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India's COVID-19 spread casts more doubts about extent of GDP decline

Business|: Mumbai: India's economic recovery prospects have gone from bad to worse after the nation emerged as a new global hotspot for the coronavirus pandemic with more than 5 million infections. Economists and global institutions like the Asian Development Bank have cut India's growth projections from already historic lows as the virus continues to spread. Goldman Sachs Group now estimates a 14.8 per cent contraction in gross domestic product for the year through March 2021, while the ADB is forecasting 9 per cent decline. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sees the economy shrinking by 10.2 per cent. See More UAE: Keep your passport, degrees and property documents safe from fire, damage and theft The easiest way to book a COVID-19 test in the UAE UAE: How to report workplace harassment? UAE: My employer has not cancelled my visa, what can I do? The failure to get infections under control will set back business activity and consumption - the bedrock of the economy - which had been slowly picking up after India began easing one of the world's strictest and biggest lockdowns that started late March.  No sign of a flattening "While a second wave of infections is being witnessed globally, India still has not been able to flatten the first wave of infection curve," said Sunil Kumar Sinha, principal economist at India Ratings and Research Ltd., a unit of Fitch Ratings Ltd. He now sees India's economy contracting 11.8 per cent in the fiscal year, far worse than his earlier projection of 5.8 per cent. Goldman Sachs's latest growth forecast came last week after data showed gross domestic product plunged 23.9 per cent in the April-June quarter from a year ago, the biggest decline since records began in 1996 and the worst performance of major economies tracked by Bloomberg. While there are some signs that activity picked up following the strict lockdown, a strong recovery looks uncertain. "By all indications, the recovery is likely to be gradual as efforts toward reopening of the economy are confronted with rising infections," Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das told a group of industrialists Wednesday. Slipping badly The central bank will likely release its own growth forecast on October 1 when the monetary policy committee announces its interest rate decision. In August, the RBI said private spending on discretionary items had taken a knock, especially on transport services, hospitality, recreation and cultural activities. The plunge in GDP, as well as ongoing stress in the banking sector and among households, will curb India's medium-term growth potential. Tanvee Gupta Jain, an economist at UBS Group AG in Mumbai, estimates potential growth will slow to 6 per cent from 7.1 per cent year-on-year estimated in 2017. India is "likely to see a shallow and delayed recovery in corporate sector profitability over the next several quarters," said Kaushik Das, chief economist at Deutsche Bank AG in Mumbai, who has downgraded his fiscal year growth forecast to -8 per cent from -6.2 per cent. That will "reduce the incentive and ability for fresh investments, which in turn will be a drag on credit growth and overall real GDP growth." Still, foreign investor sentiment will likely return once the pandemic eases, said Todd Buchholz, a former White House economist and now author. "The virus is seen as a temporary phenomenon," he said in an interview. "Those investors who were lining up to invest in India in January 2020 will do so in 2021 also, and deregulation has to continue."

