Is the U.S. Worsening as a Place to Start a Business?


By Scott Shane, Contributor from Forbes

While the United States remains a great place to do business, it’s been slipping as a place to start a business, according to the World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” publication.

In 2012, the U.S. was the fourth best country in the world to do business in, coming in behind Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand.  That’s only slightly worse than we were five years ago before the Great Recession hit.

As a place to start a business, things aren’t as good.  It now costs twice as much to start a company as five years ago – 1.4 percent of per capita income versus 0.7 percent.

We are also slipping in how easy it is to start a business as compared to other nations.  As the chart below shows, we were fourth in this category in 2007.  This year we were number 13.

Source: Created from Data from the World Bank’s “Doing Business” reports, various

The World Bank measures 184 countries, so we don’t need to get out the worry beads yet.  Scoring worse than Macedonia, Georgia, Rwanda, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Armenia might be embarrassing, but few entrepreneurs will choose those countries over the United States. And few American entrepreneurs are moving elsewhere to start companies.

But remaining behind New Zealand, Australia, and Canada year after year should cause those in Washington to take notice.  Policies to bring more foreign entrepreneurs to the United States won’t work very well if those entrepreneurs find it easier and cheaper to start their businesses in countries like Australia and Canada.

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Lakshmi Mittal, the King of Steel, Trips Up


ArcelorMittal, his steel colossus, is burdened by overcapacity and debt

A distress signal erected by workers protesting the closure of an ArcelorMittal blast furnace in northern FranceA distress signal erected by workers protesting the closure of an ArcelorMittal blast furnace in northern France Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty ImagesBy and Thomas Biesheuvel

In 2006, Lakshmi Mittal became the King of Steel, though it wasn’t long before the crown grew heavy. Just two years after Mittal created the world’s largest steel company with his $41 billion takeover of Arcelor, the global financial crisis hit, dramatically curbing demand for the metal. Now, with operations concentrated in slow-growth Europe and the U.S., the future for his giant looks increasingly problematic. The latest sign of trouble: At the end of October, ArcelorMittal (MT) pulled out of a venture to buy Australia’s Macarthur Coal (MCC:AU), leaving its partner in the takeover, Peabody Energy (BTU), to pursue the $5.1 billion deal on its own.
Lakshmi Niwas Mittal

Buying all sorts of steel-related assets, including coal mines, was until recently part of Mittal’s strategy to build a globe-straddling steel company. And for a while the strategy was working. The Arcelor acquisition was to have been the achievement of Mittal’s career. The new company, combining Mittal’s proven ability to wring efficiencies from aging steelworks with Arcelor’s state-of-the-art European technology, seemed poised to profit handsomely from a booming world economy.

Three years of weak steel demand have put downward pressure on earnings and profits at ArcelorMittal, which is heavily indebted after years of dealmaking. The company also has to contend with a steel glut: Chinese mills have more than doubled production since 2005 to a projected 733 million metric tons this year, according to U.K. steel consultant MEPS. ArcelorMittal has trimmed back output some 20 percent from the 116 million metric tons it produced in 2007. Its share of the global market has fallen from 9.5 percent in 2006 to 6.4 percent in 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The stock is down some 50 percent from its 52-week high in February. And Mittal’s 40.9 percent stake in the company is now worth about $12 billion, down from $55 billion in 2008. Says Rochus Brauneiser, an analyst at Frankfurt brokerage Kepler Capital Markets: “We’re in a very dark market environment right now.”

Mittal, 61, one of the globe’s most prolific dealmakers over the past three decades, seems ever the cool hand. Wearing a blue suit with no tie at his office on London’s tree-filled Berkeley Square, Mittal shrugs off any notion that the marriage with Luxembourg-based Arcelor has been anything less than a success. “There has been no surprise or disappointment in the merger,” he says. “It has been a very positive experience.”

ArcelorMittal is forecast to report a profit of $3.7 billion this year, the highest in three years. Still, that’s far less than the company’s $10.4 billion profit in 2007. Analysts wonder if that record can ever be reprised. “Those days may be gone forever,” says Tony Taccone, a co-founder of First River Consulting in Pittsburgh. “The only way we return is if the economies of all major countries and regions fire on all cylinders at the same time.”

