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Russia’s dysfunctional funeral business gets a makeover

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Stiffer competition is comingTHE calls began shortly after Yulia’s grandmother died. The undertaker offered help arranging the funeral, for 47,000 roubles ($800) in cash. She then travelled to Moscow’s Khovanskoe Cemetery, where she was offered a discount on a gravesite—150,000 roubles off—if she could bring cash within three hours and sign a receipt saying she had paid half that amount. Yulia (whose name has been changed) and her family gave in. “We knew we were paying a bribe, but what else could we do?”To bury a loved one in Russia often means entering an underworld of corruption and red tape. The myriad goods and services needed, from preparing the body for burial to funeral arrangements to carving a headstone, all represent opportunities for extortion in a largely informal market. “In

Combustible cigarettes kill millions a year. Can Big Tobacco save them?

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BESIDE a serene lake in Switzerland sits a modern glass building called the Cube. Wide-leafed tobacco plants grow in the lobby. In one room machines that can “smoke” more than a dozen cigarettes at a time dutifully puff away, measuring the chemicals that consumers would inhale. The research centre is run by Philip Morris International (PMI), which sells Marlboro and other brands around the world. The facility’s purpose is not to assess the risks of smoking, but to determine whether this huge cigarette-maker might get out of selling cigarettes altogether.André Calantzopoulos, PMI’s chief executive, talks about moving to a “smoke-free future”, with the firm’s business comprised entirely of alternatives to cigarettes. “We are crystal clear where we are going as a company: we want to move out

An experiment with in-home deliveries is under way

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AFTER staying at home one afternoon for a delivery of discounted toilet disinfectant that never came, Valentin Romanov, a Stockholm IT manager, installed a special lock on his flat’s entrance. When no one is in, deliverymen unlock the door and slip packages inside. Four months on, Mr Romanov has doubled his spending online and says he cannot imagine life without in-home deliveries. These are sweet words for delivery firms and online retailers, Amazon included, that are setting up partnerships with lock manufacturers to overcome a big hurdle for e-commerce.Conventional deliveries fail so often that a parcel is driven to a home an average of 1.5 times in the Nordic region, says Kenneth Verlage, head of business development at PostNord, a logistics giant operating in Denmark, Finland, Norway

A vote on “net neutrality” has intensified a battle over the internet’s future

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A DAY before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to rescind “net neutrality” regulations designed to ensure that internet-service providers do nothing to favour some types of online content over others, Ajit Pai, its chairman, tweeted a short video reassuring Americans. “You can still post photos of cute animals,” he says in it, posing with a dog. He also wields a light sabre, which prompted Mark Hamill, the actor who portrays Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, to criticise Mr Pai on Twitter for siding with giant corporations. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator, then asserted in Mr Pai’s defence that Darth Vader supported government regulation of the web; further jabs followed.It made for a silly treatment of an arcane subject. But net neutrality is a serious business. The

Have yourself a dismal Christmas

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ONLY an economist would think to ask whether Christmas is efficient. In 1993 Joel Waldfogel, then a professor at Yale University, turned a lunchtime conversation with colleagues into a paper entitled “The deadweight loss of Christmas”, which argued that, no, it is not. That gift-giving might actually be bad is the kind of opinion which breeds a deep mistrust of economists—loathing is perhaps too strong—among those not schooled in the dismal science. It is also just the sort of analytical insight on which economists pride themselves: counterintuitive, irreverent and interesting. But they should perhaps be less pleased with themselves. The way they think about the most festive time of the year reveals something important about the shortcomings of the field’s approach to human behaviour.Mr Wa

Intangible assets are changing investment

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WHEN you work as an equity analyst at an investment bank, your task is clear. It is to comb all the statements made by corporate executives, to scour the industry trends and arrive at an accurate forecast of the company’s profits. Achieve this and your clients will be happy and your bonus cheque will have many digits.But is all this effort worthwhile? Not as much as it used to be, according to Feng Gu and Baruch Lev, writing in a recent issue of Financial Analysts Journal*. The authors imagined that investors could perfectly forecast the next quarter’s earnings for all companies. They then assumed that investors bought all the stocks that they expected to meet or beat the consensus of analysts’ forecasts; and that investors could short (ie, bet on a declining price) the stocks of those tha

Countries rarely default on their debts

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VENEZUELA is an unusual country. It is home to the world’s largest reserves of oil and its highest rate of inflation. It is known for its unusual number of beauty queens and its frightening rate of murders. Its bitterest foe, America, is also its biggest customer, buying a third of its exports.In defaulting on its sovereign bonds last month (it failed to pay interest on two dollar-denominated bonds by the end of a grace period on November 13th), Venezuela is also increasingly unusual. The number of governments in default to private creditors fell last year to its lowest level since 1977, according to the Bank of Canada’s database. Of the 131 sovereigns tracked by S&P Global, a rating agency, Mozambique is the only other country in default, having missed payments on its Eurobond (and failed

Ryanair stops Christmas strikes, but at a cost

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AIRLINES respond to greater demand for travel around Christmas by increasing fares. But this year, Ryanair has found that it is not the only one taking advantage of the desire to be home for the holidays. To avert proposed strikes by pilots across Europe, the Dublin-based carrier offered on December 15th to recognise pilot unions for the first time in its history. The offer came just in time to avert a four-hour strike by Italian pilots scheduled that afternoon. Pilots in Ireland and Portugal also called off a strike they had planned for December 18th. Ryanair may have saved Christmas, but its stock price fell by 8% on the day of the announcement.Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, acknowledged that union recognition marked a “significant change” for the company. During a dispute w