Wednesday, December 31, 2014

China manufacturing shrinks; On New Year's Eve, 2,300 redundancies at UK's City Link; Beware smiling too much at interviews

Wish you a Happy New Year!

1 China manufacturing shrinks (BBC) China's manufacturing activity shrank for the first time in seven months in December, a private survey has shown. The final HSBC/Markit Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) was at 49.6, just below the 50 level that separates growth from contraction in the sector.

The most recent data paints an even weaker picture of the slowing Chinese economy, which has been heralded as the "factory of the world". New factory orders contracted for the first time since April. The economic data also backs the series of surprising moves by its government to boost growth in the past two months.

In November, the country's central bank unexpectedly cut interest rates to 2.75% for first time since 2012 in an attempt to revive the economy. Whether the world's second biggest economy will be able to reach its growth target of 7.5% after not missing the mark for 15 years has economists questioning if more needs to be done by policymakers.

2 On New Year’s Eve, 2,300 redundancies at UK’s City Link (Rupert Neate & Sarah Butler in The Guardian) More than 2,300 City Link workers who discovered their employer was going bust on Christmas Day were made redundant on New Year’s Eve. The administrators of the delivery company owned by multimillionaire Tory donor Jon Moulton made 2,356 employees redundant at 4.30pm on Wednesday.

Moulton, whose Better Capital private equity firm bought City Link for £1 in 2013, said he had done everything he could to keep the company going and was very sorry that the collapse ruined Christmas and New Year for so many people. Moulton, who donated £450,000 to the Conservatives between 2004 and 2011, said Better Capital had probably lost about £20m trying to keep City Link going.

The redundancies came despite a last-minute bid to save the company. The administrators said the unnamed consortium’s bid “offered no money up front and significantly undervalued the assets to be acquired”. Courier company APC Overnight said it would give priority to City Link staff in filling up to 100 vacancies at its national sorting centre. On top of the 2,356 City Link redundancies, 1,000 self-employed drivers face serious financial difficulties with some small businesses owed up to £21,000 in back pay.

3 Beware smiling too much at interview (Belo Cipriani in San Francisco Chronicle) According to a study released by Northeastern University, flashing your pearly whites too many times during an interview could work against you. The research points out that over smiling can come across as not serious—giving the impression that you cannot handle the job responsibilities.

The data also shows that there is a difference in smiling expectations from jobs perceived as more social to those that are seen as more serious. For example, a bubbly grin will sit better with a manager looking to hire a sales person than for someone looking to employ a news reporter.

The Northeastern study confirms something that recruiters and hiring managers have known for a long time: Too much of anything never works and it’s easy to spot someone who is not being authentic. The purpose of smiling is to greet someone and to help make a connection; however, if done repeatedly during an interview, then the gesture loses its value. Additionally, it may suggest that the over happy person is nervous or, worse, that they are being dishonest.

The study recommends smiling should occur mostly at the start of the interview and towards the end; something I completely agree with, because this is the more natural way to connect with someone. And, in the end, breaking too far away from social expectations can be problematic in an interview.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Past history is no indicator of how 2015 will be; Xiaomi is most valuable tech start-up; In India, religion bubbles over into politics

1 Past history no indicator of how 2015 will be (Jonathan Eyal in Straits Times) It is clear that 2014 has witnessed some fundamental strategic shifts and surprises, destined to shape our lives for years to come. The first and by far the most important is the end of the post-Cold War period. There was always something odd about the fact that this span of time, which began in 1989 and lasted for the past 25 years, never acquired a name of its own, and was merely generically referred to as a period after a previous period.

But now we know why, for the post-Cold War age was just a lull rather than a new era with solid and durable foundations. Tensions have lingered for years, but it was in 2014 that the eerie calm was shattered, and great-power politics came back with a vengeance. The most spectacular example of this is, of course, Russia, which stormed back on to Europe's strategic stage with its military intervention in Ukraine.

Another major trend which dominated this year is that of the accelerated internal disintegration of some existing states. The Middle East holds the record, with the vicious civil wars in Lebanon and Syria now joined by those inside Libya and Iraq.

Although Beijing has won the latest confrontation with Hong Kong's Occupy Central protesters, it is losing Hong Kong. The percentage of Hong Kong residents who identify themselves as primarily Chinese is steadily declining and now stands at only 31 per cent overall, and a mere 8 per cent among the former British colony's youth. A similar phenomenon is at work in Taiwan where cross-strait relations are now the most polarising and divisive electoral issue.

Hovering above these developments has been the continued eclipse in the strategic footprint and perceived influence of the US. Still, 2015 could well be the year in which the US reclaims its primary global position. The country is certainly well-equipped for it: its economy is emerging from the global economic recession, its technological lead remains undented, the creative vitality of its workforce is legendary and, as the latest revolution in shale oil and natural gas indicates, no other nation on earth has a more favourable energy mix than the US.

In short, the most optimistic conclusion from this year may well be that past performance is not necessarily an indication of the future, that neither the decline of the US nor a replay of the Cold War are as inevitable as they may seem today.

2 Xiaomi is most valuable tech start-up (BBC) Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has become the world's most valuable technology start-up just four years after it was founded. The firm raised $1.1bn in its latest round of funding, giving it a valuation of $45bn, which surpassed the $40bn value of taxi booking app Uber.

