September 30th, 2009
12:54 PM GMT
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September 28th, 2009
12:20 PM GMT
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TOKYO, Japan - Imagine if your paycheck dropped 15 to 20 percent, without cause. You continue showing up for work at the same time, your job performance doesn't change, you don't change anything - but on Friday, your paycheck is 15 to 20 percent less.

Who would be happy?

Well, that's what sort of happened to Japan's biggest companies, thanks to the strong yen.

Now before your eyes glaze over at another currency story, consider this figure, cited by Toyota in a quarterly earnings report: A movement of one yen equals approximately U.S. $400 million for the company.

Before the global economic slowdown, one dollar was routinely worth 110 or 120 yen.  Today, the yen hit a new eight month-high (and the dollar a big low) of just under 89 - that equals about $12 billion in loss.

Without looking at how companies are managed or how the global economy is moving, these companies have already lost billions of dollars, thanks to the currency market.

Companies like Toyota, Honda and Sony are global companies that export to consumer-hungry America, the land of the dollar. Not only do they have to cope with a slowdown in demand, the yen is hammering their bottom line. Not an enviable business position.

Japan's new government came in on a wave of consumer outrage, saying it would get more money into the hands of the consumer.

Japanese Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii told reporters that the government was not considering jumping into the market to sell the yen and help exporters. No more trickle down like the old government, pledged the incoming Democratic Party of Japan. The mantra of the day is trickle up. Economists wait to see if the new government is right.

Meanwhile, consumers in Japan cheer the news and enjoy the power of their currency at home. But in the boardrooms across Tokyo, there must be quite a different sentiment. They're probably wondering when that 20 percent will come back.

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Filed under: BusinessJapan

September 28th, 2009
06:14 AM GMT
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“My accountant says I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I'm cash poor or something. I got no cash flow. I'm not liquid, something's not flowing.” - Isaac Davis in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

There are a number of metaphors that can be used to describe liquidity in the financial markets. One is to think of every object of value – cash, stocks, houses, art – as pieces of ice, frozen in value. Its liquidity can be measured by its ability to melt and reconstitute itself in value while changing hands.

Cash is highly liquid, because there is little change in value when sold or exchanged – so it melts and freezes quite nicely. Rare objects of art are among the most illiquid – they are auctioned and transferred back into cash once every few decades.

A way I prefer to think of liquidity as is oil. What caused the global economy to sputter last year was the commercial paper market, a financial tool as mundane as the motor oil that sits in the engine pan of every automobile. Imagine, however, the oil in every car in the world suddenly drying up below manufacturer specifications – poorly maintained cars start choking, creating traffic jams worldwide. Even Ferraris begin to ping and rattle.

The commercial paper market keeps companies running day-to-day because a going concern’s accounts receivable rarely matches its accounts payable. Large companies regularly borrow millions for one-day, low-interest loans so they can, for example, make payroll while waiting for clients and customers’ checks to clear. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, however, the Reserve Money Fund – the market’s oldest money fund that is fed daily by the commercial paper – “broke the buck”. For the first time ever every dollar invested in the fund was worth only 97 cents.

When you hear about “the collapse of the world financial system,” this is the ground zero event. Investors in the traditionally safe fund suddenly run for cover, exacerbating the crisis. Well-run, profitable businesses with no connection to the subprime mortgage debacle suddenly face a liquidity crunch.

Like Isaac Davis in “Manhattan,” the world banking system found “something’s not flowing.” And many of the efforts of governments around the world are to keep the spigot going.

September 27th, 2009
12:24 PM GMT
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LONDON, England - When it comes to the number three, there are two conflicting philosophies: The first says everything comes in threes, the second says third time lucky (or unlucky.) This weekend the G-20 leaders have been meeting for their third meeting in a year.

G-20 leaders are all smiles, but for how much longer will the unity last.
G-20 leaders are all smiles, but for how much longer will the unity last.

For an organization that had never met before at heads of state or government level, this is something of an achievement. But then rarely have they had to ride to the rescue of the global economy that was about to collapse.

Twice before when they met, they agreed to halt the blame game of how we got into this mess. They worked together to get us out of it. This was no mean feat since it involves countries from communist China to capitalist America and all shades of political persuasion in-between. Their ability to coordinate and cooperate has been noted time and again as one of the great advances in summitry.

In Washington last October, they ignored the fact President George W. Bush would be out of office within months and built a plan, calling it "The Washington Action Plan." By the London meeting at the beginning of this year, trillions of dollars had been spent and the leaders met to coordinate how their posh-sounding plan was performing. They tinkered and tweaked and gave some more money to the IMF and carried on cooperating. They didn’t have any other choice. Now, with Asia decoupled from U.S. and European growth, what next?

Everyone agrees it is too soon to take away the stimulus that is keeping developed economies afloat. Everyone agrees that they will have to coordinate their exit strategies when that time arrives. Oh yes, they even agree banks need to have some strict reform of the rules (and, yes, that includes big bad bonuses.) This is all done on the basis that "we are not letting this happen again."

