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Economy

UK households cancel streaming subscriptions in record numbers

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British households have cancelled video subscriptions in record numbers as they curb non-essential spending to cope with the cost of living squeeze, reinforcing concerns that a pandemic-fuelled boom in streaming is over.

Consumers walked away from about 1.5mn video on-demand accounts such as Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus and Now during the first three months of the year, according to figures from analytics group Kantar.

While 58 per cent of households retain at least one streaming service, a decline of only 1.3 per cent from the end of 2021, the terminations suggest that viewers have become more discerning about subscribing to multiple platforms.

A desire to save money was the most important reason for the cancellations and young adults have become particularly wary of paying for television on top of the £159 annual licence fee, the researchers found.

The findings were “sobering” for streaming providers, said Dominic Sunnebo, global insight director at Kantar. He said streaming services had to prove their worth to consumers “in what has become a heavily competitive market”.

Households are looking for ways to trim budgets to cope with rising bills. Surging energy, clothing and food prices pushed inflation to a 30-year high in March, data from the Office for National Statistics showed last week.

Media investors have become increasingly concerned that the rapid worldwide growth of video streaming — encouraged by demand for home entertainment during the pandemic — has peaked.

Shares in Netflix, which is due to release first-quarter earnings on Tuesday, have dropped 43 per cent so far this year as global subscriber numbers have disappointed.

Consumers are re-evaluating subscriptions in response to higher charges. Several providers have raised prices in markets including the UK, in part to compensate for rising costs of labour and facilities that have made TV and film production more expensive.

Among them is Netflix, which recently implemented its second round of UK price increases within 18 months, raising standard monthly subscriptions from £10 to £11.

At the same time, options for British viewers have continued to widen. Recently introduced offerings include Peacock from Sky, which features content from NBCUniversal. Viaplay, the Scandinavian streamer, is planning to launch in the UK this year.

Many consumers are still signing up for streaming services. Kantar’s research, which was based on interviews with 14,500 people, found that about 3 per cent of British households took out a subscription during the first quarter.

However, this was a marked slowdown from the 4.2 per cent that did so in the same period a year ago.

Cancellations, meanwhile, accelerated, from 1.2mn a year ago and from 1.04mn during the final three months of 2021.

After budgetary concerns, the most frequently cited reasons given by those who terminated their subscriptions were that they did not use them often enough and that the platforms lacked new shows they wanted to watch.

The net effect was for the number of households with at least one paid subscription to decline by 215,000 compared with the previous quarter, to 16.9mn.

Britbox, Apple TV Plus and Discovery Plus had the highest churn rate — meaning they lost the most users on a gross basis.

Disney Plus had the biggest increase in its churn rate, Kantar said. Its quarterly churn tripled from the previous quarter to 12 per cent.

Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video had the lowest churn rates in the quarter. Kantar said this was a sign they were “the last to go when households are forced to prioritise”.



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Economy

Sri Lanka becomes first Asia-Pacific country in decades to default on foreign debt

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Sri Lanka’s central bank has confirmed the country has missed a deadline for foreign debt repayments, the first sovereign default in the Asia-Pacific region this century, according to Moody’s.

A 30-day grace period for missed interest payments on two international sovereign bonds expired on Wednesday, forcing Sri Lanka into what some analysts called a “hard” default as Colombo confronts an economic and political crisis. The last Moody’s-rated sovereign borrower to default in Asia was Pakistan in 1999.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government said last month that Sri Lanka would stop repaying its international debt to conserve foreign currency reserves for imports such as fuel, medicine and food.

Sri Lanka, which has never defaulted before, owes about $51bn in overseas debt to international bondholders as well as bilateral creditors including China, Japan and India.

At a briefing on Thursday, Nandalal Weerasinghe, the central bank governor, confirmed that Sri Lanka’s creditors could now consider the country technically in default.

