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The Ashes, Cricket’s Most Famous Contest, Remains In Jeopardy Amid Australia’s Covid-19 Chaos

Referred to as the ‘Lucky Country’, far-flung Australia was the envy of many globally during the first 12 months of the pandemic with low numbers of Covid-19 and relatively few restrictions nationwide making that well-worn moniker sound quite prophetic.

However, as we’ve seen basically everywhere, the highly contagious Delta variant has been almost impossible to curb and thus breached Australia’s ‘fortress’ mid-year in Sydney – the country’s most populous city.

It spread to nearby Melbourne – the nation’s next biggest city – resulting in ongoing lockdowns to more than half of the country. The situation has been exacerbated by a tardy vaccine rollout, which has finally received a much-needed spur recently and 50% of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated.

But morale has plunged amid a divisive country where much debate ensures over whether the strict measures – with international travel still shut – should continue leading to almost anarchy in the streets of Melbourne.

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In many ways the country appears broken and parallels can be made with the tumult currently affecting the Australian men’s cricket team amid an apparent recent coup from disgruntled players to oust coach Justin Langer.

The former Test legend’s stubbornness and lethargy to read the room has been reminiscence of beleaguered Australia prime minister Scott Morrison. Langer, however, has received much-needed support from governing body Cricket Australia and his job is safe, for now, although the upcoming Ashes could well define his reign, which started in the aftermath of the Sandpaper debacle in 2018.

But the Ashes between old foes Australia and England, Test cricket’s historical and most treasured contest, is under a cloud given England’s reported reluctance to tour amid expected tight bio-secure conditions – which has drained cricketers since the pandemic started and created chaos in the sport’s calendar.

With all that’s going on in Australia and globally, the Ashes seems somewhat trivial but the importance of sports has been magnified during the pandemic and this treasured battle is still of great importance to a populace hoping to receive a tonic from their local heroes like in happier times. 

And its importance to the national psyche was underlined when the issue crossed into the international political arena with Morrison and his counterpart Boris Johnson thrashing out the issue recently in Washington.

Morrison, under constant pressure with thousands of Australian citizens still stranded overseas, however has refused to grant England’s touring party special concessions although Cricket Australia is confident the tour will go ahead and with a strong contingent of England’s best players on deck.

Disregard the posturing, cricket’s most high-profile contest will ensue. There is just too much at stake – money always wins out – with even India’s tour of Australia late last year underlining this and fully salvaged despite the mighty BCCI’s threats. 

As noted by furious Pakistan boss Ramiz Raja in the wake of England’s much derided pull-out of their upcoming tour of Pakistan, cricket’s power bloc have bandied together during these tough financial times.

Even though there was some bickering between England and India after the fifth Test was scrapped due to a Covid-19 drama with the Indian team, the ‘big three’ of cricket – which also involves Australia – know they need each other to continue being money spinners amid the tumult.

So England won’t shaft Australia like they did Pakistan. But there is still much uncertainty over the Ashes and even a late rejig of venues is possible with the fifth Test in Perth – with Western Australia state possibly being closed off well into 2022 – looking increasingly doubtful due to extremely strict border controls.

Knowing the cautious Western Australia government, led by historically popular premier Mark McGowan, is unlikely to ease restrictions in line with the rest of the country by year’s end, Western Australian cricket officials are bracing for the possibility that Perth will not host a Test match for the second straight summer.

Last year, the first ever Australia and Afghanistan Test was postponed – perhaps too easily by Cricket Australia – because of the Covid-19 situation and 12 months later, incredibly, things remain the same.

Even though Perth has been almost totally Covid-19 free for more than a year and being in the west coast feels akin to having traveled in a time warp, the logistical challenges of hosting Test cricket have reared.

If Perth misses out – and WA cricket insiders are bracing for the worse – then there could well be a first ever Ashes Test in Hobart, which would be more than a silver living with the rescheduled Australia-Afghanistan Test match at Bellerive Oval almost certainly scrapped.

While venues for the Ashes will be thrashed out in the coming weeks amid a lot of politicking between sparring states, almost certainly England’s boisterous fans won’t be able to journey Down Under. The ‘Barmy Army’, those rabid English supporters who normally descend to Australia in droves, won’t be stealing the show in the terraces.

The Barmy Army can be a polarizing bunch but their absence undoubtedly will be felt and the Ashes just won’t quite feel the same particularly during quieter parts of Tests. 

Another notable absence will be the English cricket media with their hefty contingent – which includes some of the most respected sports journalists in the U.K. – usually meaning press boxes spill into overflow areas. Every Ashes tour is a media circus. Remember the Jonny Bairstow headbutting scandal? 

But these pesky reporters won’t be there and perhaps that means England’s players won’t feel quite the same level of scrutiny, which might help their chances with the underdog tourists – even if they’re near full-strength – largely written off.

