COMPANIES such as Apple and Google are renowned for their ground-breaking technological innovations. They have also put a great deal of effort into reducing the amount of tax they pay on the mountains of cash those innovations produce. Their tactics are now attracting the attention of governments, who have been putting tech firms’ tax strategies under a microscope. Last week, Google came under fire from British politicians, one of whom publicly accused the internet giant of using unethical methods to avoid paying its fair share of tax. The company says it has done nothing wrong.
This week it is Apple’s turn to feel the heat, but on the other side of the Atlantic. On May 20th, a day before Tim Cook, the company’s boss, was scheduled to appear in front of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the committee’s investigators unveiled a report that claimed Apple had used a complex web of offshore entities to pay little or no tax on tens of billions of dollars it had earned outside America.
According to the report, between 2009 and 2012 Apple avoided paying tax in America on at least $74 billion of profits by setting up subsidiaries in Ireland that had no purpose other than to ensure these profits were shielded from tax. The investigators did not find Apple had broken any laws, but they questioned its use of multiple subsidiaries in Ireland to report profits when those subsidiaries had no offices or other physical presence in the country. Carl Levin, the subcommittee’s chairman, said Apple had “sought the Holy Grail of tax avoidance” by creating “offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars while claiming to be tax resident nowhere”.
One Irish subsidiary that the investigators singled out is Apple Operations International (AOI), which had not filed a tax return in Ireland, America or any other country for the past five years. Although it was incorporated in Ireland, AOI kept its bank accounts and other financial matters in America. Given the differing ways in which both countries assess whether a firm is liable for tax, this allowed Apple to avoid paying tax on AOI’s income of $30 billion between 2009 and 2012.
Apple was clearly anticipating a hostile reception on Capitol Hill. Ahead of Mr Cook’s appearance, the company released a copy of the testimony he plans to deliver to the subcommittee. Among other things, this notes that Apple paid nearly $6 billion in taxes in America in its 2012 fiscal year and claims that this probably makes the firm the country’s biggest corporate taxpayer. It also says that its subsidiaries in Ireland, where it employs almost 4,000 people, play an important role in its international business activities. And it strongly objects to the implication that AOI is nothing more than a shell company. Also responding to the report Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, on May 21st vigorously rejected the charge that his country encouraged companies to set up operations there to avoid tax, and instead blamed the tax systems in other jurisdictions.
Whatever the outcome of the Senate's committee hearing, the issue of corporate taxation is likely to remain a controversial one. Sir Roger Carr, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, has warned David Cameron, the British prime minster, to stop moralising about companies’ tax arrangements and to keep criticisms “grounded in fact”. For its part Apple, which holds more than $100 billion of cash abroad, is likely to get further scrutiny. In his testimony, Mr Cook will call for an overhaul of the tax regime in America to encourage companies to repatriate more money. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has urged policymakers to consider reforming international tax law, too. The OECD is due to deliver its thoughts on how to change the present system to the G20 in July. Its conclusions will be required reading in Silicon Valley.]]>
AT A recent conference, Ken Goldman, the chief financial officer of Yahoo, admitted that the internet giant had an ageing audience and was looking for things to “make us cool again”. The firm's senior executives appear to think Tumblr can give it a shot at rejuvenation. According to various media reports, Yahoo is likely to announce tomorrow that it is paying $1.1 billion for the popular blogging service. (Editor's update (May 20th, 12pm GMT): Yahoo announced the deal on Monday morning.) Other companies like Facebook are said to be interested in Tumblr, but Yahoo is thought to be the preferred bidder.
It is not hard to see why Tumblr has attracted the internet giant's attention. The business, which was launched in 2007, is hugely popular and many of the service’s users are young folk who like to share everything from their latest fashion tips to pictures of cats with their heads encased in bread (yes, really). Tumblr has grown rapidly and now has some 117m unique monthly users according to ComScore, a research firm. It manages 108m blogs and hosts 51 billion posts.
Tumblr’s sizeable audience appeals to Marissa Mayer, the boss of Yahoo, who took over the reins at the internet firm last year. Her brief has been to try and turn around a company whose share of the online advertising market is being rapidly eroded by the likes of Facebook and Google. In the first quarter of 2013 Yahoo’s revenue shrank 11%, to $1.1 billion.
In a bid to reignite growth Ms Mayer has spruced up some of Yahoo’s ageing products, including Flickr, a popular photo-sharing service, and has taken the company on an acquisition spree. In March, for instance, the company forked out $30m for Summly, a company founded by a 17 year-old that makes apps that summarise news stories. And more recently it courted Dailymotion, a French video site, only to back away when the French government kicked up a fuss about an American firm acquiring one of the country’s start-up crown jewels.
The common thread here is Ms Mayer’s firm belief that Yahoo needs to make headway in new areas such as mobile services and online video if it is to prosper. The firm has also been looking at social networks and other online-sharing services, which has brought it to Tumblr. The big question is whether it makes sense to fork out a whopping $1.1 billion for a company that is said to have made just $13m of revenue last year.
Among other things, Yahoo will probably argue that it can speed up Tumblr's expansion by promoting it to Yahoo's 700m unique monthly users. It will also point out that it has the know-how and resources to help the blogging service mint money from online advertising. And it may drop hints that Tumblr executives can help it rethink other areas of its business to make them more social.
Critics have been quick to point out that advertisers are unlikely to want their ads to appear alongside some of Tumblr’s content, notably numerous blogs that feature pornographic content. They have also been pointing out that a big part of Tumblr’s appeal is that its bosses have not let the service become overrun with advertising. If Yahoo starts to pump in huge numbers of ads, people may abandon the service in droves.
