Sunday, April 30, 2017

China economy cools; Oil glut isn't shrinking; Robotic fruit pickers

1 China economy cools (Katie Allen in The Guardian) China’s economy has shown more signs of cooling with key barometers from its manufacturing and services sectors dipping in April. The latest data comes as Beijing attempts to rein in a booming property market and rapid credit growth.

Two surveys have suggested activity in the world’s second largest economy eased back in April. Manufacturing slowed more than expected as demand was hit by government moves to curb risks associated with a run of high borrowing in China.

The National Bureau of Statistics’ official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) of factory activity fell to a six-month low of 51.2 in April from a multi-year high of 51.8 in March. That was above the 50-mark separating growth from contraction but missed forecasts for a reading of 51.6 in a poll of economists by Reuters.

Economists are hopeful that the news on growth will remain positive enough so that Chinese authorities are not tempted to ease back on the pace of reform or reach for once-favoured ways of propping up the economy, such as spending on big infrastructure projects and relying on the booming property market.

2 Oil glut isn’t shrinking (Gulf News) Excess crude oil inventories in the US are finally and clearly in retreat as OPEC’s output agreement nears the end of its fourth month. But those oil bulls looking for higher prices shouldn’t get too excited just yet — the surplus may just be moving elsewhere.

True, the crude stockpile fell in each of the first three weeks of April, and the 3.64 million-barrel decline in the last of those was the biggest weekly drop of the year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

US refineries are helping to drain the glut. The amount they processed has soared as plants have come back into operation after normal seasonal maintenance. This all ought to be good news for the bulls, but we need to look deeper. If the products being produced are not consumed, the glut is simply being transferred from crude to refined products.

In the most recent week’s data, the volume of gasoline and middle distillates in storage rose, more than offsetting the draw down in crude stockpiles. In order to really clear the glut, crude must first be processed into products and then those products need to be consumed.

Oil bulls should worry that, far from easing, the US oil glut is just being shifted downstream and overseas. Opec has more work to do to get the market back into balance, and at the very least will need to extend its current accord when it meets May 25.

3 Robotic fruit pickers (San Francisco Chronicle) Harvesting Washington state's vast fruit orchards each year requires thousands of farmworkers, and many of them work illegally in the US. That system eventually could change dramatically as at least two companies are rushing to get robotic fruit-picking machines to market.

The robotic pickers don't get tired and can work 24 hours a day. "Human pickers are getting scarce," said Gad Kober, a co-founder of Israel-based FFRobotics. "Young people do not want to work in farms, and elderly pickers are slowly retiring."

FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, California, are racing to get their mechanical pickers to market within the next couple of years. Harvest has been mechanized for large portions of the agriculture industry such as wheat, corn, green beans and tomatoes for some time.

But for more fragile commodities like apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — where the crop's appearance is especially important — harvest is still done by hand. Members of Washington's $7.5 billion annual agriculture industry have long grappled with labor shortages, and depend on workers coming up from Mexico each year to harvest many crops.

Advocates for farmworkers say robot pickers will have a negative effect. The eventual loss of jobs for humans will be huge, said Erik Nicholson of Seattle, an official with the United Farm Workers union.
FFRobotics is developing a machine that has three-fingered grips to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. The machine would have between four and 12 robotic arms, and can pick up to 10,000 apples an hour, Kober said.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Weakest quarter for US economy in 3 years; Profits rise for US tech giants; China manufacturing slows

1 Weakest quarter for US economy in three years (The Guardian) The US economy turned in the weakest performance in three years in the January-March quarter as consumers sharply slowed their spending. The result repeats a pattern that has characterized the recovery: lacklustre beginnings to the year.

The Commerce Department says the gross domestic product, the total output of goods and services, grew by just 0.7% in the first quarter following a gain of 2.1% in the fourth quarter. The slowdown primarily reflected slower consumer spending, which grew by just 0.3% after a 3.5% gain in the fourth quarter. It was the poorest showing in more than seven years.

Economists believe the slowdown will be temporary. They forecast GDP growth will rebound to 3% or better in the current quarter. Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the weak GDP rates during the campaign as an example of the Obama administration’s failed economic policies. He said his program of tax cuts for individuals and businesses, deregulation and tougher enforcement of trade agreements would double growth to 4% or better.

2 Profits rise for US tech giants (BBC) Profits surged at four US tech giants in the first three months of the year. Profits at Google parent Alphabet increased 28% year-on-year to to $5.4bn, boosted by advertising on mobile phones and the popular YouTube video service.

