This blog captures interesting news items from around the world for those strained by information overload and yet need to stay updated on global events of significance. The news items displayed are not in order of merit. (The blog takes a weekly off — normally on Sundays — and does not appear when I am on vacation or busy.)
Joe A Scaria is a journalist for nearly three decades with India's leading publishing houses.
- After record profit, Samsung CEO quits; Record run for bitcoins; Twitter ‘crawling with bots’
- Catalonia edges towards statehood; Saudi Arabia back in recession; Japan business mood at decade’s high
- US growth revised up again; India’s flagging economy raises concerns; UK young ‘more anxious’
- What could be next for Uberisation; Marks & Spencer gets into online food delivery; L’Oreal heiress is richest woman
- Norway wealth fund value at $1trn; Britain’s debt time bomb; Unemployment seen as biggest risk to business
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1 India growth rate slows (BBC) India’s economy grew at its slowest pace for three years in the April-to-June quarter, official figures show. The economy grew by 5.7% compared with a year earlier, down from a rate of 6.1% in the previous quarter.
Many analysts had expected the economy to bounce back after the government’s crackdown on black market cash last year. However, confusion among some firms over a new tax on goods and services was blamed for holding back growth. Some retailers said ambiguous rules over the new sales tax, which began on 1 July, left them unsure over how to price their products.
But manufacturing saw the sharpest slowdown in growth, expanding at just 1.2% compared to 10.7% a year earlier. Growth in the financial, insurance, real estate and professional services sectors also slowed from 9.4% to 6.4%.
2 New Uber CEO suggests IPO (Straits Times) Uber Technologies’ new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi told employees the ride-services company would change its culture and may go public in 18 to 36 months.
Mr Khosrowshahi, who led travel-booking site Expedia for 12 years prior to joining Uber, made the remarks as he introduced himself to Uber’s workforce during an all-staff meeting at its San Francisco headquarters. His plans include rebuilding Uber’s culture and growing market share as well as possibly conducting an initial public offering in 18 to 36 months, according to people who attended the meeting.
It is common for venture capital-backed companies to signal an initial public offering at a vague time in the future. “This company has to change,” Mr Khosrowshahi told employees, according to the Twitter feed of Uber’s communications team. “What got us here is not what’s going to get us to the next level.”
The appointment of Mr Khosrowshahi, who described himself as “a fighter”, comes as Uber is trying to recover from a series of crises that culminated in the ouster of former CEO Travis Kalanick in June. It is also a key step towards filling a gaping hole in its top management that at the moment has no chief financial officer, head of engineering or general counsel.
3 Millennials and the midlife crisis (Claire Suddath in Johannesburg Times) This month, two UK economists presented statistical proof for the existence of the midlife crisis. In a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, they found that people report a measurable decline in happiness, starting in their 30s and continuing until around age 50, when they started to feel satisfied with their lives again.
“We’re seeing this U-shape, this psychological dip, over and over again. There is definitely a midlife low,” said Andrew Oswald, co-author of the study. Oswald’s co-author, David Blanchflower, adds: “I don’t know why some psychologists say it doesn’t exist. It’s blindingly obvious. All we did was plot the data points.”
The very idea of a midlife crisis originated in the early 1960s with a Canadian psychologist named Elliott Jaques. He was studying the creative habits of 310 famous artists such as Mozart, Raphael and Gaugin when he noticed a common trait: When the artists entered their mid-30s, their creative output waned. Some became depressed. A few committed suicide.
If anything, the dip recorded by Oswald and Blanchflower may simply be the statistical proof of what millennials are only starting to learn: “adulting” is hard.
India cities’ upgrade raises steel hopes; Burger King’s own crypto-cash; South Korea test bed for self-driving cars
1 India cities’ upgrade raises steel hopes (Gulf News) Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest site on the Ganges River in northern India, is one of 100 places earmarked to receive trillions of rupees to transform their ageing infrastructure and become ‘Smart Cities,’ replete with affordable housing, improved sanitation, and better transportation.
