ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Ralph Lauren and Macy’s tell a similar tale of woe

NEW YORK’s fashion week, which will start on February 9th, promises the usual show of glamour, but a more fascinating industry display came a week earlier. On February 2nd Ralph Lauren, a well-known brand, said that the executive it had hired in 2015 to overhaul its business would leave. On February 3rd the Wall Street Journal reported that Macy’s, America’s biggest department store, might be bought by Hudson’s Bay, a smaller Canadian rival. Each is an institution of American retailing. Each is a reminder of how hard it is to keep pace.

Consumer habits have changed especially rapidly in their world. Frocks, bags and shoes are now disproportionately bought online compared with other goods. Last year clothes and accessories accounted for a fifth of e-commerce, estimates Cowen, a financial-services firm; far higher than their 8% share of total retail spending. Cowen expects Amazon to surpass Macy’s as America’s top clothing seller this year.

For manufacturers, such as Ralph Lauren, the picture is more mixed. For some clothing firms, particularly small ones, Amazon offers a new way to reach…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Tata’s governance is still faulty

Chandra in, Cyrus out

PROFIT is to good corporate governance what tides are to swimming trunks: when the former is high, absence of the latter tends to go unnoticed. The ebbing of profits at Tata, India’s largest conglomerate, in recent years has prompted a power struggle that in turn has exposed the often dysfunctional relationship between several dozen businesses, holding companies, people and charities that use the Tata name. The struggle is now over: on February 6th, Cyrus Mistry, Tata’s boss until last October (pictured on next page, on the right) was finally booted out of the company. Natarajan Chandrasekaran (on the left), the boss of one of the group’s key operating firms, Tata Consultancy Services, takes over as chairman on February 21st.

Executives at the 149-year-old group hope that will close a grim chapter in its history. Mr Mistry, whose family owns an 18% stake in Tata Sons, the main holding company, which is unlisted, reacted badly to being evicted as its chairman last year. The move to oust him was set in motion by Ratan Tata, the group’s 79-year old patriarch (and Mr Mistry’s interim successor)….Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Internet firms’ legal immunity is under threat

GOOGLE, Facebook and other online giants like to see their rapid rise as the product of their founders’ brilliance. Others argue that their success is more a result of lucky timing and network effects—the economic forces that tend to make bigger firms even bigger. Often forgotten is a third reason for their triumph: in America and, to some extent, in Europe, online platforms have been inhabiting a parallel legal universe. Broadly speaking, they are not legally responsible, either for what their users do or for the harm that their services can cause in the real world.

It is becoming ever clearer, however, that this era of digital exceptionalism cannot last for ever. Governments and courts are chipping away at the sovereignty of internet firms, and public opinion is pushing them to police themselves better. Given their growing heft, this shift is likely not just to continue but to accelerate.

When the internet went mainstream in the mid-1990s, online firms feared being held liable if their services were used in illegal ways—for instance, when subscribers posted copyrighted content or defamatory information. The danger was underlined in…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Shareholder democracy is ailing

DEMOCRACY is in decline around the world, according to Freedom House, a think-tank. Only 45% of countries are considered free today, and their number is slipping. Liberty is in retreat in the world of business, too. The idea that firms should be controlled by diverse shareholders who exercise one vote per share is increasingly viewed as redundant or even dangerous.

Consider the initial public offering (IPO) of Silicon Valley’s latest social-media star, Snap. It plans to raise $3-4bn and secure a valuation of $20bn-25bn. The securities being sold have no voting rights, so all the power will stay with Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, its co-founders. Snap’s IPO has echoes of that of Alibaba, a Chinese internet giant. It listed itself in New York in 2014, in the world’s largest-ever IPO, raising $25bn. It is worth $252bn today and is controlled by an opaque partnership using legal vehicles in the Cayman Islands. Its ordinary shareholders are supine.

Optimists may dismiss the two IPOs as isolated events, but there is a deeper trend towards autocracy. Eight of the world’s 20 most valuable firms are not controlled by outside shareholders. They…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

Shareholder democracy is ailing

DEMOCRACY is in decline around the world, according to Freedom House, a think-tank. Only 45% of countries are considered free today, and their number is slipping. Liberty is in retreat in the world of business, too. The idea that firms should be controlled by diverse shareholders who exercise one vote per share is increasingly viewed as redundant or even dangerous.

Consider the initial public offering (IPO) of Silicon Valley’s latest social-media star, Snap. It plans to raise $3-4bn and secure a valuation of $20bn-25bn. The securities being sold have no voting rights, so all the power will stay with Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, its co-founders. Snap’s IPO has echoes of that of Alibaba, a Chinese internet giant. It listed itself in New York in 2014, in the world’s largest-ever IPO, raising $25bn. It is worth $252bn today and is controlled by an opaque partnership using legal vehicles in the Cayman Islands. Its ordinary shareholders are supine.

Optimists may dismiss the two IPOs as isolated events, but there is a deeper trend towards autocracy. Eight of the world’s 20 most valuable firms are not controlled by outside shareholders. They…Continue reading

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