The economist who had 'deviant thoughts'

  • 18 June 2015
  • From the section Business
Richard Thaler
Prof Thaler is a leading proponent of behavioural economics

What exactly is economics? Science or art? An explanation of our society based on observable, demonstrable laws? A framework for prediction? Or is it an attempt to systematise the unknowable - the mysteries of the human mind?

As an economics numbskull, I would plump for the latter.

Yes, you can generalise about human behaviour some of the time. But what a mess you get into when you think you have seen into the heart of things.

Economics is not sufficient I would say, and so would many people caught up in the great financial crisis of seven years ago. There must be something else.

These old thoughts are prompted by a new book from Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

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Entrepreneur of the year: a Bedouin turned businessman

  • 10 June 2015
  • From the section Business
Mohed Altrad

Don't ask Mohed Altrad how old he is. He may be a billionaire, but he doesn't know his age. No records. He's round about 65, perhaps.

Mr Altrad told me his astonishing story in the unlikely surroundings of one of the poshest hotels in that nest of posh, Monte Carlo.

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A Tale of Several Cities

Medellin city

Suddenly, the mayor of Medellin got excited. He sped across his office where we had been talking and we clambered up a spiral staircase that took us right on top of the mayoral building: floor 12 or 13, where the helicopters land. He wanted to show off the city he is so proud of. The city that was, 25 years ago, the murder capital of the world.

The long hills form a steep river valley by which this booming place is constrained. Lit up by the sunset, Anibal Gaviria spoke at a rapid pace about the sense of open hilltop he wanted to preserve, even as the city expands by crawling ever higher up the hillside.

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A question of computers and artificial intelligence

Gary Kasparov playing chess with IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997
IBM computer Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997 by 3.5 games to 2.5 games

There are moments that live on in business history.

One of them is the cry: "Mr Watson come here, I want to see you," spoken by Alexander Graham Bell back in 1876, in the world's first telephone conversation.

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The curious case of low unemployment

  • 29 April 2015
  • From the section Business
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Why unemployment didn't rise notably in the last recession is a conundrum for investigation

One of the most puzzling things about the recent economic recession in the UK was to quote Sherlock Holmes: "The curious incident of the dog in the night time."

Normally in recession, unemployment rises notably. But last time it didn't - the dog didn't bark.

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Colombia: Home of the perfect cup of coffee?

  • 12 April 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Pouring the coffee

It is a bewitching thing, coffee. For years I used to follow the daily twists and turns of the London coffee market, reporting on the tremendous Brazilian frost in July 1975 which devastated the crop and caused world coffee prices to triple in the two subsequent years.

I remember the dark auction room in the Brazilian port of Santos where the traders met to spar over the latest market offerings before retreating to their dusty offices to taste and sniff the export crop.

Read full article Colombia: Home of the perfect cup of coffee?

What should we do with the Palace of Westminster?

  • 30 March 2015
  • From the section Business
The Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster is said to require significant restoration work

I had to meet an MP the other day, a minister, at the Houses of Parliament.

As an ordinary member of the public, it is no longer easy to get in if you don't have a badge.

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Turning Midland Bank's former headquarters into a hotel

  • 23 February 2015
  • From the section Business
former Midland Bank head office
27 Poultry, once a bank, soon to be a hotel

Something is happening deep inside one of the City of London's most distinguished 20th Century buildings. After being disquietingly empty for some eight year, the builders have just moved in to turn No 27 Poultry into a very expensive hotel, brandishing (it is said) six stars.

Close to the Guildhall and the Bank of England, this building is better known as the former head office of Midland Bank, for some decades from 1918 the largest bank in the world.

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Why Ellen MacArthur is still going round in circles

  • 23 January 2015
  • From the section Business
Ellen MacArthur
Ellen MacArthur has successfully switched from the world of sailing to that of business

For 200 years of the industrial revolution, much of human kind has prospered as a result of one particular business model.

We dig up finite raw materials, turn them into products, and after they have brought utility to the consumers who buy them, the things are thrown away as waste.

Read full article Why Ellen MacArthur is still going round in circles

Why stock market crashes happen in the autumn

  • 18 January 2015
  • From the section Business
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on 16 September 2008
History shows that stock market crashes invariably start in the autumn

Why do financial markets so often get conniptions in September? Why do so many market collapses happen in October?

Lily Fang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has turned her attention to this nagging subject.

Read full article Why stock market crashes happen in the autumn