It has quickly risen to the ranks of the world's biggest smartphone makers, behind Samsung and Apple in sales. The company is also set to unveil a new flagship device in January. Xiaomi's strategy of producing cheap smartphones has catapulted its growth to overtake giant Samsung this year in sales in the world's second largest economy China.

The company's worth is now more than quadruple the $10bn valuation it received during its last financing round last year. Its skyrocketing valuation comes despite the intellectual property challenges it faced earlier this month in India, where sales were temporarily halted after Swedish firm Ericsson filed a patent complaint.  The Beijing-based company has set a target of selling 60 million smartphones this year, up from less than 20 million in 2013.

3 In India, religion bubbles over into politics (San Francisco Chronicle) In small-town northern India, Muslims are offered food and money to convert to Hinduism. If that doesn't suffice, they say they're threatened. Across the country, the Christmas holiday is canceled for hundreds of government servants who spend the day publicly extolling the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Powerful Hindu nationalist leaders — some with close ties to Modi's government — say they intend to ensure India becomes a completely Hindu nation.

But Modi himself? He has remained silent as nationalist demands have bubbled over into day-to-day politics, and amid growing fears among minority religious groups of creeping efforts to shunt them aside.

A largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character, India has a sizable Muslim minority, a small Christian community and even smaller pockets of other religions from Judaism to Zoroastrianism.

Modi was catapulted to power on promises to develop India's economy and root out the corruption and incompetence that had crippled the previous government. But he had launched his political career in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu group that combines religious education with self-defense exercises, and the parent organization of the ruling party. The RSS has long been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims.

Just how much Modi actually supports that sprawling agenda — which includes everything from demands to rewrite school textbooks to, at the most extreme end, the expulsion of non-Hindus from India — remains unclear.

Amid the political fracas, major economic legislation stopped cold. That has alienated many who supported Modi for his economic agenda, and who worry that jobs and development will be pushed aside by the demands of the Hindu right. "The 'cultural right' is too extreme for the middle-of-the-road voter," Gurcharan Das, a writer and former businessman, wrote. "Modi has his work cut out — he must assuage the anxieties of the cultural extremists while pursuing his jobs agenda."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Russian economy shrinks first time in five years; 'Uncertain times' for oil industry; India's Man of the Year

1 Russian economy shrinks first time in five years (Jill Treanor in The Guardian) The Russian economy has contracted for the first time in five years after falling oil prices and sanctions imposed by western governments began to take their toll. The prospects for the country’s economy are expected to remain weak after President Vladimir Putin’s government revealed that GDP in November was 0.5% lower than in the same month a year ago.

It is the first time since October 2009 that the Russian economy has shrunk and comes at a time when the rouble has been collapsing on foreign exchange markets after a near halving of the oil price since June. Manufacturing, construction, agriculture and service sectors all contracted in November, although energy, mining and the retail trade showed continued growth.

Economists are warning that Russia – one of the world’s biggest energy exporters – could be facing its first recession in five years. The central bank fears the economy could shrink by up to 4.8% next year if oil prices fail to recover from five-year lows.

The fail in the oil price comes at a time when western sanctions imposed over Russia’s backing for separatists in Ukraine are making it tough for the country’s banks to raise finance in the international money markets, leading to billions of dollars being withdrawn from the country.

Dmitry Polevoy, the chief economist for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States at ING Bank in Moscow, said things would get worse with oil prices at their current levels. The dependency on oil has led to a rout of the rouble on the foreign exchange markets, prompting an emergency rise in interest rates to 17% from 12.5% earlier this month.

2 ‘Uncertain times’ for oil industry (BBC) The oil and gas industry is set for a year of mergers and takeovers as a result of the plummeting oil price, a business consultancy has predicted. PwC said 2015 may bring the first hostile takeover in the sector in living memory.

It warned of "uncertain times" for the estimated 440,000 people employed in the UK's oil and gas industry. The oil price has fallen from $115 a barrel in the middle of the year to about $60.

Drew Stevenson, PwC's UK energy deals leader, said: "Oil prices remaining at the current level for a sustained period will light the touch-paper for mergers and acquisitions in 2015. PwC said the industry would be "increasingly cash-constrained" with new debt coming at a cost, and existing debt coming under increased scrutiny.

3 India’s Man of the Year (Rahul Singh in Khaleej Times) My choice of India’s personality for 2014 has been pretty easy:The 64-year-old Narendra Damodardas Modi. He dominated India for most of the year, right from the day the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nominated him as its prime ministerial candidate earlier in the year, to the BJP’s stunning and overwhelming victory in that election, seven months ago.

Since then, he has continued to impose his distinctive stamp on the country, the BJP winning elections in State after State. Like him or not, It has been a remarkable performance for a man who was once cynically belittled by senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar as a mere chai-wala (tea-seller). Aiyar was absolutely right — Modi’s father was indeed the owner of a tea-stall near a railway station in Gujarat and Narendra began his working life selling and bringing cups of tea to customers.

“Look, even a chai-wala can aspire to be the Prime Minister,” Modi and his supporters would say during the election campaign. It was a telling statement that resonated loudly with the young generation, particularly the first-time voters.

