Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Brazil president removed from office; Data as the new oil for India's Ambani; Debt as a way of life

1 Brazil  president removed from office (BBC) Brazil's Senate has voted to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office for manipulating the budget. It puts an end to the 13 years in power of her left-wing Workers' Party. Ms Rousseff had denied the charges.

Sixty-one senators voted in favour of her dismissal and 20 against, meeting the two-thirds majority needed to remove her from the presidency. Michel Temer has been sworn in as president and will serve out Ms Rousseff's term until 1 January 2019.

The centre-right PMDB party politician had been serving as acting president during the impeachment proceedings. During his first cabinet meeting since the vote, Mr Temer said his inauguration marked a "new era". He asked his ministers to "vigorously defend" the government from accusations that Ms Rousseff's dismissal amounted to a coup d'etat.

He also told ministers to work closely with the Congress to revive the Brazilian economy. Mr Temer is travelling to China to take part in a summit of the G-20 group of major economies. The dismissal of Ms Rousseff has caused a rift between Brazil and three left-wing South American governments that criticised the move.

Brazil and Venezuela recalled each other's ambassadors. Brazilian envoys to Bolivia and Ecuador have also been ordered home. Ms Rousseff lost the impeachment battle but won a separate Senate vote that had sought to ban her from public office for eight years.

Ms Rousseff was suspended in May after the Senate voted to go ahead with the impeachment process. She was accused of moving funds between government budgets, which is illegal under Brazilian law. Her critics said she was trying to plug deficit holes in popular social programmes to boost her chances of being re-elected in 2014.

2 Data as the new oil for India’s Ambani (Khaleej Times) At the vast open-plan headquarters of Indian telecoms start-up Jio, billionaire oil tycoon Mukesh Ambani stands in short sleeves beneath a digital tracker that logs every new subscriber to his service. The 59-year-old is India’s richest man, and his Reliance Industries oil & gas group is the country’s most profitable.

Now, though, he’s betting at least $20 billion on building, from scratch, a national digital empire stretching from phones and hardware to home entertainment and custom-made apps. The ambitious Jio project could make Reliance the most comprehensive provider of telecom and internet services across India — and give it unprecedented access to the country’s untapped ‘big data’: how millions eat, shop and have fun.

“For Reliance... data is the new oil, and intelligent data is the new petrol,” Ambani said in March, explaining his drive to move closer to India’s consumers. Reliance has said little publicly about Jio, and even less about the potential for wide-scale data mining in a country where consumers have not, to date, made a big deal about online privacy. But top executives are clear on the opportunity.

“It’s called Deep Packet Inspection, and what you can do with the analytics of that is mind-boggling,” said a senior Reliance executive, referring to a practice that digs into ‘packets’ of data created by computers for efficiency, mining them for information. Jio is unlikely to contribute significantly to Reliance profits anytime soon, but is hugely significant for its future.

According to filings at the Commerce Ministry, Jio has more than Rs325 billion ($4.9 billion) of long-term debt, and other liabilities topping Rs580 billion, as of March. In addition, Reliance has spent over Rs290 billion on Jio and is expected to invest more — all adding up to more than what it has been spending on its core refining and petrochemicals business.

Reliance says its oil business is pumping out cash, and any investment in Jio has to be ambitious. Two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population are not online, and Jio hopes to capture 100 million users — nearly half of India’s current smartphone users — within a year of launch.

3 Debt as a way of life (Suzanne Moore in The Guardian) Many gamble, as they no longer save. Can’t save/won’t save. New figures show that Britain’s “saving habits” are collapsing. This can be put down to the record low in interest rates and the attempt to boost consumer spending. Surely this is also to do with stagnating wages and a culture where saving for many is just impossible.

One big difference is the acceptance of debt as a way of life. Indeed, such contradictory messages about debt and spending are pumped out that I am not surprised there is little interest in saving. It’s still disappointing to take cash out of a machine that has “free withdrawals” emblazoned over the top, to find that they’re not.

All of us, whatever our social class, have our own bling. From superyachts to the little place in France, to the extraordinary nails. The less you can change about your life, the more the small rewards matter. Nails, spray tans and lash extensions are treats – mini-breaks from reality. Someone else waits on you. Everyone else can see what you have spent.

The familiar whine – that people are not actually poor because they possess a smartphone – is put into perspective by how near the edge many are. People are poor when they have no savings, nothing to fall back on. This has to be spelt out.

