Economist 4/21/14

  1. Thames Town is often scoffed at as one of China’s most peculiar “ghost towns”. For years most of its houses remained empty. Its town centre attracted far more people in search of a novel background for wedding photographs than for suburban homes. (Cashing in on this, many of Thames Town’s shops offer photographic services and wedding regalia for hire.) But in the environs of a city like Shanghai, one of China’s most prosperous, building the town was probably a good long-term bet.Thames Town and other European-themed suburbs like it are but tiny specks compared with the vast endeavour that the city undertook in the 1990s, clearing a semi-industrial, semi-rural area of tens of thousands of people to make way for a new financial centre on the east side of the Huangpu river.New shops are opening in Thames Town, and residents say occupancy is picking up. 
  2. SO GREAT has been the recent expansion of Jewish settlements around the little Palestinian hamlet of Beit Skaria, on the south-western edge of Bethlehem, that it is now completely surrounded. To reach its pretty hilltop you have to drive through the sprawling settlement of Gush Etzion, one of the largest of Jewish settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 border.On all sides, Bethlehem is also being surrounded by settler bypass roads and by concrete walls higher than those that divided Berlin in the cold war. Earlier this month, Israel’s defence ministry confiscated the largest chunk of private Palestinian land in years on Bethlehem’s southern fringe to let smaller settlements, previously unauthorised by the Israeli government, expand.’
  3. As memories of the crisis recede, companies are remembering the reasons that make the UAE attractive. The high income of the population, 84% of whom are expatriates, is one. Geography is another. The country is conveniently located between Europe and Asia, with two world-class airlines, Emirates and Etihad.The UAE has done a lot to make life easy for firms, keeping paperwork to a minimum and moving much of it online. It comes 23rd out of 189 economies in the World Bank’s latest ranking for the ease of doing business, the highest in a region that has seen a tumultuous few years. It takes only eight days to set up a business, three fewer than the average for the OECD, a club of mostly rich states. Yet businesspeople are disappointed by a draft of a broader companies law, which is expected to be sanctioned soon. The bill fails to solve the two big problems hampering business in the emirates. First is the lack of a proper insolvency regime that makes clear the duties of a firm’s directors and the rights of its creditors if it hits financial trouble. Despite its high overall rating, the UAE comes 101st on this score in the World Bank’s ratings. The second issue the proposed legislation leaves untouched is foreign ownership. International businesses that set up local limited-liability companies, as most do, can own only 49% of them, and thus must find trustworthy local partners.Its biggest potential benefit is its lowering of the percentage that companies must float in an IPO from 55% to 30%.
  4. Vancouver’s ban on doorknobs in all new buildings, which went into effect last month, is an exception. It has provoked a strong reaction from the door-opening public and set off a chain reaction across the country as other jurisdictions ponder whether to follow Vancouver’s lead.The war on doorknobs is part of a broader campaign to make buildings more accessible to the elderly and disabled, many of whom find levered doorhandles easier to operate than fiddly knobs.True, elderly and disabled people find it easier to operate doors with handles. But so do bears.
  5. WITH a workforce of just over 491,000 in 2013, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is second only to Walmart among civilian employers in America. But it still employed more than 200,000 fewer people last year than it did just nine years earlier.More than one-quarter of American households are unbanked or underbanked, That is an expensive habit: the average underbanked household has an annual income of only $25,500 or so, yet spends around 9.5% of that on fees and interest charged by these banking substitutes.High-street banks find it hard to make money serving poor customers, since they tend to have little money on deposit that the banks can lend out. Penalties such as overdraft fees are not always enough to compensate. Since 2008, 93% of bank-branch closings have come in areas where median household income is below the national average. Even in the postal service’s diminished state, there are still more than seven post offices for every Walmart in America.Although turning the USPS into a part-time financial institution may seem outlandish in America, roughly 1 billion people in 50 countries rely on their postal systems for financial services.Some operate full-service banks: Japan Post, for instance, is one of the world’s biggest. In other countries, such as Brazil, commercial banks form partnerships with post offices.

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