To build it all, India plans to triple its steel-making capacity, making it the world’s second-biggest producer, trumping Japan, and reviving an industry that a year ago was on its knees. “India is one of the bright spots for the global steel industry,” said Bijoy Thomas, a senior analyst at India Ratings & Research.
India used about 63 kilograms of steel per person last year, compared with 493 kilograms in China, according to the World Steel Association. That low consumption base, and the promise of a government-backed boom in construction, has prompted a flurry of expansion plans as steel prices recover from a slump in 2015.
India’s biggest producer, JSW Steel Ltd, plans to build two new plants of 10 million tons each in the resource-rich states of Odisha and Jharkhand, and spend billions more expanding its existing mills in an effort to double its size by 2030. Rival Tata Steel Ltd has sought environmental clearances to expand its two plants in India by 4 million tons a year.
India’s ambitious plans could force the country increasingly to turn to global markets to get enough coking coal and iron ore, Thomas said.
There are also plans for a metro system, part of a new urban rail policy approved this month that would bring new subways to 15 Indian cities and expand networks at 12 others. All of it will require millions of tons of additional steel.
2 Burger King’s own crypto-cash (BBC) Fast-food chain Burger King has launched its own crypto-currency, called WhopperCoin, in Russia. Customers will be able to claim one coin for every rouble (1.3p) they spend on the Whopper sandwich.
Russians will be able to buy a Whopper with the virtual cash, once they have amassed 1,700 whoppercoins. The company said it would release Apple and Android apps next month so people could save, share and trade their wallet full of whoppercoins.
Burger King has partnered with crypto-cash start-up Waves to create and run the scheme. The tech company will run the blockchain ledger for the coin to keep track of who has coins and what has been done with them. Customers will be able to claim their coins by scanning a receipt with a smartphone.
The crypto-currency is a stand-alone system that has some technical similarities to Bitcoin but is distinct from it. This means the company would be able to shut the system down if it found it was being abused. Waves said that it had already generated 1bn whoppercoins to use in the loyalty scheme.
3 South Korea test bed for self-driving cars (Khaleej Times) A test bed area for autonomous cars will be built west of Seoul by the end of next year to put test vehicles through real world road and traffic conditions, officials said.
Ground-breaking for K-City will be held in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi province, to build the 320,000 square-metre facility for 11 billion won ($9 million). The facility will have simulated roads that like highways, downtown areas, city outskirts and communal environments and have 35 different driving conditions such toll gates, tunnels, intersections, construction sites and even train track crossings, ministry officials said.
Pot holes, narrow streets and pedestrian crossings have also been added for testing the vehicles, as well as Wi-fi and fourth-generation wireless technologies. The section for highway driving will be completed by end of October and the entire K-city by end of next year, officials said. The area will be opened to private companies, academic institutions and start-ups to test their products.
Ford eyes electric car deal with China partner; India court rules out triple talaq; Pollution and Mumbai’s blue dogs
1 Ford eyes electric car deal with China partner (BBC) Ford has said it is in discussions with a Chinese company to create a new line of electric vehicles for the world’s biggest market. Ford said it was exploring a joint venture with electric car maker Anhui Zotye Automobile Co. The firm is a major manufacturer of small, zero-emissions electric cars.
The move comes as carmakers in China face new rules designed to boost electric car sales, part of the government’s effort to fight pollution. China already has more electric cars on the road than any other country and Ford said it expects sales of all-electric cars in China to reach four million by 2025.
Officials are also working on new rules that would require 8% of car sales to be electric next year and 12% by 2020. A Ford spokesman said the company hoped to reach an agreement with Zotye by the end of the year.
2 India court rules triple talaq unlawful (San Francisco Chronicle) India’s Supreme Court has struck down the Muslim practice that allows men to instantly divorce their wives as unconstitutional.
The bench, comprising five senior judges of different faiths, deliberated for three months before issuing its order in response to petitions from seven Muslim women who had been divorced through the practice known as triple talaq.
Indian law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that since the court deemed the practice unconstitutional there is no need for any further legislative action by the government. The decision was widely lauded by women’s rights activists as a step toward granting Muslim women greater equality and justice.
