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Signs of Economic Hope Are Growing, Some With Superlatives

“I found it very encouraging that there are signs that people are waking up from hibernation, buying new clothes and going out to restaurants,” said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global. “I think people are feeling optimistic that the United States will win the war on the virus. And they have good reason to be hopeful.”

Many economists said the strong retail sales were likely to continue through the spring, even after the new stimulus payments are used up.

The gradual return to normal activities as business restrictions ease has in turn prompted employers to recall workers — and this time, to hold on to them.

The Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of first-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, to about 613,000, the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. That was a decline of 153,000, the largest week-over-week decrease since the summer.

In addition, 132,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 20,000 from the previous week.

“We’re gaining momentum here, which is just unquestionable,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

There are also broader signs of a comeback.

After a devastating year, airlines are growing increasingly hopeful as travelers return. Over the past month, more than one million people were screened each day at federal airport checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration, a signal that a sustained travel recovery is underway.

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China’s First Quarter Growth is Expected to Boom on Paper

Factories are whirring, new apartments are being snapped up and more jobs are up for grabs. When China releases its new economic figures on Friday, they are expected to show a remarkable post-pandemic surge.

The question is whether small businesses and Chinese consumers can fully share in the good times.

China is expected to report that its economy grew by a jaw-dropping double-digit figure in the first three months of the year compared with the same period the year before. The number is widely estimated by economists to be 18 percent to 19 percent. But the growth is as much a reflection of the past — the country’s output shrank 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020 compared with a year earlier — as it is an indication of how China is doing now.

A year ago, entire cities were shut down, planes were grounded and highways were blocked to control the spread of a relentless virus. Today, global demand for computer screens and video consoles that China makes is soaring as people work from home and as a pandemic recovery beckons. That demand has continued as Americans with stimulus checks look to spend money on patio furniture, electronics and other goods made in Chinese factories.

in the corporate sector, where many firms have borrowed beyond their means. Many economists are looking for signs of a broader recovery that relies less on exports and the government and more on Chinese consumers to juice growth.

A slow vaccination rollout and fresh memories of lockdowns have left many consumers in the country skittish. Restaurants are still struggling to bounce back. Waiters, shopkeepers and students are not ready yet for the “revenge spending” that economists hope will power growth. When virus outbreaks occur, the Chinese authorities are quick to put new lockdowns in place, hurting small businesses and their customers.

To avoid a wave of outbreaks in February, the authorities canceled the travel plans of millions of migrant workers for the Lunar New Year holiday, the biggest holiday of the year in China.

“China’s Covid strategy has been to crush it when it reappears, but there seems to be a lot of voluntary social distancing and that’s affecting services,” said Shaun Roache, chief economist for Asia Pacific at S&P Global. “It’s holding back normalization.”

Wu Zhen runs a family business of 13 restaurants and dozens of banquet halls in Yingtan, a city in China’s southeastern Jiangxi Province. When China began to bounce back last year, more people started coming to her restaurants for their favorite dishes, like braised pork. But just as she and her employees began preparing for the Lunar New Year, a new Covid-19 outbreak prompted the authorities to limit the number of people allowed to gather in one place to 50.

“It should have been the best time of the year for our business,” said Ms. Wu, 33.

This year, Ms. Wu decided that closing the entire business over the holiday would be cheaper. “If we want to serve Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner, the labor wage for one day is three times higher than the usual time. We save more money by just closing the doors and the business,” she said. It will be the second year in a row that the restaurants shut their doors over the holiday.

Ms. Wu inherited the business from her father two years ago and employs more than 800 people. Before the pandemic, three quarters of the business revenue came from big banquets for weddings and family reunions. She said business has yet to return to normal after months of crushing virus restrictions.

The setbacks facing small-business owners like Ms. Wu are also affecting regular consumers who are jittery about opening their wallets. According to Zhaopin, China’s biggest job recruitment platform, more jobs in hotels and restaurants, entertainment services and real estate are available than a year ago. But households are still being cautious about spending.

Families continue to save at a higher rate than they did before the pandemic, something that worries economists like Louis Kuijs, who is head of Asian economics at Oxford Economics. Mr. Kuijs is looking at household savings as an indication of whether Chinese consumers are ready to start splurging after months of being stuck at home.