There is a general agreement among those who can afford to do it that saving is a habit that all must learn. The crisis in consumer confidence that the experts are talking of, though, is surely less serious than this crisis in saving. If one must save to have a secure future and that is beyond our means, the future looks poor.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Japan jobless at two-decade low; Why Ireland doesn't want billions from Apple; Rise of the robots

1 Japan jobless at two-decade low (BBC) Japan's unemployment rate fell to 3% in July, the lowest for 21 years, despite the country's stagnant economy. Separate data showed spending by households in Japan fell by less than expected in the month. Japan's government has been struggling for years to find a way to boost growth in the world's third-largest economy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ambitious reform agenda, dubbed Abenomics, has introduced huge stimulus packages to try to revive the economy. Japan's economy grew at an annualised rate of just 0.2% in the three months to June and recent inflation figures fell far short of the central bank's 2% target, so the fresh data provides a rare glimpse of positive news.

The new seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 3%, down from 3.1% in June, is just above what authorities would consider full employment. Earlier this month, the Japanese cabinet approved yet another stimulus package, worth more than 28 trillion yen ($275bn; £207bn).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policy, which quickly became known as "Abenomics" is based on three arrows: The monetary arrow: expansion of the money supply to combat deflation. The fiscal arrow: increased government spending to stimulate demand in the economy. The structural arrow: structural reforms to make the economy more productive and competitive.

2 Why Ireland doesn’t want billions from Apple (San Francisco Chronicle) In normal circumstances, a 13 billion euro ($14.5 billion) cash award would make any country ecstatic. But Ireland is no ordinary country when it comes to tax law — and its government insists it doesn't want the colossal windfall.

The Irish government joined Apple in vowing to appeal the European Commission's judgment that the smartphone and computing giant didn't pay the correct volume of tax to Ireland for more than a decade, a mounting bill that analysts say could constitute 19 billion euros ($21 billion) with interest.

At stake is the foundation of Ireland's multinational-dependent, export-driven economy, which has rapidly rebounded from a banking crisis and 2010 international bailout to become once again the fastest growing in Europe. Since the 1980s, successive Irish governments have made low corporate tax and other tax-avoidance measures a key part of their sales pitch to woo foreign firms to Ireland.

Ireland's strategy aims to keep as many foreign job creators anchored on the island as they can. The approximately 1,000 foreign companies, mostly American, on Irish soil employ 100,000 people — some 5 percent of the workforce — but generate more than nearly a quarter of Ireland's economic output. They directly pay Ireland more than 2 billion euros annually in tax, a figure dwarfed by their much larger investment in salaries (6 billion euros), infrastructure and research (3 billion euros) and Irish goods and services (4 billion euros).

If Apple were to lose its appeal, Ireland's sometimes gravity-defying growth would lose a key foundation stone as a succession of companies with similar tax deals face retroactive charges rendering the tax-efficient reputation of Ireland null and void.

"Champagne corks should be popping in government buildings with the news that 13 billion euros is owed to the state, but instead the panic button has been pressed," said Paul Murphy, an opposition Socialist Party lawmaker. "It shows the reality that the government represents the interests of major corporations instead of the majority of people in this state."

3 Rise of the robots (Olivia Solon in The Guardian) It’s far more likely that robots would inadvertently harm or frustrate humans while carrying out our orders than they would become conscious and rise up against us. In recognition of this, the University of California, Berkeley has this week launched a center to focus on building people-pleasing AIs.

The Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence, launched this week with $5.5m in funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, is led by computer science professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Stuart Russell. He’s quick to dispel any “unreasonable and melodramatic” comparisons to the threats posed in science fiction.

“The risk doesn’t come from machines suddenly developing spontaneous malevolent consciousness,” he said. “It’s important that we’re not trying to prevent that from happening because there’s absolutely no understanding of consciousness whatsoever.”

Up until now, AI has primarily been applied to very limited contexts such as playing Chess or Go or recognizing objects in images, where there isn’t much scope for the system to do much damage. As they start to make decisions on our behalf within the real world, the stakes are much higher.

Russell uses autonomous vehicles to illustrate the type of problem the center will try to solve. Someone building a self-driving car might instruct it never to go through a red light, but the machine might then hack into the traffic light control system so that all of the lights are changed to green. In this case the car would be obeying orders but in a way that humans didn’t expect or intend.

Similarly, an artificially intelligent hedge fund designed to maximize the value of its portfolio could be incentivized to short consumer stocks, buy long on defence stocks and then start a war – as suggested by Elon Musk in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary.

Russell and his colleagues propose making AI systems that observe human behavior and try to work out what the human’s objective is, then behave accordingly and learn from mistakes. So instead of trying to give the machine a long list of rules to follow, the machine is told that its main objective is to do what the human wants them to do. It sounds simple, but it’s not how engineers have been building systems for the past 50 years.