More than 20 Muslim countries, including neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, have banned the practice. But in India, triple talaq has continued with the protection of laws that allow Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities to follow religious law in matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
While most Hindu personal laws have been overhauled and codified over the years, Muslim laws have been left to religious authorities and left largely untouched. Most of the 170 million Muslims in India are Sunnis governed by Muslim Personal Law for family matters and disputes.
India’s Muslim Law Board had told the court that while they considered the practice wrong, they opposed any court intervention and asked that the matter be left to the community to tackle. But several progressive Muslim activists decried the law board’s position.
3 Pollution and Mumbai’s blue dogs (The Guardian) Authorities in Mumbai have shut down a manufacturing company after it was accused of dumping untreated industrial waste and dyes into a local river that resulted in 11 dogs turning blue.
The group of strangely coloured canines was first spotted on 11 August, according to the Hindustan Times, prompting locals to complain to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board about dyes being dumped in the Kasadi river, where the animals often swim. Footage shows the animals roaming the streets with bright blue fur.
“It was shocking to see how the dog’s white fur had turned completely blue,” said Arati Chauhan, head of the Navi Mumbai Animal Protection Cell, said. “We have spotted almost five such dogs here and have asked the pollution control board to act against such industries.” The board investigated, shutting down the company on Wednesday after confirming that canines were turning blue due to air and water pollution linked to the plant.
According to data obtained by NGO Watchdog Foundation through right to information, there are 977 chemical, pharmaceutical, engineering and food processing factories in the Taloja industrial area, located outside Mumbai.
Japan economy picks up pace; Indonesia oil and gas sector in decline; US white nationalists plan rallies
1 Japan economy picks up pace (Richard Partington in The Guardian) Japan’s economy expanded at the fastest pace for more than two years in the three months to June, with domestic spending accelerating as the country prepares for the 2020 Toyko Olympics and low levels of unemployment encouraged businesses to invest.
The world’s third largest economy recorded an expansion in second-quarter gross domestic product at an annualised rate of 4%, according to figures from the cabinet office, making the country the fastest-growing of the G7 wealthy nations.
The data comes as a shot in the arm amid rising regional tensions sparked by the US president, Donald Trump, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, a war of words that rattled global stock markets last week and could threaten Japan, its economy and the rest of the world.
Japan is shrugging off decades of sluggish growth that it has been attempting to counter with a massive money printing programme championed by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to stimulate bank lending, investment from companies and buying among consumers.
The factors that propelled the most recent growth in GDP were led by rising domestic activity, as consumer spending accelerated significantly, while low unemployment helped wages to grow faster than in the previous quarter. On a less positive note, net exports declined by 0.3%.
The overall result was much stronger than expected by the market, as economists had predicted the country would grow by 2.5% on an annualised basis in the second quarter. Japan grew at 1% in the quarter alone, against expectations for a 0.6% expansion.
2 Indonesia oil and gas sector in decline (Straits Times) Once a cornerstone of the economy, Indonesia’s oil and gas sector is in a slump, even as the country’s appetite for energy soars. Hit by a drop in global prices, changing regulations and competition from neighbors that are proving more attractive to international energy companies, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is facing a decline in oil revenue and steadily rising fuel imports.
With an economy growing at a 5 per cent clip and the government embarking on a vast infrastructure roll out, the oil and gas industry is sounding alarm bells over the decline of a sector that five years ago accounted for almost 6 per cent of Indonesia’s gross domestic product and last year contributed only 3 per cent.
Investment for exploration in Indonesia shrank to $100 million in 2016 from $1.3 billion in 2012, according to government data. A lack of drilling success and commercialization issues have weakened Indonesia’s outlook and spending is likely to drop further, said Johan Utama, a Southeast Asia oil analyst.
Two decades ago, Indonesia pumped about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day and the country, in 1997, was host to the meeting of oil ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Now Indonesia has applied to rejoin Opec after being out of the group for most of the past eight years. Oil traders and executives complain of a dearth of exploration and “stagnant” investment in the country. Part of that is caused by the drop in oil prices since the heady days from 2011 to mid 2014, when crude averaged more than $100 a barrel. Now it’s less than half that level, affecting investment decisions worldwide.