Just about everyone, including Chief Financial Officer Aditya Mittal, agrees with that assessment. “Prices have moved down in the fourth quarter,” Mittal’s 35 year-old son told reporters on Nov. 3. “Customers are not keen to build inventories.”

An anemic economy is exposing the weak links in Mittal’s empire. The plants acquired through the merger with Arcelor are concentrated in Western Europe, where operating costs are high. To keep steel prices from collapsing, Mittal is putting some of those plants on ice. Rather than cutting production across the board, the goal is to keep the best facilities such as those at Ghent in Belgium and at Dunkirk in France running at near full capacity while closing less competitive mills, reducing costs by $1 billion.

In the last two months, ArcelorMittal has announced it is idling plants in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, and Spain. On Oct. 14 the company said it would permanently shut down its blast furnaces in Liège, Belgium, which employs 581 workers. Employees responded by barricading six Arcelor managers in their offices for 24 hours. The company says it will try to find new jobs for them. “What is happening now is not a surprise,” says former Arcelor Chief Executive Officer Guy Dollé. “Continental Europe plants have no future.”

ArcelorMittal has also cut back production sharply in the U.S., which accounts for 24 percent of overall output and a slightly smaller share of sales. Mittal can’t count on demand from the so-called BRIC countries to offset weakness in Europe and North America. A planned $500 million plant expansion in Brazil has been put on hold, and progress on moving into India, Mittal says, “has not been what we expected.” Nor does he see an opportunity to expand in China, where the company has two joint ventures. Chinese producers, he warns, which make about half the world’s steel, can “export what they don’t sell [at home] at any price. They will always be a threat.”

For now the emphasis is on conserving cash and trimming debt. Mittal said he is even considering selling some $10 billion in noncore assets. Balking on the Macarthur Coal takeover is just more evidence that Mittal is hunkering down. He says the company shied away from the purchase when it became too expensive. Still, analysts see a shift in Mittal’s take-no-prisoners style of dealmaking. “They’ve always been acquirers of assets, and they’ve always held on,” says Anindya Mohinta, an analyst at Citigroup (C) in London.

Mittal insists his company is becoming stronger year by year, and he may be right. If the world economy does bounce back, Mittal will be better positioned than most to profit because he could quickly bring back idled capacity. “The direction is right,” he insists, “but it is being overshadowed by the bad economy.”

With Sonja Elmquist

Reed is a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek. Biesheuvel is a reporter for Bloomberg News in London.

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Will the European Central Bank save the eurozone?


German Logo of the ECB.

By Laurence Knight Business reporter, BBC News

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The European Central Bank was supposed to be the world’s most independent central bank, beholden to nobody.

It has a clear, unambiguous mandate to pursue price stability, and ignore everything else.

Rescuing banks, rescuing over-indebted governments, demanding painful economic reforms – these things were supposed to be for the national governments to do.

The hard-nosed economists in Frankfurt were supposed to be above politics.

Yet now, it is looking increasingly obvious that the European Central Bank will have to rescue Italy from its debt crisis if the eurozone is to survive.

And other countries – Spain, perhaps even France – could well follow.

How did we get to this point?

Voodoo child

Europe’s governments have tried their best to contain the crisis without turning to the ECB for help.

When Greece went down in early 2010, Germany, France and the others clubbed together for the money to rescue it.

As Portugal and the Irish Republic looked increasingly shaky, they came up with a more worked-out solution – the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

The eurozone’s bailout fund has already been called on to save both countries, as well as to foot a second rescue package for Greece.

The guarantees from Berlin, Paris and the others that underpin the fund have been augmented once, to ensure that all 440bn (£342bn) euros can be lent out.

Now there is agreement to use financial voodoo to “leverage” the fund’s resources to a further 1tn euros – about 3,000 euros per person in the eurozone.

But it looks like all the painful negotiations have been for nought.

