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Toshiba in early talks with 10 potential buyout ‘partners’

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Toshiba's moves are being closely watched in business circles
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Troubled conglomerate Toshiba said Friday it has been approached by 10 potential investors as it weighs going private, a move that would be highly unusual in corporate Japan.

The engineering giant was once a symbol of the country’s industrial prowess, producing everything from rice cookers to laptops and nuclear plants.

But more recently it has faced scandals, financial woes and resignations, while management and shareholders have clashed over buyout and spin-off proposals.

Despite the challenges, its earnings are growing, and on Friday Toshiba said annual net profit leapt 70 percent on-year, continuing a recovery from the painful lows of the 2010s.

Shareholders in March shunned a plan to split the company into two, stirring internal turmoil after a shock takeover offer from private equity fund CVC Capital Partners was dropped.

Toshiba said Friday it has been holding confidential, non-binding discussions with 10 “potential partners” who want to suggest “strategic alternatives” for its future.

That could include privatisation “to enhance the company’s corporate value”, the company said in a statement.

Potential investors must express interest this month, and Toshiba said it will announce the total number of interested parties before its next annual general meeting, which will be held by the end of June.

The situation is being closely watched in business circles for clues on what the future may hold for other huge, diversified conglomerates in Japan and elsewhere.

Any move by a foreign equity fund to take Toshiba private would likely face regulatory hurdles, because the company handles sensitive sectors such as nuclear power generation and defence equipment.

Annual net profit in the year to March jumped 70.8 percent to 194.7 billion yen ($1.5 billion) on “increased sales in all business segments, and increased operating income mainly from semiconductors and energy”, Toshiba said.

For the current financial year, the company expects operating profit to rise seven percent to 170 billion yen on projected sales of 3.3 trillion yen, down one percent. 

It did not issue an official net profit forecast.

Hideki Yasuda, senior analyst at Toyo Securities, told AFP that activist shareholders want to maximise short-term profits, so are pushing for Toshiba to take “steps to expand its earnings”.

However, a key problem is that “different activists are saying different things”, with some backing a buyout and others not, he told AFP ahead of the earnings announcement.

“Because they hold different visions, it’s difficult to devise a strategy with a common denominator.”

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Contemporary art to the metaverse: Takashi Murakami’s poppy trip

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Takashi Murakami's new show at the Gagosian in New York features a flowers NFT project that reinterprets the Japanese artist's iconic flower motif
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Takashi Murakami is known for blending pop art and Asian fine arts, but for his latest exhibition in New York, he is moving into the metaverse.

At the show “An Arrow Through History” that opened this week at Manhattan’s Gagosian Gallery, Murakami builds bridges from traditional fine arts to Japanese pop art to buzzy NFTs — the digital tokens that represent original artwork.

Murakami told AFP he is concerned that younger generations are screen-obsessed and “don’t understand the contemporary art history.”

“They can enjoy very few things, but with the plus of augmented reality, maybe the young people open their eyes more and then step into the contemporary art scene,” the 60-year-old Japanese artist said.

Of late, athletes, artists, celebrities and tech stars have been hawking NFTs, which use the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies.

“When I work on a creative production, I make no distinction between digital and analog,” Murakami said in a statement from Gagosian. 

“I’m always working in the context of contemporary art, and that context is all about whether I can be involved in events that manage to trigger a cognitive revolution.”

– ‘Into the metaverse’ –

In one piece, Murakami painted thick canvases and wooden structures the blue and white patterns of fish, inspired by Chinese porcelain vases dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

Using Snapchat and an augmented reality filter, visitors can be immersed in the exhibition room via their phones, standing among digital images of fish that swim among the physically real works of art.

“Japanese culture originally came from the Eurasian continent, and my concept has been to go beyond from there into the metaverse, shooting through the history of art with a single arrow,” Murakami said in the statement.

The metaverse is an immersive virtual reality which is accessible with augmented or virtual reality glasses, and is a concept that has experienced a boost in recent years.

Stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Murakami told AFP that “I was watching the reality in my house, so that was a very monumental moment.”

“For us it was getting super stressful every day, we could not go outside,” he said — but his kids could enjoy VR.

“That meant I had to change the mind, to fit in with the next generation of my kids,” he said. “This is my first answer — the show.”

Murakami is also set to open a special exhibition at The Broad contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, titled “Takashi Murakami: Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” which will include immersive environments and run from May 21 until September 25.

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Asian stocks up as investors calm over potential Fed moves

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Federal Reserve head Jerome Powell was confirmed to his second term on Thursday
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Asian equities were mostly up Friday following a tumultuous trading period on Wall Street, which rebounded at the close after investors calmed down about US policies to counter surging inflation.

World markets have been volatile for much of 2022 owing to China’s Covid-19 lockdowns, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as surging inflation weighed on consumer sentiment.

The Federal Reserve last week had announced its largest rate hike since 2000 and signalled that similar increases were likely in the coming months — a possibility that sent markets on a rollercoaster. 

“Macro-economic concerns have continued to weigh heavily on the equity markets this week, as stagflation and recession fears continue to dampen investor enthusiasm,” said Lewis Grant of Federated Hermes Limited.

He added that the fears have been echoed in forecasts by major companies, with a large number of firms citing supply chain concerns. 

Wall Street was mixed Thursday after another day of volatile trading, with the Dow falling for the sixth straight session but the Nasdaq mustering a small gain.