Amazon profits climbed more than 40%, to $724m. It was its eighth quarter in a row of profit. Microsoft also had a strong quarter, with profits up nearly 28%, while chipmaker Intel's profits rose 45%.

Microsoft was lifted by its cloud computing products, such as Azure, which were $4.8bn, up 28% compared with the previous year. Microsoft also received a boost from social network LinkedIn, which it bought for $26bn in June last year.

Chipmaker Intel's profits rose 45% to $2.9bn, with revenue up 8%. The growth was driven by its memory division, which recently launched a new technology, with revenue up 55%.

3 China manufacturing growth slows (Straits Times) Growth in China's manufacturing sector slowed faster than expected in April, an official survey showed, as producer price inflation cooled and policymakers' efforts to reduce financial risks in the economy weighed on demand.

The National Bureau of Statistics' official Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) fell to a six-month low of 51.2 in April from March's near five-year high of 51.8. Zhou Hao, an economist at Commerzbank, said recent sharp declines in iron ore and onshore steel prices point to some of the pressures the country's manufacturers are facing.

Chinese steel and iron ore futures tumbled to multi-month lows earlier this month as market sentiment turned bearish on demand outlook and worries mounted about a glut of steel later this year.

China's economy grew a faster-than-expected 6.9 per cent in the first quarter, boosted by higher government infrastructure spending and the nation's gravity-defying property boom. But growth is expected to slow as authorities step up a battle to cool the property sector and as the central bank and banking regulator take steps to contain financial risks.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bumper profits for Alphabet, Amazon; The rise of inequality; Why going to university is still worth it

1 Bumper profits for Alphabet, Amazon (Martin Farrer in The Guardian) A slew of large tech companies including Google parent Alphabet and Amazon have reported better than expected bumper profits, promising to boost the Nasdaq index to fresh highs.

The tech-heavy index already pushed to a new record on Thursday of 6,048.94, a rise of 0.39%, thanks to strong results from PayPal and Comcast. But after-the-bell figures from the industry’s giants looked set to take it even higher.

With shares already buoyant on the hopes of huge corporate tax cuts by the Trump administration, the impressive earnings helped Wall Street brush aside any concerns about a possible US government shutdown amid continued congressional wrangling.

The record-breaking run is likely to continue next week when the market will hear from Apple and Facebook. Alphabet’s profit beat Wall Street estimates and rose 29% to $5.43bn, a performance that analysts called exceptional for a company so large.

Like its arch-rival Facebook, Google has aggressively shifted the focus of its business to mobile advertising. The two companies accounted for 99% of the industry growth in digital advertising in 2016, demonstrating market power that some advertisers complain amounts to a duopoly.

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, said net income rose 41% in the first quarter of the year. Retail and cloud-computing sales led the way, boosted by fees from its Prime shopping club and media streaming services, along with growing advertising revenue.

Shares rose 3.9% to $954 in after-hours trading, adding nearly $3bn to the personal fortune of founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos. His wealth is now estimated at $79bn, making him the world’s third richest person ahead of Warren Buffett on $74bn, according to Bloomberg. Bezos is $8.3bn behind Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who is in top spot with a fortune put at $87.3bn.

2 The rise of inequality (Yuval Noah Harari on BBC) In the 19th and 20th Centuries, something changed. Equality became a dominant value in human culture, almost all over the world. It was partly down to the rise of new ideologies such as humanism, liberalism and socialism.

But it was also about technological and economic change - which was connected to those new ideologies, of course. But now that's changing again. The best armies today require a small number of highly professional soldiers using very high-tech kit. Factories, too, are increasingly automated.

This is one reason why we might - in the not-too-distant future - see the creation of the most unequal societies that have ever existed in human history. And there are other reasons to fear such a future. With rapid improvements in biotechnology and bioengineering, we may reach a point where, for the first time in history, economic inequality becomes biological inequality.

Until now, humans had control of the world outside them. They could control the rivers, forests, animals and plants. But they had very little control of the world inside them. They couldn't cheat death. There are two main ways to upgrade humans. Either you change something in their biological structure by changing their DNA. Or, the more radical way, you combine organic and inorganic parts - perhaps directly connecting brains and computers.

In the past, the nobility tried to convince the masses that they were superior to everyone else and so should hold power. In the future I am describing, they really will be superior to the masses. And because they will be better than us, it will make sense to cede power and decision-making to them.