A PwC survey of more than 50 companies involved in the Indonesian oil and gas industry identified a “stagnant” investment environment and concerns about government commitment to the sanctity of contracts.
3 US White nationalists plan rallies (Peter Fimrite & Joe Garofoli in San Francisco Chronicle) With violence sparked by neo-Nazis in Virginia raising tensions across the US, white nationalists are planning rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley later this month.
A permit has been issued for a “Patriot Prayer” group to gather Aug. 26 at Crissy Field in San Francisco, said Sonja Hanson, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The group is ostensibly religious, but its purpose is really “an attempt to provoke black-clad ideologues on the left into acts of violence,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said another group, No Marxism in America, is planning an event on Aug. 27 at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley. The park was the site of two other gatherings of far-right protesters this year, including one on April 15 marked by violent clashes with counter-protesters.
Amazon shadow looms on retailers; Darjeeling tea faces political turmoil; Niekerk aims to be next Bolt
1 Amazon shadow looms over retailers (Khaleej Times) As old and new Amazon.com competitors gear up to report earnings, investors are eager to know how they plan to withstand the growth of the No.1 online retailer.
So far this quarter, Amazon has been brought up in some 130 earnings calls from S&P 1500 components according to a Reuters analysis. More than 30 firms reporting earnings in the following weeks mentioned Amazon during their most recent earnings call or were directly asked about threats or opportunities regarding Amazon’s growth.
“Any retailer, whether it’s an online retailer or has online presence, or just brick-and-mortar, that tells you they’re not concerned about Amazon, they’re either in denial or lying,” said Steven Osinski, marketing lecturer at the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University.
Beyond retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, and following Amazon’s planned acquisition of Whole Foods Market announced mid June, expect Amazon to pop up on earnings calls from food producers, packagers and retailers.
In a sign of Amazon’s widening clout, industry bellwethers like McDonald’s, 3M and Johnson & Johnson in their latest earnings calls were asked for the first time about effects of Amazon on their businesses.
2 Darjeeling tea faces political turmoil (Soutik Biswas on BBC) If you are a tea connoisseur, here’s some bad news: your morning cuppa of steaming Darjeeling tea may soon be difficult to get.
Famously called the “champagne of teas”, it is grown in 87 gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling in West Bengal state. Some of the bushes are as old as 150 years and were introduced to the region by a Scottish surgeon. The tea tots up nearly $80m in annual sales.
Darjeeling tea is also one of the world’s more expensive – some of it has fetched prices of up to $850 per kg. The tea is also India’s first Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product. Since June, Darjeeling has been hit by violent protests and prolonged strikes in support of a campaign by a local party demanding a separate state for the area’s majority Nepali-speaking Gorkha community.
The upshot: some 100,000 workers – permanent and temporary – working in the gardens have halted work. Production has been severely hit. Only a third of last year’s crop of 8.32 million kg had been harvested when work stopped in June. If the trouble continues, garden owners say they are staring at losses amounting to nearly $40m.
3 Niekerk aims to be next Bolt (Johannesburg Times) Wayde van Niekerk, the athlete identified by Usain Bolt as the next trailblazer for global athletics, is adamant that he is not afraid to take over the responsibility of being the face of his sport.
The day after Bolt had lavished him with praise, the South African Van Niekerk said that he was not intimidated by the expectations being heaped upon him before the World Athletics Championships.
It is perfectly possible that the 25-year-old could upstage Bolt in the Jamaican’s final championship by pulling off a 200 metres/400 metres double that has not been achieved since Michael Johnson in Gothenburg in 1995.
Van Niekerk is also being tipped to threaten the 400m world record of 43.03 seconds that he took from Johnson at the Olympic Games last year. “It’s one thing someone saying I can be the next big thing,” Van Niekerk said of Bolt’s words of praise. “But it’s another thing working towards that greatness.