Dead on arrival

The specifics of exactly how the EFSF’s firepower can be increased, without asking German taxpayers to cough up more money, have thus far eluded Europe’s politicians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Hu Jintao Europe asked China to cough up the money that Germany would not, but without success

When a begging bowl was taken to China, it failed even to collect kind words, let alone the extra cash needed.

But even if they do succeed within the rapidly shrinking window of time available, a 1tn euros fund is probably still too small.

After taking account of all the EFSF’s other existing obligations, it is not even enough to cover a single year’s worth of Italy’s debt repayments, as BBC editor Robert Peston has pointed out.

Moreover, the bailout fund looks to have failed before it has barely even got started.

Last week, the EFSF finally got away a postponed debt issuance to raise money for the Irish bailout.

But the surprisingly high interest rate it paid – one and three-quarter percentage points more than the German government – suggested that markets are sceptical about the government guarantees behind the fund.

Its head, Klaus Regling, admitted to the Financial Times this week that recent market turmoil was causing it trouble.

And markets have good reason to doubt.

After all, all the EFSF can do is transfer the debt burden from countries that cannot afford it to others that supposedly can.

But now markets are asking questions about whether those other countries – notably France – really can stump up their share of the collective bill.

Albatross

From the beginning, the obvious solution to the crisis – as many economist have been loudly shouting – is for the ECB to weigh in.

As the central bank, it is the gatekeeper of the eurozone’s money supply. So it can simply create out of thin air the cash that is needed to rescue Italy.

If the ECB stood unambiguously behind Italy, by making an unlimited commitment to buy up the country’s debts, then investors’ worries about whether those debts can be repaid should evaporate.

Hundred thousand reichsmark note Germany’s interwar experience of hyperinflation makes price stability an emotive issue

Of course, printing money does not solve the longer-term problems that got Italy (and other southern Europeans) into their current pickle in the first place.

It does not cut Italian wages to more competitive levels. It does not make Italy’s debts or overspending disappear. And it does not break the albatross-like stranglehold of vested business interests on much of the Italian economy.

But it will help. Because the longer the crisis goes on, the more that business confidence, consumer confidence and confidence in Europe’s banks collapses, and therefore the more collateral damage is done to Europe’s economy.

And a recession right now will make Italy’s economic problems even harder to solve.

Cultural divide

So why is the ECB so reluctant to intervene?

A large part of the reason is a cultural divide in Europe that dates back to the interwar period.

To state the obvious, Germany had a very different interwar experience to the rest of Europe.

Elsewhere in Europe, the lesson learned was that sticking to a “hard money” policy – in those days the promise that your currency was backed by gold held in the central bank’s vault – can push your economy into a depression.

In Germany, in contrast, the lesson was that printing money to repay an excruciating debt burden leads to hyperinflation, which in turn leads to an angry political backlash that must never be repeated.

Germany’s hard money approach – a strong Deutschmark coupled with disciplined government spending – served it well during its post-War Wirtschaftswunder.

So when the euro was founded, Germany insisted on complete independence for the ECB, as well as a “stability” pact of strict limits on government borrowing – until Germany itself later broke the rules with impunity.

German explanation

The cultural divide lies behind much of Germany’s reaction to the current crisis.

It explains Germany’s insistence on government spending cuts for all – including itself – even though Keynesian economists say this is a sure-fire way of pushing the entire eurozone economy into a dangerous downward spiral.

It explains why Germans at the ECB opposed even the limited interventions by the central bank to buy up troubled Spanish and Italian debts – to the extent that two of the most senior Germans resigned in protest.

It explains their resistance to cutting interest rates to boost the eurozone economy, because they fear it would let the inflation genie out of the bottle.

Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Economists say Italy has failed to enact economic reforms that would hurt vested business interests

However, some economists argue that a higher inflation rate is actually exactly what is needed in the eurozone, in order to help Italian and other workers regain their competitive advantage against German workers.

Germans may well point out that when the euro was created over a decade ago, they were the ones whose wages were uncompetitively expensive.

They solved the problem through unpopular labour market reforms and years of stagnant wages. So why can southern Europeans not do the same now?

There are three reasons. First, Germany has a system of centralised wage negotiations unmatched by other countries, which made it much easier to negotiate with its unions what was in effect a national wage freeze.