We might also find that the rise of artificial intelligence - and not just automation - will mean that huge numbers of people, in all kinds of jobs, simply lose their economic usefulness. The two processes together - human enhancement and the rise of AI - may result in the separation of humankind into a very small class of super-humans and a massive underclass of "useless" people.
Once you lose your economic importance, the state loses at least some of the incentive to invest in your health, education and welfare. It's very dangerous to be redundant.

There is one more possible step on the road to previously unimaginable inequality. In the short-term, authority might shift to a small elite that owns and controls the master algorithms and the data that feeds them. In the longer term, however, authority could shift completely from humans to the algorithms. Once AI is smarter than us, all humanity could be made redundant.

3 Why going to university is still worth it (Goh Eng yeow in Straits Times) Is going to college still worthwhile? I would still give an unequivocal "yes", even though I agree that not all university degrees will fatten the wallet.

In my view, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are big exceptions to the rule. For most of us who have been to university, not only does a degree provide an important stepping stone to a good career, but also it lays the framework for a life-long learning process.

True, many of us took courses at university which did not quite equip us with the skills for the jobs we were subsequently hired to do. But the rigorous training received enabled us to do well in our chosen careers. In my case, I studied physics in university. But I have spent most of my working life as a financial writer dealing with subjects which have nothing in common with physics.

It was at university that I was taught simple ways to solve even the most complicated physics problems. It is a philosophy I find useful in helping me make sense of the bewildering complexities of the financial landscape I write about.

Moreover, a university degree should not be viewed as an end in itself. Future generations will live longer because of the rapid advances in medical technologies. Given that, working till the current retirement age of 62 may not be viable anymore because this would mean the number of years we spend in retirement would far exceed the time we spend working - and we may find ourselves running out of money in our advanced years.

Life can no longer be split up into merely three stages - education, career and retirement. Working long past 62 will be the norm, rather than the exception. In that case, we may end up with six or seven phases in our lives, working in a certain job for some years, then returning to education to learn new skills before picking up another job, and taking time off to pursue other activities such as starting a family.

Given such scenarios, a person may find himself doing more than one university degree in his lifetime - a basic one which offers him thinking skills, as well as many subsequent post-graduate courses to give him the skills necessary to perform his job. The trick is to keep finding work which robots cannot do.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tech disruption pain to last long, says Jack Ma; 'We are a long way from the boom time of 2007'; Google home assistant recognises voices

1 Tech disruption pain to last long, says Jack Ma (Straits Times) Alibaba Group Holding chairman Jack Ma said society should prepare for decades of pain as the Internet disrupts the economy. The world must change education systems and establish how to work with robots to help soften the blow caused by automation and the Internet economy, Ma said.

"In the next 30 years, the world will see much more pain than happiness," Ma said of job disruptions caused by the Internet. "Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life."

Ma made the comments as Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce operator, spends billions of dollars to move into new businesses from film production and video streaming to cloud computing. Ma, 52, also hit out at the traditional banking industry, saying that lending must be available to more members of society.

Alibaba shares have outperformed this year on expectations it can withstand efforts by rivals such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. to capture digital ad spending and muscle in on its turf. The company is moving into untapped rural markets and investing in new sources of income, such as online media and cloud computing - one of its fastest-growing businesses in 2016.

Ma also called for traditional industries to stop complaining about the Internet's effects on the economy. He said Alibaba critics ignore that Taobao has created millions of jobs. He also warned that longer lifespans and better artificial intelligence were likely to lead to both aging labor forces and fewer jobs.

2 'We are a long way from the boom time of 2007' (Larry Elliott in The Guardian) The IMF meeting of the past few days was supposed to be about how the global economy has at last emerged into the light from its long dark tunnel. Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, radiated optimism.

For a change growth forecasts were revised up. The impression was given that everything is back under control. The reality is somewhat different. There will be no return to the world as it was in the spring of 2007 for many years, if ever. It was a moment when many trends peaked.

Firstly, it represented peak America. The years leading up to 2007 had been dominated by a particular view of the world. Some called it the Washington consensus. Some called it the advent of a unipolar world, in which the US emerged victorious after its cold war struggle with the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history.

The US remains an economic and military superpower, but it was the Chinese and not the American economy that hauled the world out of recession in 2008-09. American attempts to prevent China setting up an Asian infrastructure bank failed. When Donald Trump wanted to get tough with North Korea he had to drop plans to brand China a currency manipulator. The period between 1990 and 2007 when the US was unchallenged is over.