GulfNews Business

Volkswagen might sell fabled Bugatti brand to Croatian supercar maker

Business|auto|: Frankfurt: Volkswagen AG is considering a sale of its Bugatti division that would give the maker of 16-cylinder performance vehicles a new lease on life in the electric age. To help finance the potential deal, VW's Porsche unit could boost its 15.5 per cent stake in Croatia's Rimac Automobili to as much as 49 per cent. CAR Magazine reported on the talks between VW and the Croatian producer of battery-powered supercars. See More Dog swim day: Munich's canines take a dip Rare glass blowers seek to keep craft alive in Damascus In Pictures: Madrid fashion week kicks off This Japanese restaurant is trying to sell curry to Indians VW's supervisory board hasn't approved the deal and the talks are fluid. Bugatti, which sold 82 vehicles last year, has long been viewed as a prime example of VW's engineering extravagance. In 1998, it was revived under former Chairman Ferdinand Piech after the brand had largely faded from existence in the 1950s. Because of high development costs and low volumes, the 16-cylinder Veyron - Bugatti's first model under VW control - was considered one of the biggest money losers in the auto industry.  Closer look at portfolio Bugatti has recently pursued efforts to potentially survive outside the German auto group and head off the risk of being phased out once again. Since the 2015 diesel-cheating scandal, VW has been taking a closer look at its portfolio, with a particular focus on the expensive luxury-car brands amid the growing burden of investing in electric mobility and self-driving technology. In November, Bugatti boss Stephan Winkelmann described a "hard fight" with its parent to secure funds for an electric four-seater that would flank its 2.5 million euro ($3 million) Chiron supercar. Bloomberg also reported last year that VW was weighing options for the Lamborghini unit. Bugatti's potential buyer was founded by Mate Rimac in 2009, with the company's Concept_One electric supercar debuting two years later. Apart from Porsche, investors in the company include Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp. and Chinese battery-maker Camel Group Co.

GulfNews Business

Retailers can’t ignore in-store experiences

Analysis|Retail|: We have had seven months of the pandemic - the effect has been unprecedented and devastating at so many levels. One would think that humans are adaptable and should by now have found ways to cope, but in so many ways we are still groping with no clear path visible. The uncertain future and elusive end point perhaps had the most destabilizing effect on attitudes and behaviour. It is easier to bear inconveniences when the destination is discernable. But when it is not, it has completely different effects on the psyche with some people in denial by ignoring the threat, and others receding into a tight shell. They call it the new normal. See More Photos: New products, services rolled out by Apple Photos: Dubai cruise industry ready to set sail again Assembling a solar powered future in China Mexico holds symbolic raffle for unwanted presidential jet The situation is pretty much the same for retailers, most of who have been bleeding copiously in the half-year. Cost cutting has been done, stores pruned, and many of them have already run through their reserves, or will soon be doing so. Every organization is being forced to rethink, rediscover the reason for its existence, redefine purpose and realign strategies. There is no doubt that the market of 2021 will look very different from that of January 2020, most noticeable of which will be fewer players. What are the realities facing us: 1. Businesses need to be designed for the market in which they exist. Globalisation and the free movement of people and goods were the sine que non for success. Profitability depended on scale for manufacturing, hospitality, tourism or retail. Successful food companies had their networks across continents and not just in the home country. The same for hotel chains and even for retailers. Either products had to be moved across geographies, or customers had to be moved across countries. With scale as the secret sauce, it meant that local markets and customers have inevitably been neglected... or ignored. This is perhaps visible most in the fashion space, where customers for the same brands are similar wherever in the world, and retailers aimed at just these customers. It seems the time of global marketplaces is passing and businesses will need to be re-fitted for purpose, based on the realities of their own markets. 2. Promotions and sales have limited effectiveness and are eventually counterproductive. This has been a growing realization among retailers over the last couple of years, but recent experience underlines the trend of customers looking beyond promotions and sales. While there is still a constituency that is looking for bargains, these events have become like a drug shot delivering an immediate high, but with a severe drop, and withdrawal symptoms after. If people are really looking for deals today, they don’t need to wait to go to physical store events, they can find online offers practically round the clock. The effect of the stimulant is inexorably waning. 3. Why would a customer go to a store? Products are becoming ubiquitous, as are prices and offers. Millennials started the trend and the younger generations following are clearly not loyal to brands, or driven by them. As they become more influential in the market, stores will move from being brand purveyors to presenters of trends and style. You may be having the best names of handbags in the world, but if buyers dig canvas bags and backpacks, pure leather luxury is passé. And the same for so many other products as well. 4. So how will new retail build its relationships? Stronger relationships with their customer are the key and many retailers have jumped onto the digital marketing bandwagon for this. There is no doubt that online presence is de rigueur today, but with extreme digital overload this is also a problem. A recent survey I saw found that people regularly employed an average of three- to four devices using an average of 11.2 communication apps, including social media apps, every day. The sheer volume of information makes it extremely difficult to cut through the clutter to actually create an impact. We also know that digital to digital messaging converts much easier than digital communication to physical sales. Retailers therefore have their work cut out for them. This needs not just tremendous skill and greater investment, it also makes the in-store shopping experience absolutely critical in building loyalty, trust and sales. With less customers entering the door, conversion rates need to increase exponentially. Each aspect of the instore engagement needs focus – better equipped and more proactive staff, easy access to touch and feel products, more informed selling , quick and easy after-sales service, correct pricing… the list goes on. The problem is that most retailers have responded to the current crisis by actually reducing people on the shop floor, chopping staff development costs and cutting marketing spend. In these circumstances how do they deliver an enhanced shopping experience? It is time to redefine retail priorities. - Ajai Kumar Dayal is a retail professional with over three decades experience in the field.