True, but if Yahoo manages the acquisition carefully it could turn out to be a smart move. Plenty of folk predicted a mass exodus from Instagram, a photo-sharing service, after Facebook snapped it up for $1 billion last year. But the social network has managed to develop the service without making users head for the exit. If Yahoo can pull off a similar feat with Tumblr, then it will certainly appear cooler to its shareholders.]]>
FIVE days earlier than first planned, Dell published its first-quarter results on May 16th. The figures, which cover the three months to May 3rd, make cheerless reading: once again, the computer-maker’s numbers reflect the dismal state of the market for desktops and laptops, which accounted for almost half of its revenue. However, Michael Dell, the company’s founder and chief executive, may find some comfort in them. Disappointing figures at least make the offer he made in February, with Silver Lake, a private-equity firm, to take the company private for $13.65 a share, look more attractive. After hours, the price of Dell’s shares was little changed, at $13.40-odd.
Dell’s net income in the quarter was just $130m, 79% less than a year before, on revenue of $14.1 billion, 2% less. Last month IDC, a research firm, estimated that shipments of PCs had fallen by 13.9% in the year to the first quarter of 2013. The firm said that it had priced PCs more keenly, and had won market share in a weak market as a result. Yes, but at a price: Dell’s revenue from desktops and thin clients slid by 2%; that from “mobility” products (laptops and tablets) plunged by 16%.
The company has redefined its operations and financial reporting to reflect its new orientation—and sounded chirpier about the rest of its business. In servers and networking, for example, its revenues were up by 14%, at $2.7 billion. Lately Dell has been claiming that surveys by both IDC and Gartner, another research firm, show it has been clobbering its great rival, Hewlett-Packard. (Neither is due to be published until later this month.) Its revenues from “enterprise solutions”, services and software—ie, everything but desktops, mobile devices and associated gubbins—rose by 12%
Speaking to analysts after the results came out, Brian Gladden, the chief financial officer, said nothing about the impending deal to take Dell private—save to explain that he would give no guidance for future earnings. Some time this quarter, according to Dell’s proxy statement, the company expects to ask shareholders to vote on its founder’s and Silver Lake’s offer, which values the firm at $24.4 billion. Some think that Mr Dell is, in effect, selling his company (of which he owns about one-sixth) to himself on the cheap. Carl Icahn, an activist investor, has been among the sharpest critics. On May 9th he and another shareholder in Dell, Southeastern Asset Management, proposed paying shareholders $12 a pop, in cash or additional equity, as well as letting them keep the shares they already own. The committee appointed by Dell’s board to examine alternative offers has asked Mr Icahn and Southeastern for more information—for example, whether a formal offer is on the way and how it would be paid for. Even after a quarter like this, Mr Icahn and Southeastern have more to do if they want to win the battle—or to coax more out of Mr Dell.]]>
ONCE illustrated with pictures of happy village women engaged in lending circles, and celebrated as an ideal charitable activity that helps people earn their way out of poverty, in recent years microcredit has become increasingly controversial. Critics have argued that giving poor people a small affordable loan is not in fact an effective way to help them escape from poverty. And the growth in loan volume has been driven lately by a bunch of for-profit microlenders who their critics say have motives that are anything but charitable.
The most successful of these for-profit lenders is a case in point. After Banco Compartamos, a Mexican microcredit bank, had an initial public offering of its shares in 2007, it was publicly chastised by Muhammad Yunus, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in developing the non-profit microcredit industry. "Their priorities are screwed up," Mr Yunus said in an interview. Compartamos made its profit by charging its poor customers annual interest rates on their loans of around 100%. "Microcredit was created to fight the money lender, not to become the money lender," noted Mr Yunus.
Compartamos, whose founders believe they are helping the poor, responded to these criticisms by inviting three economists, Dean Karlan, Manuela Angelucci and Jonathan Zinman, to examine the evidence. They devised two randomised control tests to find out the impact of Compartamos's lending practices. The results were published on May 14th.
A first study looked at whether Compartamos really needs to charge 100% a year. The bank argued that this rate was necessary to cover costs and make enough profit to stay in business over the long run. The study found that demand for microcredit is more price elastic than had been thought. Cut the annual interest rate by 10 percentage points and more people will take out a loan whilst existing borrowers will increase the size of their loans. The effect of this extra demand equalled the cost of lowering the interest rate, so by cutting rates Compartamos could earn just as much profit while providing better service to more people. Apparently, it is now considering doing so.
The second study examined what happened over the three years after Compartamos began lending to groups of between 12 and 50 women in the state of Sonora, just south of the border with Arizona. It found that borrowers were able to grow their businesses faster and managed their financial risks better (in particular by avoiding having to sell assets on the cheap to get through tough times). They were also less likely to feel depressed, and more likely to trust others.
The study found no clear evidence that microcredit helped people escape poverty by raising their income, however. But it also did not find any evidence that taking out a loan with an interest rate of 100% a year actually made borrowers worse off on average (although women who had not borrowed before lost ground on average, a finding that has prompted Compartamos to offer first time borrowers financial education). Either three years is too short a period to measure the poverty easing effects of microcredit, or it is a much less powerful anti-poverty tool than some of its boosters have claimed.
Perhaps the clearest impact of microlending in the study was its impact on the power of women in the home. Female borrowers gained control over a significantly larger number of household decisions. What did their husbands think of this? The study reports that these more empowered female borrowers did not experience any increase in domestic conflict. Overall, then, the studies show that microcredit, even the for-profit kind, typically benefits borrowers in a variety of ways, even if it does not lift them immediately out of poverty.
