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In October last year, Volvo Group unveiled the world’s first vehicle made using “green” steel. The autonomous electric truck weighed eight tonnes and was designed for use in quarries and mines.
It was the result of an industrial partnership between Swedish steelmaker SSAB, the state-owned electricity generator Vattenfall, and iron-ore miner LKAB. Their aim was to make the first steel free of fossil fuel by replacing the coking coal traditionally used in its manufacture with green hydrogen.
The partnership, dubbed “Hybrit”, is at the cutting-edge of European industry efforts to develop more energy-efficient, low-carbon manufacturing techniques.
Many initiatives were already under way before the coronavirus hit, but the pandemic has focused industrial leaders’ minds on the importance of reshaping and strengthening supply chains, and coping with longer-term challenges — in particular, climate change.
“It is no longer about the lowest cost producer, it is about resilience in your supply chain,” says Stephen Phipson, chief executive of British trade body, Make UK.
Manufacturing executives in the UK, he points out, are re-evaluating ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing processes and how much inventory to hold in future to ensure greater resilience. The importance of skills has also moved up the agenda, especially as companies battle to attract and maintain workers after the pandemic, which has left many short of staff.
But business leaders caution that wholesale transformation will not happen overnight.
A survey by McKinsey last November underlined the challenges. In a previous survey, in May 2020, most companies stated that they planned to pursue several paths to improve supply-chain resilience, including diversifying supply bases. But, in practice, by the end of 2021, most had mainly increased their inventories.
The more recent survey found that 61 per cent of companies had increased inventory of critical products and 55 per cent had taken action to ensure they had at least two sources of raw materials. Only 11 per cent had “nearshored” production, to avoid the risks of disruption from geographically remote suppliers.
Duncan Johnston, UK manufacturing leader at Deloitte, says: “Changing things in manufacturing takes time. You can’t change what was a global supply chain into something that is more near-shored or UK-centric very quickly”.
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The same, he says, is true of sustainability ambitions. While companies have done some thinking about it, they have not yet “really embarked on the substantial journey that is needed to reduce carbon emissions in the UK economy”.
Manufacturers face several challenges along the way. Apart from reducing the emissions in their own processes, they need to consider those in their supply chain. They need to find new ways to power their activities and, in some cases, such as the automotive sector, completely re-engineer their products.
Heavy manufacturing industries, such as steel and cement, are among those at the forefront of efforts to decarbonise countries’ economies. Outside of power generation, the iron and steel sector is the largest industrial producer of carbon dioxide. It accounts for 7 per cent-9 per cent of all direct fossil fuel emissions, according to the World Steel Association.
To meet global climate and energy goals, the steel industry’s emissions must fall by at least half by the middle of the century, according to the International Energy Agency. Achieving such a reduction will require more than incremental improvements in the efficiency of traditional blast furnaces.
“We have come to a point where, in terms of efficiency improvement efforts, there is not much more room left,” says Martin Pei, chief technical officer at SSAB. “It is really breakthrough technology that we are looking at now.”
In the blast furnace process, companies use carbon to take oxygen from iron ore to get iron. SSAB will instead use clean hydrogen gas, produced in a facility called an electrolyser powered by Sweden’s abundant renewable electricity. The output will be a solid intermediate, called sponge iron, which goes into an electric arc furnace, where it is mixed with scrap and refined into steel.
The successful production of Volvo’s first heavy-duty truck shows that the “whole value chain works,” says Pei.
SSAB has estimated that metal from its hydrogen-based process will, at least initially, be 20-30 per cent more expensive than conventional production. Pei, however, says that customers are keen and that demand for greener steel is growing as more and more companies commit to decarbonising their supply chains.
Policymakers will need to play their part, too, in helping manufacturers transition to a low-carbon economy. For Europe’s steel industry to switch en masse to hydrogen, for example, would require a massive expansion of renewable power. State support would be needed to fund the necessary investment in expanding power grids and other infrastructure to accommodate the transformation to low-carbon economies.
Hydrogen is a prime example. The EU and the UK have both published ambitious plans to develop a hydrogen economy but obstacles remain to making this a commercial reality.