Secondly, Germans are not homeowners. They mostly rent their properties. This means that, unlike in for example Spain, Germany has not experienced a mortgage debt-fuelled property bubble. When you have little debt, it is much easier to live with a stagnant income.

Thirdly, Germany actually benefited from the debt-fuelled boom in its southern European export markets. But in the current stagnant global economy, it is unlikely Germany – or anyone else – will return the favour and help southern Europeans export their way to recovery.

Playing chicken

Nonetheless, the Germans have a point. While the ECB’s role in solving the debt crisis is necessary, it is certainly not sufficient.

The Italians must play their part by getting their finances under control, and – far more importantly – by reforming their economy to make it more competitive and less under the sway of the kind of cosy business interests embodied by their outgoing prime minister.

That leaves the ECB and Italy in a dangerous game of chicken.

Mario Draghi It has suited Mario Draghi to take a German line on his home country

The ECB doesn’t want to budge until it is clear that Italy is serious about reform.

Nor does it want to dictate to Italy what reforms it must undertake – the ECB, after all, does not do politics. That is why the International Monetary Fund has now been called in, in an advisory capacity.

But any Italian government would be crazy to push through unpopular reforms unless it is assured that the ECB will ultimately come to its rescue.

In a game of chicken, the best tactic is to convince your opponent that you are crazy enough to risk a catastrophe.

So it has suited Mario Draghi – the ECB’s new Italian head – to take a “German” line on no bailouts for Italy, and let the current Italian leg of the financial crisis ensue.

He needs to convince the Italians that they must blink first.

But if the Italians prove incapable of putting together a government with the nerve to do what is required, the question is will the ECB blink first?

Time will tell.

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Banks offering more attractive home loans to boost market share


Rising competition prompts banks offering more attractive home loans

By DALJIT DHESI daljit@thestar.com.my

PETALING JAYA: With razor thin margins due to rising competition in the home loans market, banks are now aggressively value-adding their home loans to stay competitive and boost their market share.

OCBC Bank (M) Bhd head of secured lending Thoo Mee Ling said banks must value-add to their generic home loan offerings in order to not just survive but thrive, especially in this competitive climate.

“What separates those who thrive from the others today is how much they have moved from price to innovation. It is heartening to see a greater emphasis today on enhancements to loans products, rather than mere reliance on price cutting previously.

“This is where banks are getting even more creative by adding in the necessary finer details to a product that otherwise appears bland. Home loans with features and benefits that are tailored specifically to complement customers’ lifestyles often serve to compel them to look beyond price and into a more holistic perspective,” she told StarBiz.

File picture shows a housing are in Shah Alam – Starpic by BRIAN MOH

Thoo said customers were nowlooking for more than just a home loan as purchasing a house was simply the beginning.

Banks would also need to cater to their immediate follow-on needs like renovations and furnishing, for example, and this was where additional financing that came with the home loan would be helpful, she reckoned.

At OCBC Bank, she said there were bespoke home loans that were tied in with study loans, renovation loans and even overseas property financing schemes, adding that each of these took into consideration things that went beyond mere property purchase.

She said it was undeniable that investing in a product to bring in customers and then introduce them to other products remained a good strategy for growing the business, but banks would still need to strengthen their range of offerings to become a one-stop shop for their customers.

Outstanding home loans, valued at RM261bil, accounted for about 27% of the total banking system’s loans as at end-September 2011. Although there has been strong expansion in home loans in the last couple of years, the proportion of home loans has been hovering at 27% in the past five years.

,B>Thoo: ‘What separates those who thrive from the others today is how much they have moved from price to innovation.’

Commenting on home loans, RAM Ratings’ head of financial institution ratings Wong Yin Ching said competition among banks in the home loan market had been rife, resulting in razor thin margins in recent years.

This stemmed from the homogeneity of the home loan products, whereby any innovation in product features and price competition (by lowering rates) were quickly replicated and matched by market players, she said.

Wong added: “While some banks have instilled more discipline in its risk-reward pricing, aggressive pricing is still seen in the market and this is unhealthy and unsustainable in the long run.