Secondly, 2007 was peak growth. It is now apparent that the period of rapid expansion in the early 2000s was only possible because the financial system was out of control and households were taking on record amounts of debt.

Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist and head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, noted “In 2007, at the peak of the pre-crisis boom, the economies of 65 countries grew at annual rates of 7% or more. Today, just six economies are growing at that rate, and most of those are in small countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Laos.”

Thirdly, the sub-prime crisis marked peak globalisation. From that moment, there was never any realistic chance of concluding the multilateral trade talks begun in Doha in 2001. Moreover, while publicly opposing protectionism, rich and poor countries alike have been putting up barriers to trade.

But it is not just trade. Free movement of capital was a key component of globalisation in the 1990s and early 2000s, but these peaked at the time of the recession and have fallen back sharply as a percentage of world GDP.

3 Google home assistant recognizes voices (San Francisco Chronicle) Google's voice-activated assistant can now recognize who's talking to it on Google's Home speaker. An update enables Home's built-in assistant to learn the different voices of up to six people, although they can't all be talking to the internet-connected speaker at the same time.

Distinguishing voices will allow Home to be more personal in some of its responses, depending on who triggers the assistant with the phrase, "OK Google" or "Hey Google."

For instance, once Home is trained to recognize a user named Joe, the assistant will automatically be able to tell him what traffic is like on his commute, list events on his daily calendar or even play his favorite songs. Then another user named Jane could get similar information from Home, but customized for her.

The ability to distinguish voices may help Home siphon sales from's Echo, a competing product that features its own voice-activated assistant, Alexa. The Echo doesn't yet recognize different voices. Instead, it has a feature that allows Alexa to switch to a different account when told to do so. The Echo can only handle two personal accounts.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

India to be third largest consumer market by 2025; Over 200,000 England homes lie vacant; Flying car to go on sale

1 India to be third largest consumer market by 2025 (Issac John in Khaleej Times) Rising affluence will enable India to emerge as the third-largest consumer market by 2025, prompting companies to adapt their business models for meeting the changing customer needs, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group.

Consumption in India is set to triple to $4 trillion by 2025 on the back of changes in consumer behaviours and spending patterns that have big implications for companies, said the report. According to it, a nominal year-on-year expenditure growth of 12 per cent in the country is more than double the anticipated global rate of five per cent and will make the country the third-largest consumer market by 2025 at $4 trillion.

Emerging cities - those with populations of less than one million - will be the fastest growing and will constitute one-third of total consumer spending by 2025. The report said that three-fourths of all households will be nuclear families and digital channels will influence 30 to 35 per cent of all retail sales by 2025 and eight to 10 per cent of retail spending will be online.

In a country, which is already the third largest economy in terms of purchasing power, the shape of this growth will be influenced by the elite and affluent income segments that will constitute 40 per cent of all spending by 2025. For the first time, the wealthy will represent the largest consumption segment.

Among the factors that will shape consumption is India's unique pattern of urbanisation, in which emerging cities are the fastest growing. About 40 per cent of India's population will be living in urban areas by 2025, and city dwellers will account for more than 60 per cent of consumption.

Another important trend is shifting family structures. The extended Indian joint family has given way to nuclear households, (a couple or a single person with or without children). The proportion of nuclear households, which has been on the rise during the past two decades, has reached 70 per cent and is projected to increase to 74 per cent by 2025. Nuclear families spend 20 to 30 per cent more per capita than joint families.

The biggest desires of aspirer households used to be to own a house and a car; today, many more of these consumers want to take international vacations. Similarly, affluent households are becoming comfort seekers, and they are willing to pay for it.

2 Over 200,000 England homes lie empty (Phillip Inman in The Guardian) More than 200,000 homes in England with a total value of £43bn were empty for at least six months during 2016 despite the desperate shortage of properties to rent and buy.

According to official figures, Birmingham was the worst affected city outside London with 4,397 empty homes worth an estimated £956m, followed by Bradford and Liverpool. The wealthy borough of Kensington and Chelsea was the worst performer in London as super-rich owners rejected renting them out or selling up in favour of leaving their properties lying idle.

In response squatters groups have sought to occupy empty homes, with one group in January taking over a £15m central London property purchased by a Russian oligarch in 2014 to open it as a homeless shelter. Councils and the government have worked to cut the number of empty homes, primarily by reducing tax incentives which encouraged owners to leave properties unused.