GulfNews Business

Commercial property buys in the UAE come with many plus

Analysis|Property|: A majority of my clients are comfortable with investing in residential property, because most have rented or bought for their own use. And therefore understand what that experience entails. However, very few have actually had similar experiences with commercial property and are, therefore, a little less confident in investing in this potentially lucrative segment. Commercial property can add diversification to a portfolio. Segments within the real estate market rarely move in tandem and a mixture of residential and commercial can make an overall portfolio more resilient to inevitable market cycles. See More More COVID-19 rapid screening centres opened with Dhs50 per test Ferrari unveils the 620 horsepower Portofino M In Pictures: Hurricane Sally’s aftermath Z Proto: Nissan brings past and future together with new Z! Risk and reward All things being equal, commercial generate an RoI (return on investment) at least double that of residential. This is mainly due to lower per square foot capital cost, but also reflects the higher levels of risk associated with owning commercial property. Managing tenants in a commercial property is also more straightforward. You will have a business-to-business relationships with tenants, and many of the emotional issues that can complicate residential leasing arrangements won’t exist. It’s easier to keep interactions professional and focused, and fruitful relationships can be built over time to attract blue-chip tenants. They are likely to rent your property for a longer period and less likely to default on payments. In many cases, commercial tenants and property owner interests are aligned. The tenant wants an efficient operation that presents a favorable impression to his customers, business associates or peers and, in this way, is more likely to assist the owner maintain or even improve the property. Setting values Establishing a true value of the investment is often easier with commercial. Reviewing the current owners’ income statement and existing lease details will provide a good indication of likely cashflows and help establish an accurate valuation. Residential properties are often subject to more emotional pricing, developer inefficiency and cost recovery considerations. Many sides to a lease Lease variations abound for commercial properties. The requirements of a tenant operating a high turnover regional distribution and logistics center for non-perishable goods will be vastly different of those of a tenant who requires refrigerated goods storage to supply local retail outlets. In addition to lease rates, negotiations can include such items as maintenance, implementation of storage and logistical systems, provision of office fitouts, insurance, lease-to-buy options… the list goes on. However, there are some possible downsides the investor should consider. Longer gestations Let’s use a warehouse as an example. As most commercial leases are of a duration exceeding two years, with many being of five years with options for an additional five, it could take some time to find a new tenant. Additionally, your current tenant may vacate due to tough economic conditions. Residential property can be resilient when it comes to economic factors over the long term and finding new tenants is not as difficult. As the lease for each commercial facility can be negotiated with flexibility only limited by law, owning a portfolio with numerous commercial properties can be time consuming and complicated. You will need professional help just to handle issues such as maintenance and sundry emergencies. Remember, your clients will be relying on you to address any issues that arise with your property immediately. They, like you, do not want to forgo any revenues or incur costs because of a problem with the property or premises that you provide. Purchasing a commercial property of a size that can generate significant cashflow will typically require more capital upfront than a residential investment. Also, as the scale or size of the premises can be huge, unexpected repairs or major maintenance items can be expensive. This requires careful provisioning when calculating lease rates and free cashflows for re-investment. There is a greater array of physical and safety risks associated with commercial properties. Warehouses, for example, are often frequented by trucks, forklifts or other heavy machinery, which means damage can be substantial from accidents. Having proper insurance is a must, not only for damage to premises and systems, but also in the event of personal injury or death where you, as the owner, can be held liable. Remember, your investment is actually operating as a commercial venture and can receive high volumes of people traffic. As usual, greater returns will attract greater risks. However, as part of an overall balanced investment portfolio, there is no doubt that commercial space can be very lucrative indeed. - Mohanad Alwadiya is CEO of Harbor Real Estate and senior instructor at Dubai Real Estate Institute.