THE official death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory complex (pictured) on the outskirts of Dhaka is now over 1100, making it probably the deadliest industrial accident ever after Bhopal. Although the factory owners and the government officials who failed properly to regulate them are the main culprits, anger both in Bangladesh and internationally has stung into action many of the big multinational firms who have clothes made there. Ambitious plans have been announced to ensure that such a disaster will never happen again or, if it does, that they will not be credibly held to blame.
The most ambitious is a beefed up version of an industry scheme to monitor factories and help finance making them safe, proposed by the Workers Rights Consortium, an NGO. Until the factory collapse at Rana Plaza, this had languishd for a year with only two corporat signatories, too few to trigger the scheme. On May 15th the number of companies to sign up to the scheme rose to 31, including Carrefour, Marks & Spencer, Benetton and Inditex, the owner of Zara.
Yet although American clothing brands and retailers have been heavily involved in discussions about this plan, only two have signed up so far, PVH, owner of the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Van Heusen brands, and Abercrombie & Fitch. On May 14th having led the American end of the negotiations, WalMart and the Gap both publicly came out against the plan.
Gap said it would have signed but for six lines of text in the plan. It exposes GAP to far too much litigation risk in America, which is far more llitigator friendly than Europe, the firm says. It called on its European counterparts to draft a less legally onerous version—so far to no effect. As Gap has earned a reputation in recent years as a responsible corporate citizen, this stance should not be dismissed lightly.
WalMart also decided not to sign, instead announcing yet more upgrades to an earlier inhouse plan it launched in the aftermath of earlier deadly factory fires in Bangladesh. As well as its existing "zero tolerance" policy towards factories that fail safety examinations, introduced in January, WalMart now says it will conduct inspections every two months in all the factories it uses in Bangladesh and publish the names of any that fail to pass muster.
This approach has been criticised by the Workers Rights Consortium because, unlike its plan, it contains no binding commitment to help fund improvements to make factories safe. Yet it is debatable whether wealthy factory owners really lack funds to make factories safe, as opposed to the lack of incentive due to the Bangladesh government's failure to enforce its own building code. WalMart points out that the government has now started to close unsafe fatories, 19 so far (presumably because of the constant protests by locals since the collapse of Rana Plaza). It says its new approach will detect unsafe factories significantly faster than the Workers Rights Consortium's plan.
Perhaps it would be better if everyone agreed on a common approach. But if there must be competition, it is surely better that it is over how to make factories safer than the alternative.
GIVEN that oil is a vital source of energy and its price has ramifications for every economy on the planet, it is not surprising that regulators keep an eye on the way it is set. Europe’s antitrust watchdogs clearly believe something is amiss. On May 14th the European Commission said that it had carried out “unannounced inspections” at big oil and biofuel companies which it suspects of having colluded to manipulate prices in the physical market.
Some big names are involved: Shell, BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Platts, the world's leading price reporting agency that surveys buyers and sellers to set prices for crude and oil products. All said that investigators had come knocking and that they were co-operating with the investigation. Even small price distortions, the commission worries, can add up to big numbers in such a vast market.
Platts’s system, known as the “market-on-close”, sets daily prices using information on bids, offers and transactions disclosed by traders. What matters most is the dealing in a half-hour “window” starting at 4pm—though its reporters can consider trades at any time in the day to establish prices.
The way that oil prices are set has come in for plenty of criticism, including from The Economist, which investigated price setting for Urals crude. The International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), a grouping of financial regulators, said last year that the potential for false reporting “is not mere conjecture", but backed down from a previous proposal to introduce tougher regulations. Total, a big oil firm that investigators did not raid, had said to IOSCO that it had noticed prices are sometimes out of whack.
Platts is aware of the danger of companies gaming the system. If its reporters think trading is manipulative or unrepresentative, they have the power to exclude any bid, offer or deal from their reckoning of the published prices. Platts says that no single company has the ability to determine market prices on its own.
The European Commission seems to disagree. Yet just because companies were raided it does not mean they are guilty. It is not clear if the commission is looking at particular instances or whether its suspicions are more sweeping. As with similar accusations of manipulation of gas spot markets in Britain recently, it is entirely uncertain who may have gained or lost as a result. And this type of complex probe could take many months if not years to conclude. But it is more evidence that the system for arriving at the prices of the world’s most important commodity is flawed.]]>
GOODWILL write-offs are confusing. When they happen, the managers of firms insist they do not matter. Goodwill is the excess paid for an asset over its book value. Writing it down is a mere accounting adjustment, bosses tend to say. Yet those same bosses go to inordinate lengths to delay recognising such supposedly irrelevant, non-cash losses. On May 13th Tata Steel, an Indian firm, announced a $1.6 billion impairment, mainly of its $13 billion takeover of Corus, a British steelmaker. The deal happened six years ago. It has been clear for at least four years that it has been a financial disaster. Why recognise that now?
The simple, cynical—and largely true—view is that managers are vain and hate to admit mistakes. Investors usually decide an acquisition has gone bad within a year or two. The buyers’ shares drop. It takes longer for the accounts to catch up. Auditors should subject balance sheets to a yearly impairment test, but valuations are subjective and executives can twist their arms. When the auditors do, finally, assert themselves, companies are often blasé. An example is ArcelorMittal, another steel firm, which disclosed a $4.3 billion write-down in December. There has been no post-mortem of the long and value-destructive acquisition spree that helped generate it.
The typical lag between error and admission seems to be about five years. Take the top 3,000 firms listed worldwide. In the boom of 2004-2007, takeovers were at a peak, and write-offs were minimal at about $30 billion a year. Impairments surged to $150 billion in 2012 according to Bloomberg data. If one ignores 2008, when banks were forced to clean up their books as they were bailed out, the previous impairment peak was in 2003, when the victims of the dotcom bubble, such as Time Warner, at last admitted reality.