“More people still seem to not go all the way in terms of carefree spending,” he said. “At times there are still some lingering Covid concerns, but there is perhaps also a concern about the general economic situation.”

Many families took on more debt last year as they borrowed to buy property and to cover expenses during the pandemic. China still largely lacks the kind of social safety net that many wealthy countries provide, and some families have to dip into savings for health care and other big costs.

Unlike much of the developed world, China doesn’t subsidize its consumers. Instead of handing out checks to jump-start the economy last year, China ordered state-owned banks to lend to businesses and offered tax rebates.

Retail figures on Friday will give a better sense of where consumers are picking up their old spending habits. But data from the first two months of the year already show that consumers like Li Jinqiu are spending less and saving more.

Mr. Li, 25, who recently got married, has a one-month-old baby at home. He had planned to work for the family business, but it has been hit by the pandemic and he doesn’t think there is much opportunity for him if he stays.

“The whole family has some sense of crisis,” Mr. Li said. “Because of the pandemic and because of family business, I have a sense of crisis.”

Mr. Li said he had received a job offer in sales at a financial firm in Beijing but had delayed the start date to help take care of his newborn. He said he once borrowed to spend on items like his $150,000 Mercedes. Now he drives a $46,000 electric car and has put off buying new clothes.

“When I spend,” he said, “I am more cautious.”

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Retail spending rose nearly 10 percent in March as relief payments hit bank accounts.

Retail sales surged in March, the Commerce Department said on Thursday, as Americans spent their latest round of government stimulus checks and the continued roll out of coronavirus vaccines lured more people back into stores.

The 9.8 percent increase last month was a strong comeback from the nearly 3 percent drop in February, when previous stimulus money had dissipated and a series of winter storms made travel difficult across much of the United States.

The rebound in March sales shows how, a year after the nation’s economy locked down to prevent the spread of the virus, consumer spending remains highly dependent on government support. It also reflects that many areas of consumption frozen by the pandemic have bounced back. Sales of clothing and accessories rose 18 percent, while restaurants and bars saw a 13 percent increase.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law last month, provides direct payments of $1,400 to lower-income Americans. Many of these checks began arriving in households toward the end of last month, when economists saw signs that spending was ramping up again, such as increased hotel occupancy and travel through airports.

Economists at Morgan Stanley had predicted that core retail sales would jump 6.5 percent in March, driven by the stimulus checks that started arriving in people’s bank accounts around March 17. The investment bank said 30 percent of consumers tend to spend their checks within the first 10 days, suggesting that many other consumers have yet to spend their checks, which could strengthen April sales.

More broadly, American consumers are also feeling increasingly optimistic as more people become vaccinated and venture out more frequently. One measure of consumer confidence, tabulated by the Conference Board, said confidence increased about 20 points in March from February, fueled by increased income and stronger business and employment expectations.

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China’s Anger at Foreign Brands Helps Local Rivals

Tim Min once drove BMWs. He considered buying a Tesla.

Instead Mr. Min, the 33-year-old owner of a Beijing cosmetics start-up, bought an electric car made by a Chinese Tesla rival, Nio. He likes Nio’s interiors and voice control features better.

He also considers himself a patriot. “I have a very strong inclination toward Chinese brands and very strong patriotic emotions,” he said. “I used to love Nike, too. Now I don’t see any reason for that. If there’s a good Chinese brand to replace Nike, I’ll be very happy to.”

Western brands like H&M, Nike and Adidas have come under pressure in China for refusing to use cotton produced in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has waged a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities. Shoppers vowed to boycott the brands. Celebrities dropped their endorsement deals.

But foreign brands also face increasing pressure from a new breed of Chinese competitors making high-quality products and selling them through savvy marketing to an increasingly patriotic group of young people. There’s a term for it: “guochao,” or Chinese fad.

HeyTea, a $2 billion milk tea start-up with 700 stores, wants to replace Starbucks. Yuanqisenlin, a four-year-old low-sugar drink company valued at $6 billion, wants to become China’s Coca-Cola. Ubras, a five-year-old company, wants to supplant Victoria’s Secret with the most non-Victoria’s Secret of products: unwired, sporty bras that emphasize comfort.