Yet, there is much that Modi has still to live down. Though the courts may have cleared him, a question mark hangs over his role in the horrific 2002 Gujarat riots, in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. His image as a polarising figure continues to linger. He has also somehow been unable to control some of his more rabid, Hindutva supporters.

Nevertheless, all said and done, Modi almost single-handedly led the BJP to a famous electoral victory in 2014. He has become the most powerful Prime Minister India has had since Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, with no serious rivals in his own party. An adoring nation virtually lies at his feet. He has pressed all the right buttons. Now, he has to deliver the goods.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Insecurity looms for Europe in 2015; US, Nato end 13-year war in Afghanistan; China growth to slow to 7%

1 Insecurity looms for Europe in 2015 (Gavin Hewitt on BBC) For Europe, 2015 will witness another attempt to reach a place of safety. For the past two years European officials and leaders have declared the economic crisis over. In the past six months a sense of foreboding has returned. The dangers are not the same as 2012. There is no danger of countries being unable to fund their debts. The threat now is of stagnation and deflation.

In 2015 economic recovery will be uneven. Demand is chronically weak. Germany will remain the engine room of the European economy but will not be the powerhouse it was two years ago. Growth in France will be around 0.7%. Italy should edge away from recession but the eurozone is not expected to achieve growth of more than 1% and that will not be enough to dent an unemployment rate that remains at 11.7%.

Europe still seems to be placing its bets on keeping the value of the euro low and relying on cheaper exports to boost demand at home. 2015 will once again give the anti-establishment parties the opportunity to mine Europe's discontent. One of the key factors in undermining support for the mainstream parties is unemployment. In France the number of people looking for work has reached a record high. In Italy, Matteo Renzi is facing popular opposition to his reforms but the test will be whether those reforms are watered down and whether they are rigorously implemented.

No issue reflects the volatility of the European mood more than migration and immigration. Once again the summer months will see large numbers of people fleeing instability in the Middle East and Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Russia will remain a troubling unknown. A miscalculation in Eastern Ukraine could tug Europe towards a new cold war. The Russian economy is hurting. That would hurt the wider European economy. 2015 is likely to see European unity tested again over Russia.

2 US, Nato end 13-year war in Afghanistan (San Francisco Chronicle) The war in Afghanistan, fought for 13 bloody years and still raging, came to a formal end Sunday with a quiet flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul that marked the transition of the fighting from US-led combat troops to the country's own security forces.

In front of a small, hand-picked audience at the headquarters of the NATO mission, the green-and-white flag of the International Security Assistance Force was ceremonially rolled up and sheathed, and the flag of the new international mission called Resolute Support was hoisted.

US Gen. John Campbell, commander of ISAF, commemorated the 3,500 international soldiers killed on Afghan battlefields and praised the country's army for giving him confidence that they are able to take on the fight alone. Beginning Jan. 1, the new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan's military, with the US accounting for almost 11,000 of the 13,500 members of the residual force.

ISAF was set up after the US-led invasion as an umbrella for the coalition of around 50 nations that provided troops and took responsibility for security across the country. It ends with 2,224 American soldiers killed, according to an Associated Press tally. The mission, which was initially aimed at toppling the Taliban and rooting out al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, peaked at 140,000 troops in 2010. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called Sunday's event a "defeat ceremony" and said the insurgents' fight would continue.

This has also been a deadly year for Afghanistan's security forces — army, paramilitary and police — with around 5,000 deaths recorded so far. Most of those deaths, or around 3,200, have been police officers, according to Karl Ake Roghe, the outgoing head of EUPOL, the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan, which funds and trains a police force of 157,000.

3 China growth to slow to 7% in 2015 (Straits Times) Growth in China's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to slow to 7 per cent next year from a forecast 7.3 per cent this year, partly due to weakness in global economies, a top Chinese government think-tank said in a report published on Monday.

"The growth of the world economy may recover slightly in 2015, but it will be difficult to see it fully recovering from weakness seen since the global financial crisis," the State Information Centre said. "As such, our country's economic growth will show a trend of gradual slowdown, and is forecast to grow around 7 per cent in 2015," it said.

China's consumer price index (CPI) is expected to increase less than 2 per cent in 2015, compared with a forecast of more than 2 per cent this year, the think-tank said. Growth of exports is expected to improve slightly to 7 per cent from a forecast 6 per cent this year, it said.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saudi Arabia to tap reserves for 2015 budget; France jobless at new record; Japan pins hope on stimulus

1 Saudi Arabia to tap reserves for 2015 budget (San Francisco Chronicle) Saudi Arabia's Cabinet has endorsed a 2015 budget that projects a slight increase in spending and a significant drop in revenues due to sliding oil prices, resulting in a nearly $39 billion deficit.

In a sign of mounting financial pressure, the Finance Ministry said the government would try to cut back on salaries, wages and allowances, which "contribute to about 50 percent of total budgeted expenditures." That could stir resentment among the kingdom's youth, who make up a majority of the population and are increasingly struggling to find affordable housing and salaries that cover their cost of living.

The price of oil— the backbone of Saudi Arabia's economy — has fallen by about a half since the summer. Saudi Arabia is extremely wealthy, but there are deep wealth disparities and youth unemployment is expected to mushroom absent a dramatic rise in private sector job creation. The International Monetary Fund says almost two-thirds of employed Saudis work for the government.