Monday, August 29, 2016

China launches aircraft engine firm; Brexit vote as the new millennium bug; nuTonomy plans driverless taxis in 10 cities

1 China launches aircraft engine firm (BBC) China has launched its first aircraft-engine manufacturer in an attempt to wean itself off Western suppliers. The state-owned Aero-Engine Group of China was created by combining a group of existing aircraft-engine companies, according to local media reports.

It has about 50bn yuan ($7.5bn) in registered capital and will develop both military and commercial engines. China already makes its own planes, but has struggled for decades to develop engines that meet global requirements.

China currently buys its commercial aircraft engines from General Electric and United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney. China's military jets use Russian-made engines.

The Chinese government, as well as the Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC) and Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) are investors in the new firm. AVIC makes military jets and helicopters while Comac produces China's biggest domestically-produced passenger plane, the C919.

2 Brexit vote as the new millennium bug (Stephen Boyle in The Guardian) Do you remember Y2K? The millennium bug? For the benefit of younger readers, fears grew during the 1990s that, because of how we programmed computers, the dawn of 2000 would lead to catastrophes of all sorts. Planes would fall from the sky and power stations would switch themselves off. Yet precisely nothing happened as we waved goodbye to 1999 and said hello to 2000.

When the UK voted to leave the EU, sterling fell sharply and is now 10% below its value in the first three weeks of June. That makes us worse off: it costs more to buy stuff from abroad. There have also been declines in commercial real estate prices and some property funds erected barriers to people wishing to withdraw money. But no economic planes have fallen from the sky and no economic power stations have turned themselves off.

On the contrary, while surveys said consumer confidence had collapsed, Britain appears to have spent July at the shops. And we were not browsing: retail sales volumes were 1.4% higher than in June, strong growth by any standard. Surveys also said that hiring had ground to a halt. Yet the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits fell in July.

So will Brexit turn out to have been a latter-day Y2K? Some of the claims of the immediate economic consequences of voting leave have been unfounded, but it is too early to declare peace.

The vote to leave was partly a rebellion against the adverse effects of trade and open borders: we are better off on average but many people lose. Exiting the EU might slow migration and, thus, the rate of growth of demand for public services and housing. However, migration will not turn negative or the population stop rising.

3 nuTonomy eyes driverless taxis in 10 cities (Khaleej Times) A US software firm which chose Singapore for the world's first public trial of driverless taxis hopes to be operating in 10 Asian and US cities by 2020, an executive said.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy's chief operating officer, said the firm is eyeing tests by early next year in three other Asian countries. The company last week kicked off the world's first driverless taxi service in a limited trial for invited people in a Singapore research campus.

Parker, 41, said nuTonomy was also considering trials in the Middle East, the US and Britain. More than a dozen people in Singapore have already experienced a ride in the "robo-taxi" within the confines of one-north, an enclave of technology and science research institutes outside the central business district.

Data from the experiment will feed into the rollout of driverless taxis across Singapore in 2018, said Parker, adding that by 2020 "we would like to be in 10 cities in Asia, the US and maybe Europe". He also said a number of real-estate developers from Asia and the United States have contacted the company "about how they can use autonomous cars in their eco-friendly communities".

Parker said nuTonomy chose Singapore for the public tests rather than Silicon Valley because of the presence of a "loyal technical talent" - including people with doctorates in robotics - whom it does not have to share with other companies like Ford and Apple. The company also has the full support of the Singapore government and the city-state's flat terrain, well-marked roads and disciplined drivers make it well suited for driverless cars, Parker said.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

US to spend $2.5bn on rail expansion; Oil price hike gives near-term relief for GCC; Car hacking a looming threat

1 US to spend $2.5bn in rail expansion (BBC) US vice president Joe Biden has announced plans to lend railway operator Amtrak $2.45bn to expand services and make upgrades.Amtrak's plans include expanding high-speed trains between Washington DC and Boston.

Rail infrastructure in the US lags many other developed countries, particularly in terms of high-speed trains. The new trains, which Amtrak expects to begin running in 2021, will have initial speeds of up to 160mph, but will be capable of speeds up to 186mph. Amtrak recorded 11.7 million riders along that route in 2015 - its highest number on record..

2 Oil price hike gives near-term relief for GCC (Issac John in Khaleej Times) The GCC countries will face some near-term relief from the current higher oil prices, but the hike is unlikely to have a major impact on GCC sovereigns' creditworthiness, Moody's Investors Service said.

The ratings agency said the near-term would led to narrower fiscal and current account deficits than it previously expected. "In particular, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman are set to be the main beneficiaries of higher oil prices in the short term, given the larger reliance on oil for government revenues," it said.