The anger over Xinjiang cotton has given these Chinese brands another chance to win over consumers. As celebrities cut their ties to foreign brands, Li-Ning, a Chinese sportswear giant, announced that Xiao Zhan, a boy band member, would become its new global ambassador. Within 20 minutes, almost everything that Mr. Xiao wore on a Li-Ning advertisement had sold out online. A hashtag about the campaign was viewed more than one billion times.

China is undergoing a consumer brand revolution. Its young generation is more nationalistic and actively looking for brands that can align with that confidently Chinese identity. Entrepreneurs are rushing to build up names and products that resonate. Investors are turning their attention to these start-ups amid dropping returns from technology and media ventures.

When patriotism becomes a selling point, Western brands are put at a competitive disadvantage, especially in a country that increasingly requires global companies to toe the same political lines that Chinese firms must.

a jump in Tesla deliveries. IPhones remain immensely popular. Campaigns against foreign names have come and gone, and local brands that emphasize politics too much risk unwanted attention if the political winds shift quickly.

Still, interest in local brands marks a significant shift. Post-Mao, the country made few consumer products. The first televisions that most families owned in the 1980s were from Japan. Pierre Cardin, the French designer, reintroduced fashion with his first show in Beijing in 1979, bringing color and flair to a nation that during the Cultural Revolution wore blue and gray.

Chinese people born in the 1970s or earlier remember their first sip of Coco-Cola and their first bite of a Big Mac. We watched films from Hollywood, Japan and Hong Kong as much for the wardrobes and makeup as the plot. We rushed to buy Head & Shoulders shampoo because its Chinese name, Haifeisi, means “sea flying hair.”

“We’ve gone through the European and American fad, the Japanese and Korean fad, the American streetwear fad, even the Hong Kong and Taiwan fad,” said Xun Shaohua, who founded a Shanghai sportswear company that competes with Vans and Converse.

Now could be the time for the China fad. Chinese companies are making better products. China’s Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2009, doesn’t have the same attachment to foreign names.

Even People’s Daily, the traditionally staid Communist Party official newspaper, is getting into branding. It started a streetwear collection with Li-Ning in 2019. That same year, it issued a report with Baidu, the Chinese search company, called “Guochao Pride Big Data.” They found that when people in China searched for brands, more than two-thirds were looking for domestic names, up from only about one-third 10 years earlier.

makes up only about 40 percent of China’s economic output, much less than it does in the United States and Europe.

Patriotism aside, entrepreneurs argue that their ventures rest on a solid business foundation. Similar trends happened in Japan and South Korea, both now home to strong brands. Local players better know the abilities of the country’s supply chains and how to use social media.

Mr. Xun’s sports brand has half a million followers on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and sells at the same prices as Vans and Converse, or even slightly higher. He said his brand competed by making shoes that fit Chinese feet better and offering colors favored locally, such as mint green and fuchsia. He sells exclusively online and teams up with Chinese and foreign brands and personalities, including Pokemon and Hello Kitty. At 37, he’s the only person in his company who was born before 1990.

The guochao fad has also reinvigorated older Chinese brands, like Li-Ning. For many years, sophisticated urbanites considered the brand, created by a former world champion gymnast of the same name, ugly and cheap. Its signature red-and-yellow color combination, after the Chinese flag, was mockingly called “eggs fried with tomato,” an everyday Chinese dish. Li-Ning was losing money. Its shares were on a losing streak.

Then the company introduced a collection at New York Fashion Week in early 2018. Its edgy look, combined with bold Chinese characters and embroidery, created buzz back home. Its shares have risen nearly ninefold since then. Now Li-Ning’s high-end collections sell at $100 to $150 on average, on a par with those of Adidas.

National Basketball Association and Dolce & Gabbana passed pretty quickly, this bout could linger, many people said.

“In the past, some Western brands didn’t understand or failed to respect the Chinese culture mostly because of lack of understanding,” Mr. Xun said. “This time it’s a political issue. They have violated our political sensitivities.”

Then, like any savvy Chinese entrepreneur who knows which topics are sensitive, he asked, “Could we not talk about politics?”

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Bob van Dijk of Prosus on the Future of Technology

The DealBook newsletter delves into a single topic or theme every weekend, providing reporting and analysis that offers a better understanding of an important issue in the news. If you don’t already receive the daily newsletter, sign up here.

