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The shipping industry attempts to cap carbon emissions

ACROSS the river from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) headquarters in London protesters have pressure-hosed “IMO DON’T SINK PARIS” into the muck lining the walls of the Thames. The river bank is not the only thing that is dirty.

Shipping and airlines were the only greenhouse-gas-emitting industries not mentioned in the 2016 Paris climate agreement. This was, in part, because assigning emissions is hard. To whom should you designate emissions for shipping Chinese goods, made with South Korean components, across the Pacific to American consumers? But similar problems did not stop airlines quickly agreeing on an industry-wide limit. This week delegates to the IMO, a United Nations agency responsible for shipping safety and pollution, met in a belated attempt to catch up. A deal was due as The Economist went to press.

It may not be an impressive one. A preliminary agreement set out to achieve cuts of 50% on 2008 emission levels by 2050....Continue reading

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How developing countries weave social safety nets

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SOUP kitchens serve the needy for free; restaurants serve the hungry for money. In parts of South Asia, eateries near mosques sometimes fall into a third category. They feed the poor sitting patiently outside, whenever a pious or charitable passer-by pays them to do so. Alms-giving of this kind provides one traditional safety net for the destitute in developing countries. But it is, thankfully, not the only one.

According to a new report by the World Bank, developing countries spend an average of 1.5% of GDP on social safety nets designed to stop people hitting rock-bottom. (The rich countries in the OECD spend on average...Continue reading

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America’s chemicals industry is booming. But politics may get in its way

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“THIS is what $3bn looks like.” So beams a manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical (CPC), a petrochemical company jointly owned by Chevron and Phillips 66, both American oil firms. She throws open her arms in a figurative embrace of a giant cracker (pictured) built by the firm in Baytown, a gritty part of Houston. The new plant turns vast quantities of ethane, which is derived from natural gas, into ethylene, an important building block in plastic. Another nearby facility, which the firm has recently expanded, converts the ethylene into plastic resin that is sold worldwide. All told, CPC has spent some $6bn expanding its chemicals-production infrastructure around Houston.

A decade ago, this would have been unimaginable. Chemicals firms in America, beaten down by rivals from the Middle East that enjoyed cheap feedstocks and others from China feasting on subsidised capital, had not invested in new local plants in years. Growth in global demand for chemicals, once roaring, had slowed thanks to the...Continue reading

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An update from Jeremy Grantham

JEREMY Grantham is an investor with 50 years of experience in the markets who is known for his caution about the outlook for long-term returns (he works for the GMO fund management group). But he caused a stir earlier this year when he said the chances were high of a melt-up in the markets this year. 

Buttonwood caught up with him when he visited London this week and asked whether the recent volatility had changed his view. He does think that the odds of a melt-up have fallen. The acceleration stage of a bull market, as in 1928 and 1999, tends to be smooth and quick. The trade tensions evoked by President Trump could be very damaging. He thinks that it is likely that, in five years, the American market may be 20% lower but this will not necessarily be via a sharp crash but through a series of advances and retreats. 

The reason that the market has been doing well until now is the combination of low inflation and high profits; that...Continue reading

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Gulf Air tries to reclaim its crown

WITH their geographical advantage for connecting flights between far-flung places, there is plenty to keep the airlines of the Gulf countries busy. Yet Bahrain’s skies are nearly empty compared with its neighbours. About 9m passengers used its airport last year, far fewer than the 88m for Dubai, 37m for Qatar and 26m for Abu Dhabi. The difference is striking given that Gulf Air, Bahrain’s flag carrier, was for decades the most prestigious airline in the Middle East. In its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, none of its three neighbours even had national airlines.

Geopolitics was the driving force behind Gulf Air’s rise and fall. During the 19th century, Bahrain was a protectorate of the British empire and the busiest trading centre in the Gulf. In the 1950s, its strategic importance motivated British Overseas Airways Corporation, at the time Britain’s flag carrier, to become a major shareholder in Gulf Aviation, the island’s fledgling local airline. By...Continue reading

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A plan that needs more money

AMERICAN private-sector workers face a problem. Too few of them have private-sector pensions, and the government scheme, Social Security, set up by Franklin Roosevelt (pictured) is less generous than it used to be. One study estimated that 20m elderly Americans will be living in poverty or near-poverty by 2035.