GulfNews Business

Bring in AI's influence to UAE's classrooms

Analysis|: Artificial Intelligence has become such a topic of debate, with developments progressing faster than ever. We have made incredible leaps in the pursuit of further automation, and the UAE is right at the fore. The government have mapped out a plan for AI integration across transport, health and space, with a target to achieve specific objectives by 2071. The UAE was also the first in the world to appoint a government minister dedicated to AI, and has already started rolling out AI programmes, such as the CCTV network ‘Oyoon’ - credited with hundreds of arrests - and facial recognition software at airport E-gates. See More Dog swim day: Munich's canines take a dip This Japanese restaurant is trying to sell curry to Indians Photos: New products, services rolled out by Apple Mexico holds symbolic raffle for unwanted presidential jet Embed With such rapid success already evident, the UAE should now look to expedite a similar incorporation of AI into educational institutions. There is a clear roadmap to follow... and even potentially add to. Existing technology is already capable of several feats that can enhance the learning experience, as well as ease the burden on teachers. David Kellerman at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has developed a system capable of answering a pre-designed set of questions, flagging up other questions for teaching assistants to follow up on, and track students’ performance to build personalised study sets. This delivers a more personalised mode of teaching. US universities like Syracuse, the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University have all developed their own systems that can analyse students’ specific strengths and weaknesses, which it can then use to design an individualised feedback package delivered in real-time for them to work on. Pick one off the shelf The UAE can draw upon existing infrastructure developed by these universities, as well as collaborate with any number of companies that have designed their own platforms. Some mainstream examples include Cram101 (a software that condenses traditional syllabuses to make them more comprehensible with summaries, flashcards and tests), Netex (which allows professors to create pre-set assistance programmes with helpful videos and a personalised assessment tool), and ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Space, a programme that assesses students’ proficiencies across subjects, then designs specific curriculums to ensure gaps in knowledge are adequately filled). It is important to note, that these AI systems are not designed to replace teachers entirely, but rather assist them. I can relate to the common phenomenon of feeling lost in a class where the teacher is trying to address everybody at once. AI can cut out much of the administrative work that tends to occupy a large proportion of teachers’ time, such as marking tests or analysing student data to highlight areas for improvement. This way, AI can streamline much of the educational experience, alleviating teachers of their more mundane responsibilities, freeing up more bandwidth for one-on-one instruction. I can attest to feeling frustrated or discouraged within certain subjects because I struggled to comprehend concepts that came easily to others. If my teachers had more time to allocate to working alone with me on my weaknesses, I am confident that I would have progressed faster and further. Sets them apart This is a quandary that is undoubtedly felt by students and teachers, and one that AI can resolve. Further, AI will also be a boon for UAE schools looking to distinguish themselves as among the best. The more that AI is assimilated into educational institutions, the more appealing those institutions will be to potential talent. Delivering cutting-edge educational experience is a sure-fire way to differentiate local institutes from global competition. Although this will take years to accomplish, the potential payoff of ameliorating the UAE’s international reputation as a heavyweight competitor in the educational sphere certainly seems worthwhile. - Umer Lakhani is a Dubai-based undergrad.