Many companies made changes to survive the pandemic. For tech companies, the changes were also about seizing opportunities to thrive as life abruptly moved online. Few companies have juggled these risks and rewards in as many industries, across as many countries, as Prosus, an Amsterdam-based conglomerate that in 2019 was spun out of Naspers, the South African tech and media giant.

Prosus’ holdings run from e-commerce and classifieds to food delivery, fintech and more. The group is valued at around $180 billion, which makes it one of continental Europe’s 10 largest companies. It operates in more than 80 countries and owns sizable stakes in the internet giants Tencent of China and Mail.ru of Russia. The companies that Prosus controls employ around 20,000 people, and many more work as contractors or at companies in which Prosus holds smaller stakes.

Uber, DoorDash and others. But Prosus companies like Delivery Hero and iFood took steps to help preserve long-term good will with its partners at the expense of short-term profits. In Brazil, for example, “we paid restaurants much quicker than we usually did,” Mr. van Dijk said. “From a cash-flow point of view, that was actually pretty important” in keeping restaurants in their good graces, reducing potential tensions between restaurants struggling during the pandemic and online delivery apps seeing demand soar.

It was a similar story in India for classifieds. “We reduced fees substantially, or we waived fees,” he said. “That allowed people to preserve cash. When things started to come back again, there was a lot of appreciation around that.”

digital services taxes throughout Europe, meant to collect more revenue from multinational companies that do extensive business in countries without much of a physical presence within their borders. Those wouldn’t apply to Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said — “we invest locally and pay taxes” — but he added that the charges could erode the industry’s profit margins.

“I understand where it comes from,” he said, but “sometimes the regulation is a little blunt.”

What could hurt Prosus, Mr. van Dijk said, are changes to the gig economy, particularly efforts to entitle delivery drivers to worker benefits. Some drivers prefer the flexibility of being contractors, he said, and “we try to pay people properly regardless of what the legislation is.” As far as he could recall, Prosus has never lobbied against classifying workers as employees, as rivals like Uber have.

Another area to watch is China, which has moved to rein in some of its homegrown internet behemoths. Though officials have focused largely on Alibaba, Tencent hasn’t escaped their gaze: The company, which Prosus bought into back in 2001, was among those fined last month for violating antitrust rules. It is Prosus’ single biggest investment, and a tougher crackdown could batter the conglomerate’s market value.

Despite the stakes, Mr. van Dijk downplayed the threat. “Our impression is that China is still very supportive of its tech giants,” he said.

Adevinta of Norway for $9.2 billion. That defeat followed a losing effort to acquire the restaurant delivery company Just Eat, which Takeaway.com bought for $7.8 billion.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. van Dijk said Prosus hadn’t encountered much competition from special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, which have raised nearly $100 billion this year and are very active acquirers of tech companies. This may be in part because SPACs are largely a U.S. phenomenon, although other countries have been trying to court the blank-check firms.

Mr. van Dijk said Prosus might eventually find itself competing with SPACs, particularly for later-stage private companies. In the meantime, Prosus itself invested $500 million in a SPAC last year when the shell company merged with Skillsoft, an education technology firm.

Lately, Prosus has mostly been investing in its existing businesses. “Putting money into there is still a good idea,” Mr. van Dijk said. And a few months ago the company announced that it would buy back $5 billion of its shares.

Things are looking slightly more measured these days, Mr. van Dijk said, with valuations coming down “to much more sustainable levels.” For a serial dealmaker, that means opportunity: “It’s easier to do acquisitions in a market that is cooling off.”

dealbook@nytimes.com

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What is Going on with China, Cotton and All of These Clothing Brands?

Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands went out across Chinese social media as human rights campaigns collided with cotton sourcing and political gamesmanship. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it may affect everything from your T-shirts to your trench coats.

What’s all this I’m hearing about fashion brands and China? Did someone make another dumb racist ad?

No, it’s much more complicated than an offensive and obvious cultural faux pas. The issue centers on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry — allegations denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands issued statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut ties with the region all together.

Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, charging the allegations are an offense to the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and a slew of celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.

growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.

This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality.

Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.

Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that happens to produce about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, especially the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Though it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government has been increasingly involved in the area, saying it must exert its authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have been moving into the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced-labor camps.

OK, and what about the Uyghurs?

