The Great Debate UK
Cash, not China, is Google's biggest conundrum. More precisely, where should the search giant point its gusher of greenbacks?
The online advertising market recovery and increasing efficiency pushed free cash flow up 44 percent to $2.5 billion in the fourth quarter. Adding that to the company's $24 billion cash hoard doesn't make sense -- but giving it to shareholders does.
Google's warning that it may shut down its operations in China in response to cyber-attacks on its business has gained all the attention over the past few weeks. While investors might fear the potential impact of pulling out of one of the fastest-growing search markets, in reality Google's problem in the Middle Kingdom is relatively small potatoes compared to the challenge of spending its money wisely.
The company, led by Eric Schmidt, the chief executive, says it will invest heavily. Fair enough -- revenue increased 17 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, and such growth calls for some extra capacity. But this won't take that much cash. Capital expenditure was just $289 million in the quarter and even spending twice as much every three months, as Google did in 2007 and 2008, would hardly make a dent in the company's bank balance.
Google’s cyber-complaint is the tip of an iceberg. Coordinated attacks on IT systems are common, yet companies and governments have kept largely silent. The growth of computer services that rely heavily on the Internet means the stakes are growing higher. That may explain why Google spoke up about recent attempts to steal its intellectual property -- and why the U.S. State Department has also taken China to task.
The scope of the recent attacks points to a complex operation. More than 30 companies were attacked simultaneously through an undiscovered software security hole. The incursions appear to have had the blessing of the Chinese government, if not its direct involvement. It is hard to imagine who else would be interested in the email accounts of political dissidents, which Google claims were targeted.
A month before China ushers in the year of the Tiger, its central bank has begun to address the effects of its roaring liquidity boom. It is encouraging that the authorities in Beijing are alert to the threat of an overheating financial system. But with so many countervailing forces, the liquidity tiger will not be tamed so easily.
Markets yelped Tuesday after the central bank raised the minimum ratio of capital to loans at banks by half a percentage point. But this amounts to little more than scooping water out of the sea. Some 1 trillion yuan ($146 billion) of government bills mature in the next two weeks. If they are not rolled over, three times more money would flow into the system than the reserve hike will leech out. Then there are foreign speculative flows - an estimated 378 billion yuan in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Oil price bulls and bears have both had their triumphs in recent history. The price of crude rose to $147 a barrel in July of 2008 only to plummet to $33 a barrel a few months later. It swung past $82 a barrel this week because of a cold snap, and is up 18 percent since mid-December. But barring heightened tension in the Middle East, oil looks likely to slide in the short term.
Demand remains relatively subdued, in spite of the massive stimulus applied to the global economy. This is especially true in OECD countries and the United States, the largest consumer of energy. American crude oil inventories actually rose by 1.3 million barrels last week when temperatures plummeted, according to the latest figures by the Department of Energy. Elsewhere in the OECD, oil inventories have fallen, but only slightly, according to the International Energy Agency. They are still high, at nearly 60 days of demand.
The economic worst is past. But there are many issues left to worry about.
Start with the good news. GDP is now growing almost everywhere, while the unemployment rate is hardly rising anywhere. Businesses and consumers are less fearful. As much as half of the 20 percent decline in international trade has been erased.
Perhaps the best news is what has not happened. There have been no national defaults, countries dragged into political chaos, bitter divisions among the great powers or, with a few tiny exceptions, massive declines in consumption. The global political-economic-financial system is still in business.
– Ian Wheeler is vice president of marketing and distribution at Amadeus. The opinions expressed are his own.-
In the last year, 45 million tourists (near to the population of Spain) travelled from China to the West. In fact, tourism from China grew by an average of 27 percent a year between 2002 and 2008.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has come out with a new report that tries to measure, country by country on a global level, government and social restrictions on religion. You can see our coverage of the report here and here and can download the whole report here.
The report, which Pew says is the first major quantitative study of the subject on a global level, ranks countries under two indices -- one measures government restrictions on religion, the other social hostilities or curbs on religion that stem from violence or intimidation by private individuals or groups.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
When President Barack Obama suggested in Beijing last month that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed to "all of South Asia", much of the attention was diverted to India, where the media saw it as inviting unwarranted Chinese interference in the region.
But what about asking a different question? Can China help stabilise the region?
from Environment Forum:
At a major global climate summit in Copenhagen this week, China slammed rich nations for having weak and unambitious goals to cut carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, back at home, China's main government group charged with monitoring greenhouse gases struck a new contract with Picarro, a California-based company that makes gas analyzers. The deal will double the number of Picarro analyzers that the Chinese Meteorological Administration uses.
from Global Investing:
Some fascinating data about the growing power of emerging markets, particularly the BRICs, was on display at the OECD's annual investment conference in Paris this week. Not the least of it came from MIGA, the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which tries to help protect foreign direct investors from various forms of political risk.
MIGA has mainly focused on encouraging investment into developing countries, but a lot of its latest work is about investment from emerging economies.