For example, says Phipson, the UK has a “very small innovative sector on hydrogen . . . the challenge is to scale that up”. Britain, he adds, is very good on innovation and research funding but what is needed is “scale-up capital”.
As for funding sources, he says: “There is a big commitment from companies to use private capital but the government also needs to play its part.”
Transforming the workforce to deal with this transition is another concern. Even before the pandemic, manufacturers were worried about the effects of an ageing workforce and how to attract younger talent with more digital skills.
“We don’t know any manufacturing business that has as much in the way of digital skills as they would like,” says Johnston.
Those worries have grown, with many employers emerging from the pandemic with even more unfilled jobs. Phipson wants to see more action from the government on this front, as well.
“[It] needs to get more ambitious about its skills,” he believes. At the moment, the skills shortage is a “drag on growth”.
Jeff Bezos lashed out at Joe Biden’s White House on Monday over policies he claimed risked stoking inflation, escalating a war of words over the cause of sharply rising prices that are dominating US politics in an election year.
The Amazon founder and world’s third-richest person took aim at the Biden administration’s failed Build Back Better bill, which would have increased taxes on the wealthy and large companies to pay for spending on childcare, education and programmes to curb climate change.
“Administration tried their best to add another $3.5tn to federal spending,” Bezos wrote on Twitter. “They failed, but if they had succeeded, inflation would be even higher than it is today, and inflation today is at a 40-year high.”
Bezos’s attack was an uncharacteristic outburst for one of the world’s best-known businesspeople, who has not previously used Twitter to wade into contentious political disputes.
It followed a back-and-forth with the White House that began on Friday, when Bezos criticised a tweet from Biden that suggested one reason inflation had taken off was that wealthy companies did not pay enough in tax. Bezos retorted that while high inflation and the level of taxes paid by companies were issues that deserved to be discussed, linking the two was a “non sequitur” that should be put before “the newly created Disinformation Board”.
The White House reacted scathingly to the Bezos tweets. “It doesn’t require a huge leap to figure out why one of the wealthiest individuals on Earth opposes an economic agenda for the middle class that cuts some of the biggest costs families face, fights inflation for the long haul and adds to the historic deficit reduction the President is achieving by asking the richest taxpayers and corporations to pay their fair share,” a spokesperson said.
Bezos also came under fire on Monday from Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, who broke with most economists early last year to start warning about the rising risk of inflation. Summers called the tech entrepreneur “mostly wrong”, adding that it was “perfectly reasonable to believe . . . that we should raise taxes to reduce demand to contain inflation and that the increases should be as progressive as possible”.
Tensions between Bezos and the White House have been exacerbated by the president’s support for organised labour, including unionisation efforts at Amazon that have been building since Biden took office 18 months ago. “It’s also unsurprising that this tweet comes after the President met with labour organisers, including Amazon employees,” the White House spokesperson said.
Since stepping down as chief executive of Amazon last year, Bezos has become increasingly active on Twitter and used it to make occasional barbed asides related to his personal views, though not with the frequency or vehemence of rival tech billionaire Elon Musk.
Last month, Bezos suggested that Tesla’s heavy dependence on sales to China could give the Chinese government leverage to force Musk to bow to censorship after his planned purchase of Twitter.
As with Musk, Bezos has shown libertarian political instincts and once waged a bitter fight with Amazon’s home city of Seattle over a proposed tax increase. Amazon has also long resisted unionisation by its employees, putting it at odds with the Biden administration.
However, Bezos has also at times backed liberal causes, including donating heavily to defend same-sex marriage in Washington state and hiring Jay Carney, a former press secretary in the Obama White House, to head public policy and communications at Amazon.
The public spat between Bezos and the White House was symptomatic of broader frictions between business and the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers over inflation, with some officials blaming corporate America for price-gouging and taking advantage of rising prices at the expense of ordinary consumers.
However, most economists said inflationary pressures were due to a combination of factors including high demand driven by government stimulus and the rebound from the coronavirus pandemic downturn, as well as the oil price shock exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and supply chain bottlenecks that have been more persistent than expected.