Associate Fellow and energy researcher at Chatham House, Valerie Marcel, said massive government spending across the Gulf on public sector salaries is "really the thing that keeps the lid on the bottle." She said that for now the Arab monarchies of the Gulf can afford to run deficits due to surpluses accumulated over the years from high oil prices.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's largest economy, said it would dig into its reserves to cover the difference between $229.3 billion in projected expenditures and $190.7 billion in revenues for the coming fiscal year. A quarter of expenditures will be spent on the education sector. The budget is expected to allay investor concerns that the drop in oil prices could lead to less government spending and reduced economic growth.

The kingdom's figures for the current fiscal year show a deficit -- for the first time since 2009 -- of $14.4 billion. Total expenditure had been projected at $228 billion, but ran 29 percent higher, at $293 billion, due to expansion work at Islam's two holiest mosques, among other projects, according to the Finance Ministry.

2 France jobless at new record (BBC) The number of people seeking work in France has risen to a record high, official figures show. The jobless total rose by 27,400 in November to 3,488,300 - the highest level yet seen. That means the number looking for a job has risen by 5.8% in the past year.

The jobless figures count the number of people claiming benefits and looking for work with the National Agency for Unemployment. The alternative international measure of unemployment, devised by the International Labour Organisation and based on a regular survey, says that unemployment in France rose to 2.84 million in the third quarter of the year, giving an unemployment rate of 9.9%.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and the Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, outlined plans that included increasing the number of businesses operating on Sundays, and opening up regulated sectors, such as certain professions, to competition. It is not obvious this strategy would succeed in reviving the economy, even if implemented fully. The deregulation plan produced immediate protests by thousands of people in Paris and faces opposition from within the ruling Socialist Party.

3 Japan pins hope on stimulus (Straits Times) Japan's government approved on Saturday stimulus spending worth 3.5 trillion yen (S$38 billion) aimed at helping the country's lagging regions and households with subsidies, merchandise vouchers and other steps, which it hopes will boost GDP by 0.7 per cent.

The package was unveiled two weeks after a massive election victory by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition gave him a fresh mandate to push through his "Abenomics" stimulus policies.

Given Japan's dire public finances, the government will avoid fresh debt issuance and fund the package with unspent money from previous budgets and tax revenue that has exceeded budget forecasts due to economic recovery.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Japan savings rate turns negative; Russia scraps New Year holidays for ministers; Uganda takes on the chocolate market

1 Japan savings rate turns negative (Linda Yueh on BBC) For the first time since records were collected in 1955, Japan's population is drawing down its savings and the savings rate, calculated as savings divided by disposable income plus pension payments, was negative 1.3%. It's a dramatic change from when the Japanese saved nearly a quarter of their income (23.1%) when the savings rate peaked in 1975.

Japan had the highest household saving rate in the OECD in the 1960s until it fell to the lowest. After all, an aging population draws down savings and Japan is the fastest-aging country in the world; its population has been shrinking for a decade. It's another blow to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On the campaign trail, he said that Abenomics aimed to raise wages and employment to revive the economy and defeat deflation or price falls.

Yet, earnings (adjusted for inflation) dropped 4.3% from a year earlier in November. It's the steepest decline since the 2009 global crisis and marks the 17th month of falls. Unsurprisingly, households are spending less. The average spend has dropped by 2.5%, which is the eighth consecutive drop - a trend that won't help boost domestic demand and prices.

Inflation has clocked in at a 14 month low. There's no price pressure on nominal yields on government bonds. The 10 year bond yield has fallen to a record low of below 0.3%. Such low borrowing costs will help the highly indebted country, but it also reflects an expectation that the economy and inflation won't be getting going, and ultimately lead to rate rises.

One lesson to draw is that an aging population will dis-save, so high-saving countries now - like China and Germany - may soon find that they are heading down a similar road to Japan.

2 Russia scraps New Year holidays for ministers (San Francisco Chronicle) Russian President Vladimir Putin has scrapped New Year's holidays for government ministers because of the unfolding economic crisis. Russian company employees are entitled to holiday from Jan. 1 to Jan. 12 when Russians celebrate the New Year, the main holiday in Russia, as well as Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.

Putin told a televised government session on Thursday that Cabinet ministers should not take this time off. "For the government, for your agencies we cannot afford this long holiday, at least this year - you know what I mean," he said. Russia's economy, battered by low oil prices and Western sanctions, is set to enter recession next year for the first time in six years, while the ruble is now worth less than half of its value.

The Russian Central Bank announced on Thursday that the country's currency reserve has dropped below $400 billion for the first time since August 2009, as the government has been selling the currency on the market to support the ruble. The Central Bank in past weeks raised its key interest rate to 17 percent and said it will offer dollar and euro loans to banks so they can help major exporters that need foreign currencies to finance operations.

Many Russian companies have been locked out of Western capital markets following the sanctions imposed on the country for its involvement in Ukraine.

3 Uganda takes on the chocolate market (Khaleej Times) On a sprawling, lush cocoa plantation in Mukono outside the Ugandan capital Kampala, farmers have been sampling chocolate for the first time ever.