A predominantly Muslim Turkic group, the Uyghur population within Xinjiang numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obedient to the Chinese Communist Party via coercive labor programs.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that connected Uyghurs in forced detention to the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of those brands reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.

banned all imports of cotton from the region, as well as products made from the material and declared what was happening “genocide.” At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that material from Xinjiang was involved in more than 1.5 billion garments imported annually by American brands and retailers.

That’s a lot! How do I know if I am wearing a garment made from Xinjiang cotton?

You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that often it’s hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made.

So if this has been an issue for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?

It isn’t immediately clear. One theory is that it is because of the ramp-up in political brinkmanship between China and the West. On March 22, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Not long after, screenshots from a statement posted in September 2020 by H&M citing “deep concerns” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region, began circulating on Chinese social media. The fallout was fast and furious. There were calls for a boycott, and H&M products were soon missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s Tmall and JD.com. The furor was stoked by comments on the microblogging site Sina Weibo from groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.

Within hours, other big Western brands like Nike and Burberry began trending for the same reason.

And it’s not just consumers who are up in arms: Influencers and celebrities have also been severing ties with the brands. Even video games are bouncing virtual “looks” created by Burberry from their platforms.

one second (there were 100 made). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.

But Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly affirming their national values, often performatively choosing their country over contracts.

In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and a Versace ambassador, publicly repudiated the brand when it made the mistake of creating a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries, seeming to dismiss the “One China” policy and the central government’s sovereignty. Not long afterward, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake, creating a tee that named Hong Kong and Taiwan separately; Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel, immediately distanced herself from the brand.

Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” — outfits worn by video game characters that the brand had introduced with great fanfare — from its popular title Honor of Kings as a response to news that the brand had stopped buying cotton produced in the Xinjiang region. The looks had been available for less than a week.

So this is hitting both fast fashion and the high end. How much of the fashion world is involved?

Potentially, most of it. So far Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have all been swept up in the crisis. Even before the ban, additional companies like Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and the Gap had announced that they did not source material from Xinjiang and had officially taken a stance against human rights abuses.

removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.

That seems squirrelly. Is this likely to escalate?

Brands seem to be concerned that the answer is yes, since, apparently fearful of offending the Chinese government, some companies have proactively announced that they will continue buying cotton from Xinjiang. Hugo Boss, the German company whose suiting is a de facto uniform for the financial world, posted a statement on Weibo saying, “We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton” (even though last fall the company had announced it was no longer sourcing from the region). Muji, the Japanese brand, is also proudly touting its use of Xinjiang cotton on its Chinese websites, as is Uniqlo.

Wait … I get playing possum, but why would a company publicly pledge its allegiance to Xinjiang cotton?

It’s about the Benjamins, buddy. According to a report from Bain & Company released last December, China is expected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025. Last year it was the only part of the world to report year on year growth, with the luxury market reaching 44 billion euros ($52.2 billion).

Is anyone going to come out of this well?

One set of winners could be the Chinese fashion industry, which has long played second fiddle to Western brands, to the frustration of many businesses there. Shares in Chinese apparel groups and textile companies with ties to Xinjiang rallied this week as the backlash gained pace. And more than 20 Chinese brands publicly made statements touting their support for Chinese cotton.

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A Novel Way to Finance School May Penalize Students from HBCU’s, Study Finds

The typical student who borrows to attend college leaves with more than $30,000 in debt. Many struggle to keep up with their payments, and America’s ballooning tab for student loans — now $1.7 trillion, more than any other type of household debt except for mortgages — has become a political flash point.

So a financing approach known as an income-share agreement, which promises to eliminate unaffordable student debt by tying repayment to income, has obvious appeal. But a new study has found that income share agreements can also mask race-based inequalities.

The analysis, released on Thursday by the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, found that borrowers at schools that focus on minority students can end up paying more than their peers at largely white campuses.

Income-share agreements are offered mainly by schools, although some private financiers have started marketing them directly to students. The selling point of such agreements is that, unlike loans, they don’t accumulate interest, and they come with both a predetermined repayment period and a cap on the total amount that the lender can seek as repayment. To students leery of accumulating educational debt that can snowball and stick around for decades, income-share agreements can offer a more flexible alternative.