Yet tardiness does not mean that goodwill impairments are meaningless. In fact, they can reveal a lot about the internal politics of firms and battles over strategy. Hewlett Packard’s (HP) $18 billion write-off in 2012 was a repudiation of a decade of mistakes, including the 2011 takeover of Autonomy, a software firm, but also of Compaq, a rival hardware maker, way back in 2002. Rio Tinto, a mining giant, booked a $14 billion write-down in January, mainly of its acquired aluminium business. At the same time its “deeply disappointed” chairman removed the chief executive, Tom Albanese. His successor wants to take a more cautious approach.
So what does Tata’s write-down signify? Ratan Tata, the patriarch of the Tata group, retired as chairman of Tata Steel on December 28th. Until he left, it was probably impossible to recognise that his biggest deal was a flop. His successor Cyrus Mistry has several underperforming businesses to deal with as we explained in our cover story at the end of last year.
Yet Mr Mistry has opted for a small write-off, most analysts think. Corus, they estimate, is worth a third or less of the $13 billion Tata paid for it, meaning the impairment should be many times bigger. So this is no cathartic moment, of the kind that HP and Rio sought. Instead of admitting total defeat, Mr Mistry probably hopes to sell all or part of Corus, or allow it to partially default on its huge debts (which are ring-fenced and not guaranteed by the Tata group).
Too big a write-off might suggest he would accept a pathetically low price, or cede control of Corus to the banks. Tata’s goodwill charge, then, tells you that the firm is not yet ready to walk away from its European arm. Given that this arm is losing about a billion dollars a year of free cash flow, that could be an expensive decision.]]>
IT HAS not been a good year for the electric-car industry, considering the bankruptcy of little Coda and the all-but-certain collapse of the once-promising Fisker Automotive. Even well-established carmakers such as General Motors and Nissan have been struggling to entice buyers (though Nissan’s Leaf battery car has begun to develop a little bit of momentum after missing its sales target for the second year in a row).
So it is perhaps no surprise that 42% of the shares in Tesla Motors, a maker of electric cars based in Silicon Valley, are now held by short-sellers. They got a rude awakening, however, when the ever-optimistic Elon Musk, Tesla’s boss and the man behind the Space X commercial launch and other entrepreneurial feats, gave word that after ten years in the red, his start-up had turned a profit of $11.2m in the first quarter on unexpectedly strong demand for its new Model S sedan (pictured above). The results were well above the forecasts of even the most optimistic analysts; Tesla made a profit despite repaying $13m of the $465m it has borrowed from America’s Department of Energy.
All 5,000 of the battery-electric vehicles Tesla produced during the first quarter were sold in the United States. But as it gears up to expand its overseas markets later this year, Mr Musk is signalling that things could get even better. The company now forecasts that it will produce 21,000 sedans in 2013, a 5% increase over its initial estimate, and anticipates shipping 5,000 to Europe and another 1,000 to Asia.
In a letter to shareholders, Mr Musk noted that a “stabilised” manufacturing operation has helped reduce the number of man hours needed to produce a vehicle by 40% since the end of last year. Just as importantly, customers have been opting for the more expensive versions of the Model S, including one with a range of almost nearly 300 miles (480km), more than three times that of most of its competitors, including Nissan’s Leaf. Tesla has now decided to drop the basic model of its sedan.
As his company’s public face, Mr Musk has been very visible in recent months, among other things announcing innovative new programmes that are designed to reduce concerns about electric propulsion. These include a “no-fault” battery warranty and a guaranteed minimum price for trade-ins. He has also shown a willingness to take on critics, notably the New York Times. Tesla was generally considered the winner in a dispute over a critical review by the newspaper of the Model S, with the Times acknowledging that its reporter did not use especially “good judgment” in a test drive that depleted the car’s battery. On May 9th, Consumer Reports gave the Model S a 99 out of 100-point rating, the highest score in six years and matched only once before by the Lexus LS600.
Whether the latest quarter and future forecast will now send the short-sellers packing remains to be seen. Tesla posted an $89.9m loss in the last three months of 2012 and plenty of sceptics still question the viability of the nascent industry. There are certainly some other positive signs, such as the strong surge in demand since Nissan began producing batteries and battery-cars in Smyrna, Tennessee. But demand for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in unexpectedly dipped and vehicles from other carmakers, including Ford, Honda and Toyota, are still little more than asterisks on the sales charts.
Meanwhile, Fisker appears all but certain to declare bankruptcy, something senior executives signalled during a hearing by the House Oversight Committee in Congress last month. The once-promising maker of sleek plug-in hybrids let go about three-quarters of its workforce in April, weeks after Henrik Fisker, its eponymous founder, tendered his resignation. Then there is Coda, another Californian start-up that gained little traction with its own Chinese-made battery-electric car. Times are equally rough among electric-vehicle component manufacturers. Fisker’s battery supplier went bust and was sold to a Chinese manufacturer earlier this year.
Through it all, Mr Musk has remained uniquely upbeat about the electric-car market, his unbridled enthusiasm apparently carrying over not only to Tesla showrooms but to Wall Street where, to the pain of those short-sellers, the company’s share price has surged to over $69 a share, a rise of nearly $20 in barely a month. Mr Musk is determined to prove that the right product and the right sort of customer support will win over potential buyers. The latest financial report certainly has given him credibility on that. But now Tesla must prove it can remain powered up as it goes forward.