“When we gave our farm manager the first product to taste his face was so amazing, he was saying ‘really this is coming out from what we are doing?’” said Felix Okuye, 28, the executive director and co-founder of startup Pink Food Industries. In the east African nation, chocolate is a luxury product bought by people in the medium and upper income bracket.

The chocolate on the shelves of Kampala’s major supermarkets is usually from Switzerland, Belgium, Brazil, Malaysia and Turkey. However since May this year, Okuye and Pink Foods founder and CEO Stephen Sembuya have been selling their own “Uganda” brand of chocolate to Kampala restaurants and hotels who use it for deserts, pastries and in ice-cream.

Uganda is said to have about 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of land under cocoa cultivation, mostly in the country’s west and centre, but its fortunes in the industry have fluctuated over time as the government has focused more on coffee.

Charles Ocici, executive director of Enterprise Uganda, which provides business development services, including training, said the start-up was creating jobs while bringing technology and resources in terms of foreign currency resources into Uganda, therefore “improving the country’s overall economic strength.”

He said the entrepreneurs would have to work hard to break a “psychological barrier” relating to preconceived ideas Ugandans had about “good chocolate” coming from overseas. “You’ve got to be ready to give it a long-term or medium to long-term outlook,” said Ocici.“ But once they know how good a local product is they are on your side.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

UK pips France to fifth place in global GDP league; Hackers hit Xbox, PlayStation; Fuel price plunge threatens electric cars

1 UK pips France to fifth place in GDP (Peter Walker in The Guardian) There’s good news and bad news for the UK in the latest league tables of global economies drawn up by a leading economic consultancy. It put the UK ahead of France as the world’s fifth biggest economy. On the downside, this appears to be mainly because Britain now includes earnings from drugs and prostitution in its GDP figures, which France as yet does not.

The 2014 economic league table by London-based Cebr Global also concedes that in reality France might still be bigger, given the relatively tiny margins involved. The UK economy is estimated to be worth $2,828bn (£1,818bn) in total, a mere £1bn bigger than the French.

In June, the UK economy received a statistical boost of £65bn after earnings from drugs and the sex trade were included for the first time, under new EU rules. While it pushed up GDP by almost 5%, economists stressed it was a mere accounting measure and should not be taken as a sign of increased economic vitality. France has yet to take this step.

Among the losers in this year’s table is Russia, which dropped from eighth to 10th thanks to a weak rouble and low oil price. One oddity of this is that it pushes Italy, hardly undergoing an economic purple patch at the moment, up a place to eighth. Among the big hitters, the US remains the world’s largest economy by some distance – it is said to be worth $17,528bn, compared with China’s $10,028bn – and Cebr Global predicts the pair will swap places in 2025.

2 Hackers hit Xbox, PlayStation (BBC) Xbox and PlayStation online services have been suffering technical problems, amid claims a hacking group has disabled their services. Microsoft and Sony - the companies which make the games consoles - have told customers they are aware of issues affecting their online services.

A hacking group called Lizard Squad is claiming to have caused the problems. PlayStation's official Twitter account posted: "We are still looking into the PSN (PlayStation Network) issues reported earlier. Thanks again for your continued patience today." A message on Xbox's website says: "Hi Xbox members. Are you having a rough time signing in to Xbox Live? We're working to get this figured out right away.

3 Fuel price plunge threatens electric cars (David R Baker in San Francisco Chronicle) For once, automakers have reason to fear cheap gasoline. High gas prices during the last decade drove interest in electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles, as did concern about global warming. But now gasoline prices have plunged to their lowest level since the Great Recession, averaging $2.50 nationwide for a gallon of regular. If gas prices stay low — granted, a very big “if” — one of the most powerful arguments for alternative-fuel cars will be wiped out.

The price plunge that started in July is still so new that it’s hard to see a direct impact on plug-in car sales. The Nissan Leaf, the world’s most popular electric, just scored its 22nd straight month of year-over-year growth, with 2,687 cars sold in the US in November. The Chevy Volt, an advanced plug-in hybrid, isn’t selling as well as it did last year, but that was true in the spring, before gasoline prices started to tumble.

The drop comes as automakers roll out a number of new alternative-fuel vehicles. Toyota just launched its long-planned fuel-cell car, the Mirai, which runs on hydrogen rather than gas. Hyundai started leasing a fuel-cell vehicle in California this year, while Honda plans to introduce its own in early 2016. Tesla Motors, meanwhile, will launch its electric SUV-crossover, the Model X, midway through 2015 — arguably a make-or-break moment for the Palo Alto company.

Tesla doesn’t release month-by-month sales figures. But worldwide deliveries of the company’s electric Model S sedan set a record of 7,785 in this year’s third quarter.

But low gasoline prices could pose a bigger problem for Toyota and the Mirai. The car, whose name means “future” in Japanese, uses a technology that’s alien to most car buyers. Its fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, yielding no exhaust other than water vapor. Toyota will need to educate consumers on the benefits of fuel cells — zero emissions, quick fill-ups — at a time when gasoline prices are low and conventional cars are getting better mileage than ever.