Rest assured, the Ashes will be played but it won’t be anything like we’ve seen before.

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Singapore is seeing daily record Covid cases. Here’s why it may not be a bad thing

People walk at a pedestrian crossing along the Orchard Road shopping district in Singapore on September 7, 2021.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Authorities in Singapore have tightened Covid measures as infections in the country rise to fresh record highs — but two health experts told CNBC they are not terribly concerned.

The country’s health-care system and workers have been strained by the increase in cases, and there is a need to slow down transmission to avoid seeing more infections in vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the health ministry said Friday when stricter measures were announced again.

For the next four weeks, group sizes for social gatherings will be reduced to two people from five people, and working from home will be the default.

Still, medical experts told CNBC that the latest virus wave may not be a bad thing since Singapore’s population is highly-vaccinated.

Many of the patients with Covid-19 have avoided severe illness and will gain further protection against future infection as antibodies fight the virus, according to Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

Around 82% of Singapore’s population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine. Health authorities on Sunday said 98% of infected individuals had no or mild symptoms over the last 28 days.

Case numbers may remain high for a few months, but the “vast majority” will be well protected by the vaccines and won’t fall seriously ill, Teo said.

“For these people, infection will not have any short-term or long-term consequence to their health, but may additionally trigger a natural immune response which reduces the chance of subsequent infection,” he said in an email.

Potential benefits of natural infection

Letting the virus transmit slowly through the population is “not necessarily a bad thing,” said Ooi Eng Eong, a professor in Duke-NUS Medical School’s emerging infectious diseases program.

The two main vaccines used in Singapore are developed by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, and both use the messenger RNA technology.

mRNA vaccines instruct the body to produce a so-called spike protein which is found on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19. It is harmless, but triggers the immune system to develop antibodies so that the body will be able to fight off infection better if exposed to the real virus.

“If we get a natural infection, our immune system will be able to recognize a larger part of the virus” as opposed to just the spike protein, Ooi said, adding that it could make a person more resilient against future variants.

Instead of infection followed by vaccination, we’re going to go vaccination followed by infection, which I think is even better because infection will mostly be mild.

Ooi Eng Eong

Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School

He said Singapore could reap the benefits of natural infection that some parts of Europe and North America are experiencing, but in the reverse order.

“Instead of infection followed by vaccination, we’re going to go vaccination followed by infection, which I think is even better because [infections] will mostly be mild,” he said.

“Those [countries] that had high rates of disease last year paid the price” of higher death rates, he told CNBC.

More new variants?

When asked if widespread transmission of Covid could lead to new variants emerging, Ooi acknowledged that it’s difficult to predict what will happen.

However, he pointed out that future variants will have to compete with the “very transmissible” delta variant, the dominant strain worldwide.

“It’s very hard to beat delta,” he said.

There were also concerns about mu, a new variant of interest, but it couldn’t take off because delta was too strong, he said.

“Having said that, I think the wise thing to do is still to be prepared that something fitter than delta could eventually emerge, or that the new variant could escape the immunity produced by vaccination,” Ooi said.

Local Covid situation

The number of severe Covid cases remains within expectations, according to Singapore’s health ministry.

There were 172 cases that required oxygen supplementation, and 30 in the intensive care unit (ICU) as of Sunday. ICU capacity can be ramped up to 1,600 beds if needed, the government said.

The two professors who spoke to CNBC were split on the whether there’s a need for new restrictions.

Ooi said the current virus wave is “well within the limits” of Singapore’s capacity. The new restrictions are “unnecessary” and will slow down efforts to live with the disease, he added.

While Teo agreed that the situation wasn’t worsening, he said tightening measures are needed to provide “breathing space” for Singapore to make adjustments to operational and hospitalization protocols.

CNBC Health & Science

Hospital beds are filling up because of the country’s “very cautious” approach, and not because that many people need acute medical care, Teo said.

The long-term plan against Covid is a combination of vaccination and natural infection to provide protection while not overwhelming hospitals, he said, adding that he does not anticipate an increase in the death rate, but the absolute numbers can be expected to rise.

As of Sunday, Singapore reported 87,892 Covid cases and 78 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

— CNBC’s Cory Stieg and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.

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How China Plans to Avert an Evergrande Financial Crisis

“The government can place them under watch and pressure them through their employers or relatives not to make trouble,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who is writing a study of China’s domestic security apparatus.

China has a lot riding on its ability to contain the fallout from an Evergrande collapse. After Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in generations, began his second term in 2017, he identified reining in financial risk as one of the “great battles” for his administration. As he approaches a likely third term in power that would start next year, it could be politically damaging if his government were to mismanage Evergrande.