Moody's now forecasts a deficit of three per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) for Kuwait, 5.5 per cent for Qatar and 15.1 per cent for Oman in 2016. On the external side, higher oil prices will benefit Kuwait, the UAE and Oman the most by reducing the current account deficits by an average of four to seven per cent of GDP, followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it said.

Moody's expects oil prices to remain low, moving within a $40 to $60 per barrel range over the medium term. In June, Moody's raised its nearer term oil price estimates for Brent crude to $40 per barrel in 2016 and $45 in 2017.

It pointed out that the oil market's recent rise has been supported by transitory factors, including temporary supply disruptions in Canada and violence in Nigeria which has curtailed production, as well as technical factors such as a weaker US dollar and financial market activity.

3 Car hacking a looming threat (Alex Hern in The Guardian) “Car companies are finally realising that what they sell is just a big computer you sit in,” says Kevin Tighe, a senior systems engineer at the security testing firm Bugcrowd.

It’s meant to be a reassuring statement: proof that the world’s major vehicle manufacturers are finally coming to terms with their responsibilities to customers, and taking the security of vehicles seriously.

But it’s hard not to be slightly uneasy about the idea that it’s normal to sit inside a massive computer and trust it with your life. We’re meeting at Defcon, the world’s largest hacking conference, just outside the “car-hacking village”, a recent addition to the convention’s lineup, where enthusiasts meet to trade tips on how to mess about with those same computers for fun and profit.

In a previous Defcon, Twitter’s Charlie Miller and IOActive’s Chris Valasek demonstrated they were able to wirelessly take over a Jeep. They used a laptop connected to the internet miles from the vehicle to seize control of it, cutting the brakes and transmission at the flick of a switch.

It sparked a worldwide recall for the affected cars – which included much of Fiat Chrysler’s range. It also exposed serious problems with how the car companies planned to handle such software flaws.

Even though the hack could be executed remotely, it could only be fixed with physical access to the car, forcing Fiat Chrysler to post USB keys to affected owners, or ask them to bring their cars in for maintenance. Posting USB keys brought its own problems: plugging an untrusted USB key into anything, whether car or computer, carries serious risks. It’s also hard for anyone to easily verify that a drive received in the post is malware-free.

The group of people united by the motivation to push computer security to its absolute limit seem to agree on one thing, at least: car hacking is here to stay, and sooner or later, you’ll be hit too.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Lamborghini aims to double sales; FARC rebels end half-century war; White, male and well-off grads dominate professional jobs

1 Lamborghini aims to double sales (Khaleej Times) Lamborghini Chief Executive Officer Stefano Domenicali has said the luxury automaker expects to at least double production to 7,000 vehicles a year by 2019 once it rolls out a new SUV.

Domenicali said that the automaker plans to cap yearly production of its supercars at 3,500. He also expects SUV production will be at least as high but could be higher depending on demand. The Italian automaker is part of Volkswagen Group. Domenicali said Lamborghini also plans to boost its worldwide dealer network by about 20 per cent to 160, from the current 132.

About 30 percent of its dealers and sales are in the US, its largest market. Lamborghini sold a record 3,245 vehicles worldwide in 2015, including just over 1,000 in the US. Lamborghini is adding 500 employees and doubling the size of its Sant'Agata Bolognese plant in Italy as part of an investment worth hundreds of millions of euros announced in 2015. The new SUV will go on sale in 2018 starting at around $200,000.

Lamborghini is joining a number of luxury carmakers that have entered the profitable SUV market, including VW's Porsche unit. Domenicali said he wants to keep brand volume limited. The company unveiled its Centenario Roadster in California, and said the company had already sold out of the 20 roadsters it was building at a starting price of 2 million euros before taxes. Lamborghini is owned by Volkswagen through its Audi brand.

2 FARC rebels end half-century war (San Francisco Chronicle) Colombia's government and the country's biggest rebel group reached a historic deal Wednesday evening for ending a half-century of hostilities in one of the world's longest-running and bloodiest armed conflicts.

President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as an opportunity to turn the page on decades of political violence that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven more than 5 million people from their homes. He said he would hold a plebiscite on Oct. 2 to give Colombians the chance to vote on the accord. Without their approval implementation can't begin.

In Colombia's capital of Bogota, some 400 people gathered in a plaza to watch on giant screen the agreement being announced by negotiators in Havana who have been working around the clock in recent days to hammer out the final sensitive details left to the end of the four years of talks. "We've won the most beautiful of all battles: the peace of Colombia," the chief FARC negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said at the announcement in Havana.