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Could Covid be the undoing of the Chinese economic miracle? Figures released today show that lockdowns to enable President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy are enacting a significant toll on economic activity.
Industrial production, the motor that drove China out of the initial Covid shock in early 2020, dropped 2.9 per cent in April. This ran counter to expectations of a slight increase.
Meanwhile, retail sales, the country’s main gauge of consumer activity, slumped 11.1 per cent year on year, compared with forecasts of a 6.6 per cent fall from economists polled by Bloomberg.
Today’s data are a stark reminder of the economic damage being done by China’s zero tolerance approach to coronavirus, enacted through citywide lockdowns, mass testing and quarantine centres. Xi has reaffirmed his commitment to the policy as the tool to eradicate Covid ahead of his bid for a third term in power later this year, but it is expected to have deep ramifications, not just for China but for global supply chains.
The immediate future looks equally difficult for the world’s second-largest economy and its neighbours. The benchmark coal price for the Asian market was pushed to a record high today because of weak supplies from Australia.
High-energy coal shipped from the Australian port of Newcastle was assessed at almost $400 a tonne by Argus, a price reporting agency. That topped the previous high set in March after the invasion of Ukraine raised gas prices, pushing power stations to burn coal to generate electricity instead.
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The economic gloom has spread to the EU. Today, Brussels cut its growth forecasts further and lifted its inflation outlook, blaming the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Both the EU and euro area are set to expand by 2.7 per cent this year, significantly lower than the previous forecast of 4 per cent. Inflation is now expected to surpass 6 per cent, with some central and eastern European countries likely to see double-digit price rises in 2022.
British manufacturers are bringing production back to the UK, reversing the “offshoring” trend of recent years because of concerns about how the pandemic and Brexit have disrupted supply chains. Three-quarters of companies have increased the number of their British suppliers in the past two years, according to a survey by Make UK, the manufacturers’ trade group.
A key part of the problem for Europe in its effort to wean itself off Russian oil and gas is the existence of infrastructure “pinch points” across the continent. Jonathan Stern, research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said many projects being reconsidered have been planned for years but rejected as not commercially viable when assessed against cheap Russian gas supplies. That assessment has now changed.
G7 foreign ministers have warned of a global hunger crisis unless Russia lifts its Ukraine blockade. Speaking at the conclusion of a three-day meeting in Germany on Saturday, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said some 25mn tonnes of grain were stuck in Ukrainian ports that were being blockaded by Russian forces — “grain that the world urgently needs”.
Inflation has returned to haunt Brazilians, triggered by the surge in global food and fuel costs. At 12 per cent, it is now at an almost two-decade high and officials are increasingly concerned that price pressures are becoming entrenched across the economy.
America’s shale oil companies are enjoying a cash bonanza, following months of capital restraint by a sector that suddenly finds itself in demand thanks to the global energy crisis. Operators will generate about $180bn of free cash flow — operating income minus capital and maintenance outflows — this year at current crude prices, according to research company Rystad Energy.
McDonald’s has announced that the invasion of Ukraine means it can no longer run outlets in Russia. The Chicago-based company, which operated 850 restaurants in Russia and employed 62,000 people, is looking for a Russian buyer that would retain these staff. It said it expected to book a non-cash charge of $1.2bn to $1.4bn for the exit.
Renault has sold its Russian business Avtovaz, which made the Lada, to a state-backed car institute for two roubles. The French company’s exit highlights the meagre options facing businesses trying to leave Russia without huge losses on their investments.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary has warned that the outlook for flying remained fragile and vulnerable to new shocks, as the carrier reported a loss of €355mn for the 12 months to the end of March, down from €1.015bn the year before. O’Leary added the airline would “do very well” over the summer if travel was not disrupted by a new coronavirus variant or the war in Ukraine spreading.
City centre shopping malls may at last be evolving into multipurpose hubs for business and leisure as well as shopping, as envisaged by their 20th century creator, Vienna-born architect Victor Gruen. But reinvigorating older centres will require investment, a challenge in a cash-strapped sector that has suffered from brutal value destruction, according to an FT analysis of the property sector.