The trend for the world’s super-rich to invest in prime London property as a way to safeguard their wealth, without the need to secure a rental income, has meant the number of empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea rose 22.7% over the same period and 8.5% since 2015.

3 Flying car to go on sale (San Francisco Chronicle) A Slovakian company called AeroMobil has unveiled its version of a flying car, a light-framed plane whose wings can fold back, like an insect, and is boosted by a hybrid engine and rear propeller.

It will be available to preorder as soon as this year but is not for everyone: besides the big price tag — between 1.2 million and 1.5 million euros ($1.3 million-$1.6 million) — you'd need a pilot's license to use it in the air.

Several companies are working on flying cars, either like Aeromobil's two-seater that needs a runway, or others that function more like helicopters, lifting off vertically. But not many companies are seriously looking at marketing these vehicles anytime soon.

Among the big questions is how to control the air traffic if there are hundreds of such vehicles zipping through the air. So while vehicles like the AeroMobil could be used for recreational purposes by people who have a large piece of land, flying cars are unlikely to become a mass market reality anytime soon.

The AeroMobil has a driving range of about 100 kms (62 miles) and a top speed of 160 kph (99 mph). When flying, its maximum cruising range is 750 kms (466 miles), and it takes about three minutes for the car to transform into a plane. The previous AeroMobil 3.0 prototype made news in 2014 when it was presented in Vienna, but no test-flight took place then. It crashed during a test flight in Slovakia in 2015 with its inventor Stefan Klein on board. He escaped largely unharmed.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

China, EU plan closer engagement; Facebook for brain-control of computers; One in four young Aussies is distressed

1 China, EU for closer engagement (San Francisco Chronicle) Top diplomats from China and the European Union have pledged closer cooperation, highlighting their common interests in peace and security and pushing a message of free trade and open engagement in contrast to fears that the US is turning inward under President Donald Trump.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini co-chaired the Seventh EU-China Strategic Dialogue with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's highest-ranking diplomat. Mogherini said China and the EU had "a big responsibility" during "times of uncertainty."

Mogherini met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who said that the international community was looking at how China and the EU would work together to tackle challenges including the world economic recovery, global conflicts and terrorism, and Britain's pending withdrawal from the EU.
Unlike Trump, who was elected promising to tear up trade deals, impose new tariffs and bring jobs back to America, Chinese President Xi Jinping has cast his country as a champion of free trade and stability, and spoken out against protectionism.

Beijing and Brussels have disagreements on trade, however, including complaints by European and other foreign companies that they are blocked from acquiring Chinese assets while China's companies are buying major global brands. They also say they are barred from or sharply restricted in telecoms, information technology, finance and other promising industries in violation of Beijing's free-trading pledges.

Beijing, meanwhile, wants the EU to grant it market economy status, which would make it harder for the EU to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports that it deems to be unfairly cheap. Other points of dispute include China's increasingly restrictive environment for civil society and internet censorship.

2 Facebook for brain-control of computers (Dave Lee on BBC) Facebook says it is working on technology to allow us to control computers directly with our brains. It is developing “silent speech” software to allow people to type at a rate of 100 words per minute, it says.
The project, in its early stages, will require new technology to detect brainwaves without needing invasive surgery. "We are not talking about decoding your random thoughts,” assured Facebook's Regina Dugan.

"You have many thoughts, you choose to share some of them. We’re talking about decoding those words. A silent speech interface - one with all the speed and flexibility of voice." Ms Dugan is the company’s head of Building 8, the firm’s hardware research lab. The company said it intends to build both the hardware and software to achieve its goal, and has enlisted a team of more than 60 scientists and academics to work on the project.

On his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg added: "Our brains produce enough data to stream four HD movies every second.  "The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world - speech - can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem.

Other ideas detailed at the company’s developers conference in San Jose included work to allow people to “hear” through skin. The system, comparable to Braille, uses pressure points on the skin to relay information. “One day, not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin, and you to feel it instantly in Spanish,” Ms Dugan said.

3 One in four young Aussies in distress (BBC) Almost a quarter of young Australians are living with "probable serious mental illness", according to a study. The number of people aged 15-19 in psychological distress is higher than five years ago, said the report.

It also showed girls and indigenous Australians are more likely to suffer serious mental illness. The report recommended more investment in evidence-based online support tools and improving mental health education.