“Going forward, we think that personalised services and quicker turnaround times by banks would be key to stay relevant in the home loan market.”

Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd executive vice president and head of consumer banking Ronnie Lim said competitive pricing aside, Malaysian banks were now re-inventing the mortgage landscape by extending superior customer experience at every customer touch point.

For the bank, he said having mortgage specialists, who also acted as advisory consultants, among others, had enabled Alliance Bank to become one of the key mortgage players in the market.

He said the bank has been growing its mortgage specialists force extensively to not only engage customers effectively but also deepen its relationship with developers, lawyers and real estate agents.

Lim added the bank was also able to provide fast “approval in principle” service to assist customers looking for home financing solutions to make informed decisions before committing to their choice property.

For mortgage players, he said one of the key challenges was about overcoming margin compression and the bank was able to achieve this by introducing new systems and processes to help staff increase their productivity.

This had since yielded results: “For the year under review, sales productivity has increased threefold compared to a year ago,” he said.

Over-work and the generation gap


M’sians working more and carrying home more work

Monday Starters – By Soo Ewe Jin

ACCORDING to a global survey by Regus, Malaysians are not only clocking more hours at work but bringing their office load back home as well.

I can already see many of you, especially young workers in consultancy firms, nodding your heads in agreement. And today is only Monday.

The article on the survey findings, written by my colleague Yuen Mei Keng and published in this newspaper last Wednesday, was aptly headlined “Malaysians too hardworking”.Regus Logo

Regus is the world’s largest provider of workplace solutions so it obviously has the credentials to carry out the survey which involved some 12,000 business people in 85 countries.

The findings of interest to us – 47% of Malaysian workers take tasks home to finish at the end of the day for more than three times a week, compared to 43% globally; 15% regularly work for more than 11 hours a day, compared with 10% globally.

William Willems, regional vice-president for Regus Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia, says the study found “a clear blurring” of the line separating work and home.

File picture shows Mohd Rasul (centre), who is handicapped from birth, showing his skill working with computer using his toes. The computer was donated by superstar Anita Sarawak. Looking on were Hamidah (right) and Mohd Ramli (left). – Starpic by ROSHIDI ABU SAMAH.

“The long-term effects of such over-work could be damaging to both workers’ health and overall productivity.

“This is because workers may drive themselves too hard and become disaffected, depressed and even physically ill.”

Sounds rather ominous but I doubt if anyone is going to lobby the Government for policy changes so that people don’t work so hard.

After all, many are fighting to raise the retirement age in the private sector to 60, the same as that in the Government sector.

The Regus report should be seen in the right perspective of how different generations view work because of different circumstances.

Our problem has always been that the earlier generations control the workplace environment and are not as sympathetic about the realities of today.

I must confess that when young people seek my advice, I still cannot resist telling them that I started on a salary of RM135 and had to work, for many years, on the graveyard shift. Although I feel they need to experience pain before pleasure and appreciate the value of hard work, it often does not come across like that from their perspective.

They probably see me as the old foggie who did not have any form of social life back then, so spending all my waking hours in the office was the only thing to do.

But we need to understand that the world has changed so much from the time of the baby boomers to the current Generation Y.

Advances in technology, which allow the workforce to stay connected without being together physically, may, in some industries, make even the standard 9 to 5 routine in the office outdated.

Being hardworking is a positive trait for all good workers but if we are working too hard, and chalking unnecessary extra hours that cause severe strain on our home life, then maybe something is not right.

I am glad that we are beginning to see many enlightened bosses who value a proper work-life balance for their workers but they are still in the minority.

I have a dear friend who works in a rather high position in a multinational who told me that whenever she was at headquarters in Europe, she is reminded that no one is allowed to work beyond office hours unless a written request is submitted.

“They shut down the office after 5 so you had better have a strong case to want the lights and air-conditioner on,” she said.

No wonder she is so happy that she has been posted to headquarters permanently.

Her Facebook sharing is full of her travel stories and picnics in the park that I sometimes wonder if she is even working at all.

Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin will remember 11.11.11 as the day he missed a most meaningful reunion in Penang of Old Frees from his year who came from near and far to catch up with one another.