“We announced to the creditors, we said we are not in question to pay that. If you even don’t pay after 30 days . . . then probably from their side they can consider it as a default,” he said. “Our positions are clear. We say until they come to restructure we will not be able to pay.”

But the central bank disputed that it was a hard default, calling the move “pre-emptive”.

S&P last month downgraded Sri Lanka’s foreign currency ratings to “selective default” on the missed interest payments.

Analysts said that rising global interest rates, high energy prices and a surge in inflation was piling pressure on import-dependent developing economies such as Sri Lanka.

The island borrowed heavily to fund infrastructure-led growth after the end of its civil war in 2009, but policies including a 2019 tax cut and the loss of tourism during the pandemic left it unable to refinance in international debt markets.

The crisis has triggered widespread pain for Sri Lanka’s population, with a scarcity of fuel leading to long queues for petrol and multi-hour power cuts. The currency has also plunged, exacerbating political unrest.

The cabinet, including Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda, the prime minister, resigned last week as attacks by pro-government supporters against a growing protest movement triggered a wave of violence across the island.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the newly appointed prime minister, said this week that the Treasury was struggling to find $1mn to pay for imports.

Sri Lanka has begun negotiations with the IMF over a loan programme and is appointing advisers for debt restructuring talks with its creditors. But it lacks a fully functioning government, including a finance minister, and analysts expect any deal to take months.

The missed payments, for interest on two $1.25bn international sovereign bonds maturing in 2023 and 2028, could trigger cross-default clauses that would bring much of Sri Lanka’s debt due before it has begun formal restructuring talks.

A Sri Lankan government bond maturing in July this year is trading at about 45 cents to the dollar, with longer-dated bonds at even lower values.

JPMorgan on Wednesday assigned an overweight rating to Sri Lanka bonds, indicating that it expected bond prices to rise in the coming months.

“Twists and turns are likely to materialise in the months ahead,” JPMorgan wrote. “However . . . we think risk-reward is favourable to start building long positions.”

Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett



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Economy

US companies boost capital spending to tackle supply bottlenecks

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US companies are accelerating capital spending despite slower economic growth, as the impact of supply chain disruptions and “deglobalisation” override worries about a looming recession.

A wave of recent disruptions, from coronavirus lockdowns to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions between the US and China, have led many high-profile investors and executives to predict a reversal of the decades-long trend toward sprawling global supply chains and “just in time” inventory management.

Recent quarterly reports from the largest US companies provide some of the first concrete signs that companies are following through on their plans, putting pressure on their profitability just as the economic recovery begins to lose steam.

With the majority of companies in the S&P 500 index having reported first-quarter results, capital expenditure across its members rose 20 per cent year on year in the first quarter, according to Bank of America data. The proportion of companies providing guidance for higher future spending than analysts had expected also rose. The trend was broad-based, with every sector except real estate increasing spending.

“Onshoring or rejigging supply chain risks — that’s a costly phenomenon,” said Savita Subramanian, head of US equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America. “Capex is usually something companies can move around or relax a bit in a constrained environment, but in this case they may have to spend more than they otherwise might.”

The US economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter, and investors and commentators such as former Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein have become increasingly convinced that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight inflation will push the economy into recession.

The rising business investment is becoming a burden for some consumer-facing companies, but is also proving a boon for many of their suppliers and infrastructure providers.

Shares in Walmart sank 11 per cent on Tuesday after a disappointing quarterly update that included a 60 per cent rise in capital expenditure to increase automation and strengthen its supply chain through projects such as massive high-tech distribution centres.

Intel’s pledge to build a $20bn chip manufacturing site in Ohio, meanwhile, sparked celebrations from steelmakers, chemical specialists and plumbing suppliers such as FTSE 100 company Ferguson.

Lourenco Goncalves, chief executive of Cleveland-Cliffs, a major steel supplier to the automobile industry, said “deglobalisation is the most important game changer of this decade in the United States”, and he was “encouraged” by Intel’s plans because a better domestic supply of semiconductors would allow carmakers to boost production.

