July 20th, 2010
08:21 AM GMT
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July 16th, 2010
03:38 PM GMT
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I am tapping this out on my blackberry, in the shadow of candlelight.

The lights have gone out in my neighborhood.

Rolling power cuts were all too common in 2008. So much so, we installed a generator in our back garden. We have hardly used it – it is an obnoxious piece of machinery that belches noise and pollution.

I prefer to stick out the three hours (that is the average, almost always starting early evening just as you start feeding and bathing the children) with candles, head-torches and our gas stove.

In fact, the quietness, the gentle candlelight flickering and the forced relaxation is actually quite enjoyable.

However, these power cuts are symptomatic of a very real threat to South Africa's economic growth. The power infrastructure is woeful, so much so that the World Bank recently agreed to loan South Africa $3.75 billion to build a new coal power station.  Much to the horror of many people who believe South Africa should be working towards more a greener energy supply.

Currently 95 percent of South Africa's electricity comes from coal, according to the government.

The truth is that the blackouts my neighborhood is currently experiencing are just a minor inconvenience for domestic homes. The real damage is to heavy industry – particularly mining – that relies on a regular uninterrupted supply of power.

Beyond heavy industry, nearly all businesses have been hurt by South Africa’s haphazard electricity supply, from the road-side hairdresser who cannot switch on his electric razor to the restaurant who cannot serve hot meals.

From the smallest entrepreneur to the largest multinational company,  investment opportunities are curtailed and growth is threatened by the lack of constant energy for sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy.

Change may be coming in the next few years when the new coal power station kicks into action but that doesn't quieten the debate about how South Africa needs to address its electricity sourcing in the long term.

Less dependency on coal and better planning, say the experts.

July 15th, 2010
05:47 PM GMT
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Beirut, Lebanon - The Marketplace Middle East team took a helicopter tour of Beirut while in Lebanon on special assignment. That tour took us over Solidere, the downtown zone being rebuilt after years of on/off conflict.

While there are still pockets of empty land, this skyline has filled up quickly and it is safe to say there is more to come.

Unlike the rest of the world which is trying to gather its footing after the three-year shock of the global crisis, financial assets and deposits surged in Lebanon during 2007 and 2009.

The numbers are staggering. This population of just over four million citizens has a banking system with deposits of $100 billion dollars. During that three-year window, $55 billion flowed into the country, just over 40 percent of that money in the form of remittances.

I combed over these numbers with Freddie Baz, the Group Chief Financial Officer and Strategy Director of Bank Audi and the leading economist in this small but vibrant country. I mentioned to Baz after being in Lebanon for a week, people from different generations speak of the “brain drain,” where the country’s youth go abroad for university and never come back.

Depending on who you talk to - particularly the mothers of these young adults - you get a fairly emotional response – the most predictable being that the government is not providing enough opportunity for all its talent.

But upon a closer look at the numbers, a different reality emerges. Lebanon is doing what it does best -  exporting top-flight human capital to the world.

For Lebanon, it is a gift that keeps on giving back to the country’s bottom line. The per-capita income is just below $10,000, the highest amongst 22 countries in the Middle East for a non-oil based economy and that according to Baz with Lebanon running at only 70 percent of real capacity.

Herein lies the challenge for the country. Right now, it has limited capacity to absorb all its talent. Finance Minister Raya Al Hassan told me that the government is spending an extra $1.5 billion in this year’s budget to build out the fraying infrastructure - especially roads and telecommunications networks.

If Lebanon wants to specialize in services beyond banking, the basics need to be brought up to speed.

That handsome sum was also seen as politically essential to get the budget through the complicated coalition that is all part of the political mix.

But, Minister Al Hassan is in the camp that believes the country’s best resource remains its human capital and that infrastructure spending should promote those sectors that can leverage talent.

The capital flows coming back into Lebanon are giving the finance minister and her government some breathing room for extra spending. The budget deficit remains in double digits and the long-term debt of nearly 150 percent of GDP tops Greece, which went to its European neighbors for a bailout.

One does not get such a sense of concern from either the government or its financial brass. I toured a new apartment building designed by Foster & Associates called “3 Beirut,” just off the waterfront downtown.