But the issue is whether they can keep agreeing. France, for instance, is keener on stricter regulatory reform than, say, the UK. Britain has much to lose if Europe’s financial headquarters, the City of London, becomes over-regulated. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told me that restricting bankers’ bonuses was a symbolic way of proving no more business as usual. Only by imposing discipline and regulatory systems could we reign in the financial world, she said. Such a view of course, is very much at odds with what might be expressed in Washington.

The G-20 now finds itself rather like a group of passengers who have just been rescued from a sinking ocean liner. When facing disaster, all classes from captain’s table to steerage, share laughter, friendship and love. Now as the good will of rescue starts to disappear, old rivalries resurface and political ideologies put to one side are restored.

Which brings me back to my first point. Can the G-20 hold it together for a third time? They probably will, simply because this crisis is not over yet. Longer term, as the G-20 presidency passes from the UK to South Korea, the axis of power shifts. Well, I have more doubts.

Crises breed cooperation. Recovery may well breed resentment. Even if the third summit works, don’t bank on success for the fourth and beyond.

September 25th, 2009
11:39 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China - This week, I found myself at a Chinese restaurant, staring, chopsticks in hand, at a basket of steaming chicken feet. How on earth could two economic powers - the U.S. and China - be fighting over these little claws?

China is threatening to cut off imports of American chicken meat and auto parts - a decision made after the Obama administration announced they would act on an existing World Trade Organization rule and slap a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires sold in the U.S.

But is this a real threat? The Chinese love chicken feet (a dish translated as "Phoenix talons") - especially the kind from America. Chef Tsui Kam Tong told me American chicken feet are bigger, meatier and tastier than the rest.

U.S. poultry farmers breed larger birds so they can sell more breast meat. But at home, there is no market for the feet (outside of pet food companies) so suppliers are more than happy to sell them to the Chinese.

The claws are deep-fried to make them crispy then steamed so the cartilage is chewy and soft. The feet are seasoned - typically with black beans and barbecue sauce - and steamed again before serving.

 To eat chicken feet properly, Chef Tsui explained, you have to chew each mouthful slowly to get the flavor out of the skin and cartilage. And don't forget to suck on the bones, he said.

Chef Tsui prepares 40 plates of chicken feet a day. He said cooking the dish wouldn't be the same without claws from the U.S.

Hopefully, Beijing and Washington won't get bogged down in tit-for-tat trade disputes and lose sight of the bigger issues.

Perhaps, both sides should sit down to a dim sum lunch with this Chinese specialty.

September 24th, 2009
09:29 AM GMT
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September 23rd, 2009
05:24 AM GMT
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Nearly 10 years after doing my first story on e-mail etiquette in the workplace, I thought I’d seen it all until I noticed this item in a New Zealand newspaper: “Emails spark woman’s sacking.”

I expected to read another example of inappropriate virtual behavior – a racy forwarded e-mail or some such specimen. But the story was about a New Zealand accountant who successfully sued her former employer for wrongful termination. Why was she fired? Because her notes to colleagues WERE ALWAYS WRITTEN IN CAPS: the e-mail equivalent of shouting. The company claimed it created “disharmony in the workplace.”

It seems we still have some distance to cross regarding e-mail and its impact on the workplace. New research from the University of Queensland in Australia shows that ambiguous e-mails are a major source of workplace stress – even more than volume of e-mail. They leave colleagues and direct reports to wonder: What did she or he mean by that?

Through years of reporting on the topic (and my own bitter experience) here are my golden rules when e-mailing.

Avoid premature e-mailation

Add the address of the e-mail last. Often it is the first, as a reply or “all reply.” This can be deadly because the “save” and “send” buttons are often dangerously close to one another. By putting the e-mail address last, it creates an automatic pause to rethink sending the note, or make sure you are sending the note to the intended parties. It also helps eliminate slips such as dishing dirt by e-mail on a colleague or boss and then accidentally sending it to that person.

Never drink and email

Back in the day, I used to be a party-hardy character, and paid for it with hangovers and e-mail regret (how I wished someone would develop a USB breathalyzer that locks the computer if inebriated).

I eliminated this problem by eliminating alcohol from my diet (which solved many other problems as well). But if abstinence isn’t for you, then at least abstain from drunken e-mails: No machinery, not even computers, should be operated while impaired.

Keep it short

One study by Vanderbilt University shows you can tell the company level of an employee by their e-mail: Top executives are short and to the point (a result of the volume and speed - it  says “I’m busy” ). Middle management is wordy (a result of trying to influence higher ups) and lower-rung e-mails are chatty (more a social function of the work place).

Here, the top execs got it right. Email is a very inefficient tool to sway opinion. Straight forward is the way forward.

Reader responsibility

One study I read forever altered how I view and use e-mail.  It showed that the tone – funny, sarcastic, serious – of e-mails is misinterpreted half of the time. That means unless the sender has the talent of Ernest Hemingway to convey emotion with an economy of words, it’s a coin-toss whether the feelings the note produces in the reader are legitimate.

Anytime I get an e-mail that causes an emotional response in me, I stop and remember this study. And rather than react, I simply write “Thanks!” Or I pick up the phone. Or I press ‘delete’ and go about my day.