Kevin Murphy, CEO of Ferguson, in March described plans to increase US semiconductor production including Intel’s Ohio project as some of the most “exciting” examples of a broader trend toward onshoring manufacturing production.

Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, one of the world’s largest investors in infrastructure from electricity lines to data centres, estimated that “re-onshoring activity and deglobalisation” would provide “hundreds of billions of dollars” of new investment opportunities.



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Economy

Global insecurity is no reason to divest from the WTO

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The writer is dean of the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po

The emerging narrative from the war in Ukraine is that the surge in geopolitical risk will compound existing dissatisfaction with the global trade system and lead to fragmentation. Security will trump efficiency. Integration with like-minded partners will replace multilateralism. This narrative is neither right, nor desirable. There is no doubt that the ongoing conflict is reinforcing anti-trade prejudice. But is this a global trend? The short answer is no.

There is an appetite for trade integration in many parts of the world, especially developing countries. Proof is the expansion of World Trade Organization membership, the rising number of trade agreements and the profusion of large-scale regional initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Even in advanced economies, surveys consistently show positive attitudes to integration, indicating that the opposition to trade may be more concentrated in fewer sectors or regions than commonly recognised.

That is not to deny that for many employees, economic conditions have worsened. But one wonders whether this is due to increased trade. If workers in Canada (or other rich countries) are doing better, even though they are vastly more exposed to trade than their US counterparts, it does not make sense to blame trade for the woes of American employees. The US has significant political levers available to improve life for American workers, and it is irresponsible not to use them.

Even if the mood has turned against trade, the laws of economics have not. Trade integration guided by the logic of comparative advantage is painful and efficient; trade disintegration will be painful and inefficient. Using trade and industrial policy to achieve reshoring, or to shift demand towards domestic production in the attempt to favour workers in advanced economies, will only lower productivity growth for all.

Companies will respond to the war in Ukraine by reassessing security risks and restructuring supply chains. But given the investments already made, the cost of alternatives, and factors such as wage differentials across countries, this process is likely to be gradual rather than sudden. Re-shoring or friend-shoring — confining global supply chains to allies — will require protracted government intervention, raising questions about its long-term sustainability. 

The targeting principle suggests trade policy is not the proper instrument to deal with inefficiencies that are not caused by trade. Markets need non-market institutions. Trade agreements should expand their scope, as they have done in recent years, to allow for provisions on competition, environment, labour, gender and other issues. This would open markets and promote improvements in domestic policies to address inefficiencies. 

More fundamentally, we should ask if fragmenting the trade system would ultimately help achieve non-trade goals such as environmental protection or national security. Fragmentation would make it harder for economies to undertake the huge investment needed to combat climate change. Competing systems would be likely to prioritise short-term gains over long-term environmental achievements. A fragmented trade system also lowers growth opportunities for developing countries, which will struggle to offset diminished demand from advanced economies. Restricting opportunities will only make the world more dangerous and unstable. 

This is not the moment to divest from the WTO — quite the opposite. The WTO system was never about liberalisation for its own sake. It was about creating predictable rules and a framework for managing disputes and spillovers. It is clear that international progress will be difficult over the next few years. Advances in digital trade may initially be made regionally. This is not a problem, as long as countries keep investing in the multilateral system. Even in this scenario, the WTO system can provide rules of conduct and crucial enforcement mechanisms. The message for the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting is that global co-operation remains vital to protect against everything from climate change to recurring pandemics. 

A return to 2015 is neither possible nor desirable. Some of the more hopeful assumptions of the 1990s and 2000s — that interdependence would not be weaponised, that economic convergence would foster political comity — were wrong. But we’re still better off in a world of international co-operation on corporate taxation, illicit capital flows, carbon pricing, and most importantly effective domestic policies to foster competitive markets with strong social safety nets. All these are preferable to a chaotic retreat from globalisation.



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