Monday, December 22, 2014

South Korea growth forecast cut; Mumbai brothels turn realty sites; US opening to boost Cuba tourism

1 South Korea growth forecast cut (BBC) Asia's fourth largest economy, South Korea, has cut its growth forecast, for this year and next, as consumer and business sentiment weakens. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance said on Monday the economy would now grow by 3.4% this year, down from the 3.7% it forecast in July. Growth in 2015 was also downgraded to 3.8% from 4% predicted earlier.

The government said private investment and consumer spending were coming out weaker than it had expected. South Korea's economy expanded by 3% last year. The forecast downgrade shows the challenges facing the economy despite government measures such as the central bank cutting interest rates twice this year to boost growth.

The ministry said it does expect conditions to improve in 2015 on falling oil prices and more stimulus measures. The government is planning to introduce measures to boost wages and encourage businesses to create jobs and increase investment. The moves include increasing the minimum wage and spending almost 60% of its annual budget in the first half of 2015.

2 Mumbai brothels turn realty sites (Jason Burke in The Guardian) The scene in Kamathipura, in the heart of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, appears timeless. Established in the late 18th century by the British, the neighbourhood has been a hub of sex work and trafficking ever since. Yet what is one of the oldest and biggest red-light districts in the world may be living out its final days.

“It’s almost over already. Everything is shutting. It’s the end of Kamathipura,” said Hasina, 38, who has worked and lived there for two decades. Few beyond the brothel owners and the traffickers will mourn its passing, however. “This is a terrible place,” Hasina said.

Mumbai now has some of the most expensive real estate on earth and demand for land in this hugely overcrowded city of about 20 million is high. Developers have long eyed the lanes of Kamathipura but India’s flagging economic growth in recent years and a lack of investment capital has held them back.

Now however, with the promise of major reforms by the new government, business confidence has picked up again and development projects planned a decade ago are being dusted off. There is little thought for those who live and work here. Fatima, a 32-year-old sex worker, said the building in which she has lived and worked since being sold by her sister to a brothel owner at the age of 12 is slated for demolition. Details are scant – but she knows there will be no compensation for her. Eviction notices are expected any day.

About 10,000 female sex workers live in Kamathipura, an estimated third of the total 20 years ago. They come from all over India, as well as neighbouring countries Nepal and, increasingly, Bangladesh. Almost all have been trafficked, sold by relatives or lured by men who convinced them that a better life awaited them in Mumbai. Police are paid off, or turn a blind eye. A special trafficking court is little deterrent.

3 US opening to boost Cuba tourism (San Francisco Chronicle) American citizens have been allowed to visit Cuba on "people to people" trips since 2011, one of President Barack Obama's first moves toward detente with the communist-run island — provided their scheduled activities are sufficiently educational, and down time is kept to a minimum.

Now, such cultural exchanges are not only expected to grow dramatically, they are expected to become more flexible and less bureaucratic following last week's announcement by Cuba and the US that they would work to restore normal diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years.

The new Treasury Department rules have not yet been released, but a White House statement suggests that educational travel to Cuba will now be covered by a "general license," which means tour operators — and perhaps individuals, depending on how the regulations are written — will be able to head to Cuba and simply give the US government their word that they're not engaging in ordinary tourism.

Travelers may simply have to sign a form and board a charter flight, making it easier and cheaper to visit the island, experts say. Dozens of operators offer people-to-people travel at prices that typically range from $2,000 to $6,000. Some cater to specific groups such as academic and legal organizations and others are for the general public. That is expected to increase amid renewed interest in the country following Obama's Dec. 17 announcement of restored relations after two decades of hostility.                                                     

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Saudi, UAE back Opec decision to maintain oil production; Nigerian Islamic terrorists a threat to region; Teenagers lose Facebook fancy

1 Saudi, UAE back Opec decision to maintain oil production (Julia Kollewe in The Guardian) The oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have defended Opec’s decision not to cut production despite a glut, and blamed speculators and producers outside the cartel for the slump in prices.

Both stuck to their stance of keeping production at current levels, expressing hope that the market would stabilise on its own. Oil prices have nearly halved in the past six months, with the international benchmark Brent crude falling below $60 a barrel last week, the lowest in more than five years.

An Opec meeting last month failed to agree on production cuts, mainly because of Saudi opposition. The cartel kept its target output of 30m barrels a day unchanged, a shift from its traditional policy which has seen Saudi Arabia act as a swing supplier. It is the largest producer in Opec, which controls about 40% of the global oil market.

The world is expected to need less Opec oil in 2015 because of the increasing supply of US shale oil and other sources, with no significant rise in world demand expected. The slump in oil prices has triggered various conspiracy theories, including suggestions that Riyadh is seeking to damage the US fracking industry or looking to undermine Iran and Russia in response to their support for Syria.

Russia, the world’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, also dashed hopes it might cut production after Opec’s meeting in Vienna last month. Holger Schmieding and Christian Schulz at Berenberg Bank argued last week that cheap oil was a “game-changer”, with the benefits far outweighing the disadvantages.

2 Nigerian Islamic terrorists a threat to region (San Francisco Chronicle) Thousands of members of Nigeria's home-grown Islamic extremist Boko Haram group strike across the border in Cameroon, with coordinated attacks on border towns, a troop convoy and a major barracks. In Niger, the government has declared a "humanitarian crisis" and appealed for international aid to help tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees driven from their homes by the insurgency.