GulfNews Business

Homegrown Dubai membership apps make experiencing luxury easy and affordable

Retail|Technology|: Dubai: Don’t feel like signing up to be a member of any one gym? Then ‘subscribe’ to many… and at rates lower than a single gym membership.  Subscription apps now offer that choice to UAE residents, allowing them to pick and choose among a large list of leisure and entertainment options. The X by OJ Lifestyle is the latest to join the band of apps, which also includes Privilee, Classpass and Entertainer.  See More Photos: Landmarks illuminated for Berlin's Festival of Lights Musical interlude: London stage creeps back to life UAE: Artist depicts Emirati women’s history in digital exhibit Look: Taiwan craftsmen creates miniature worlds And these apps are tapping into a changing mindset among residents - rather than be tied down to any one beach club, gym or salon, they prefer to be ‘free agents’. So they pay a flat fee via the app and enjoy the perks from varying providers.  Privilee, for example, is one such membership app. Members who sign up get unlimited day passes to a number of Dubai's beach, pool and gym venues each day of the week. “We’ve seen consistent growth over the past five years - we started off with eight hotels and a handful of members in Dubai,” said Lars Johannesen CEO and Founder of Privilee. Today, the app allows access to over 60 luxury resorts, 31 beaches and over 1,000 fitness classes across the emirates.  Not sticking to one “Over the past few months and with most people staying in the UAE due to the pandemic, we noticed that members are exploring a larger variety of venues, rather than sticking to the same spots,” said Johannesen. Of course, if all the listed venues can promise the same level of safety assurance in precautions taken against COVID-19. “I am generally not someone who likes to sign up for any memberships,” said Sarah Mahmoud, a Dubai resident. “However, when the pandemic prevented summer travel, I signed up to Privilee for Dh1,500. My kids and i went to different five-star hotels four times a week.” Subtle differences Although these membership and subscription apps may seem to have a lot in common on the surface, it’s a fact that no two services are exactly the same. And the ongoing downturn is impacting them differently. While some have focused on acquiring new subscribers through incentives such as discounted membership rates, like Privilee did during the quiet summer months, others focused on retaining them by providing additional services, as Entertainer did by adding more emphasis on delivery options. Then there was the one who ventured into the space now despite the unpredictable circumstances. Omar Jackson, the app's founder, who launched the “X” by OJ Lifestyle, is going in a different direction. “A lot of membership platforms in the UAE are mostly there to offer discounts or special packages, but we are not tied to those criteria,” he said. “We have fewer brands - but our focus is a higher-end consumer.”  The rationale is that someone who can afford to utilise the brands that the X app partners with shouldn’t have an issue affording the Dh699 a year membership. “We want to make sure that we capture the right clientele,” Jackson said. “We market the brands that we consider high quality in terms of service, reputation, and we will focus on generating revenue and awareness for them rather than diluting them across the competition.” The app promises members access to “offers and experiences”, including events at the Coca Cola Arena and to The Box gym. No one formula fits all The gyms are back in action, but with strict enforcement of COVID-19 protocols. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News Like Privilee, Classpass is another one of those “get more for less” apps, but with a focus on gyms and spas. Founded in 2013, ClassPass provides access to a network of fitness and wellness providers. “Dubai has quickly grown to be one of our Top 30 markets globally by subscriber count - quite the feat considering we operate in more than 3,500 cities,” said Sam Canavan of ClassPass. “Dubai punches well above its weight and [is] similar in subscriber size to the likes of Hong Kong and the Philippines.” According to Canavan, the average Dubai user takes three classes per month, and tries an average of six different class genres - so clearly variety is key. Starting from Dh65 a month, the prices of access is quite competitive given that signing up for some of the popular Dubai gyms can cost an average of Dh2,000 a year. Clearly, annual membership tied to any one service provider is in for some heavy disruption from these apps. And there are no clear winners as yet...