Thursday, 24 April 2014

A better world with Microsoft Excel

For many of us, the Excel screen is an everyday sight, as familiar as the family cat.  But it is useful for many things besides number crunching:

Some amazing images have been created by Tatsuo Horiuchi.  

Like Hillary Clinton, you can use it to keep lists of your friends and enemies.

But for most people Excel is used for number crunching.  Abbott Katz runs the spreadsheetjournalism blog where he creates all kinds of Excel wizardry on subjects as diverse as baby names, London underground lines and left-handedness.  Wittily written, it's a great read if you enjoy getting the most out of Excel.

(But don't forget about the many disasters that are possible from misuse of Excel.  You might not have heard about the last item in this article.)

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The pensions minefield

The world of pensions seems to get ever more complex and the Chancellor's recent budget has just added another layer of difficult decisions for the saver and retiree.  Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian has written an entertaining guide to help you understand what's going on.  The tone is somewhat cynical:

"David Retikin, director of operations at international investment specialist Pryce Warner International Group, was asked to comment on Osborne's budget ruling that pension holders need no longer buy annuities, he said: 'The budget now has most savers and investors assessing the best course of action by carefully reviewing their existing investment strategy.'
Superb optimism, Mr Retikin. ... He went on: 'Casual savers are optimistic, perhaps even overjoyed to learn that they'll benefit from the changes he's introduced.' Let's look at three words in that sentence – 'optimistic, perhaps overjoyed' – and replace them with 'dubious, probably baffled'. "
Low interest rates, poor annuity returns and the string of financial industry scandals may well be thought to justify the cynicism.  Jeffries ends on a point that may be troubling a lot of people:
"Why do we have to have private pensions at all when they involve so much of our contributions being gambled away on the stock market or funnelled into bonuses for fund managers, while the value of our pensions pots have been eroded? Wouldn't it have been better if all the money I've paid into pensions over the decades had gone to a not-for-profit organisation I could trust that invested those monies in things like hospitals, schools, railways and the rest of Britain's infrastructure? A rhetorical question, to be sure, and a crazy, financially naive dream, no doubt. But I freely admit, I'm not a pensions expert."
It would be interesting to hear any responses from true pensions experts.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The end of Windows XP

Microsoft end support for Windows XP on April 8 2014.  The 13 year old operating system, a big success in its day, has reached the end of the road.

If you have any computers running this software, they will still work normally on April 9th.  However, the constant upgrading and patching that goes on in the background will stop.  The end of support is a green light to hackers and virus writers meaning that these computers are practically certain to come under attack and may well quickly become unusable.

This is no small problem.  According to Net Applications, nearly 30% of the world was still using XP at the end of December 2013.

Sadly, there is no option but to upgrade or replace the XP computer, even if it remains perfectly serviceable.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

What's the future of work?

Technological change at a breakneck pace means that many jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation or outsourcing.  A few years ago, driving a car was one task for which it was thought that computers could never replace humans.  Yet Google's driverless cars are now happily cruising the freeways of California, giving taxi drivers and truckers much to worry about.  

So what other jobs might be under threat?  Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford researched a wide variety of types of work and calculated the likelihood of jobs being lost to automation over the next two decades.  Bad news for shop workers, telemarketers and accountants, where the probability was well over 90%.  Better news for dentists, personal trainers and vicars, where the risk is well below 1%.  (Data from The Economist.)

It seems as though the safest place to be is a profession requiring person-to-person contact, where little standardisation of the work is possible.  There, or in a robot factory.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

What's the value of virtual goods?

Politicians and commentators worry obsessively about movements in the GDP figures. John Naughton sets out the well known deficiencies in this measure:

"If a parent chooses to stay home to look after his or her children, then the "work" involved (producing stable and happy children?) doesn't get counted in the GDP. But if the same parent employs a nanny, then it does. People have pointed out that increasing GDP may simply be an indicator of how quickly we are boosting global warming rather than increasing social welfare: a gas-guzzling, high-emission SUV contributes the same amount to GDP as a thousand bicycles. And so on."

But there are further problems with the measure now that so much online activity involves free goods:

"Take Twitter. It has more than 230m active users, 100m of whom use the service daily to send 500m tweets. Since Twitter was founded, these users have dispatched more than 300 billion tweets. And in exchange for this wonderful service they have paid Twitter precisely £0.00.

Now you may baulk at the idea of tweets being "product", but they are what has turned Twitter into a company apparently worth $24bn. So there's economic value there, somewhere.

...when we eventually find a way of measuring the value of online activity, we might find that the economy has been growing nicely after all."

Friday, 6 December 2013

Zombie companies and zombie banks

One of the surprising features of the lengthy economic crisis has been the low rate of corporate insolvencies. One theory has been that the UK is full of zombie companies that can't grow and are only kept alive by ultra-low interest rates.  Some even think that a rise in rates would be a good thing because it would kill off a lot of these businesses, allowing room for more viable businesses to grow.

In a Pieria article, Frances Coppola takes a look at the evidence and pretty much demolishes this argument.

"...lots of businesses don’t grow. Indeed, the majority of microbusinesses – sole traders and firms with fewer than 9 employees – not only don’t grow but have no desire to do so. Are they zombies? No. They are active economic agents contributing to the economy. We really can’t use the absence of growth as an indication that a company is not viable. Many of these companies happily bump along the bottom for decades...."

"...because it is widely believed that zombies are kept alive not just by low interest rates, but by damaged banks unable to take losses, there are calls for banks to “end forbearance” even if it means they fail themselves. This is madness. Every bank and building society in the UK has corporate debt on its books,  and almost every bank and building society in the UK has a damaged balance sheet which could not cope with large amounts of insolvencies. So banks cannot “end forbearance”.  Nor do we wish them to do so.  

Widespread losses across the entire UK banking sector would catapult the UK back into deep recession. I am no fan of damaged banks – indeed I have called for them to be bypassed so that the UK economy can get the credit it desperately needs. But that doesn’t mean that it would be sensible to bankrupt them all.

So it seems there is little evidence for the existence of zombie companies. But there is considerable evidence for the existence of zombie banks."

Great analysis from an economist who understands the real world.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Building a Better World from Company Data

A plug here for OpenCorporates, a free database of company information from around the world.

It brings together public record information from many different registers to give you access to information on, at today's count, over 61 million companies.

If you need to follow through and understand chains of shareholdings and directorships, particularly if these cross borders, then the information you need is on their website.

It's an invaluable resource and the people running it have the admirable goal of a more open and transparent world.  They deserve our support.