into TWC and look...

Closing time came suddenly

IN A cosmetics emporium in central Seoul, rows of snail-slime face-masks sit untouched. Not long ago, visiting Chinese tourists would snap these up as avidly as a designer handbag in New York or anything from London featuring the Queen. Yet now their rejuvenating properties are failing to lure the country’s shoppers. Seo Sung-hae, a salesman, says business has slowed to a snail’s pace, because of a drop in the number of Chinese visitors. “We used to have 100 customers a day, but after THAAD, there are almost none,” he says.  

THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, is an American missile-defence system designed to guard against North Korea that was installed in South Korea starting in March. Chinese authorities protest that its radar could be used to spy on its territory. Chinese newspapers have encouraged consumers to boycott South Korean goods. The plan was to “bully” Korea into ditching THAAD, says...

But India’s not rolling out the red carpet

ALL great aviation ventures start with mavericks willing to defy both the laws of physics and the scepticism of their peers. William Boeing, Oleg Antonov and Howard Hughes are some of the best-known examples. Next, perhaps, is Amol Yadav, who for much of the past decade has been building aeroplanes on the roof of the Mumbai flat he shares with 18 family members, and battling the Indian authorities to let him fly them.

Admittedly, only experts would be able to distinguish the six-seater propeller plane (pictured) Mr Yadav has designed from scratch from a run-of-the-mill Cessna. But his plane is the only one in decades with wholly Indian credentials, he says. Much larger outfits have tried but struggled to get an indigenous craft certified for production, including National Aerospace Laboratories, one of several state-owned aviation mastodons.

Self-identified visionaries are commonplace...

TECHNOLOGY giants are a bit like dinosaurs. Most do not adapt successfully to a new age—a “platform shift” in the lingo. A few make it through two and even three. But only a single company spans them all: IBM, which is more than a century old, having started as a maker of tabulating machines that were fed with punch cards.

Yet after 21 quarters with falling year-on-year revenues (see chart), doubts had been growing about whether IBM would manage the latest big shifts: the move into the cloud, meaning computing delivered as an online service; and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), which is a label...

YVES SAINT LAURENT, Lady Gaga, David Bowie. Some people do not operate by the same rules as everyone else. Might the same be true of companies? Most bosses complain of being slaves to short-term profit targets. Yet a few flout the orthodoxy in flamboyant fashion. Consider Tesla, a maker of electric cars. This year, so far, it has missed its production targets and lost $1.8bn of free cashflow (the money firms generate after capital investment has been subtracted). No matter. If its founder Elon Musk muses aloud about driverless cars and space travel, its shares rise like a rocket—by 66% since the start of January. Tesla is one of a tiny cohort of firms with a licence to lose billions pursuing a dream. The odds of them achieving it are similar to those of aspiring pop stars and couture designers.

Investing today for profits tomorrow is what capitalism is all about. Amazon lost $4bn in 2012-14 while building an empire that now makes money. Nonetheless, it is rare for big companies to...

SHAREHOLDER meetings in Ohio are not usually the stuff of high drama, but a recent gathering was a nail-biter. Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management, an activist hedge fund, sought a seat on the board of Procter & Gamble (P&G), the world’s largest consumer-goods company, in a proxy vote on October 10th. It was the biggest such battle ever. In the weeks leading up to P&G’s shareholder meeting, the fight resembled a political contest, complete with carefully crafted videos, lengthy white papers, mass mailings and tens of thousands of phone calls urging shareholders to vote blue (P&G) or white (Trian).

As The Economist went to press, P&G said it had won and Mr Peltz was contesting the tally. “Everybody but [P&G’s] current employees voted for us,” he said after P&G declared victory. “Maybe that’s why they keep so much overhead.” So the brawl is not over. Yet the outcome may not matter much. Mr Peltz will push P&G for change...

THE new app for an upmarket British department store certainly looks the part. Released on Google Play, a shop for Android software, on September 5th, it has the right logo, the correct vibrant colour and offers fashionable clothes and accessories. But the app is not authorised by the brand, is littered with pop-up ads and is painfully slow (furious users gave it one-star ratings). Its developer, Style Apps, has also launched apps for other clothing brands that are household names in America.

Such fake apps are designed by crafty developers to trick inattentive users. Google and Apple police their app stores but many impostors get through. In third-party app stores, unofficial platforms run by someone other than the two tech giants, the problem is even worse. Users are tricked in two ways. Some apps fill a gap in the market. Selfridges, a chain of British fashion stores, for instance, has a legitimate app for Apple devices but not for Android ones. RadioShack, an American electronics...

THE port city of Kobe, on the southern side of Japan’s main island, is known for luxury beef from pampered cattle, fine sake and precision engineering. Its reputation for the last of those products took a blow on October 8th when one of its oldest industrial firms, Kobe Steel, admitted that that it had falsified data on many of its aluminium, copper and steel products. By October 11th, the company’s shares had fallen by a third, reducing its market value by ¥180bn ($1.6bn).

 Kobe Steel has admitted to falsification over the past year relating to large quantities of four types of material; 19,300 tonnes of aluminium sheets and poles; 19,400 aluminium components; 2,200 tonnes of copper products and an unspecified amount of iron powder that was supplied to over 200 customers. These items were certified as having properties—such as a level of tensile strength, meaning stiffness—that they did not in fact possess.

No deaths or accidents have yet resulted, but the firm’...