What’s new

Long time, no update, but in the past few months, while in business-finance mode I’ve written about clubby boardrooms, Germans’ low-return investment habits, the arms-export industry, and German business lobbying against sanctions on Russia.
Viel Vergnügen.
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The Economist, “Bulgaria: Succeeding in spite of the state”

One of the most fascinating reporting trips I’ve ever had was my recent one in Sofia. I talked to entrepreneurs whose creativity and grit in starting businesses in 1990s Bulgaria would make the most peacocking Silicon Valley company-founder blush.

MILEN GEORGIEV’S father had bought him a kit of cheap magic tricks. That was lucky, because it helped the young Bulgarian figure out the sleight-of-hand in the hustlers’ three-card con trick at an open-air market in Sofia. Over ten weeks, Mr Georgiev made 1,000 lev (then around $18 at official rates), while getting just 90 lev a month on his student stipend. The hustlers started turning him away.

“This was good capital at this time,” he says. It was 1991. He and a friend went into business. First they bought and sold plastic bags, then bought a machine for making them. Mr Georgiev financed new machines at 6% a month from local lenders. He fended off one protection racket by hiring another at cheaper rates, and paying the police for a panic button in his offices. Palms had to be greased to get telephone lines set up, and imports through customs.

But today his business is thriving…

Read the whole article.

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Bilingualism rocks

Two recent Johnson columns on bilingualism have been surprise hits. The first, "Bringing up baby bilingual", discusses the cognitive benefits of doing exactly that for your child. (Amazingly, bilingualism’s benefits last until old age.) The second column offers some answers the question "Do different languages confer different personalities?"

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Johnson on taking offense, “Denglisch” and the hardness of English

My latest Johnson columns have been on taking offense where obviously none was intended ("Deliberate misunderstanding"); a look at the English words slipping haphazardly into German ("Denglisch"); and an answer to the question: "Is English hard to learn?"

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Dateline: Berlin

I’ve now been in Berlin for a month, getting moved in and settling in a new office while also squeezing in a short vacation. In between, I’ve written two Johnson pieces (now in column format): one, an introduction to the new column, and another, an update to George Orwell’s six rules for writing. And with my new European Business and Finance Correspondent hat on, I’ve had a look at the travails of first Commerzbank and then Siemens.

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Intelligent Life, “Think Similar”

"Believe in better." "In search of incredible." The advertising craze of making nouns out of adjectives has become overdone

"Grammar play is like free verse, splatter painting or low-fi music. The first to get to the idea grabs attention just by virtue of daring. But the hordes who follow have to have something to say, some real content, not to mention a real product to sell. Just playing around with the medium won’t do. It takes more than unconventional to generate memorable…" (Read the whole article.)

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The Economist, “English atop the Eurovision pile”

Language, of course, plays a role at Eurovision. "Ethnicity" in Europe is often linguistic: an ethnic Russian is not apparent on the streets of Riga until he opens his mouth. Linguistic neighbors will tend to be generous to one another. Finland and Estonia are friendly not only because they are nearby but because their Finno-Ugric languages resemble each other, while being utterly unrelated to their neigbours’. (Hungarian is also Finno-Ugric.) Each country can give 12 points to only one other country, and this year Denmark and Sweden gave their 12’s to Norway, Norway its 12 to Sweden, as befits the Scandinavian language continuum.

But the Scandinavians share something else besides apple-cheeked blondes and North Germanic languages: their tendency to sing in English. In that, they are like most countries nowadays. But some interesting variation clouds the picture… (Read the whole article.) 

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The Economist, “To the brainy, the spoils”

As the world grows more confusing, demand for clever consultants is booming

ELITE management consultancies shun the spotlight. They hardly advertise: everyone who might hire them already knows their names. The Manhattan office that houses McKinsey & Company does not trumpet the fact in its lobby. At Bain & Company’s recent partner meeting at a Maryland hotel, signs and name-tags carried a discreet logo, but no mention of Bain. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which announced growing revenues in a quiet press release in April, counts as the braggart of the bunch.

Consultants have a lot to smile about… (Read the whole article.)

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The Economist, “Second-hand suits”

COMPANIES need to make the best returns on the assets they have in hand. But what if a company does not know that it has them, or whether it can use them? In some cases a lawsuit could be a valuable earner. A technology company in liquidation might have a patent-infringement suit that the bankruptcy’s administrators lack the time to pursue. There may be money to be made by suing a joint-venture partner, but the prospect of a costly case dissuades managers from going to court.

Enter “third-party funders”. These outside investors offer to pay for a lawsuit, in exchange for a share of the payout: from 30% to 60%. Some lawyers work on contingency (“no win, no fee”) arrangements, but others cannot shoulder the risk. So third-party funders may get involved. Returns are impressive enough to have drawn in both hedge funds and traditional financial companies… (Read the whole article.)

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Auf Wiedersehen, Brooklyn, Hallo, Berlin

A bit of news that has kept me busy enough not to post much here recently: in July, I’ll be moving to Berlin to take up a new posting as The Economist‘s Central Europe business and finance correspondent. 

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