Category: Business / Finance

American business has concerns on tax reform

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP’S effort to change America’s tax code is approaching the finishing line. Republican negotiators from the Senate and the House of Representatives this week hashed out a consensus bill behind closed doors. On December 13th, Mr Trump expressed confidence that he would be able to sign the reform into law before Christmas.

The key provision is the slashing of the corporate tax rate, from 35% to 21%. Big business in America uniformly cheers this reduction. The US Chamber of Commerce calls it a measure to “grow the economy, create jobs, and increase paychecks”. The Tax Foundation, a right-leaning think-tank, claims that reducing the corporate rate to 20%, just one percentage point lower, would increase the size of the economy by 2.7% over the long run. Yet big firms are less enamoured of controversial international provisions that may make it into the final law. Both the Senate bill and the House bill try to stop the shifting of profits by American…

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America’s Public Company Accounting Oversight Board gets a new boss

THE collapses of Enron and WorldCom in the early years of this century turned book-cooking into front-page news. Investors lost over $200bn; in 2002 the stockmarket fell by over a fifth between April and July. In response, America’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act set up a new body, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), to supervise auditors.

Its quest to give auditors more teeth continues, with the introduction of new rules that James Doty, its outgoing chairman, bills as the most significant changes to reporting by auditors in over 70 years. The question now is whether Mr Doty’s successor, who was announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on December 12th along with four new PCAOB board members, will keep heading in the same direction.

New disclosures on auditors’ tenure and independence take effect this week. And from 2019 auditors must go above and beyond the low bar they have historically set themselves, which is a pass or fail “opinion” on…

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An accounting scandal sends Steinhoff plummeting

Steinhoff goes on special offer

THE scale is staggering, even by the standards of scandal-worn South Africa. Steinhoff, a retailer that is one of the country’s best-known companies, admitted to “accounting irregularities” on December 6th when it was due to publish year-end financial statements. Its chief executive, Markus Jooste, resigned, and the firm announced an internal investigation by PwC. Within days Steinhoff had lost €10.7bn ($12.7bn) in market value as its share price fell by more than 80% (see chart). Much is unclear, but it is shaping up to be the biggest corporate scandal that South Africa has ever seen. The company has said it is reviewing the “validity and recoverability” of €6bn in non-South African assets.

Steinhoff traces its roots to West Germany, where it found a niche sourcing cheap furniture from the communist-ruled east. The company merged with a South African firm in 1998 and is based in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town—a…

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Companies in the region vote with their feet against political uncertainty

Employees, customers, separatists

“WE ARE used to dealing with political crises, but not a break in the rule of law,” says the boss of a big Barcelona cement firm, of Catalonia’s constitutional crisis. Fearing separatists in the region would declare independence, as they did on October 27th, he shifted its headquarters to Madrid. That ended decades of family tradition, but there is no plan to return. “It was a painful decision, but we had no alternative,” he says.

Catalonia accounts for roughly a fifth of Spain’s GDP and a quarter of its exports, but only a sixth of the country’s population. Its diversified economy is the envy of much of Spain, notes Jordi Alberich Llaveria of Cercle d’Economia, a business lobby in Barcelona, thanks to flourishing medium-sized, family-run industrial, textile and perfume-making firms. It has become a hub for multinationals, carmakers, pharmaceutical firms, fashion boutiques and hundreds of…

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The global property business tries to adapt to e-commerce

Stores of value

FIFTH AVENUE in New York is the most expensive stretch of retail property in the world, now festooned with lights in the approach to Christmas. The pavements heave with crowds eager to see the diamonds sparkling at Tiffany & Co, a jeweller, and festive displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, a department store. But storefronts further downtown in once-thriving shopping districts remain vacant.

The global retail property business is having to adapt as consumers spend more online. Consolidation is in vogue. On December 12th two retail property companies, France’s Unibail-Rodamco and Australia’s Westfield, agreed to merge in a deal worth $24.7bn to form the world’s second-biggest owner of shopping malls by market value. Westfield earns about 70% of its revenues from property holdings in America.

