Regional Notes 2018.05.04

Malaysia vote battle heats up with focus on jobs for young

The jobless rate “hides a lot of unpleasant things in the labor market: low pay, low productivity, low skill and a high number of foreign workers,” Zakariah Abdul Rashid, executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, said at a conference in Kuala Lumpur in April. “Those unemployed are the youth, highly-qualified individuals who can’t get jobs.”

Foreign labor has underpinned that rebound. The central bank estimates that about 82 percent of the net jobs created in 2016 went to non-residents. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds stood at 10.8 percent last year, according to the World Bank, while joblessness among local graduates has increased more sharply than non-graduates since 2011, data from the central bank shows.

Documented overseas workers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force last year, after a steady decline from 16.1 percent in 2013, according to central bank data. Still, adding in the unregistered workers may boost the total amount of foreign labor to as high as 40 percent according to some estimates.

J-beauty: Japan’s sleeping giant awakens

The sleeping giant of the beauty industry, “J-beauty” has woken up. Long eclipsed by the success of K-beauty, the $13bn South Korean business built on insatiable demand for innovative sheet masks, snail extract creams and convoluted skincare routines (most recently resulting in Unilever’s purchase of skin-whitening brand Carver Korea for €2.27bn), J-beauty, its older, more sophisticated sister, is now re-entering the spotlight. The Japanese business has benefited from the growth in Chinese tourists, following limits imposed on travel to Korea by the Chinese government and a surge of enthusiasm for the Olympics in 2020. Japanese beauty exports are tipped to exceed $2.75bn this year.

As Okabe puts it: “K-beauty is driven by trends, it meets those tentative needs of the consumer which are hot or of the moment, whereas J-beauty is something far more sustainable, authentic and eternal.” While J-beauty can’t possibly compete with the entrepreneur culture of Korea, which has the manufacturing speed and efficiency to bring cutting-edge trends to market quickly, K-beauty can’t compete with Japan’s far more delicate and intricate beauty rituals, their obsession with beauty (Euromonitor reports that Japan has the highest per capita spend on skincare and cosmetics) and their long-term investment in technology.

Curated Insights 2017.11.05

This company’s robots are making everything and reshaping the world

Earlier this year, during one of Fanuc’s rare open houses, Vice President Kenji Yamaguchi told investors that about 80 percent of the company’s assembly work is automated. “Only the wiring is done by engineers,” he said. And when you have lots of efficient robots making your other robots, you can sell those robots more cheaply—about $25,500 for a new Robodrill. (You can find a well-used older model on EBay for $8,500.) Volkswagen Group, for instance, pays about 10 percent less for Fanuc robots than it paid for ones it previously purchased from Kuka AG, a German company.

Fanuc manages to offer these savings while maintaining 40 percent operating profit margins, a success that Yamaguchi also traced to the company’s centralized production in Japan, which is made possible, even though most of its products are sold outside the country, by the 243 global service centers that keep its robots operational. The company even profits from its competitors’ sales, because more than half of all industrial robots are directed by its numerical-control software. Between the almost 4 million CNC systems and half-million or so industrial robots it has installed around the world, Fanuc has captured about one-quarter of the global market, making it the industry leader over competitors such as Yaskawa Motoman and ABB Robotics in Germany, each of which has about 300,000 industrial robots installed globally. Fanuc’s Robodrills now command an 80 percent share of the market for smartphone manufacturing robots.

Orders from the U.S., though, are dwarfed by those from China—some 90,000 units, almost a third of the world’s total industrial robot orders last year. Sales to China amounted to about 55 percent of the $5 billion Fanuc’s automation unit generated in the fiscal year ended March 2017. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that, by 2019, China’s annual industrial robot orders will rise to 160,000 units, suggesting Fanuc will be insulated from any slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Yoshiharu told investors at his most recent Q&A session in April that the company expects demand in China to outstrip supply even after Fanuc opens a factory next August in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture. The facility will be dedicated solely to keeping up with Chinese demand.

The result of Nishikawa’s insight was the Fanuc Intelligent Edge Link and Drive, or Field. The system, introduced in 2016, is an open, cloud-based platform that allows Fanuc to collect global manufacturing data in real time on a previously unimaginable scale and funnel it to self-teaching robots.