A new book* by Theresa Ghilarducci and Tony James has a plan to deal with the problem. It comes complete with a foreword and endorsement by Timothy Geithner, a former treasury secretary who had to battle the financial crisis.

The authors set out the problem in admirably clear fashion. Some 64% of women and 56% of men claim Social Security earlier than the official retirement age (which is rising in stages to 67), and thus suffer a reduction in their pensions. Those who retire at 62 get a Social Security cheque that replaces just 29% of a median earner’s income. The average monthly Social Security payment is $1,300.

That would not be a problem if recipients also had a private pension. But 24% of retired Americans...Continue reading

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Air India is trying to crack down on corruption

EVERYONE grumbles about the injustices of air travel, but most people assume that the inequities are at least grounded in a fair system. Pay for business class (or have your company pay), and you get comfort and free drinks. Go frugal with basic economy and get stuck in a lousy seat without a carry-on bag. But it is not always a proper free market at 35,000 feet. Sometimes, corruption skews the equation.

For instance, on Air India, the country’s state-owned flag carrier, who you know can apparently determine where you sit. The airline’s chief executive, Pradeep Singh Kharola, recently felt compelled to admonish his staff to stop upgrading friends and family members for free from economy class to business or first.

“It has come to my knowledge that operating crew carry out upgrades to business and first class unofficially during the flight for their friends and relatives,” Mr Kharola wrote on March 13th to his employees, in a letter that was...Continue reading

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A trade war between America and China takes shape

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TALK of tariffs is in danger of developing into cries of trade war. On April 3rd America published a list of some 1,300 Chinese products it proposes to hit with tariffs of 25%. Just a day later China produced its own list, covering 106 categories. “As the Chinese saying goes, it is only polite to reciprocate,” said the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC.

According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank, America’s list covers Chinese products worth $46bn in 2017 (9% of that year’s total goods exports to America; see graphic). China’s covers American goods worth around $50bn in 2017 (38% of exports). The sums were enough to move markets on April 4th, though the S&P 500 index soon made up lost ground.

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TSMC is about to become the world’s most advanced chipmaker

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MORRIS CHANG is preparing for retirement. After 30 years in the role, the founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the island’s largest firm, will step down as chairman in June. He will hand the reins over to the current co-CEOs, C.C. Wei and Mark Liu, the former becoming sole CEO and the latter chairman. Later that month the company will ship new semiconductors manufactured with its latest technology. For the first time the world’s most powerful chips will be made by TSMC, not by Intel, its American rival.

Intel and TSMC are different sorts of company. Intel is an integrated device manufacturer (IDM). It both designs and manufactures chips. TSMC is a “foundry”, making chips for designers without factories, or “fabs”, which cost a fortune. TSMC’s latest fab will cost $20bn. The Taiwanese company pioneered this model and is its dominant exponent. In 2017 it had 56% of the foundry market, according to Trendforce.

Intel led the pack in squeezing...Continue reading

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Online retailers go offline in China

THE season for the best xiaolongxia (“little dragon shrimp”) is just beginning, and so on a recent evening four young friends tucked into a pile of steaming-hot crayfish. But rather than sitting in a restaurant they were at a table surrounded by supermarket aisles stocked with nappies, baby formula and cooking oil. Above them, groceries and made-to-order meals, gathered by store attendants from shelves and nearby cooking stations, were wafted on aerial conveyor belts into a storeroom. There they were packaged and whisked to Shanghai homes within a 3km radius, at any hour and in under 30 minutes.

“Eat-as-you-shop” is one innovation of Hema Xiansheng, a chain of fancy supermarkets. And these shops are themselves the showiest elements of a bid by Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce emporium that handles more transactions than Amazon and eBay combined, to master “online-to-offline”, or O2O, retailing, in which customers use digital channels to buy from physical businesses....Continue reading

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