In November, Brookfield Property Partners, another mall owner, bid $14.8bn for the 66% of GGP, a rival, that it did not already…

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When politicians and executives get caught out

POLITICIANS and executives are held to different standards. That is pretty clear when it comes to issues such as sexual harassment despite the resignation of Al Franken or the rejection by voters of Roy Moore. As others have pointed out, the tweets and remarks of Donald Trump would have seen him forced out of the leadership of a S&P 500 company long ago.

There are also big differences when it comes to the consequences of their regular actions. Politics is about making choices. Should public money be spent on defence of welfare benefits? Should taxes be cut for one type of voter and raised for another? The problem for politicians is that making those choices explicit may not be a vote-winning strategy. The losers will be more resentful than the winners will be grateful. So politicians get round this problem by making their promises very generic – tax cuts will go to hard-working families, public spending will be reduced through cutting waste and the like.

The executives who run quoted companies face a different sort of…

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British Airways’ franchisee in South Africa throws off two black passengers

IN THE latest—and possibly most alarming—in a recent string of allegations of racism against airlines, two black musicians claim they were downgraded from business class on a British Airways-branded flight in South Africa to make room for a white woman. Thabo Mabogwane and Bongani Mohosana, a South African musical duo known as Black Motion, purchased business-class tickets for a flight on December 4th from Cape Town to Johannesburg on the South African-based Comair, branded in British Airways’ colours. They wrote on Instagram, a social-media website, that a white woman in business class complained that her seat was broken, and they “happened to be the only two young black men in the British airline business class.” They were asked to move to economy class, and when they complained they were told to leave the plane, both claim.

The airline denied to the Continue reading

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Putting a price on Bitcoin

SCENE: A pet shop with a bored looking proprietor. A customer approaches

CUSTOMER: I’d like to buy a parrot.

OWNER: Certainly, sir. How about this one? It’s a Norwegian Blue. Beautiful plumage.

CUSTOMER: It’s not moving much

OWNER: It is tired and shagged out after a long squawk

CUSTOMER: Fair enough. How much is it?

OWNER: $20,000

CUSTOMER: I’ll pay with this bitcoin

OWNER: Sorry, sir. On WavesDEX, the bitcoin is only worth $13,500

CUSTOMER: But on LocalBitcoins, it is over $21,500! Look at the news headlines.

OWNER: Sorry, sir, but I can’t afford the risk. But my rent, heat and light are all payable in dollars.

CUSTOMER: But the dollar has ceased to be, it has shuffled off this mortal coil, it is an ex-currency

OWNER: So you say, sir. But at least it’s a reliable means of exchange. It doesn’t move much from minute to minute

CUSTOMER: Like this parrot

If ever Bitcoin were widely adopted as a trading currency, this scene would be played out in…

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How airlines are squeezing more seats onto their planes

WHEN Gary Leff, a prominent travel blogger, took his first flight on one of the new “no legroom” planes operated by American Airlines, he found that the experience was not nearly as bad as he feared. American had drawn howls of protest from customers when it announced it was reducing the distance between rows of seats—“seat pitch”, in industry jargon—on its new Boeing 737 Max planes to 29 inches, compared with the 31-inch pitch on its existing 737-800s. So in June it capitulated, and settled on 30 inches. Mr Leff tried out these new seats last week and was pleasantly surprised to find that “the seats themselves are no worse than” in American’s current layout in economy. That may seem counterintuitive, but aircraft-interior designers had come to…

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Digital news outlets are in for a reckoning

GREAT expectations attended digital journalism outfits. Firms such as BuzzFeed and Mashable were the hip kids destined to conquer the internet with their younger, advertiser-friendly audience, smart manipulation of social media and affinity for technology. They seemed able to generate massive web traffic and, with it, ad revenues. They saw the promise of video, predicting that advertising dollars spent on television would migrate online. Their investors, including Comcast, Disney and General Atlantic, an investment firm, saw the same, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars each into Vice Media, BuzzFeed and Vox (giving them valuations of $5.7bn, $1.7bn and over $1bn, respectively).

They have had successes. Some became ninjas in “SEO” long before most print journalists knew it stood for “search engine optimisation”. They introduced “clickbait” to the lexicon. Some, like BuzzFeed and Vice, worked out that fortunes were to be made in brand-supported viral hits—or “native advertising” that looks similar to the sites’…

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