Silicon Valley investors who are funding start-ups, as well as some policymakers. A growing number of colleges and vocational training programs are letting students finance some or all of their studies with such contracts. Purdue University was the first to offer them widely, starting in 2016. Private schools including Lackawanna College and Clarkson University have followed suit. Vemo Education, a venture that manages I.S.A. programs, said it has worked with 70 schools and training courses.

But the market is opaque and lightly regulated, making it challenging for borrowers to find the kind of consumer-protection disclosures that typically accompany financial products. Financiers are generally not required to reveal any information on how much money they have lent and how those deals have worked out for borrowers.

Student Borrower Protection Center researchers obtained data from the website of one private financier, Stride Funding in Dallas, and studied its agreements to illustrate how they can contain buried inequities. (Other companies that market the agreements directly to students include Align, Defynance and Lumni.)

Like most lenders in this market, Stride varies its repayment terms depending on the borrower’s earning potential. An English major typically will need to fork over a higher percentage of salary than an engineering student. (Stride caps its maximum repayment amount at two times the amount that was borrowed. Its contracts typically require recipients to make payments for five to seven years.)

repay 5.65 percent of their income for five years, according to a payment calculator on Stride’s website. But the same calculator showed that an economics student at Morehouse, an historically Black school in Atlanta, would be asked to repay 6.15 percent of their income.

asked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year to investigate several lenders that they said might be discriminating against women and minority borrowers by charging them higher rates, based on their lending algorithms.

“The risk of discrimination arises because the lender is not evaluating the applicant based on their own characteristics, but instead based on the characteristics of other students at their school or who were in the same major or program,” the lawmakers wrote.

Officials at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund got an early look at the Student Borrower Protection Center’s report and found it disturbing. Stride’s lending might run afoul of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, they said in a letter sent to the company on Thursday morning.

“Particularly given how the economic fallout of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt Black Americans, the need for equitable access to consumer financial products and services is more important than ever,” the fund said in the letter, which was also signed by Mr. Frotman’s group.

Ms. Michaels said Stride “shares the goals” of the two groups and “is excited to have the chance to work with them on our shared mission of providing access to financial products to those who have long been left out of traditional credit marketplaces.”

told Forbes that her company anticipated making loans to 1,800 students this year.

Government regulators have been keeping a cautious eye on the emerging market. Rohit Chopra, President Biden’s nominee to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — which is often the federal enforcer of fair-lending laws — has spoken frequently about the risk of bias in algorithmic lending decisions. (Mr. Chopra, a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, is awaiting a Senate vote on his nomination.)

“Our student debt market is definitely broken, and it needs a massive overhaul,” Mr. Chopra said at a conference last year. “I’m not sure that new products like income share agreements will be an antidote, especially if they worsen disparities.”

Ashok Chandran, a lawyer at the NAACP fund, said he hoped state and federal watchdogs would pay close attention to the novel lending products. “This market operates in such a regulatory dark space,” he said. “We’re pretty troubled by the report, and in particular by how stark the disparities are.”

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Why The Paint Job on Your Car is Crucial to its Resale Value

In 2017, a new Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, resplendent in Soul Red Metallic paint, listed for $35,901. By 2020 that jaunty two-seater had an average resale value of $24,112. If finished in stolid Machine Gray Metallic paint, however, that same model fetched an average of $1,046 less, thanks to the color alone.

Because many other factors influence car value, color is easy to overlook. Yet both paint and car manufacturers maintain international departments of stylists and colorists who not only monitor what consumers are buying but — drawing from the fields of art, architecture, fashion, popular culture and consumer research — predict what people will want up to five years in the future.

Decisions are exasperatingly complex. A popular color for sedans might not work for sports cars. A hit color in Florida might tank in Michigan. According to iSeeCars, a search engine catering to car buyers, the worst color for S.U.V.s was beige, which lost 46 percent of its value over three years. For pickup trucks the best color was … beige. Beige pickups lost only 18 percent in value in the same time period.

The importance of color to cars is almost singular. It’s nothing to chuck a formerly fashionable fuchsia T-shirt, and you can repaint a room in a weekend. But repainting a car costs thousands and requires skilled technicians. With the possible exception of kitchen appliances, there are few color decisions as costly that consumers live with for as long. In a routinely quoted poll from 2000, 39 percent of car buyers said color was more important than brand.