Apple should shrink its finance arm before it goes bananas

Apple does not organise its financial activities into one subsidiary, but Schumpeter has lumped them together. The result—call it “Apple Capital”—has $262bn of assets, $108bn of debt, and has traded $1.6trn of securities since 2011.

Since Jobs died, its assets have risen by 221%, twice as fast as the company’s sales, reflecting Apple’s huge build-up of profits. Its investments are worth 32% of Apple’s market value, and its profits (investment income, plus gains on derivatives, less interest costs) have been 7% of Apple’s pre-tax profits so far this year. It is also sizeable compared with other financial firms. Consider four measures: assets, debt, credit exposure and profits.

In 2011 a majority of its assets were “risk-free”: cash or government bonds. Today 68% are invested in other kinds of securities, mainly corporate bonds, which Apple says are generally investment grade. The shift may explain why Apple’s annual interest rate earned on its portfolio (2%) is now higher than that of the four other Silicon Valley firms with money mountains, Microsoft, Alphabet, Cisco and Oracle. In total, they still have 66% of their portfolios squirrelled away in risk-free assets.

Its foreign operation swims in cash while its domestic one drowns in debt. Profits made abroad are kept in foreign subsidiaries. That way Apple does not pay the 35% levy America charges when earnings are repatriated. Some 94% of Apple Capital’s assets are “offshore” and cannot be tapped for ordinary purposes. The domestic business must do the hard work of paying for dividends and buy-backs. Its profits are not big enough to cover these, so it borrows. Domestic net debts have risen to $92bn, or five times domestic gross operating profits. Each year Apple must issue $30bn of bonds (including refinancing), similar to the average of Wall Street’s five largest firms.


To understand the benefits of tax reform, start by understanding Apple’s taxes

Now we have the numbers that answer the basic question: What accounts for the difference between what Apple pays and the official 35% rate? Page 56 of its 10K shows the numbers. Once again, if Apple had faced the full 35% rate, it would have paid $21.46 billion in federal taxes (as well as another $990 million to the states). Instead, it paid $10.444 billion in cash, and accrued $5.241 billion in U.S. tax owed on foreign profits, but deferred to be paid later. That’s the total of $15.685 billion that it booked in tax expense on its income statement. The difference between that number and the approximately $21.5 billion it would have paid at the 35% rate is the almost $5.6 billion exclusion for “indefinitely invested foreign earnings.”

Surprisingly, companies such as Apple with an extremely large proportion of foreign sales, could actually pay more U.S. taxes in cash each year under the current proposals. That’s because elimination of deferrals and the exception for reinvested earnings would sent more money to the Treasury even at the far lower minimum rate.

 

Google’s profits are exploding because the web is massive

The bigger the web grows, the more valuable Google becomes. And, with more than one billion websites in the world and more than 4 billion people with regular access to the Internet, finding your needle in that haystack is the fundamental problem of Internet use. As the tech writer Ben Thompson wrote, “Google is the king of aggregators because, when information shifted from scarcity to abundance, discovery became the point of leverage, and Google was better at discovery than anyone.”

Second, the migration of attention from print and television to the internet—both desktop and mobile—has created a advertising duopoly for Google and Facebook. As these slides from the last Kleiner Perkins internet presentation show clearly, mobile is the future of media attention and Facebook and Google’s share of digital ad revenue is growing faster than the rest of the industry combined.


How Google’s quantum computer could change the world

Early next year, Google’s quantum computer will face its acid test in the form of an obscure computational problem that would take a classical computer billions of years to complete. Success would mark “quantum supremacy,” the tipping point where a quantum computer accomplishes something previously impossible. It’s a milestone computer scientists say will mark a new era of computing, and the end of what you might call the classical age.

That potential is a result of exponential growth. Adding one bit negligibly increases a classical chip’s computing power, but adding one qubit doubles the power of a quantum chip. A 300-bit classical chip could power (roughly) a basic calculator, but a 300-qubit chip has the computing power of two novemvigintillion bits—a two followed by 90 zeros—a number that exceeds the atoms in the universe.

Volkswagen AG is testing quantum computers made by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems Inc. In March, the companies said that, using GPS data from 10,000 taxis in Beijing, they created an algorithm to calculate the fastest routes to the airport while also minimizing traffic. A classical computer would have taken 45 minutes to complete that task, D-Wave said, but its quantum computer did it in a fraction of a second.