These recent events show how neighboring countries are increasingly being drawn into Nigeria's Islamic uprising. Thousands of people have been killed in Nigeria's 5-year insurgency and some 1.6 million people driven from their homes.

Fighters from Chad, Niger and Cameroon long have been identified among Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria. But residents fleeing Boko Haram now report that Chadian recruits are enforcing Boko Haram's rule in northeast Nigerian border towns in Borno state.

Nigerian government officials confirm that Boko Haram controls 12 of 27 local government areas in Borno state, as well as some in Adamawa and Yobe states. And they long have had camps in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, say experts. The area where the four countries' borders meet is generally poor and long has been ignored by governments. Desertification has intensified tensions.

High unemployment means there are groups of disgruntled youths who are an easy target for Boko Haram recruitment. Across borders, people often belong to the same tribe and speak the same local languages. Boko Haram offers signing bonuses and monthly pay to those who join, say residents.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau long has expressed his international ambitions, saying his group is fighting to make "the entire world" an Islamic state. Analyst Ely Karmon wrote in a paper for the Terrorism Research Initiative that Boko Haram is "an immediate and infectious regional threat."

3 Teenagers lose Facebook fancy (Khaleej Times) Facebook is less popular among teenagers than last year, says a survey, adding that 88 per cent of teenagers now use the social network against 94 per cent last year. The website is also losing popularity among all other age groups, CNET reported.

The survey, conducted by market research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, revealed that the percentage of youth aged 13 to 17 who use Facebook in the US has fallen to 88 per cent this year, from 94 percent in 2013 and 95 percent in 2012. Among all the other age groups examined in the study, in total, 90 percent use Facebook, down from 93 per cent in the past two years.

Other surveys have also found teens moving to other socially-networked sites, such as Instagram, now owned by Facebook. Of the people polled in the Frank N. Magid’s survey, 16 percent said Facebook was trendy, 18 percent found it fun and 16 percent said it was informative. Only nine percent, however said, it was safe and another nine per cent said it was trustworthy.

The other networks people are using are Snapchat (18 percent), Apple’s iMessage (17 percent users) and WhatsApp and Google Hangouts which are used by nine per cent of those surveyed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Russian 'bloodbath' for corporates; BlackBerry hit by low sales; Benefits of being an ugly duckling

1 Russian ‘bloodbath’ for corporates (BBC) The chief executive of Renault Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, has said that manufacturers in Russia are facing a "bloodbath" because of the plunge in the value of the rouble. The currency has been dropping steadily for several months, but suffered very sharp falls earlier this week.

Several rival manufacturers have taken similar steps. However, Mr Ghosn said he was confident the situation would stabilise, eventually. "We didn't do it [suspend orders] overall, just on some models we said, 'Sorry, until we see where this situation is going we don't take orders,'" he said."When the rouble sinks it's a bloodbath for everybody. It's red ink, people are losing money, all car manufacturers are losing money," he added.

The French-Japanese Renault-Nissan alliance is a major player in Russia's car industry. Other manufacturers have been taking similar steps in response to the decline of the rouble, which has halved in value against the dollar this year. General Motors, Audi and Jaguar Land Rover also suspended deliveries to Russian dealers earlier this week.

If car sales in Russia do continue to decline, it could affect British manufacturing. Nissan says about 10% of the cars made at its Sunderland plant are exported to the region.

2 Blackberry hit by low sales (Chris Johnston in The Guardian) BlackBerry shares have fallen despite the smartphone maker announcing better than expected orders for the new Passport phone, as well as slashing losses. The Canadian company lost $148m for the three months to 29 November, a dramatic turnaround from the $4.4bn loss for the same period a year earlier.

However, sales were $793m – significantly below analysts’ expectations of $927.8m and almost $400m lower than last year. In September BlackBerry launched the Passport – an unconventional smartphone about the size of a closed passport with a large square touchscreen as well as a keyboard.

John Chen, chief executive, said the flagship model sold out “a number of times in the quarter”,  creating a backlog of orders that reduced revenue in the period. While some 200,000 Passports were sold, he said that some orders slipped into the fourth quarter. Chen said recently: “BlackBerry has survived; now we have to start looking at growth.”

3 Benefits of being an ugly duckling (Omaira Gill in Khaleej Times) In a world that is becoming more and more superficial, looks are everything. Standards of beauty have changed throughout history, and the current flavour of the month is skinny and pretty. Young girls spend their entire lives obsessing over their looks. Are they pretty enough? Are they thin enough? Will boys like them? Will they get asked to the dance? What should they wear to the dance?

Given this, there is something to be said about growing up an ugly duckling. I was not a pretty teenager. Not even remotely. I was skinny and awkward, with frizzy hair that I hated and the obligatory monobrow. My teenage years were a strange landscape, devoid of the usual angst. I moved to the UK at the age of 14, and was dropped from the clinical surroundings of an all-girls’ school run by nuns into the hormonal cauldron of a co-educational institution.

I brought with me years of indoctrination of no makeup at school, and certainly no fancy hairstyles. Bespeckled and from the age of 17 to 19, with braces to boot, boys were not only uninterested in me, my lack of looks became their running joke. Did all of this bother me? It did, and it didn’t. I never went to a single of my high school parties or dances. I did this out of choice, claiming I didn’t want to go to something as boring as a dance, and anyway what would I do there?