Key areas of concern for young people include coping with stress, school and study problems, and depression, according to the Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute findings. Black Dog Institute director Helen Christensen said: "These findings confirm that mental illness is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century, and one that has to be tackled by the community, health services and families."

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

IMF sees global economic growth picking up; Theresa May pushes Britain into snap poll; Singapore, German passports most powerful

1 IMF sees global economic growth picking up (BBC) The world economy seems to be gaining momentum, according the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Maurice Obstfeldt said "we could be at a turning point". The report forecasts global growth this year of 3.5%, up from 3.1% predicted in 2016.

The UK's economy is forecast to expand by 2% this year, stronger growth than any of the major developed economies apart from the US. The prediction for Britain this year is now only marginally below what the IMF predicted a year ago, its last full forecast before the Brexit referendum.

The figure then was 2.2%. The revised forecast reinforces the picture of the British economy's performance being little affected by the aftermath of the referendum, contrary to the expectations of the IMF and many independent economists. The IMF does, however, expect the longer term impact on Britain to be adverse.

The dominant tone of the report is rather sunnier than it has been for some time. For much of the period since the financial crisis of 2008 the IMF has worried that the recovery was failing to generate momentum. This time the IMF sees buoyant financial markets and "a long awaited cyclical recovery in manufacturing and trade".

One decidedly weak area is Africa, for which the IMF describes the outlook as subdued. For sub-Saharan Africa, economic growth is likely to only moderately exceed population growth. That means correspondingly only moderate progress in raising average living standards in the region.

2 Theresa May pushes Britain into snap poll (The Guardian editorial) Even before day one of Theresa May’s prime ministership, she was categorical about the undesirability of an early election. As Mrs May put it in Whitehall on 30 June 2016 at the launch of her Conservative leadership bid: “There should be no general election until 2020.” This was unambiguous and, until today.

Yet now it is going to happen after all, and it is happening solely because Mrs May sees Conservative partisan advantage in making it happen. Today, Mrs May stood in Downing Street and announced with a completely straight face that the government intended to call an election on 8 June.

Parliament will vote on the matter tomorrow. Unless more than a third of MPs vote against Mrs May’s motion, Britain is heading to the polls in seven weeks’ time. Mrs May may have presented the decision as the government’s, but it is very clear that it was hers alone.

Britain does not need, and its people are not demanding, this general election. There is no crisis in the government. Mrs May is not losing votes in the Commons. The House of Lords is not defying her. No legislation is at risk. There is no war and no economic crisis. Brexit is two years away. Yet now a supposedly five-year parliament will have lasted for just two, solely because Mrs May thinks this is a good time to crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

As U-turns go, it is an absolute screecher. Judgments about Mrs May will never be quite the same.

3 Singapore, German passports most powerful (Straits Times) For the first time, Singapore is tied with Germany as the country with the most powerful passport in an international ranking. Both Germany and Singapore now top the Global Passport Power Rank 2017, published by Arton Capital's Passport Index.

Holders of the Singapore passport can now get visa-on-arrival in Ukraine for up to 15 days, upping the Republic's score by one to 159, Arton Capital said). Germany still has the edge for visa-free free travel, it said. Germans can travel to 125 countries without a visa, holders of the Singapore passport, 122.

But Singapore beats Germany with a visa-on-arrival score of 37 to 34. The result - a tie. The Passport Index compares the passports of 193 United Nations member countries and six territories. Singapore was fourth this year in the Visa Restrictions Index, another ranking of travel freedom which uses a different way of calculating how "powerful" a passport is.

Monday, April 17, 2017

China Q1 growth at 6.9%; Saudi seeks 10% renewable energy; Older people and the 'wealth mountain'

1 China Q1 growth at 6.9% (San Francisco Chronicle) China's economic recovery is gaining momentum, with growth ticking up to a 6.9 percent annual pace in the first three months of the year, lifted by government stimulus and a property boom. The growth seen in January-March in the world's second-biggest economy was an improvement from the previous quarter's 6.8 percent pace and surpassed economists' forecasts.

China saw its slowest growth in nearly three decades in 2016. Policies aimed at tempering the slowdown included higher spending on construction of infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Relatively cheap credit spurred booming property sales. The official full-year economic growth target for 2017 is 6.5 percent.

During the first quarter, investment in fixed assets such as factories expanded 9.2 percent from a year earlier, while retail sales grew 10 percent. Industrial production rose 6.8 percent, including a stronger-than- expected 7.6 percent year-on-year gain in March. Economists say they expect the boost from the government's policies to persist for a few more months before fading later in the year.

