All posts on August, 2017


ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

The parable of St Paul

PAUL POLMAN runs Europe’s seventh-most valuable company, Unilever, worth $176bn, but he is not a typical big cheese. A Dutchman who once considered becoming a priest, he believes that selling shampoo around the world can be a higher calling and detests the Anglo-Saxon doctrine of shareholder primacy, which holds that a firm’s chief purpose is to enrich its owners. Instead Mr Polman preaches that companies should be run “sustainably”—by investing, paying staff fairly, and by making healthy products with as little damage as possible to the environment. This is actually better for profits in the long run, he argues: society and shareholders need not be in conflict.

Mr Polman’s beliefs were tested in February when Unilever received a bid from Kraft-Heinz, a ketchup-to-hot dog gorilla controlled by Warren Buffett and 3G Capital, a fund known for ripping costs out of multinationals. If, in its own mind, Unilever is a good corporate citizen, then it sees Kraft as an angry American…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Analysts struggle to make accurate long-term market forecasts

WHAT is the right way to invest for the long term? Too many people rely on past performance, picking fund managers with a “hot” reputation or backing those asset classes that have recently done well. Just as fund managers cannot be relied on to be consistent, returns from asset classes are highly variable. The higher the initial valuation of the asset, the lower the future returns are likely to be.

That is pretty clear with government bonds. Anyone buying a bond with a yield of 2% and holding it until maturity can expect, at best, that level of return (before inflation) and no more. (There is a small chance the government might default.) With equities, the calculations are not quite so hard-and-fast. Nevertheless, it is a good rule-of-thumb that buying shares with a low dividend yield, or on a high multiple of profits, is likely to lead to lower-than-normal returns.

So a sensible approach to long-term investing would assess the potential returns from asset classes, given their…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Market concentration can benefit consumers, but needs scrutiny

WHEN Amazon announced in June that it would buy Whole Foods, an upmarket grocer, for $13.7bn, other firms shuddered. The spread of Amazonian tentacles is worrying to those wary of concentrated corporate power. But shoppers entering their local Whole Foods these days find oddly low prices alongside the new stacks of Echoes, Amazon’s voice-activated digital helpmate. This raises a question. Is Amazon hellbent on building a world-straddling monopoly, or merely injecting innovation and competition into yet another new market? For antitrust regulators, the welfare of the consumer is the priority. Yet working out how to protect it is harder than ever.

Competitiveness in most industries is a matter of degree. In the idealised marketplace of economics textbooks, the price people pay for goods equals the cost of producing an additional unit. Any higher, the theory goes, a competitor could cut the price a smidgen, sell another unit and profit. Yet outside commodity markets, most firms can charge…Continue reading

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