“I’m not intimidated (by the responsibility), you can’t be. This is track and field, this is a dream I need to fight for — and I need to fight for it as hard as I can.” Van Niekerk joked that he was expecting an invoice from Bolt for all the advice and encouragement the peerless sprinter had given him.
1 US growth accelerates (BBC) The US economy gathered speed in the second quarter of the year, growing at an annualised pace of 2.6%. The pick-up was helped by consumer spending in the quarter expanding at a pace of 2.8%, and businesses stepping up spending on equipment.
President Trump has pledged to pursue policies to boost the US economy, including cutting corporate and individual taxes, but has faced a Washington impasse. He has set an ambitious 3% growth target for 2017.
Consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of the US economy, accelerated from the 1.9% growth figure from the first quarter. The resurgence in consumer spending accounted for most of the upturn in economic growth in the second quarter.
Stuart Hoffman, PNC senior economic adviser, said that “real consumer spending once again did the heavy lifting” in terms of economic growth. But with wage growth remaining sluggish there are concerns spending may slow in the next quarter.
2 Tesla delivers Model 3 (Khaleej Times) Tesla began delivering on a dream to make an electric car for the masses, rolling out the first of its keenly-awaited “Model 3” cars, aiming to disrupt a world accustomed to automobiles powered by pollution-spewing fossil fuel.
An initial batch of the ‘Model 3’ cars that rolled out of the Tesla plant in Fremont, California were given to customers, most of whom were employees of the company. Tesla founder and chief Elon Musk proclaimed it a great day for the company, saying the goal was to make a terrific electric car “that everyone can buy.”
Production of the electric car aimed at the broader market – with a starting price of $35,000 – will ramp up quickly, according to Musk, with 100 in August and 1,500 or more in September. Tesla aims to produce 5,000 units of the Model 3 a week this year, and 10,000 units a week in 2018.
Tesla already sells “S” and “X” model electric cars, but with a starting price of $80,000 they have been seen as wheels for the wealthy. The Model 3 silhouette resembles that of the Model S, but the new electric ride is smaller with a simpler design.
The vehicle’s battery was designed to keep it going for “at least 215 miles” (345 kilometers) before needing to be recharged, according to Tesla. More than a half-million customers have placed deposits to get on the waiting list for the Model 3, and anyone wanting one will have to wait at least until 2018.
3 Jack Ma’s promise of a million jobs (Benjamin Haas in The Guardian/The Observer) Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has once again set his sights on the US. In a high-profile meeting with Donald Trump before the inauguration, Ma promised to create 1m jobs in the US, and has wasted no time ingratiating himself into Trump’s inner circle.
He has dined alone with Ivanka Trump, and last week commerce secretary Wilbur Ross sat next to Ma at a meeting of US and Chinese businessmen. Those political connections may benefit him as he seeks to acquire American companies in a country that is increasingly wary of big Chinese investment.
“As a merchant, it’s about knowing your customer, and Trump doesn’t care about anything that’s not huge,” says Duncan Clark, a longtime friend and author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. “He figured a million is a good number to get Trump’s attention. “Realistically, without a major acquisition, I fail to see how that’s possible,” he adds. “In the US context, it’s a very big number.”
For years, Ma has been pushing his vision of US small businesses selling to Chinese shoppers through his online marketplaces. He is often called the “Jeff Bezos of China”, and there are clear similarities. Both built e-commerce empires and, like Bezos and the Washington Post, Ma even owns an old established newspaper, in his case Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
But there’s a key difference: while Bezos’s Amazon sells products to consumers, maintaining massive warehouses and operating a sophisticated logistics network, Alibaba’s sites are simply a medium, connecting consumers with merchants who ship through independent couriers. This has led experts to say Alibaba’s business model is closer to Google’s than Amazon’s.
“It’s an incredibly unlikely target for job creation in any plausible time frame,” said Christopher Balding, a professor of business and economics at Peking University’s HSBC business school. “If we’re talking 25 or 40 years, maybe Alibaba could create that many jobs.”
By comparison, WalMart, the largest private employer in the US, employs 1.5 million people. If Ma is able to deliver on his promise of 1m jobs, it would decrease the number of unemployed workers by a staggering 14%.