Sixty of the 150 units are already sold despite a delivery date of 2014 and prices range from $7,500-$10,000 a square meter. What we are looking at here is a scenario where downtown Lebanon is on-par price-wise with West London or mid-town Manhattan and nobody blinks an eye.

In typical Lebanese fashion people live for the moment, whether it is a superb lunch at a French brasserie, one of the beach lounges or fabled nightclubs. The people here have been frontline witnesses to nearly everything, where conflict is all part of the equation and survival.

Again, the numbers tell an interesting story. After the tragic death of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the 2006 war, some $3 billion left the country each time, but not for long. Within a period of 18 months, that sum and more came back into the banking system.

The country and its people dust themselves, regroup and move forward - with the help of their number one export all along the way, which continues to give back.

July 15th, 2010
01:52 PM GMT
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Hong Kong, China – One of China's big banks has debuted on the Shanghai stock market.

Agricultural Bank of China, or AgBank for short, has raised over $19 billion. If enough investors show interest in the stock, the listing could bring in another $3 billion and become the largest initial public offering in the world.

With so much buzz, it looked as though the listing was headed for a strong first day. But that never happened.

Many investors are worried about the state of the global economy, including China's slowing growth.

Analysts such as Victor Shih with Northwestern University believe the country's banks have made bad bets funding projects by some "reckless" state-owned companies.

Shih estimates the Chinese financial system is clogged with up to $440 billion of defunct loans. In AgBank's case, some investors are concerned the bank's government mandate to lend to farmers could limit its loan portfolio.

One financial analyst pointed out to me that many of China's big banks (AgBank, Bank of China, ICBC) are rushing to raise funds - perhaps billions of dollars - to help replenish their reserves after a record year of government directed lending.

AgBank has a customer base of around 320 million people - bigger than the entire population of the United States. At the listing ceremony in Shanghai, the bank's chairman said by purchasing AgBank shares, investors are "buying into the future of China's economy."

Given all the uncertainty, is now the right time?

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Filed under: China

July 15th, 2010
02:55 AM GMT
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Hong Kong, China – This week lawmakers in Hong Kong are debating if the city should institute its first-ever minimum wage.  Most other parts of the world, including mainland China, have enacted laws requiring companies pay employees above a certain amount on an hourly, daily or monthly basis.  However, despite calls dating from more than a decade ago to establish a minimum wage here, Hong Kong still has no pay floor.

Businesses have long argued that a minimum wage would hurt Hong Kong.  Paying higher wages, the argument goes, could force companies burdened with high investment costs to shut down.  Inflation could get out of hand.  The city might lose its competitiveness or its reputation as one of the freest economies.  On the other hand, a minimum wage could help address Hong Kong's widening income gap between the rich and the poor - one of the world's most egregious.

The lawmakers are expected to pass the minimum wage bill, but the tricky part will come later – deciding the level at which to set the standard.  Labor activists want the equivalent of US$4.25 an hour, a wage they say would better offset the high cost of living here.  At that rate, an estimated 17 percent of Hong Kong's workers would get a pay raise.  Trade groups though argue about US$3 would be more reasonable.

In Hong Kong, US$4.25 can buy you a bowl of shrimp noodle soup or a fancy cup of coffee at your local Starbucks.

In your country, what is a fair floor price for an hour of work?

Filed under: Business

July 13th, 2010
09:55 AM GMT
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July 11th, 2010
06:01 PM GMT
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(CNN) – If you can spare few seconds during the World Cup final (unlikely, I know), take a look at the rotating ads behind the pitch. There is one ad combination that is particularly striking: McDonald's and Yingli Solar.

This is McDonald's fifth World Cup and the global fast food giant has it down to an art. They run a World Cup advertising campaign and in-store promotions around the world. There are even World Cup Happy Meal toys.

On the other hand, who has heard of Yingli Solar? It is a brand owned by Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, a 12-year-old Chinese company that makes photovoltaic modules, a technology that's increasingly used to convert solar energy into electricity. It has only been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 2007.