The accord, whose final text has yet to be published, commits Colombia's government to carrying out aggressive land reform, overhauling its anti-narcotics strategy and greatly expanding the state's presence in long-neglected areas of the country. Negotiations began in November 2012 and were plagued by distrust built up during decades of war propaganda on both sides.

The rebel army was forced to the negotiating table after a decade of heavy battlefield losses that saw a succession of top rebel commanders killed by the US-backed military and the its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.

3 White, male and well-off grads dominate professional jobs (Richard Adams in The Guardian) White, male and better-off graduates continue to dominate the professional classes more than three years after leaving university, even after quality of qualifications and other factors are taken into account, according to data compiled from universities in England.

The study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) found that professional employment rates of students graduating in 2011 were as much as nine percentage points lower for black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani graduates than for white graduates.

The analysis found smaller but persistent gaps between male and female graduates, with 79% of men in professional occupations or study, compared with 74% of women, even though more women were in jobs overall.

Substantial gaps were also seen among graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds compared with those from better-off areas, suggesting that an effort to widen access to professional occupations such as law and accounting still has a long way to go.

The single minority ethnic group that saw its prospects brighten was that of ethnic Chinese graduates, whose professional employment rates improved compared with a similar survey in 2009, and whose 2011 cohort enjoyed employment rates similar to those of their white peers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Eurozone shows growth despite Brexit fears; Airbnb starts own listings; Tesla claims 'milestone' car battery

1 Eurozone shows growth despite Brexit fears (San Francisco Chronicle) Business activity across the 19-country eurozone grew at a steady, moderate pace in August as the region continued to show little concern about the impact of a British exit from the European Union.

A gauge of activity in the services and manufacturing sectors in the eurozone, the so-called purchasing managers' index, rose slightly to a seven-month high of 53.3 points from 53.2 in July. The index published Tuesday by IHS Markit is on a 100-point scale, with the 50 mark separating contraction from growth in activity.

The result echoes the steady growth seen in July and confirms that businesses in the eurozone aren't overly worried about Britain's June 23 vote to leave the EU, the broader 27-country trading bloc that includes the eurozone.

Britain has yet to trigger the clause that will start negotiations on the nation's exit terms. It could take months for the country to invoke that clause and when it does, the actual departure will involve years of negotiations.

2 Airbnb starts own listings (Francesca Perry in The Guardian) Since its inception, Airbnb – the website that allows people to rent out their homes for holiday accommodation – has been a contentious issue in cities. It’s a cost-saving convenience for travellers and a money-making opportunity for homeowners, yet a source of ire to scores of traditional hotels and guest-houses.

Some have accused the global home-sharing initiative – which operates in 34,000 cities – of playing a part in gentrifying neighbourhoods, as more Airbnb listed properties means fewer available homes to live in, thus pushing up prices.

But could Airbnb be finding another way to influence cities? Earlier this August the multi-billion-dollar company launched a brand new initiative called Samara. It claims it is an innovation and design studio that “generates new ideas and building products that serve the Airbnb community” and “explores new attitudes to sharing and trust”.

So far, so vague. Samara will apparently focus on architecture, product design, software engineering, and new economic models – but the design studio has started with a house for a Japanese village. 

Samara says the rental income from stays at the house will be used to “strengthen the cultural legacy and future of the town”, which has struggled as young people move away to cities – an issue that has affected many of Japan’s rural communities as the country’s population ages, shrinks and urbanises.
Abandoned houses blight many of Japan’s rural towns; in 2013 there were 8.2 million vacant houses across the country, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Samara’s ambition is to take the Yoshino Cedar House model – a listing run by and for the benefit of a community, designed as a shared space – and roll it out to similar struggling rural communities around the world to boost localised tourism and reinvigorate economies. ssentially, it seems Airbnb would build its own listings.

Many websites reporting on Samara have announced that Airbnb is branching out into urban planning. As it stands though, Samara’s work is firmly targeting a rural context. So far, this is no urban planning; I somehow doubt we’ll see Airbnb-designed cities any time soon.

3 Tesla claims ‘milestone’ car battery (BBC) Tesla Motors has unveiled a new battery pack for the performance versions of its Model S and X cars that will extend the range and mean faster acceleration. Elon Musk, chief executive of the electric car maker, hailed the upgraded battery as a "profound milestone".

He said the battery cell chemistry is the same, but the reconfigured product stored more energy in the same space. Tesla, which this month posted a steeper-than-expected loss, is adding a new sedan car to its sports line-up. Mr Musk claimed that the new 100-kilowatt hour battery pack means high-end versions of the Model S sedan, called the P100D, will be the world's fastest accelerating car in production.