2 Saudi seeks 10% renewable energy in six years (Gulf News) Saudi Arabia wants 10 per cent of its electricity to come from renewable sources within several years as part of a transformation in its power sector, the energy minister has said. Khalid Al Falih said his country, the world’s biggest oil exporter, will also sell renewable energy and its technology abroad.

At a forum seeking investment in the sector, he announced “30 projects to be implemented” in order to reach a goal of about 10 gigawatts of renewable energy production early next decade. Virtually all of the kingdom’s domestic power currently comes from crude, refined oil or natural gas.

But as part of an economic reform plan to wean the kingdom off oil, the government has embarked on what Al Falih called an “ambitious” renewables programme featuring solar and wind power. He has said the projects could cost between $30 billion and $50 billion. “The percentage of renewable energy by 2023 will represent 10 per cent of the total electricity of the kingdom,” he said.

Al Falih said the energy sector is being completely restructured to include an autonomous board of regulators, and with privatised generation capacity. He formally opened bids on the first 300-megawatt solar plant under the renewables plan. Government estimates say Saudi peak energy demand is expected to exceed 120 gigawatts by 2032.

3 Older people and the ‘wealth mountain’ (Phillip Inman in The Guardian) Property worth more than £400bn in the UK is set to cascade down from grandparents to younger generations in the coming decades, though only a minority of those under 45 are likely to benefit.

According to research by the insurers Royal London about 4 million of the 17 million people aged 25 to 44 are in the “fortunate position” of being in line to inherit from grandparents who have bought property. It found that among the grandparents, all of whom were homeowners, the typical estate expected to be left averaged between £400,000 and £500,000.

The “sandwich generation” of 45- to 64-year-olds were the most likely recipients of this wealth, the research found – but about half of grandparents also plan to pass on wealth directly to their grandchildren. And many people in the middle sandwich generation either want to pass on the inheritance or feel under pressure to hand it to their own adult children – the millennial generation.

A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggested the amount of wealth that younger generations will end up with is more likely to hinge on how well off their parents are than was the case for older generations. The IFS warned that today’s young adults will find it harder to create their own wealth than previous generations, with implications for social mobility.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lifeline for world's biggest shipbuilder; Apple enters self-driving car race; 'Tablet toddlers' sleep less

1 Lifeline for world’s biggest shipbuilder (Straits Times) South Korea's National Pension Service agreed to a restructuring of bonds issued by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, helping the world's largest shipbuilder tide over a financial crisis.

The decision comes after the shipbuilder, the Korea Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of Korea took steps to ensure repayment of the debts, the pension service said in a statement. Banks agreed to convert 80 per cent of loans to Daewoo Ship into shares and to extend maturity of the remainder.

The decision means the shipbuilder, unprofitable in each of the past four years, will likely get more time to make payments on bonds that are due this month. NPS is the biggest holder of the debt.

A decision on the financial restructuring of Daewoo was the biggest test for South Korea's lenders after Korea Development Bank, the shipbuilder's majority shareholder, allowed Hanjin Shipping to collapse last year after refusing to support its debt restructuring plan. KDB was in favor of restructuring the loans, saying Daewoo doesn't have the cash to pay.

Hanjin's demise stranded about a hundred container ships around the world and roiled the global supply chain, putting some 11,000 jobs at risk. A Daewoo shutdown could be much worse, jeopardizing up to 50,000 jobs and $34 billion of vessel orders from companies including AP Moller-Maersk and Statoil.

KDB and the Export-Import Bank of Korea said last month they would provide 2.9 trillion won in additional loans and swap about 1.6 trillion won of debt for equity if other creditors and bondholders agree to convert up to 80 percent of their debt and extend maturities for remaining loans by as much as five years.

2 Apple enters self-driving car race (Dawn) Apple is joining the fiercely competitive race to design self-driving cars, raising the possibility that a company that has already re-shaped culture with its iPhone may try to transform transportation, too.

Ending years of speculation, Apple’s late entry into a crowded field was made official with the disclosure that the California Department of Motor Vehicles had awarded a permit for the company to start testing its self-driving car technology on public roads in the state.

California law requires people to be in a self-driving car who can take control if something goes wrong. Apple confirmed its arrival in the self-driving car market, but wouldn’t discuss its intentions. Its interest in autonomous vehicle technology, however, has long been clear.