The small rebound on the tech-rich Nasdaq came after Fed Reserve chief Jerome Powell — confirmed Thursday by the Senate for a second term — expressed confidence that the economy is strong enough to withstand tighter monetary policies. 

According to Bloomberg, Powell reaffirmed that the Fed was likely to raise rates by a half point but isn’t “actively considering” a 75-basis point move.

In Asia, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Sydney opened higher on Friday, while Wellington traded in the negatives.

Dread has not only sent traditional markets seesawing, but the cryptocurrency realm also saw great volatility this week. 

Bitcoin tumbled to the lowest level since late 2020, following a dramatic collapse in some so-called stablecoin cryptocurrencies — TerraUSD and Tether.

The two stablecoins — which are supposed to be pegged to the dollar — proved to be anything but, as they saw their values collapse. 

While the digital currency market stabilised by Friday, Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management said “the 7-day moves in some of the ‘other crypto experiments’ on monster volume are insane and increasingly difficult to watch”.

Bitcoin slumped below $27,000 before recovering a bit, trading recently at $28,710.

Oil remained up on Friday, with US benchmark crude WTI trading at more than $107 a barrel.

“As long as the war continues and macro pressures persist, it is likely that both energy names and value stocks will remain relative safe-havens for fully-invested, long-only equity investors,” said Grant of Federated Hermes Limited.

– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: UP 1.7 percent at 19,705.86  

Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.3 percent at 3,064.32  

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 2.7 percent at 25,421.84 (break)

Brent North Sea crude: UP 1.4 percent at $108.90 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: UP 1.2 percent at $107.36 per barrel

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0387 from $1.0382 at 2100 GMT Thursday

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2212 from $1.2199

Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.06 pence from 85.08 pence

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 128.36 yen from 129.97 yen

New York – Dow: DOWN 0.3 percent at 31,730.30 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.6 percent at 7,233.34 (close)

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Rising student debt to worsen money woes of young Britons

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Rising inflation is adding to pressures on recent graduates who may have taken out tens of thousands of pounds in student loans during their time at university
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Rhiannon Muise graduated from Edge Hill University in northwest England last year with a mountain of student debt, which is growing even larger due to surging inflation.

The 21-year-old dance and drama graduate said it will take a “lifetime” for her to pay back the £45,000 ($55,000) she owes for tuition fees and living expenses, particularly if she stays within her chosen field where salaries can be low.

Muise’s plight echoes that of students across Britain, who are already struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Britons heading to university next year face major changes that critics argue will worsen the financial pain.

– Exhausting –

The pressure is “exhausting, especially for someone in their 20s who has just started thinking about their career”, Muise told AFP.

Her current job as Edge Hill student engagement officer pays below the threshold that activates repayments.

UK graduates shoulder more debt than any other developed country, according to House of Commons Library data.

About 1.5 million students borrow nearly £20 billion in loans every year in England alone.

And on average, graduates of 2020 have amassed £45,000 in debt.

Zeno, a 25-year-old student in London who gave only his first name, said he owes just short of £75,000 for his loans.

Unless he “wins the lottery”, he accepts he will probably be paying the money back from his salary for the next 30 years.

– Tuition fees –

University used to be free in the UK, with means-tested grants for the poorest students to cover living costs.

But after the sector was opened up in the 1990s, numbers surged and, despite protests from student bodies, tuition fees have been gradually introduced in the last decade to help universities meet costs.

With education a devolved matter for the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, different tuition fee arrangements are in place across the UK.

Accommodation and living costs are extra.

In England, undergraduate tuition fees are capped at £9,250 a year for UK and Irish students — up from £3,375 in 2011 when the government cut most ongoing direct public funding. 

The cap in Wales is £9,000 and £4,030 in Northern Ireland. 

Scottish students studying in Scotland pay £1,820 but those from the rest of the UK attending universities north of the border with England pay £9,250.

– Inflation worry –

The picture is further complicated by rocketing inflation because the student loan interest rate is linked to the retail price index (RPI).

Loan interest is calculated by adding up to 3.0 percentage points to the RPI rate.

Inflation however soared to 30-year highs this year, particularly on rocketing energy costs and fallout from the Ukraine conflict.

Graduates could therefore pay an interest rate of 12 percent from September — or more if prices rise even higher.

The UK government plays a large part in student financing, providing loans that only demand repayment when a graduate earns above a threshold of £27,295 per year.

What borrowers repay depends on how much they earn. Unlike private lenders, they have up to 30 years to repay. The debt is cancelled after this time.

“This system is more progressive than in the United States, with generous write-offs for lower-paid graduates,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford. 

Current and recent students faced huge upheaval during courses due to coronavirus restrictions, with the pandemic also hitting job opportunities.

A combination of high debt repayments, high cost of living and wages that have failed to keep pace with inflation, add yet more stress.

– Conundrum –

Student finance poses a major conundrum for the public purse because the UK forecasts outstanding loans will top £560 billion by 2050.

From next year, Britain will lower the repayment threshold for new borrowers to £25,000 and lengthen the repayment time from 30 to 40 years.

This will however increase costs for low-earners, while benefiting richer graduates who can pay back more quickly.

The UK government forecasts however that half of new students will repay their loans in full under the new plan.

Student debt has long been a concern in the United States, where the Federal Reserve estimates that it amounts to a staggering $1.76 trillion.

US students on average have outstanding debt of close to $41,000, according to think-tank Education Data Initiative.

President Joe Biden this year extended a moratorium on student loan repayment and interest — and is holding talks over partial debt write-offs.

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