At the age of 19, I finally let my older sister shape my eyebrows. I began wearing kohl, and one evening during some free time in my university dormitory, a friend begged to make me over, so I let her because I had nothing better to do. When she showed me my face in the mirror, I was so shocked that I started laughing. Staring back was a pretty stranger I hadn’t seen before.

Did spending my teenage years as an ugly duckling have a negative impact on me? I don’t think so. If anything, they made me who I am. I learnt that people are shallow, and looks are transient. They’re nice to have, but if I make it to my old age, I’d much rather have interesting stories to tell than a albums of faded beauty.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

To save Swiss franc, a negative interest rate; Social will be part of hiring trend in 2015; Enter the Lumbersexual

1 To save Swiss franc, a negative interest rate (Angela Monaghan in The Guardian) Switzerland is to charge its banks to park cash with its central bank in a bid to weaken its currency which has strengthened as a result of the crisis in Russia. The Swiss National Bank (SNB) surprised markets on Thursday morning as it announced it was to impose a negative interest rate of -0.25% on commercial bank deposits from 22 January, in order to stem the rise of the Swiss franc against the euro.

Investors have piled into the Swiss franc as a safe haven currency as the Russian rouble has plummeted in response to falling oil prices and a looming recession next year. The hope in Switzerland is that a negative deposit rate will discourage investors from buying Swiss franc investments, easing the rise of the currency.

Thomas Jordan, chairman of the SNB’s governing board, said the central bank was obliged to intervene to ensure its target of a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 Swiss francs per euro was met. A weaker currency will make Swiss exports cheaper abroad, and imports more expensive.

Francois Letondu, economist at HSBC, said the central bank’s decision should eventually help a rebound of inflation – currently -0.1% – into positive territory. The SNB’s move followed the European Central Bank’s decision in June to impose negative rates on banks for depositing cash, as part of a wider bid to boost activity and lending in the ailing eurozone economy.

2 Social will be part of hiring trend in 2015 (Belo Cipriani in San Francisco Chronicle) Thanks to the web and to social media, the world has become smaller and more transparent. And just like workers have to now be more mindful about what they put on the Internet, businesses must also be more conscious of what their workers are saying about them. After all, with Glassdoor, even people who are in the interview process are able to shine some light into an organization’s inner workings.

Jerome Ternynck, founder and CEO of SmartRecruiters, a recruiting software startup in San Francisco, says that applicant tracking systems are phasing out as a result of a need for a more candidate-friendly experience.

“The best companies,” Ternynck shares, “understand that recruiting is a sales and marketing function where the candidate is the Customer. The Customer! Not an anonymous applicant who needs to be tracked by a machine. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of a new breed of recruiting technology, more social, a lot more candidate-friendly and collaborative.”

Some Bay Area companies have already stepped away from the more conventional recruiting tactics and have begun to use more creative approaches to attracting candidates such as meetups, cocktail parties and creating more eye-catching posts on social media. Also, the way in which businesses promote their job openings has started to change in 2014 and will continue to do so through 2015.

Those who are looking for work or are planning to make a change in 2015, can expect a more social experience in your search. How you present yourself in social media will continue to carry a lot of weight and organizations will possibly take you out of the stuffy interview room and immerse you in a social scene to see how you work in a team. Lastly, tools like LinkedIn and Glassdoor will continue to be great allies in the hunt for your next job.

3 Enter the Lumbersexual (Katherine Feeney in The Age) He-Man manliness has been left behind. But is it altogether dead? Not quite. Enter: The Lumbersexual, the next step in the evolution of the He-Man. The step that comes after metrosexual, is a far cry from asexual, and might be interpreted as an attempt to redefine male sexuality as something that borrows from "before", but is altogether "now".

The Lumbersexual: he who sports a healthy beard, flannel, big boots, and looks like he might be able to wield both axe and woman over shoulder. He's the hipster guy with muscles, the bloke who knows single-origin coffee but has calluses on his hands.. He would definitely know how to pitch a tent, even if the frame is made from fibreglass and not wood splintered from a tree this fella has felled. 

The Lumbersexual: he who harks back to a time when men were men, and women loved them for it.
Women still love him. But what is interesting about the Lumbersexual is he doesn't need a woman to be okay. In fact, he might be perfectly happy not having women around – women who get in the way. Much like women have discovered they don't need a man to survive, men have learned how to live perfectly lovely lives without women. The co-dependent, post-war, nuclear-duo model has moved into the realm of irrelevancy.

The joke used to be about women getting headaches, because they didn't want, or enjoy, sex. Consent lay entirely with women, partly because it was assumed men would always consent, because men would always want sex. But this isn't always the case. I know men, and I've heard from men, who sometimes just don't feel like it. They are the classic "not tonight" darlings.

Sometimes they have partners who understand. More often, their partners don't. Because so ingrained is the idea that real men want sex all the time, that when a woman encounters a fellow who doesn't, she doesn't know what to do. She feels it's not him, it's her. Is it? Not always. Sometimes he doesn't feel like sex. And that should be OK. Shouldn't it?