Like others, Apple believes self-driving cars could ease congestion, prevent millions of crashes and save thousands of lives annually in traffic accidents often caused by drunk or distracted motorists. Self-driving cars could also be a lucrative new market. And Apple has been searching for its next act for a while, one that will take it beyond its mainstay phones, tablets and personal computers.

Although iPhone’s ongoing popularity has helped Apple remain the world’s most valuable company, the company hasn’t had a breakthrough product since the 2010 debut of the iPad, currently in the throes of a three-year sales slump. The dry spell has raised doubts as to whether Apple lost some of its trend-setting magic with the death of co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011.

Apple will be vying against 29 other companies that already have California permits to test self-driving cars. The list includes major automakers, including Ford, General Motors, BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla, as well as one of its biggest rivals in technology, Google, whose testing of self-driving cars has been spun off into an affiliate called Waymo.

3 ‘Tablet toddlers’ sleep less (Gulf News) The more toddlers play with touchscreen devices the less they sleep, according to a study that suggests the findings could be cause for concern. For every additional hour using a touchscreen phone or tablet during the day, children aged six months to three years slept nearly 16 minutes less in each 24 hour period, researchers reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

But the study could not determine if the extra screen time was responsible for tiny tots sleeping less, or if the loss of shuteye had any adverse health effects. One expert not involved in the research said the results "should be interpreted with extreme caution."

Sleep is critical for cognitive development, especially during the first few years of life, when the brain and sleep patterns evolve in tandem. Earlier research has shown that television watching and video game use are linked to sleep problems in children. But the burgeoning use of touchscreens by an even younger cohort remained unexplored.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Oil demand growth slows for second year; Robots to replace one-third UK jobs in 20 years; Free water from thin air

1 Oil demand growth slows for second year (BBC) Demand for oil is expected to slow for the second year in a row, the International Energy Agency has said. The forecast comes after years of excess supply, which last year prompted major oil producers to agree to cuts in output.

The IEA said the oil market was now "very close to balance." But the organisation predicted supply would grow in coming months, with US oil-producing firms driving the increase.

The IEA said it expected non-Opec production, of which the US and Russia account for the biggest chunk, to rise by 485,000 barrels a day in 2017 to a total of 58.1 million barrels a day.

US production had already climbed to 9 million barrels a day in March, up from a September low of 8.6 million barrels per day. The IEA said it expects demand to increase by just 1.3 million barrels a day in 2017, rising to a total of about 97.9 million barrels a day.

2 Robots to replace one-third UK jobs in 20 years (Larry Elliott in The Guardian) A leading thinktank has urged the UK government to spend billions of pounds helping poorly skilled workers in the less prosperous parts of the UK cope with the threat of the looming robot revolution.

The left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said more than 10m jobs in the UK – a third of the total – are thought to be at risk from automation within the next two decades and the scale of the challenge required urgent action.

There was also evidence to suggest that the impact of automation would be geographically concentrated and so widen the north-south divide. The IPPR research said that in four sectors alone – retail, hospitality, transport and manufacturing – 5m jobs were at risk, adding that a particular concern to ministers should be industries ripe for automation with a high proportion of workers least able to adapt.

The thinktank noted that adults who had left full-time education without GCSE-level qualifications were almost twice as likely as graduates to be unemployed a year after being made redundant – making them especially in need of help to retrain.

3 Free water from thin air (Dave Chambers in Johannesburg Times) To drought-hit areas it sounds like the holy grail: a device that extracts water from air using only the power of the sun. But scientists in the US have proved it can be done‚ even when humidity is as low as 20% — a level common in arid areas.

Their prototype “water harvester” extracted 2.8 litres of water from air in 12 hours‚ the scientists reported in the journal Science this week. “This is a major breakthrough in the long-standing challenge of harvesting water from the air at low humidity‚” said Omar Yaghi‚ one of two senior authors of the paper.

“There is no other way to do that right now‚ except by using extra energy. Your electric dehumidifier at home ‘produces’ very expensive water.” Yaghi’s prototype uses a material he invented 20 years ago‚ a metal-organic framework (MOF)‚ which combines metals such as magnesium or aluminium with organic molecules to create rigid‚ porous structures ideal for storing gases and liquids.

“One vision for the future is to have water off-grid‚ where you have a device at home running on ambient solar for delivering water that satisfies the needs of a household‚” said Yaghi. “To me‚ that will be made possible because of this experiment. I call it personalised water.”