It will do 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds. He said there were faster cars on the market, but these were limited-run vehicles, while the Tesla is aimed at the mass market, he said. Mr Musk said that in cool weather, a driver could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles - a nearly 400 mile drive - without recharging.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Aramco's mother-of-all IPOs; Ford self-driving cars by 2021; Sad plight of Mongolian currency

1 Aramco’s mother-of-all IPOs (Matein Khalid in Khaleej Times) It will be the mother of all initial public offerings, unquestionably the biggest financial deal in history. Saudi Aramco is a $2 trillion colossus, the largest oil and gas producer on earth, owner of one fifth of the kingdom’s oil reserves.

Saudi Aramco financed the epic transformation of Saudi Arabia into the powerbroker of Opec, the biggest economy in the Arab world and the geopolitical future of the Middle East. Saudi Aramco pumps more crude oil than Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and Chevron combined.

The privatisation IPO of Saudi Aramco is central to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 strategy, which is nothing less than a blueprint for the kingdom’s post Oil Age economy. Alibaba’s IPO in New York and Shanghai raised $25 billion but the Saudi Aramco IPO will raise at least $100 billion.

The crash in crude oil prices since 2014 and the geopolitical crises in the Arab world since 2011 have only intensified the need for the Saudi government to boost its economic growth rate, diversify its non-oil consumer services and industrial base and attract foreign capital to the kingdom.

Not since the reign of the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, which coincided with the black gold bonanza of the early 1970s just after the Arab-Israeli war in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, has the economic momentum of the kingdom portend change on such seismic a scale. Saudi Arabia’s economic transformation creates once in a lifetime investment opportunities for prescient investors.

The IPO of Saudi Aramco would be a milestone moment in the history of postwar finance, an event as transformational as Sir Sigmund Warburg’s eurobond new issue for Italy’s Autostrade or the evolution of the Shariah-compliant (sukuk) debt markets in the 1990s. Ever since Chevron geologists first struck oil in a Dammam salt dome in 1937, Saudi Aramco has been the financial umbilical cord of the kingdom, generating for 90 per cent of budget revenues.

2 Ford self-driving cars by 2021 (Gulf News) Ford Motor Company has vowed to have self-driving cars on the road for ride-sharing services by the year 2021. The US automaker said it was fuelling the effort with ramped up investments in technology and by doubling the size of the team at its autonomous-car campus in Silicon Valley.

“We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Ford chief executive Mark Fields. As part of its mission, Ford joined Chinese internet giant Baidu to pump a combined $150 million into Velodyne, a US firm specialising in self-driving car sensors.

California-based Velodyne said the cash infusion will enable it to quickly expand the design and production of “LiDAR” high-performance sensors for autonomous vehicles. Baidu, an investor in on-demand ride service Uber, said that it was testing a fleet of self-driving vehicles in China as part of a vision for promoting safe use of the technology on a global scale.

Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle will not have a steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal, according to the carmaker. The self-driving vehicle is being designed for services such as on-demand ride services, Ford said.

3 The sad plight of Mongolian currency (Leisha Chi on BBC) Even Genghis Khan himself might find it hard to conquer this battle. Mongolia's currency is on its longest losing streak on record as the government grapples to contain an economic crisis.

Back in 2011, a mining boom helped make it the world's fastest-growing economy with growth in gross domestic product of around 17.5%. But the tugrik lost about 7.8% of its value this month, making it the world's worst-performing currency.

The landlocked country has substantial untapped reserves of valuable minerals like gold, copper and coal. But then commodity prices collapsed. And so did demand from China, which buys 90% of Mongolia's exports. The government has since admitted that the country is "in a deep state of economic crisis".

Due to its cash shortage, Mongolia has borrowed massively and now owes dinosaur-sized interest payments of a debt load of nearly $23bn. This has fuelled speculation that Mongolia could face a sovereign default or need a bailout.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Global outlook brighter as Brexit fears fade; Selfies boost make-up sales; Stanford and Cal fifth in Olympic medals

1 Global outlook brighter as Brexit fears fade (Issac John in Khaleej Times) Despite heightened political uncertainty, the global outlook has brightened a little with early evidence suggesting that the impact of Brexit on the rest of Europe would be less severe than previously estimated.

"While the full effects of Brexit have yet to be felt and the negative rhetoric of the US presidential election escalates, recent economic news has been a little more upbeat," said IHS Global Insight's World Flash for August.

IHS Markit chief economist Nariman Behravesh and IHS Global Insight senior research director Sara Johnson said in their forecast that Japan's large fiscal stimulus package would provide a temporary (although small) boost to growth.