Got any e-mail advice or war stories? Share your story with CNN.

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Filed under: Business

September 22nd, 2009
04:04 AM GMT
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Other peoples' jobs hold a certain mystery: who and what is behind some of the products and services that we often take for granted?

For Quest Means Business, Richard Quest will be trying his hand at other people's professions - starting with that of a billboard fixer.

See how Quest learns the tricks of the trade from Mark and Micky, two professional billboard fixers who put up those giant advertising posters we all stare at when stuck at the traffic lights. As Quest discovers, it's not easy putting up a poster that measures twelve metres by three metres and comes in 96 pieces.

And don't forget to tell Quest what you get up to in the World of Work. Email your pics to the show to and we will try to use a selection on air.

September 21st, 2009
05:21 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) – What do they say about clouds and silver linings?  Well, in the world of technology, there is an upside to the economic downturn: Cheaper gizmos and gadgets.

The popularity of the netbook is a good example of that, according to Jim Erickson, senior editor of business and technology at TIME magazine.  "These are very small, very cheap, very basic personal computers," he told me at an electronics store in Hong Kong.  Erickson believes netbooks are sure to be popular with budget-conscious students this back-to-school season.  "Just about any netbook selling for less than $300" is a good buy, says Erickson.

His picks?

1) Asus Eee PC 1005HA. "The screen has gone up from 7 inches to 10 inches," Erickson says.  "Keyboards have started to spread out a little bit so they are easier to type on."

2) Acer's Aspire One D250. "Very connectable," he explains.  However, he says the shorter battery life - two hours versus the Asus model's six hours – makes it a less attractive choice for those who want to take notes on their netbook during long lectures.

Here are some of Erickson's other faves for this autumn:

1) HTC Android-powered mobile phones such as the Magic.  These phones are similar to Apple's iPhone with "touch sensitive screen and scrolling."   However, Erickson says HTC phones are generally more affordable and the Google operating system gives users connectivity with Gmail and Google maps.

2) Creative Vado Pocket Video Cam VF0570. "It's a cheap, one-button video camera for taping lectures," Erickson told me.  The Vado is less expensive than other pocket cameras such as the Flip Mino, he says, and has a user replaceable battery.  (You can swap the battery after two hours of shooting in high definition.)  Erickson believes the new iPod Nano, which has incorporated a small video camera, is also likely to be a strong competitor to the Flip.

3) Sony Reader. "For textbooks and reading PDF documents such as notes," Erickson says.  The new Sony Reader has Wi-Fi and competes with other e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle.  Erickson is a fan of the technology which he believes will eventually allow students to carry all their heavy textbook reading in a single portable device.

What devices do you recommend? Share with CNN.

Filed under: RecessionTechnology

September 21st, 2009
05:05 AM GMT
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Is it the bloodbath in your retirement savings, or the lost equity in your home that’s got you thinking?   Or is it the seemingly constant news about investment professionals behaving badly (say, hosting lavish parties at foreclosed properties), or outright robbing their clients of billions of dollars (think, Bernard Madoff), that has you wondering how to protect what’s left of your nest egg?

For thousands of Americans, investment clubs are the answer.  I’d been wondering how the clubs have been doing in this downturn, and how average investors have been faring against the big professionals, you know, the ones with beach properties now up for sale to pay for their crimes.  So I visited an Atlanta-area club called “Mutual Investors of Atlanta,” to see what they’ve been up to.

This is a long way from the lavish boardrooms and offices of Wall Street.  This group meets in the back room of a local grocery store once a month.  Larry Reno, 62, started the club more than a quarter century ago.  At the height of the financial crisis, the club’s portfolio was down by 50 percent.  It slowly climbed with the market, and Reno now claims the group is ahead of big, professionally managed mutual funds.   The club’s $100,000 portfolio is now down just a little more than 2 percent.   Each club member expressed optimism about the future, and claimed they weren’t really terrified when things got bad.  They had each other.   I’m skeptical, but I’m also thinking, well, it’s better than the rest of us who were just afraid to look at our statements for six months!

The group is aggressively buying technology stocks and health services companies.  This year’s run-up on the NASDAQ has been kind to their portfolio. At the meeting I attended, they opted to purchase more PetMeds stock.  Most members are amateurs, but there are a couple of experienced investors on the team.  They help the other members understand PE ratios, work software to track stocks, and keep emphasizing the need to buy solid companies, dump the losers without looking back, and look for solid business fundamentals, not the latest media darling.

The meeting was professionally run, with the minutes recorded and read, and with each investor reporting on an assigned stock-- indicating whether they believed, based on the research, that the stock was a buy, sell or hold.   When one member drew a blank on “upside/downside ratios,” another club member was only too happy to explain what it meant (a ratio greater than 1 means more stocks are increasing in price than dropping). Does your broker do THAT?  Or does she send you running for to figure it out for yourself?

“Mutual Investors of Atlanta” is part of the Better Investing group, a national organization that sponsors educational programs, conferences, and promotes the idea that managing money as a group of equals, equals great results.  Check them out at  If you like the idea of individual accountability, strength in numbers, and if you have a strong stomach to stay the course, this might be an investment approach for you.

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