COMPUTERS will die, predicts a character in Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel “Cosmopolis”, because they are “melting into the texture of everyday life.” Even the word computer, she concludes, “sounds backward and dumb”. A decade later, as the components of "the computer” become ever more ubiquitous and embedded into so many different products, smartphones have fulfilled much of this prophecy, extending technology deep into the weave of daily life.
Another gadget that is possibly about to weave its way into our lives is a stamp-sized camera that can be worn on any garment and take pictures at 30-second intervals, creating a record of a life that can be searched and shared. Developed by Memoto, a Swedish start-up, the device has an app and cloud-storage platform to ensure that no experience—no matter how mundane—will go undocumented.
Memoto created a stir last year with a campaign on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, to raise $50,000. It raked in more than $500,000. Oskar Kalmaru, one of its founders, says the “the first wave of the buzz” about the camera rolled in ahead of the Kickstarter campaign through a “network of friends around the company”. Memoto had €500,000 ($655,000) in seed funding from Passion Capital, a British venture-capital firm, enabling it to build a prototype camera. Crowdfunding allowed it to raise money before having to fund an expensive manufacturing process. “The alternative would have been to try and raise capital from investors for equity, but it would have been hard and expensive,” explains Mr Kalmaru.
Exposing the product to the public at such an early stage generates unexpected insights. With Memoto’s omnipresent camera it turned out that many potential customers cared fiercely about the privacy and security of their images. The firm dropped plans to have pictures automatically uploaded after a lively debate on Reddit, a web-based discussion board.
And unlike a human photographer, Memoto’s device isn’t capable of asking for permission before snapping. This could run into trouble in countries with strict privacy laws, such as Germany. People living there have been allowed to opt out of Google Street View since April 2009 (though in practice this has been exercised relatively seldom: in the 20 biggest German cities, around 3% of households have opted out).
There are a few other devices on the market that gather personal data on an equivalent scale. The two best-known examples, the Fitbit tracker and Nike’s FuelBand, are both used to monitor health. But Memoto’s cameras gaze outwards, gathering information on the world as well as about ourselves. Memoto says it will inform its customers when they might need another person’s permission to store images of them.
The firm's business model turns on selling hardware and providing access to user-generated content. It will make a profit from selling the 5-megapixel cameras at a stand-alone price, while costs for storage will be covered by a subscription fee. The fee has not yet been set as Memoto is waiting for data on the storage cost per average user. The exact balance between the two revenue streams will be tweaked once it has a better idea on costs and demand. There are no plans to sell advertising around the cloud platform, despite the potential wealth of data that will be created about Memoto users’ habits.
At the start of this month, Memoto had around 2,000 orders from Kickstarter backers and an additional 2,000 orders through its own website. But because of the inevitable teething problems that come with designing brand new software it has had to postpone its first shipping date several times and is now declining to set a launch date. Instead it posts regular progress updates on the firm’s blog. Memoto’s Kickstarter page is filled with largely sympathetic commentary about the delays, including one post from a backer who wants to know whether her camera will be ready in time for a summer hiking trip.
The 2,000-odd pictures that a Memoto camera will take over a day could form an invaluable trove for future historians; a form of self-generated Mass Observation. The firm has already received requests to make the aggregated data available for research. Equally, we might find ourselves pining for the days when photography was more selective. One day, the tedium of viewing a friend’s holiday snaps could be multiplied a thousand-fold.]]>
IT’S all change at the top of two of the world’s leading semiconductor companies. On May 2nd Intel, the world’s largest chip-maker, announced that Brian Krzanich (pictured above), the firm’s current chief operating officer, will become the sixth chief executive in the firm’s history. Mr Krzanich, who will take over as boss on May 16th, replaces Paul Otellini, who unexpectedly announced last November that he would be resigning as Intel’s boss.
ARM, Intel’s British rival, is also changing its leader. In March Warren East, the company’s chief executive, said he would stand down in July after 12 years in the top job. Like Intel, ARM has chosen an internal successor, Simon Segars (pictured below), who has been running the company’s intellectual-property divisions and is also the company’s president.
Mr Krzanich faces the harder challenge of the two. Intel rode to greatness on the back of the personal computer (PC). Its microprocessors are in most PCs and the server computers that are found in data centres and offices. But PC sales have been falling sharply just as sales of smaller mobile computing devices have taken off. IDC, a research firm, reported that shipments of PCs in the first quarter of 2013 plummeted by almost 14%.
Intel’s new boss will have to come up with a strategy to deal with this shift in the technology landscape—and arrest the decline in Intel’s net profit, which fell from $13 billion in 2011 to $11 billion last year. Most important, the company needs to come up with creative ways to boost its sales in the rapidly growing markets for smaller computing devices, such as tablet computers and smartphones, where it has struggled to make headway.
One way to boost revenues and profits will be to come up with more innovative software applications that can be combined with Intel’s chips. It is probably no coincidence that at the same time it announced Mr Krzanich’s elevation, Intel’s board also promoted Renee James, the head of the company’s software division, to president.
Mr Segars has an easier task ahead of him. ARM makes no chips of its own (and so is a fraction of the size of Intel), but it designs chip technology that others, from Apple and Samsung to NVIDIA and Qualcomm, license and then build on. ARM’s low-power, battery-saving chip designs have been just what the mobile-device market needed.
Granted, not everything with an ARM-based chip in it turns to gold. Sales of the Surface RT, a Microsoft tablet, have been poor. Even so—and despite Intel’s best efforts to make inroads into its territory—ARM said on April 23rd that its revenue had risen by 28% in the year to the end of March 2013, reaching £170.3m ($263.9m) and its pre-tax profit had gone up by 44%, to £89.4m.