Such a complex and expensive setup means that Google and its peers will likely sell quantum computing via the cloud, possibly charging by the second.


Google has a new plan for China (and it’s not about search)

Rather than another splashy product launch, Google’s latest China strategy is a grassroots effort focused on getting developers in the country trained and hooked on its AI building blocks. It’s similar to the way business software startups get employees using their services before corporate IT departments notice. Once the tools become popular, companies often accept the technology and sign up for full service.

It’s hard to find a place as fertile for AI as China. The country has one of the fastest growing TensorFlow developer communities in Asia, despite the fact that Google’s cloud services are unavailable there. The Chinese government has made AI a national priority. Scores of Chinese companies are deploying machine-learning systems — AI software that automatically adjusts to data — to update banking services, identify faces in crowds and control drones.

Beijing-based Wang Xiaoyu said TensorFlow was a vital tool for her podcast startup CastBox.FM. Developing her own tools would’ve required a team of 20 expensive machine-learning specialists. Instead, she turned to TensorFlow and hired a single Chinese PhD graduate with TensorFlow experience capable of producing the same results. Her company is now worth about $60 million with more than 8 million users downloading her app.

Ricky Wong, an investor who often works in China, analyzed the location of the first 5,000 developers to access the tools and found more came from Beijing than all of Silicon Valley.


Tech goes to Washington

I still believe that, on balance, blaming tech companies for the last election is, more than anything, a convenient way to avoid larger questions about what drove the outcome. And, as I noted, the fact is that tech companies remain popular with the broader public.

What this hearing highlighted, though, is the degree to which the position of Facebook in particular has become more tenuous. The fact of the matter is that Facebook (and Google) is more powerful than any entity we have seen before. Magnifying the problem is that, over the last year, Facebook has decided to “take responsibility”, and what is that but a commitment to exercise their control over what people see?

More broadly, it is hard to escape the conclusion that tech companies have been unable to resist the ring of power: the end game of aggregation is unprecedented control over what people see; the only way to handle that power without risking the abuse of it is a commitment to true neutrality. That Facebook, Twitter, and Google — which, by the way, holds just as much if not more power than Facebook, but without the attendant media scrutiny — have committed to fixing the Russian problem is itself more problematic than those urging they do just that may realize.

Inside Fort Botox, where a deadly toxin yields $2.8 billion drug

Scientists differ over how much of the toxin would be required to inflict massive damage. Data on the topic is scarce, and that may be intentional. But a study published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that a single gram in crystallized form, “evenly dispersed and inhaled, would kill more than 1 million people.” Experts are divided over what it would take to effectively weaponize the toxin, but the mere possibility of a botulism bomb has the U.S. government on edge. That puts Allergan in a remarkable position. The government’s vigilance enhances the company’s own secrecy, and together they give Botox a near-monopoly that is almost unassailable. Allergan says Botox has more than 90 percent of the market for medical uses of neurotoxins and 75 percent of the market for cosmetic uses.


Gene therapy helped these children see. Can it transform medicine?

Spark’s product, named Luxturna, is designed to help a subset of LCA sufferers with a mutation in a gene known as RPE65 — who number about 6,000 in northern America, Europe and the other developed markets the company hopes to enter. But its approval would have much broader implications for the way we fight sickness and disease. 

Drugs are designed to fight illnesses by cajoling the body, opening up one biological pathway or closing down another. Gene therapy takes a different approach, replacing the faulty or missing DNA that is causing the disease in the first place and helping the body fix itself. Because it tackles the illness at its biological root, it could offer a one-time treatment for an array of genetically driven conditions that have either had poor options or none at all, from haemophilia and Parkinson’s to Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis and myriad rare diseases. It opens up the possibility of that thing still so elusive in modern medicine: a cure. 


Patient deaths show darker side of modernized Chinese medicine

Having struggled for decades to rein in the sector, regulators have recently begun pushing for an overhaul of Chinese medicine injections, seeking to weed out unsafe and ineffective products. But the process could take up to a decade, given the complexity of these intravenous pharmaceuticals.

