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An epic legal battle with big implications for litigation funding

FOUNDED by former African American slaves, the west African country of Liberia has produced an insurance case that has bounced between the courts of several countries for a quarter of a century, condemning the claimants and their opponent to a generation of legal bondage. At long last, the saga might just be drawing towards a conclusion. It may also leave a legacy: to shift the calculus when third-party litigation funders assess the risks they face.

In the early 1990s, Liberia’s biggest importer, Lebanese-owned AJA, sued Cigna, an American insurer, in the federal court in Philadelphia for refusing to pay out over property damage incurred during Liberia’s civil war. AJA won, but a district-court judge overturned the verdict with a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict”—a rare device that can be employed when a jury is deemed to have deviated far from the law (in this case by failing to acknowledge a war-risk exclusion). The judge’s move was upheld by a higher appeal court.

Livid, AJA applied to Liberian courts and in 1998 won a judgment for $66.5m (now worth double that with interest). Cigna counter-sued, and in 2001 won an…Continue reading

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South Korea’s chaebol bosses face parliament

FOR the South Korean public, the sight of nine of their most powerful business chiefs, who are rarely seen, submitting to a day-long grilling by South Korean MPs on December 6th was remarkable (eight of them are pictured). During the hearing, broadcast live on television, the heads of CJ, LG, Hanwha, SK, Samsung, Lotte, Hanjin, GS Group and Hyundai, all family-owned conglomerates, or chaebol, denied they had sought favours in return for the billions of won they paid into two foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a former confidante of President Park Geun-hye. (As The Economist went to press, Ms Park faced an impeachment motion by parliament over her ties to Ms Choi.) Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong, whose 20.4bn won ($17.6m) grant was the biggest, was the most intensively interrogated. On many minds was the last time big bosses were thus summoned, during an inquiry in 1988 into the corporate funding of a foundation run by then-dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Six of those tycoons’ sons were among those testifying this week.

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America’s audit watchdog uncovers serious misconduct at Deloitte Brazil

ACCOUNTING scandals are nothing new in Brazil. Its former president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in August for cooking her government’s books. The bosses of its biggest building firms have landed behind bars for padding contracts with Petrobras, the state-run oil company. At least, governance gurus joke, all the imbroglios—and a three-year-old law against bribery—have prompted companies to replace what people used to call corruption departments with compliance offices. How ironic, then, that Brazil’s latest affair involves a firm that is meant to ensure that firms stay on the straight and narrow.

On December 5th it emerged that America’s Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) fined the Brazilian arm of Deloitte, the biggest of the “Big Four” accounting networks, $8m, for what Claudius Modesti, the watchdog’s director of enforcement, called “the most serious misconduct we’ve uncovered”. Deloitte is the first of the Big Four to be accused of failing to co-operate with a probe by the PCAOB, created by the Sarbanes-Oxley act of 2002, itself a response to a massive accounting scandal at Enron, an energy giant. The firm will also have to pay 5.4m…Continue reading

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Charles Koch is a rare thing, a businessman besotted with ideas

CHARLES KOCH may well be the most demonised businessman in America, with his younger brother, David, a close second. Journalists argue that he is the mastermind of the country’s vast right-wing conspiracy. Lunatics have made death threats. The ultra-rich, particularly those who made their original fortunes in oil and gas, are supposed to make amends by giving their money to liberal causes. The Kochs have instead spent hundreds of millions backing conservative political causes (though Charles Koch has no love for Donald Trump), lobbying for lower taxes and attacking the idea of man-made global warming.

Mr Koch doesn’t come across as Dr Evil. True, the headquarters of Koch Industries is a collection of black boxes outside Wichita, Kansas; the security screening is rigorous. But its CEO has more of the air of a university professor. Despite his $40bn fortune, he lives in a nondescript neighbourhood in one of America’s most boring cities, puts in nine or more hours a day in the office and lunches in the company canteen. He doesn’t seem that interested in his surroundings: complimented on the firm’s art collection, he says his wife takes care of that…Continue reading

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The Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates again

AMERICA’S central bank tries to be predictable. When in December 2015 it raised interest rates for the first time since 2006, nobody was much surprised. The central bank had telegraphed its intentions to a tee. Similarly, if the overwhelming consensus in financial markets is to be believed, on December 14th—almost exactly a year later—rates will rise again, to a target range of 0.5-0.75%. Donald Trump’s tweets and phone calls may upend trade, fiscal and foreign policy in a matter of minutes, but Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve’s chairwoman (pictured), is tweaking monetary policy at only a cautious annual pace.