HIS relatively bullish forecast for the world economy is in sharp contrast with the recent International Monetary Fund's observation. The IMF has cut its forecasts for global economic growth this year and next as the unexpected UK vote to leave the European Union creates a wave of uncertainty amid already-fragile business and consumer confidence.

IHS said growth in China, the world's second largest economy, is set to slow in the second half. In other large emerging markets, prospects look a little brighter-or at least a little less dark, the report said.

2 Selfies boost make-up sales (Dearbail Jordan on BBC) Some call it extreme narcissism, for others, it is just a bit of fun. For Estee Lauder, the selfie is a trend that has helped drive a rise in make-up sales. Cosmetics was the fastest growing division for the company for the full-year to 30 June, with turnover up 9%.

The owner of brands such as Clinique, MAC and Bobbi Brown, said there has been a "shift in consumer preferences". The upshot is that the snap-happy want to be camera ready at all times. That impulse helped Estee Lauder's sales to rise by 4% to a total of $11.2bn for the year.

The company said sales of products such as make-up palettes have increased because they are a favourite of the internet beauty bloggers. A big Instagram following is also advantageous. Estee Lauder is about to launch a new make-up range with designer Victoria Beckham who has 12.1 million followers, as does US model Amber Rose, who is the face of Flirt Cosmetics, which Estee Lauder is launching online.

With the global cosmetics market set to grow to $675bn by 2020, according to Research and Markets, there will be no shortage of potential new brands for Estee Lauder to target.

3 Stanford and Cal fifth in Olympic medals (Katie Dowd in San Francisco Chronicle) With their combined medal count of 48, Stanford and Cal would create the world's fifth-best athletic nation at the Rio Olympics. Thanks to the addition of three more gold medals Saturday in women's water polo, Stanford leads the Bay with an astounding 27 medals. Cal is close behind with 21, almost all in swimming events.

Here's how they stack up against the rest of the world: 1. United States 2. Great Britain 3. China 4. Russia (Cal and Stanford) 5. Germany 6. Japan 7. France 8. South Korea 9. Australia 10. Italy.

Female dominance was a huge part of the picture for Stanford in particular; 12 of their 15 Olympic medalists are women.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Strongest week for oil since March; Self-driving Ubers have arrived; The evolution of greenwashing

1 Strongest week for oil since March (Gulf News) Oil capped its strongest weekly increase in five months after entering a bull market as investors weighed speculation that Opec talks next month could lead to an output freeze, and US inventories dropped.

Futures rose 0.6 per cent in New York. While Opec is unlikely to reach a deal to freeze production, its plans to hold informal talks in Algiers next month “were the spark” behind oil’s rally, according to Morgan Stanley.

Oil has climbed more than 20 per cent since it dipped below $40 a barrel earlier in the month, meeting the common definition of a bull market. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said that the nation was open to discussing a freeze after his Saudi counterpart Khalid Al Falih said that informal talks in September may lead to action to stabilise the market.

US oil drillers added 10 rigs this week, extending the biggest and longest increases since April 2014, Baker Hughes Inc data show. An agreement to freeze output is within reach as Saudi Arabia, Iran and non-Opec member Russia are producing at, or close to, maximum capacity, Chakib Khelil, former Opec president and Algerian energy minister, said.

2 Self-driving Ubers have arrived (Emily Price in San Francisco Chronicle) Starting later this month, a fleet of Volvo XC90 SUVs will be picking up and dropping off passengers in Pittsburgh with one interesting twist: they won’t have drivers.

The cars won’t be completely empty though — there will be a “driver” sitting in the driver’s seat in case things get dicey along the ride. Nevertheless, the vehicles are outfitted with sensors, cameras, radar, and GPS receivers that make it possible for them pick you up and get you to your destination without the help of anyone behind the wheel.

There’s even a tablet in the back of each car letting you know you’re in a driverless car, which suggests you pretend the human driver isn’t even there. So far, he or she sometimes needs to grab the wheel when tackling bridges; that task is still difficult for the car’s computer system.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that the need for the company to develop its own self-driving fleet became apparent when Uber realized Google was planning to get into the ride-sharing business down the line.

If Google was successful, and Uber still relied on drivers, the move would eventually put Uber out of business. Volvo worked with Uber on the SUVs, but it won’t be the only car manufacturer with which the ride-hailing service will be working. Uber began road testing its vehicles in Pittsburg in May.

3 The evolution of corporate greenwashing (Bruce Watson in The Guardian) The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, back when most consumers received their news from television, radio and print media – the same outlets that corporations regularly flooded with a wave of high-priced, slickly-produced commercials and print ads.

The combination of limited public access to information and seemingly unlimited advertising enabled companies to present themselves as caring environmental stewards, even as they were engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.