Anger about high bonus payments for executives, often paid on top of hefty salaries, is easy to understand. But now studies have found that the whole system of paying people to hit targets is flawed. This is in large part because a lot of bonus systems are outdated in an age of knowledge work, writes FT columnist Pilita Clark.
Male managers in the UK are blocking efforts to improve the gender balance at British companies, according to research by the Chartered Management Institute. Two-thirds of the male respondents in the survey of 1,149 managers said they believed their organisation could successfully manage future challenges without gender-balanced leadership. The survey follows widespread condemnation of sexist remarks directed at Aviva chief executive Amanda Blanc at the company’s AGM last week.
Packing up a workspace is a huge task, but one Oxford scientist did just that and moved his team to the Netherlands, in part to be closer to his family after 14 years of working in the UK and partly to avoid the adverse consequences of Brexit for British science.
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The FT has a new columnist, critical communications strategist Rutherford Hall. He kicks off this week by offering some (rather suspect) advice to London-based Russian businessman (don’t on any account say oligarch) Oleg on why building a new swimming pool in the upstairs of his South Kensington mansion might not be the best way to improve his image. Hat tip to the FT’s UK editor-at-large Robert Shrimsley for “recovering” these emails.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has proved a catastrophic mistake. After Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv last month, Ukrainian troops were on Monday filmed restoring border posts on the Russian frontier, having mostly pushed Moscow’s army back from the second city of Kharkiv. Finland and Sweden are meanwhile due this week to apply to join Nato — an expansion of the alliance that is the exact opposite of what the Kremlin’s war was meant to achieve. Yet Ukraine’s military successes should not obscure the need for the west to accelerate both weapons supplies, and financial support to counter Russia’s crippling economic war against its neighbour.
Large-scale help is starting to flow. The US Senate should this week approve a support package including military, humanitarian and economic aid that lawmakers have increased to $40bn from the $33bn President Joe Biden asked for last month. For now, though, this remains a budget line. The sooner it can be converted into further arms supplies, the greater Ukraine’s chance of containing and repelling Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine before they have time to regroup.
The prospect of a lengthy and vicious war of attrition in the east, while Russia continues to bombard military, infrastructure and economic targets elsewhere and to blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, makes economic and non-military aid vital too — on a grand scale. Without a ceasefire, economic output is forecast to plunge more than 40 per cent this year. The Kyiv School of Economics puts direct damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure at more than $94bn by May 10, roughly one-third each accounted for by residential buildings and roads, with $10bn of damage to industry and factories and $15bn to railways, hospitals, bridges, schools and colleges.
One priority is budgetary support. War widened the deficit to $3.8bn in April, with $1.1bn of domestic debt redemptions — in line with the IMF’s assessment that Ukraine faces a financing gap of about $5bn a month for several months. Economic aid of $9bn in the coming US package takes western budgetary support commitments over $20bn, but these, too, will take time to arrive. The IMF is looking at transferring 10 per cent of unused special drawing rights to Ukraine, but the initiative must surmount EU legal hurdles.
Other problems require material and logistical support. Grain exports — crucial to Ukraine’s economy and to global food supplies — are impossible via the Black Sea thanks to Russia’s blockade of Odesa and other ports and seizure of Mariupol. That will require what Brussels calls a “gigantesque” effort to move grain via road and rail to Baltic and other European ports. But efforts are complicated by Ukraine’s different rail gauge and shortages of trucks. The EU has pledged to establish “solidarity lanes” to ensure Ukraine can export grain and import necessary goods, from humanitarian aid to fertilisers and animal feed.
Shortages of motor fuel — thanks to damage to a refinery at Kremenchuk in central Ukraine — threaten to hamper both the civilian and military economy. And border delays are hindering exports of those manufactured goods Ukraine is still managing to produce.
Including indirect costs such as forgone GDP, corporate profit and investments, labour outflows, and higher defence and social spending, Kyiv economists already estimate Ukraine’s total losses from the war at $560bn-$600bn. With Nato allies unwilling to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia, Ukraine is having to fight alone. It will need all the international support it can muster to deal with the long-term economic devastation.
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