But China’s problem may be that it controls financial panics too well. Economists inside and outside the country argue that its safeguards have coddled Chinese investors, leaving them too willing to lend money to large companies with weak prospects for repaying it. Over the longer term, though, China’s bigger risk may be that it follows in the footsteps of Japan, which saw years of economic stagnation under the weight of huge debt and slow, unproductive companies.

By not forcefully signaling an Evergrande bailout, the Chinese government is essentially trying to force both investors and Chinese companies to stop channeling money to risky, heavily indebted companies. Yet that approach carries risks, especially if a disorderly collapse upsets China’s legions of home buyers or unnerves potential investors in the property market.

An abrupt default by Evergrande on a wide range of debts “would be a useful catalyst for market discipline, but could also sour both domestic and foreign investor sentiment,” said Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University who is a former head of the China division at the International Monetary Fund.

Some global investors worry that Evergrande’s problems represent a “Lehman moment,” a reference to the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, which heralded the global financial crisis. Evergrande’s collapse, they warn, could expose other debt problems in China and hit foreign investors, who hold considerable amounts of Evergrande debt, and other property developers in the country.

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Marriott And Mall Operator Macerich Promote Shopping Trips

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Retailers bid farewell to layaway, as shoppers embrace buy now, pay later options

Supply chains are snarled and manufacturing is constrained. For weeks, headlines have been telegraphing a clear message to shoppers: This holiday season shop early.

In years past, early bird shoppers may have turned to layaway plans to reserve holiday gifts and pay for the purchases over time. But many retailers — including the nation’s largest, Walmart — have done away with or scaled back these programs. One reason is shoppers have new tools at their disposal to spread out payments.

A popular option for consumers are buy now, pay later plans. Retailers are big fans as well. The point-of-sale loans are easy for retailers to manage, and research shows these options lead to bigger baskets and greater customer loyalty. RBC Capital Markets estimates a BNPL option increases retail conversion rates 20% to 30%, and lifts the average ticket size between 30% and 50%.

Adding incremental sales

“It’s all about incrementality,” said Russell Isaacson, director of retail and automotive lending at Ally Lending, “getting that incremental sale or incremental consumer.”

Installment payments give consumers options and convenience when it comes to managing budgets and purchasing, according to Hemal Nagarsheth, associate partner in Kearney’s financial services practice. He said the option also increases trust between retailers and consumers, leading to “incremental sales, higher average purchase sizes, and higher frequency of purchase.”

Buy now pay later payment plans, offered by companies like Affirm, Australia-based Afterpay and Sweden’s Klarna, are particularly attractive to younger shoppers, like the much-desired Gen Z and millennial consumer. While each plan has differences — from the number of payments to the specific terms — the key similarity is the promise of a handful of equal payments spread over a relatively short period of time, with no hidden fees. Often, the plans are interest-free.

Installment payments are more popular among consumers that either do not have access to credit, or for a variety of reasons, do not want to purchase with a credit card. The option also makes a lot of sense for shoppers who don’t have the funds to cover the total purchase, but will over the next several paychecks, according to Ally Lending President Hans Zandhuis.

The average transaction value is about $200 for a buy now, pay later purchase, said Zandhuis. Often the checkout value for the retailer would have been around $100 had the ability to pay later not been available, he said. With it, that same consumer can spend $175 to $200, with 4 monthly payments of $50. The payments are meant to align with paycheck cycles.

Take apparel retailer Rue21, for example. Its key demographic is an 18- to 25-year-old female shopper, who often doesn’t use credit cards. With many low-priced items on its website, and waning mall traffic, increasing average order volume is a key priority.

When the pandemic shuttered stores, Rue21 had to figure out how to sell to its shoppers online without credit. Since Rue21 added Klarna as a payment option in-store and online, its average order volume is 73% greater than other payment methods, according to a case study Klarna published. Rue21 shoppers that transact with Klarna turn in the highest sales per customer with a 6% higher purchase frequency. As of May, Klarna purchases made up more than a quarter of rue21’s e-commerce sales.

A logo sign outside of a rue21 retail store location in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on January 25, 2019.

Kristoffer Tripplaar | Sipa via AP Images

Affirm boasts that its merchant clients report a 85% increase in average order value when consumers opt to use its BNPL plan over other payment methods. Affirm approves installment payments for purchase totals as high as $17,500, which has proven to be very important for Peloton’s expensive workout equipment and services. FT Partners, an investment bank focused on the fintech space, estimated 30% of Affirm’s first-quarter 2021 revenue came from sales on Peloton’s website.

Klarna’s merchant base reports a 45% increase in average order value when a shopper pays over four payments. Shoppers can also opt to pay in full in 30 days interest-free, or for larger purchase, get financing with monthly payments from 6 to 36 months with an annual percentage rate of between 0% and 29.9%.