As the table from IC Insights, another research firm, shows, Intel is still a formidable force. Last year it even extended its lead over the second-biggest chipmaker, South Korea’s Samsung Electronics. But the world’s fastest-growing chip company was America’s Qualcomm, which leads the market for smartphones’ application processors (the brains of the devices). And Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which makes chips for many of Intel’s rivals—including Qualcomm, which has no factories of its own—also saw its business grow strongly. Mr Krzanich and Intel have quite a battle on their hands.]]>
DESPITE the stereotype of slack-jawed farmers bumbling around fields, farming is and always has been rooted in careful analysis of data. From deducing the best conditions to achieve bumper crop yields to keeping track of the bounty from their hectares of arable land, farmers have to deal with as much information as some City traders.
Yet they may not realise it. Your correspondent asked one farm labourer whether his employer used any technology to track weather conditions and output. “Why would we need to?” he asked. “We check the weather forecast.” A new crop of apps and websites attempt to convince sceptical farmers that computers may be better than their brains.
FarmLogs, an alumnus of the Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley start-up programme, was founded by Jesse Vollmar in August 2012. Having helped out on his family's farm in Michigan when younger, Mr Vollmar knows well the reams of paper records that show planting and harvesting times demanded by government from the farming industry.
Mr Vollmar’s firm replaces all that paperwork with a simple smartphone app. It already allows the owners of hundreds of American farms to analyse the economics of their land and plan for the future. Users pay a monthly charge (a farm of less than 400 acres owes $20 per month). FarmLogs has found backers confident of its growth. It gained $1m in seed funding in January to expand its staff and develop the app further for the new farming season.
That investment may help it gain ground on an older competitor: iCropTrak, a 19-month-old old app developed by Cogent3D. The firm won’t say how many users it has, but it boasts 15,000 from one government contract alone. Last year it was commended by the World Ag Expo, a farming industry trade show, as one of the ten best technology innovations in agriculture.
The app tracks everything needed in a farm’s upkeep, says iCropTrak’s Aaron Hutchinson—from tillage, to planting, to irrigation, to scouting, to spraying, to harvest, to soil sampling. The service also connects labourers, ensuring everyone is aware of completed and uncompleted tasks. Fields are divided up using map data, allowing farm owners to analyse each section of their farm to see whether wheat, for example, is performing better than maize (corn).
Another company aiming to plough its own furrow is Vital Fields, an Estonian start-up and an alumnus of Startup Wise Guys, an accelerator based in the country. The service, which was launched in August 2011, does not come with an app, relying instead on a mobile-friendly website. Vital Fields aims to provide the most accurate field-specific weather forecast for farmers, co-founder Martin Rand explains.
Like the other services, it helps keep track of any actions performed on a field (such as spraying, ploughing or seeding). Yet this feature is secondary to the main product: “an integrated pest management (IPM) solution”. It uses the data to calculate the risk—field-by-field—of crops being hit by disease. This information allows it to tell a farmer whether he needs to increase or decrease the use of pesticide on a specific field.
The IPM tool and in-depth weather data down to field level are paid extras to Vital Fields' free offering, explains Mr Rand. The website has secured a loyal user base in its home country and he expects that Vital Fields will gain a 5% market penetration in Estonia by the end of the year. It has made a small foray into the British farming market, but it intends to mainly expand in eastern Europe, where agricultural expertise is less developed than in Britain.
Whether or not they acknowledge it, farmers are accountants, engineers and research pioneers all bundled into one. If anything, services such as FarmLogs, iCropTrak and Vital Fields are proof of that. But farmers are also a sceptical bunch, who pass down tips and tricks across the generations. Convincing them to cede to technological knowledge, rather than relying on their own intuition, may be a tough battle.]]>
TWITTER is blocked in China. And yet, the Chinese are probably the most active tweeters in the world. They share their banalities (and, on occasion, profundities) using Weibo, a microblogging service run by Sina, a Chinese internet firm. Although the majority of Weibo’s more than 500m user accounts are inactive, many millions use the service every day.
Weibo’s popularity has caught the eye of Alibaba, China's biggest e-commerce firm. On April 29th it announced that it would take an 18% stake in Sina Weibo for $586m in a deal that gives it the option to raise that stake to 30%. The agreement values Sina Weibo at nearly $3.3 billion. But why would Alibaba, expected to go public soon, shell out that sort of cash?
Alibaba may be a titan of e-commerce that handled more transactions last year than Amazon and eBay combined. But in social media it is still an also-ran—which could become a serious competitive disadvantage. More than elsewhere, shopping is a social phenomenon in China. It is not just young women who want to discuss styles and shoes with their girlfriends. Men often shop in groups for clothes and watches. And punters of all ages post and scrutinise numerous consumer reviews online before buying.
In tying up, the two firms hope to combine e-commerce and social media to "bring unique and valuable services to Weibo users," in the words of Jack Ma, Alibaba's chairman (pictured). The deal is supposed to help Sina squeeze more money out of Weibo (which, like Twitter, generates more buzz than profits) and to speed up Alibaba's efforts at expanding its e-commerce platforms onto mobile phones (an exploding market, but one that Alibaba does not yet control in the way it dominates web-based e-commerce in China). The firms have not revealed much about how exactly they will do all this, but it is a safe bet to say that they intend to combine and mine the enormous quantities of consumer data they have collected. In other words, the Weibo joint venture will be one of the world's most interesting test cases for big data.
That may seem reason enough to justify the deal, but another motivation is just as important: taking on Tencent, another big Chinese internet firm. It made its mark with simple messaging and gaming, but its greatest innovation may be Weixin, known in English as WeChat. This clever service, which is spreading like wildfire in China, is a fusion of features offered by Twitter, Facebook and other social-media services. The firm hopes to also make it a success abroad.