But greenwashing dates back even earlier. American electrical behemoth Westinghouse’s nuclear power division was a greenwashing pioneer. Threatened by the 1960’s anti-nuclear movement, which raised questions about its safety and environmental impact, it fought back with a series of ads proclaiming the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power plants.

By the early 1990s, consumers were wising up to sustainability concerns: polls showed that companies’ environmental records influenced the majority of consumer purchases. This interest in the environment brought an increased awareness of the greenwashing; by the end of the decade, the word had officially entered the English language with its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Since then, the trend has only increased: a 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. Among millennials, that number jumps to 72%.

One shift has been outreach. Many companies are now working to engage customers in their sustainability efforts, even as their core business model remains environmentally unsustainable. The Home Depot and Lowes, for example, both encourage customers to do their part by offering onsite recycling for several products, including compact fluorescent lights and plastic bags. Meanwhile, they continue to sell billions of dollars per year worth of environmentally damaging products, such as paints that are loaded with toxic ingredients and which release noxious fumes.

Greenwashing may have taken on a new shape in the last decade, but it’s still as murky as ever.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

BHP Billiton hit by commodity rout; Ford's self-driving car by 2021; UAE vacancies drop 22%

1 BHP Billiton hit by commodity rout (Sean Farrell & Graham Ruddick in The Guardian) BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest miner, has reported a record loss of $6.4bn (£4.9bn) following a fatal dam disaster in Brazil, a slump in the price of commodities, and a bet on fracking in the US.

Miners are struggling due to a sharp fall in commodity prices, sparked by concerns that a slowdown in the Chinese economy could leave a surplus of raw materials. Andrew Mackenzie, chief executive of the company, said the last 12 months have been challenging and that commodity prices are likely to remain volatile, even if long-term demand remained robust.

The miner swung to the net loss in the year to the end of June after making a profit of $1.9bn a year earlier. It is the company’s first annual loss and the first time it has not increased its dividend since Australia’s BHP and the Anglo-Dutch company Billiton merged in 2001.

The loss was driven by $7.7bn of writedowns and charges including $4.9bn for the reduced value of its US shale operations and $2.2bn for the collapse of the Samarco dam, which killed 19 people, polluted a river valley and devastated communities in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state in November.

The commodity rout forced BHP Billiton to scrap its policy of not cutting dividends by slashing the half-year payout in February. It cut the annual dividend by 76% to 30 cents a share, in line with a new policy of linking payments to profits.

2 Ford’s self-driving car by 2021 (San Francisco Chronicle) Ford Motor Co. intends to have a fully driverless vehicle — no steering wheel, no pedals — on the road within five years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, with sales to consumers coming later.

"This is a transformational moment in our industry and it is a transformational moment for our company," said CEO Mark Fields, as he announced the plan at Ford's Silicon Valley campus. Ford's approach to the autonomous car breaks from many other companies, like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors, which plan to gradually add self-driving capability to traditional cars.

Just last month, BMW AG, Intel Corp. and the automotive camera maker Mobileye announced a plan to put an autonomous vehicle with a steering wheel on the road by 2021. Instead, Ford is taking the same approach as Alphabet Inc.'s Google, which supports moving directly to self-driving cars once the technology is perfected.

"We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist technologies and decided we were going to take the full leap," said Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer. Nair says Ford will continue developing systems that assist the driver, like automatic emergency braking or lane departure warning.

3 UAE vacancies drop 22% (Cleofe Maceda in Gulf News) The employment market in the UAE looks more subdued, with the number of job opportunities listed online dropping significantly for the first time this year.

The latest Monster Employment Index (MEI), a monthly gauge of vacancies posted by employers across various career platforms and websites in the Middle East, showed that job opportunities in the country dropped by 22 per cent last month compared to the same period in 2015. The decline is the first negative growth recorded in the UAE since the beginning of the year.

The highest decline in hiring was noted in the hospitality industry, down by 38 per cent.  Opportunities remained scarce in the oil and gas sector, where job postings plunged by 33 per cent. Jobseekers can’t expect much recruitment going on in the banking, financial services and insurance industry, either, with listings within this sector dropping by 22 per cent.

But while the labour market still looks generally lethargic, some companies are still open to hire new staff. There are still a number of healthcare projects that are in the pipeline and once they are completed, they are expected to generate more jobs.

The employment markets in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, however, seemed to have improved, with Bahrain registering an 11 per cent increase in recruitment, while Kuwait and Oman each recorded a 10 per cent increase.

In Saudi Arabia, online hiring dropped by 15 per cent, while in Qatar, the decline reached 25 per cent. Egypt recorded the highest decline among the Middle East countries monitored at -34 per cent.