But Yingli's executives are hoping after this World Cup, you will know their name.

Bryan Li, the company's CFO, says Yingli decided to become a World Cup sponsor because of the increasingly competitive market for solar companies. Yingli felt it could "not just compete with our global competition by cost. We also need to compete with them by the brand."

Li cannot disclose the financial details of the sponsorship because of a confidentiality agreement with FIFA, but says Yingli paid less than others because FIFA was eager to include a sponsor from China and associated with renewable energy. Branding experts estimate that other companies at the same sponsorship level paid between 35 and 50 million dollars.

Nigel Currie, from the UK consulting firm brandRapport, sees Yingli's sponsorship as part of a broader shift from big multinationals to emerging market companies. Four of this year's World Cup sponsors are relatively young brands on the global stage, something Currie says was hard to imagine even five years ago. Newbies include Yingli Solar, South Africa's Telecom giant MTN, Brazilian food company Seara and Indian IT provider Mahindra Satyam. With its hundreds of millions of worldwide viewers and its pitch-side advertising, Currie believes the World Cup provides brand exposure like no other event.

Coming into the finals, Li agrees. He says the impact of the sponsorship has exceeded his expectations. In the first six months of this year, Yingli has had almost two and half times as many orders as they can meet with next year's expected capacity. "A year ago, we approached the client," he says. "Now the client approaches us."

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Filed under: AsiaBusinessChinaenvironment

July 7th, 2010
03:36 PM GMT
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Now is the time that people starting asking whether or not hosting an event like the World Cup was worth it.

With the benefit of hindsight, the columnists will make assessments on how successful the tournament has been. The economists will start calculating whether the country could afford it. The good citizens of South Africa will wonder what to do with themselves after years of planning and now weeks of hosting one of the world’s biggest sporting tournaments.

The feel-good factor is still around – South Africans haven’t felt this positive about each other and the country in a long time. As one commentator put it, "You would think someone had put Prozac in the water."

However, the warm, fuzzy love-fest will soon wear off. Or will it?

Cynical, tough people by nature, South Africans will soon start to ask hard questions of their national and local governments. How will the authorities make sure that the 10 World Cup stadiums don’t become empty, expensive, unused "white elephants?"

The main stadiums in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban will most likely be used for local sports and cultural events. However, there are many doubts about the long-term benefits of having huge international-size stadiums in small, regional towns like Rustenberg, Nelspruit or Port Elizabeth.

Will these stadiums slowly fall into disrepair? How will authorities manage to pay for these giant structures looming large in their communities as they try to tackle the pressing social problems of housing, education and unemployment?

Another obvious success of the World Cup has been the visible policing. Forty thousand extra police officers have been on the beat and a comprehensive security plan has kept locals and foreigners safe and secure.

The experience of being able to catch transport or walk in cities after dark and feel safe has been an epiphany for crime-weary South Africans. Statistics are not yet available but it appears that there has been a significant drop in crime in the past month.

So many are already asking – why can’t it be like that all the time? It seems with political will, South Africa can be a safe and peaceful place.

The big push will now be to ensure that the gains made for a month of football will endure long after the final whistle.

July 7th, 2010
07:57 AM GMT
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July 7th, 2010
05:08 AM GMT
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(CNN) - Just six weeks after a government crackdown on protesters, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has announced a bold marketing plan to grow international arrivals in the Southeast Asian nation by 1 million next year.

The tourism authority says they hope to add $18.5 billion to the economy in 2011. Tourism in Thailand makes up over 6 percent of its gross domestic product and employs about one million Thais.

As CNN’s Dan Rivers wrote last week, the economy appears to be shrugging off the recent problems. Thailand is on course to chart 6 percent growth in gross domestic product this year.

Over the course of the protests, more than 80 people died and 1,500 others were injured in the unrest. Part of Thailand remains under emergency law, which empowers the military to take charge of security – an emergency rule that was extended for another three months in many parts of the country on Tuesday.

Analysts say that will likely keep tourists and investment dollars away. An analyst for Kasikorn Bank estimates that the political unrest could shave as much as 2 percent off the country’s total economic output if the political crisis continues.

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