Still, due to the history of lax regulation, many injectables based on Chinese medicine haven’t been evaluated in strict scientific clinical trials. That means the reactions they set off in the body aren’t fully known. Chinese medicine is based on centuries of practical experience. But it is traditionally taken orally, which gives the digestive system a chance to shield patients from harmful chemicals. Injecting the concoctions into the bloodstream can heighten side effects.


This budget airline is buying seaplanes to reach areas others can’t

SpiceJet Ltd. is in talks with Japan’s Setouchi Holdings Inc. to buy about 100 amphibious Kodiak planes that can land anywhere, including on water, gravel or in an open field. The deal, valued at about $400 million, would help SpiceJet capitalize on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan to connect the vast nation by air without waiting for billions of dollars in upgrades to colonial-era infrastructure.

India’s airlines handled 100 million domestic passengers last year, making it the No. 3 market behind China and the U.S. To handle growth, India will need at least 2,100 new planes worth $290 billion in the next 20 years, Boeing Co. estimates.

“The basic logic for this is that in India, we need last-mile connectivity,” Singh said. “The amphibian plane opens up a lot of areas, creates a lot of flexibility.”

“High-end tourists use amphibious aircraft at exotic locations all over the world,” said Amber Dubey, a New Delhi-based partner and India head of aerospace and defense at KPMG. “There’s no reason why it can’t be successful in India.”


This doctor turned $15,000 into a $1.6 billion beauty empire

“We focus on mid-end customers because they’re the biggest group of people,” said Suwin, who trained as a doctor before becoming an entrepreneur. “The high-end segment is small and very competitive.”

In mainland China, Beauty Community sells through online channels including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall platform. The country’s beauty market is forecast to grow at an average of 9 percent a year until 2020, outpacing the 5 percent expansion expected in Thailand, according to Euromonitor.

Beauty Community is the ninth biggest company in Thailand’s cosmetics industry, with a 3.1 percent share of a fragmented market, according to Euromonitor. L’Oreal leads, with 12 percent, followed by direct sales company Better Way (Thailand) Co. and Estee Lauder Cos. The firm aims to have 450 shops domestically in the next three years, under brands such as Beauty Cottage and Beauty Buffet.


Debating where tech is going to take finance

The point of most innovations in consumer finance has been precisely to reduce its presence in our lives: Instead of talking to a bank teller to get money, you use an ATM. Instead of physically walking into a broker’s office to talk about which stocks to buy, you buy index funds through a web page. Or, now, you click to enroll in an app and it does all of your asset-allocating and stock-picking and tax-harvesting and so forth for you. I think that a lot of financial technology is heading in the direction of perfecting that vanishing act, so that in 20 years you’ll just think about financial things less than you do now.

The EU’s definitive defeat: digital tax plans and a declaration of surrender to Silicon Valley

The EU has a huge competitiveness issue already, and due to the eurozone’s lack of innovation, especially in its Mediterranean member states, the sovereign-debt crisis is never going to be resolved. The European Central Bank is, in some ways unlawfully, keeping Europe’s south afloat and will do so for some more time, but at some point there will be a crisis of unprecedented proportions–either an acute and dramatic crisis or an extended depression from which the eurozone as an economic area won’t really recover.

By now the EU appears to have given up on its ambitions for the digital economy. Instead, its focus is on a new tax that could lead to a full-blown trade war with the U.S. and would definitely harm European companies and consumers in the end.

There are structural reasons for which the EU not only lacks major players like Apple and Google but why it’s highly unlikely that any of its startups will, as an independent company, ever reach that level.

Unfortunately, the Commission’s tax initiative has drawn support even from normally libertarian, free-market and fiscally conservative parties such as Germany’s FDP, whose secretary-general said last week that she wants to impose higher taxes on the likes of “Apple, Google, and Facebook.”


China’s critical role in technology and geopolitics

There are 214 private companies in the world valued at $1 billion or more, known as unicorns. Slightly more than half (108) are,as you would expect, based in the United States, but 55 are in China, with the remaining 51 located in other countries throughout the world. Of the top ten unicorns, China has four (including numbers two and three) and the U.S. has six. China’s innovation has been engineering-based rather than science-based and it is consumer-focused and efficiency-driven. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent together represent 16% of world net digital advertising revenue and 20% of world net mobile Internet ad revenue. Google and Facebook are the leaders with a combined 43% of net digital and 51% net mobile ad revenue.