Yet in another sense, the Fed has confounded predictions—at least, those it made itself. A year ago the median rate-setter foresaw four rate rises in 2016. None has happened yet. This might seem like a straightforward reaction to events. At the start of the year, stockmarkets sagged on worries about Chinese growth. Then, in June, Britain voted to leave the European Union, sending markets spinning again for a while. But the delay also resulted from a gradual acceptance by Fed officials that low rates have become a longer-lasting feature…Continue reading

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Europe’s nastiest takeover battle reaches its second anniversary

THE life of a predator can be fraught. Expend too much energy on hunting your prey and even success can be costly. Saint-Gobain, a French maker of glass and other building materials, might be learning that lesson. It mostly grows by snapping up smaller fry, but an attempt to buy a midsized Swiss rival, Sika, has gone on for two years. It could take as long again for Swiss courts to resolve the most intractable corporate struggle in Europe.

Pierre-André de Chalendar, Saint-Gobain’s CEO since 2007, was doubtless impressed by Sika’s high returns on its business selling industrial adhesives, mortar and construction chemicals. Its annual return on capital over the past decade has been an attractive 12.6%, more than double Saint-Gobain’s 5.1% (see chart). So when in 2014 the current, fourth generation of the Burkard family, which founded Sika in 1910, offered to sell 52.4% of the voting rights in their firm, Mr de Chalendar bit.

The family investment is kept in a body called Schenker-Winkler Holding (SWH) which, following the death of the matriarch in 2013, the dynasty agreed to sell to the French firm for SFr2.75bn…Continue reading

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Italian banks after the referendum

THE first casualty was Matteo Renzi’s hold on office. As he had promised, Italy’s prime minister resigned on December 7th, three days after voters rejected his proposals to overhaul the constitution. The second is likely to be a planned private-sector recapitalisation of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the country’s third-biggest bank and the world’s oldest. As The Economist went to press, the scheme’s chances looked slim. A government rescue was reportedly being prepared.

Monte dei Paschi has been in trouble for years. It has already had two state bail-outs and frittered away €8bn ($10bn) raised in share sales in 2014 and 2015. Its stockmarket value has dwindled to €600m, having fallen by 85% this year (see chart). Its non-performing loans (NPLs), even after provisions, are 21.5% of its total; the gross figure is 35.5%. In July it fell ignominiously short in European stress tests, ranking 51st of 51 lenders. The European Central Bank, its supervisor, asked it to raise more capital by the end of the year. This week the bank asked for more time.

Pre-empting the test results, Monte dei…Continue reading

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Glencore stuns the oil-trading business with a deal to take a big stake in Rosneft

Wild celebrations between Putin and Sechin

GLENCORE, a Swiss-based commodities company, and its biggest shareholder, the Qatar Investment Authority, are set to take a €10.2bn ($11bn) stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft, giving them 19.5% of a business targeted by Western sanctions since Russia fuelled a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The unexpected deal, the largest in an ambitious Russian privatisation plan, delivers Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s boss, a victory. The Russian state will keep control of the company, while filling a gap in the 2016 budget.

The transaction will also stir up old jealousies in the oil-trading business, which, as one industry participant puts it, is in “a pissing match to be top dog with Rosneft”, the world’s second-biggest crude producer. Last year Glencore was forced by the commodities slump to suspend its dividend, sell assets and issue $2.5bn of new shares. Its acquisitive boss, Ivan Glasenberg, had not been expected to make such an expansive move so soon.

In a statement Glencore said it will put only €300m of its own equity into the deal. The rest of the…Continue reading

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