PRM, the Seladang’s Resurgence in Malaysian politics?


Parti Rakyat MalaysiaImage via Wikipedia

No bowing out for the seladang

One Man’s Meat By Philip Golingai

PRM, the only left-wing party in the country, is looking for a resurgence in the coming general election

A DIE-HARD Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) supporter trudged up a long flight of stairs to the party headquarters on the third floor of a shoplot in Petaling Jaya.

I could literally hear the 57-year-old man’s knee creaking as he spiritedly – one step at a time – advanced towards where PRM was celebrating its 56th birthday on Friday.

On the way up, he talked about the days in the 1960s when, as a boy, he put up PRM posters during the election campaign against the “kapal layar” (the sailboat logo of the Alliance, predecessor to Barisan Nasional).

Quiet celebration: Joining Rohana in cutting the PRM anniversary cake are (from left) treasurer Teh Soon Ming, secretary-general R.N. Rajah and central working committee member Zulkarnain Abdullah at the party headquarters in Petaling Jaya last Friday.

“It was during the Vietnam War era when anti-Americanism was the rage and support for the party was at its height,” he recalled.

PRM won the parliamentary seats of Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru in the 1959 general election.

At 11am sharp on 11.11.11, PRM president Rohana Ariffin and her comrades cut a cake with the party’s logo – the head of a seladang (the Malayan gaur), witnessed by about 50 people, including two party members who were ISA detainees.

After the party, I spoke to Rohana, a retired associate professor of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

A bit wary of attending a party with leftist leanings as it is the season to attack all things linked to Socialism, I asked the president to explain her party.

“The socialist party – as far as we know it in Malaysia – believes in the democratic process of being elected into power and not through armed revolution,” said the 60-something who was wearing a red bandana.

“If you ask what socialist ideology is, it believes that all production of the country should be for the consumption of the rakyat first and not so much for profit.

“You can make a certain amount of profit but the rakyat’s interest comes first, especially that of the working class.”

PRM is one of Malaysia’s oldest political parties. It was founded as Parti Rakyat on Nov 11, 1955 by Ahmad Boestamam, Dr Burhanuddin Al Helmy and Ishak Mohamad.

“The party was strong in the 1960s and 1970s. But since it was the only legitimate left-wing party in the country at that time, the Government came down hard on people with socialist ideologies,” said Rohana.

“When you look at the evolution of the party, most PRM leaders (such as Boestamam, Kassim Ahmad and Syed Husin Ali) have been detained in prison.”

In 2003, PRM was thought to have been dissolved when it merged with Parti Keadilan Nasional to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

“At that time, the party leadership was quite ‘tired’ because society would not accept us as they saw PRM as left-wing and there was a popular movement which was Keadilan, so they decided to merge.”

However, like the seladang, PRM stubbornly refused to become extinct.

“The only problem with the merger was that we should have had a last delegates’ meeting to dissolve the party in an honourable manner,” Rohana recalled.

But in the haste to merge, the leadership “forgot” to do so.

In 2005, die-hard supporters convened a national congress and “resurrected” the party as it was never de-registered.

During the interview with Rohana, PRM supporters would quietly slip RM10 or RM50 to the party president as they bid goodbye to her.

“This is our culture,” she explained. “We are a very poor party and we rely on financial support from our members. Usually what we do is pay with our own money for an event we organise and then our members will give donations.”

It is heart-warming for Rohana to see die-hard supporters climb the steps to attend the party’s event.

“For example, there was a 70-something member who came from Sungai Tembiling (in Pahang) by boat and bus and he told me, ‘Parti Rakyat is my party and I will never change’,” Rohana related.

“And even among the young the spirit is there. Our party is rejuvenated by the young who are interested in left-wing politics.”

The young, she said, were fed up with the infighting in Parliament between the Government and the Opposition.

“There is no compromise or middle ground in any issue that the two coalitions can’t see the trees for the forest.”

The party is seeking relevance in the next election.

It is targeting to contest in seats like Selayang, Balik Pulau and Petaling Jaya Selatan.

The seladang, which can’t be put to pasture, is hoping left-wing politics will make a resurgence.

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