New customers

Attracting a customer a retailer might not have swayed otherwise is another benefit of offering a buy now, pay later options.

Earlier this year, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette told investors its partnership with Klarna was helping it to attract new customers.

“We launched Klarna on the Macy’s website in October [2020] and we’ve since scaled it across Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury, both online and in stores,” he said. “With Klarna, we continue to see higher spend per visit and increased acquisition of new younger customers, 45% are under 40. Our goal is to convert all of these new customers to Macy’s loyal customers, who return for future purchases.”

Around 93% of Afterpay’s gross merchandise value in the most recent fiscal year comes from repeat users of the installment payment service, with the longest-tenured consumer making 30 more transactions per year.

Higher conversion

Installment payments allow the retailer to “convert a [consumer’s] wish into a sale” according to Chris Ventry, vice president at global consultant group SS&A company. “It eliminates the ability-to-pay roadblock” said Ventry. “For those using debit cards, the potential for an extended interest-free payment schedule through BNPL is enticing, ultimately enticing enough to drive conversion, which is the primary goal of all digital commerce sites.”

An analysis by Similarweb of the top 100 U.S. fashion and retail websites compared 50 merchants that offer a buy now, pay later option at checkout and 50 that do not. On average, sites with a BNPL option saw a conversion rate of 6% compared with 4% for those that do not.

Afterpay said it increases a retailer’s conversion rate and incremental sales 20% to 30% more than other payment options.

The incremental revenue and increased conversion makes the incremental transaction cost the retailer pays to the fintech companies worth it too. Zandhuis said while the retailer pays an additional 2% higher transaction fee to the BNPL company compared with transaction fees a traditional credit card company charges, “the math speaks for itself. The extra revenue is higher than the cost.”

Afterpay and Klarna charge merchants a 3% to 5% transaction fee, Affirm declined to disclose its transaction fees.

The programs also have advantages compared with traditional layaway, which requires retailers to store purchased items on site while customers make installment payments over time. Increasingly retailers are using stores as mini-fulfillment centers to service online orders. In this model, store space is at a premium.

Growth opportunity

Buy now, pay later is the fastest growing e-commerce payment method globally, with the growth of digital wallets second, according to FIS Worldpay. In 2019, the $60 billion BNPL market represented 2.6% of global e-commerce, excluding China.

Worldpay estimates that use of the option could grow at a compound annual growth rate of 28% to reach $166 billion by 2023. At that pace, it would make up about 5% of global e-commerce outside of China.

Right now, BNPL makes up less than 2% of North American sales, according to FIS WorldPay.

Coresight senior analyst John Harmon acknowledges the opportunity for retailers, but does not see it as a panacea.

“I don’t see BNPL as a magic solution, despite its booming acceptance, since it is just credit of a different sort,” Harmon said.

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Productivity Tips: Forget About Being Productive.

Some groups have found being productive particularly challenging during the pandemic. Half of parents working from home with children under 18, and nearly 40 percent of all remote workers ages 18 to 49, said it had been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents were also more likely than those without children to say they had difficulty meeting deadlines and completing projects on time while working at home.

It is possible that people who are working from home — a relatively small percentage of workers compared to those who cannot do their jobs remotely — also have a false sense of how much they are working. In effect, people who are working at home may be using the wrong denominator when calculating the portion of their time they spend doing work, Mr. Syverson, the University of Chicago economist, said. That could make them feel as if they are working less when they are really working the same amount. (This may not be the case for those working remotely in jobs where their output can be more quantified easily, such as sales representatives.)

“I think there is something to the fact that a lot of workers who work at home are never sort of on the clock versus off the clock,” he said. “Rather than dividing a day’s work by eight hours in the office, they divide the day’s work by the 16 hours they are awake.”

As employers continue trying to figure out how to engage their employees and entice them back to empty offices, how to get the most from their work force has become a management puzzle with wide-ranging economic implications. Already, some have announced plans to give employees more flexibility — a nod to the idea that total output and how people feel are intertwined. Twitter said that employees who are able to do their jobs remotely could work from home forever.

Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” said American culture has long believed that working longer means working harder and being more productive, despite the flaws in that way of thinking. She noted the idea that there is a “productivity cliff” — workers are only productive for a certain number of hours, after which their productivity declines and they may begin making mistakes.

“We’ve long had this really erroneous connection between long work must mean hard work and productivity, and it never has,” she said.

Productivity may also no longer be the be-all end-all it once was.

The pandemic has prompted a collective awakening, borne from a constant and immediate fear of contagion and death, over cultural priorities. For many people, especially the percentage of workers who remained employed and are able to work remotely, personal productivity — at least in the sense that it means producing the most at work, in the most number of hours — is no longer necessarily even the goal.

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