Tencent has recently declared its intention to make its biggest bet on e-commerce yet. With its highly profitable gaming business, an online payment system to rival Alibaba's Alipay and a social-media blockbuster in We Chat, Tencent looks to be the only internet company in China that poses a real threat to Alibaba. By taking a stake in Sina Weibo, Alibaba is arming itself for the coming clash of titans.
The Berlin entrepreneur (and descendant of the German painter of the same name) does not have to pretend that he “eats his own dogfood”. He also does not have to resort to the old trick of boasting about some silly metric that makes his start-up appear more successful than it actually is. The Football App has been downloaded more than 6.5m times since its first version in 2009 (then called iLiga) and about 3,5m people use it regularly—which makes it one of the world’s most popular football apps. Another sign of success, a group of investors led by Earlybird Venture Capital, a German VC firm, announced on April 18th that the have invested €10m in the firm.
The app, which is free, provides a constant stream of information on more than a hundred leagues in six languages. What’s the score? Who scored? Which player is injured? Who might join the team for the next season? Users can easily adapt the app to have it only show information about their favourite clubs.
The start-up does all this without a single sports reporter. Instead, it buys and aggregates information from sources around the world, such as Opta Sports and the Perform Group, which specialised in sports content. Sometimes the app gets the news out even before a goal is shown “live” on satellite television—because small packets of data travel much faster than a video stream (although Mr von Cranach admits that does not like watching a striker run towards the goalkeeper on TV while his app already shows that he has scored).
Why the popular success? The mobile internet has created a channel to instantly satisfy peoples’ curiosity. In the case of football this urge to learn about things as soon as possible is particularly strong, explains Mr von Cranach, pointing to himself as an example. “It’s an emotional addiction.”
This will make it easier for him to turn the app’s popularity into profits. Active users spend an average of nearly two hours per month browsing the app. This means that Mr von Cranach has plenty of space to offer to advertisers. And they seem to be buying. Thanks to a “constant stream of advertising revenues”, he says, his start-up already has a positive cash flow, something many other start-ups in Berlin can only dream of. There are also plenty of other potential sources of revenue: football-related business, such as ticketing, merchandising and betting, make up 50% of the global sports market.
Yet in the rapidly changing app-economy today’s stars can be tomorrow’s also-rans. It would not be the first time that an American start-up, backed by much more venture capital, gives a European competitor a run for its money. But Mr von Cranach is unfazed. Most big players in the market for sports apps try to cover a wide range of disciplines, whereas his firm will stay focused on football. he says. Why bother with niche-markets such as golf and tennis, when football is booming all over the world—except, for now, in North America.
In fact, that gap in the market, may be Mr von Cranach’s most important competitive advantage. “Americans,” he says, “may have the world’s most innovative sports apps. But luckily their publishers are not really interested in what they call soccer.”]]>
“BAD risk manager faces two years in jail.” That might be the headline if Germany’s draft law on ring-fencing financial risks ever hits the statute books in its present form. Among other things, the proposal would not only allow punishing those who endanger their financial institution by breaking legal banking limits, but risk managers whose negligence led to such breaches in the first place.
The desire to criminalise bad management is understandable, given the cost of such failures to the German taxpayer and the payoffs enjoyed by disgraced managers in the past. But expert witnesses at a hearing of the finance committee of Germany’s federal parliament (Bundestag) on April 22nd outlined how difficult it would be nail down such responsibility as criminal.
The attempt to criminalise negligence is only part of the bill which aims “separate risks and to plan recovery and resolution of financial groups”. It is Germany’s stab at ring-fencing dangerous trading from the bits of banking in which deposits of up to €100,000 are ultimately guaranteed by the taxpayer. The general view of experts is that the bill has not just been badly thought out, but will complicate things—mainly because the European Commission is working on an overlapping EU regulation based on recommendations in the Liikanen Report. At some point the German law, and a very similar French reform, would have to be harmonised with the EU’s rulebook.
“Liikanen Lite” is how some have described the German and French drafts. Liikanen recommends the separation of market-making, along with proprietary trading (on the bank’s own account), from the insured banking entity, into an independently capitalised and funded firm. The German and French drafts allow market-making on behalf of clients to stay with the insured bank. This would be fine if experts could agree on where to draw the line between market-making and proprietary trading. But they cannot.
The issue has led to enormous complications across the Atlantic in applying America’s Volcker Rule (which forbids proprietary trading but allows market-making by regulated banks). Most big banks in Europe argue that they have all but given up proprietary trading anyway. In other words, a tiny proportion of their business would be hived off into the independent trading entity. For example, it would affect less than 1.5% of the overall activity of Société Générale, a big French bank, according to Frédéric Oudéa, its president.
The German and French governments plan to implement the new legislation by July 2015. But much will happen in between, including an important German federal election in September. The new German law is seen by many as little more than an electioneering stunt—an attempt to keep the powerful banking and industry lobbies onside for a few more months. After September Germany’s Liikanen Lite could assume a bit more gravitas. That would please Sir John Vickers, who chaired the commission on Britain’s bank reform and was questioned at the Bundestag hearing. “I hope as a European,” he told the committee, “that the Germans will follow the rest of Europe.”]]>
Achieving comparability has also been the motivation for a long project of convergence between FASB's and IASB's standards. They have already made much progress in making American and international financial statements apples and apples. But a few key differences remain. Chief among them is how to account for loans that begin to go bad on the books of a bank or other company. The two boards have announced different proposals after trying for a long time to harmonise them. They remain hard at work on this and other convergence projects.