China’s investment in research goes beyond information technology. Prior to 2010, the country committed almost $10 billion to research with biotechnology a focal point. The Chinese biotech industry has been growing at 30% and is valued at over $10 billion today. There are more than 580 biopharma companies. Chinese scientists have transformed normal adult cells into embryonic stem cells and produced live mice from these lab-produced cells. There are two major state funding sources – the State High-Tech Development Program and the Basic Research Program. China is the third largest filer of patents, after the United States and Japan.

An issue of concern for many investors is the level of Chinese debt, which has risen from 149% to 269% of GDP over the past decade. Increasing debt has accounted for two percentage points of China’s 7.25% growth from 2012 to 2016. There is also the worry that there are a number of non-performing loans on the books of the banks and “shadow” banks, but the adverse effects of these has been deferred by the country’s growth.


The conventional view of China’s problems may be all wrong: Q&A

If migrants are allowed to live and settle in cities and they spend as much as normal Chinese, the savings rate would fall. Consumption would increase by 2 or 3 percentage points of GDP, which is the entirety of the trade surplus.

What’s unique in China and doesn’t happen anywhere else is this migrant worker phenomenon. In any other country, you don’t have a hukou policy. Hukou is a link to savings, and then links to global trade surpluses. That’s a real strange link. This never would have been a logical way of thinking about it in any other country.

If you liberalize hukou, it reduces pressure to save. It increases your incentive or opportunity to consume. This increases demand for resources. It doesn’t require credit expansion or generation or stimulus. Therefore, you have GDP growth without debt buildup, which is exactly what you need. It’s a simple reform with tremendous impact. Allow people to live in Beijing and Shanghai where jobs pay more, and productivity will be higher.


Backlash against Chinese products ramps up in India

Two-way trade statistics tell the tale. India’s deficit with China has ballooned nine-fold over a decade to $49 billion in 2016 as China’s manufacturing edge stacks the odds against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-year-old ‘Make-in-India’ program. The result: India’s current account deficit is worsening again, threatening the outlook for an economy already straining under the fallout of a snap ban on high-value notes a year ago and a new sales tax.

“The imbalanced trade relationship reflects the fact that India’s manufacturing sector remains strongly underdeveloped. Unless it is able to develop its manufacturing sector so that it can produce a large share of the growing demand for goods in its economy, India’s economic growth will be constrained by rising current account deficits and/or inflation and their consequences.”

“No one is capable of competing with the Chinese.”


Abandoned land in Japan will be the size of Austria by 2040

A private research group headed by a former government minister today warned that the area (link in Japanese) of vacant land and homes could by 2040 be as big as Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido—about 83,000 sq km (32,000 sq miles), or the size of Austria. The area is currently about 41,000 sq km, slightly bigger than Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.

Hiroya Masuda, the former minister who chaired the group, warned in a 2014 book that about 900 cities, towns, and villages in Japan would be extinct by 2040.

Singapore is finding it harder to grow, literally

By filling the sea along its coasts with imported sand, the tiny island nation has expanded its physical size by about 24 percent since 1960, according to data from the Singapore Land Authority.

The government has plans to continue expanding its land size and said in a 2013 proposal that it expects to increase its land size to 296 square miles by 2030 to further support economic and population growth.

Supersized family farms are gobbling up American agriculture

Farms with $1 million or more in annual sales—only 4% of the total—now produce two-thirds of the country’s agricultural output, the largest portion since the U.S. Agriculture Department’s census began tracking the statistic in the ’80s.

Three-quarters of America’s farmed cropland is controlled by 12% of farms, USDA data show. The number of million-dollar-plus revenue farms more than doubled between 1992 and 2015, while the ranks of smaller farms, with revenue between $350,000 and $999,999, fell by 5%, as farmers get older and have a hard time making consistent profits. USDA researchers, in a December report, said consolidation is likely to continue.

An average farm household in the Colby area needs income of at least $50,000 annually to get by, said Mr. Wood, the agricultural economist, which has become harder to generate from a smaller farm. “The big guys can cover their costs and have money left over to grow,” Mr. Wood said. Smaller farms, he said, “are going to struggle.”