Mr Golden mentioned the importance of convergence several times in the press conference announcing his selection. It seemed a subtle shift of tone from that of his predecessor. Ms Seidman was often at pains to insist that FASB would not compromise what it thought to be the best standard for America in order to get to a converged but imperfect international standard. Mr Golden said much the same, but repeatedly returned to his hopes for convergence. On loan-loss provisioning, he reminded reporters that FASB and IASB had been publicly at daggers drawn on other issues before coming together. In other words, the convergence project, which has seemed to flag, may have a vigorous champion in Mr Golden.
"WE ARE not interested in the US market any more." So declared Eric Xu, a senior Huawei executive, on April 23rd at the company's annual analyst conference. That seems to be a striking and definitive U-turn for the Chinese telecoms giant, which has tried arduously to sell its networking kit to American telecoms operators.
The snag has been an ugly xenophobic backlash that has blocked the firm, and its compatriot ZTE, from making headway. American politicians have engaged in techno-nationalism of the worst kind, bashing the firms regularly with allegations of spying for the Chinese government—without producing any public evidence of bad behaviour. Sprint Nextel, a big American mobile-telephony operator, was forced to give Congress assurances that it would not buy Huawei products.
So that's the end of the road for China's aspiring national champion in the land of the free and the home of the brave, is it? Not necessarily. Though the firm is backing off from its incredibly clumsy charm offensive and hopelessly bungled lobbying efforts in America, it seems willing to return if politicians open the door.
"Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to get into the US market…it’s a high-value market,” said Li Sanqi, the chief technology officer for the firm's carrier networking group, this week. He added wistfully, "We today face reality. We will focus on the rest of the world."
THERE was no firm timetable for an iWatch or for a revolutionary iTV. Nor was there a concrete plan for releasing a low-cost iPhone. There was, however, the promise of what is reportedly the biggest share buyback in American corporate history.
Announcing Apple’s results for the first three months of 2013 on April 23rd, Tim Cook, the firm’s boss, stayed mum about the company’s product pipeline, saying only that it was working on some “amazing new hardware, software and services” to be rolled out in the autumn of this year and in 2014. But he was very clear about the cash that Apple plans to return to its shareholders’ pockets in the form of increased dividends and buybacks. Altogether the firm plans to pay out $100 billion by the end of 2015.
That pile of money seems to have placated investors, who have watched in dismay as Apple’s share price plummeted from a high of over $700 in September to under $400 last week. Following the results announcement, the firm’s shares closed at $406, up nearly 2%. But although Mr Cook has bought himself some breathing space by raising planned share buybacks from $10 billion to $60 billion and increasing planned dividends by 15%, he still needs to show that he and his colleagues can produce new blockbuster products and services that will help reignite the company’s growth and replenish its $145 billion pile of cash and liquid investments.
Ever since Mr Cook replaced Steve Jobs at Apple’s helm, speculation has mounted that the company has lost some of the magic that helped it create winning products such as the iPhone and iPad. Mr Cook’s fans say those who think Apple should already have come up with a new category-killer are being unrealistic. A few years between big innovations is nothing to worry about. And they note that the iPad and the iPhone are still driving sales forward. In the first quarter of 2013 Apple reported $43.6 billion in revenue, an increase of 11% compared with the same period in 2012 and a figure that dwarfs the sales reported by the likes of Google and Microsoft.
Moreover, the company still boasts juicy margins on most of its products. Asymco, a research outfit, recently estimated that Apple accounted for 45% of the profits of the personal-computer business and generates more operating profit than the top five PC vendors combined. Asymco reckons that that Apple does even better in smartphones, where its fat margins mean it accounts for over 70% of total profits.
But there are signs that the company’s margins are being squeezed by stiffer competition and the introduction of the iPad mini, which has a lower profit margin than bigger iPads. In its latest quarter the firm’s gross margin shrank year-on-year from 47.4% to 37.5% and its quarterly net profit shrank for the first time in ten years, falling from $11.6 billion to $9.5 billion.
If, as seems likely, Apple decides to launch a low-cost version of its popular iPhone to better compete in emerging markets—and in the market for pre-paid phones that don’t require a monthly subscription to a carrier—then the firm’s margins could be squeezed even more. And that could hit its share price. Benjamin Reitzes, an analyst at Barclays, an investment bank, reckons every percentage point decline in Apple’s gross margin equates to a drop of $1.40 in earnings per share.
Apple also needs to do more to beat back rivals, in particular Samsung, which has emerged as a powerful competitor in the smartphone market. Investors want to see it respond to the arrival of “phablets” (a combination of a phone and a tablet: their large, 5-inch screens are bigger than those of most smartphones, but not as big as a tablet computer’s).
Then there is China, where Apple has been growing fast but has stumbled on several occasions. Mr Cook recently had to launch a public apology after Apple came under concerted fire in the country for its warranty policies. Such hiccups aside, China could be a much bigger source of business for Apple if it can find a way to strike a deal for distribution of its wares with a firm such as China Mobile, the country’s largest mobile operator.
But even if it keeps expanding its phone and tablet businesses, the company will still need to come up with further innovations to convince doubters that it can thrive in the post-Jobs era. And that is where the next twelve months or so will be crucial. Rumours have it that Apple is working on some form of smart watch and Mr Cook has made no secret that disrupting television is a subject of “intense interest” to Apple. The company is also looking at services such as mobile payments, which could leverage the 435m or so customers of its iTunes store.
Innovations in these and other areas could well be on the list of “amazing” things that Mr Cook alluded to on Apple’s latest earnings call. The big question is whether they will prove to be as revolutionary when they appear as the extraordinary products that flowed out of Apple during Mr Jobs’s period at the helm. Mr Cook has played his cash card cleverly. Now he needs to show that he can turn up trumps on the innovation front too.