An iSeeCars analysis compared list prices for new 2017 cars with their resale prices in 2020 to see which colors hold value best in different vehicle classes. In addition, some larger paint manufacturers publish annual color popularity reports and predictions for the coming year. Combined, they help draw broad rules for picking the best values in car colors. And while color doesn’t wholly determine a car’s value, if it’s not part of a buying decision, you might get stuck with a gray Miata.

Paint is also about durability, not just aesthetics. It was intended to prevent rust. Henry Ford famously offered customers “a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Black paint was durable and inexpensive — and using a single color sped up production, said Matt Anderson, a curator at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich.

“Popular myth says black was chosen because it dried fast,” he said, “but there’s no evidence that black dried any faster than dark greens or blues,” both among the colors that Ford initially offered.

By the mid-1920s, a DuPont paint formulation helped expand the palette, and color was used as a marketing device; General Motors’ Oakland Motor Car division advertised the True Blue Six model after its bright color in 1924. Even Ford Motor caved in when it needed a marketing boost in 1925.

“Colors then returned for the T’s final two model years in an effort to stimulate slumping sales,” Mr. Anderson said.

Cars came in more than a dozen hues by the mid-50s — the better to attract the female drivers of the family’s second car, the thinking went. Those colors became more vivid in the psychedelic ’60s.

Metal and paint technology upped rust resistance in the ’70s, and then a new process from Europe gained notice, said Clifford Schoff, a paint chemist who spent 30 years at the manufacturer PPG. Clear coating was about to arrive in America.

“We started hearing about the ‘wet look,’” Mr. Schoff said. “The color plus clear meant you kept a higher gloss for a longer time.”

Over the years, those technologies that improved the longevity of cars and paint may help explain the unprecedented 10-year run for white as the most popular color. Its functional advantages also help. White is good in hot climates and hides scratches and dings well, making it popular with fleet buyers.

“Rental car companies love white,” said Karl Brauer, executive analyst for iSeeCars.

But, as the iSeeCars data shows, there is a big gap between what is popular and what retains value.

The 2020 Color Report from the paint provider Axalta (formerly DuPont) said fewer than 1 percent of new cars on lots in America were yellow. Yet iSeeCars data shows yellow retained the most value over all. An overwhelming 30 percent of cars on dealers’ lots are white, followed by 19 percent for both black and gray and 10 percent for silver.

It’s the law of supply and demand. “It’s not that yellow is a popular color. It’s that yellow is popular in relation to how many people want it,” Mr. Brauer said.

“You can’t go wrong buying the popular colors — black, white or silver — but you can’t go right, either,” he added. The most popular colors generally fall in the middle of the value chart.

Rarity alone doesn’t guarantee value. Purple, brown and gold are about as rare as yellow yet retain the least value over all.

There are other anomalies, such as the previously mentioned beige paradox. Trucks did well in muted colors, possibly because, as work vehicles, those hues show less dirt and company names painted on the sides are easy to read.

S.U.V.s did best in flashy colors, possibly because the drivers didn’t want to feel like drudges.

“You are buying the S.U.V. to avoid the minivan,” said Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with expertise in marketing psychology. A lively color, he said, “makes us feel like: ‘I am driving a fun car. I am a fun, exciting person.’”

Apparently minivan owners are focused on utility. Blue retained the most value, losing 39 percent, but that wasn’t much different from the worst, brown, at 42 percent.

This makes it difficult to assess the “best” color for a car. It might be better to consider the best color for a type of buyer.

“People buy things for different reasons,” Mr. Berger said. “Sometimes we buy them for what they do. Sometimes we buy them for what they say about us.”

People who buy cars for utility, like minivan and fleet buyers, seem to value subtle colors that are easy to care for. People who buy a car as a personal statement — sports- and muscle-car owners­ — value glitzy colors.

That still complicates the paint choice for vehicles that defy categorization. Jeeps and trucks are utility vehicles for some and showpieces for others, who bolt on lift kits, light bars and custom grilles. The Jeep Wrangler retained the most value in Xtreme Purple, a color usually at the bottom of the overall chart. Purple Wranglers kept $2,398 more value than the same model in utilitarian silver.

Color prognosticators agree that the new color to reckon with is blue. Last year it accounted for 10 percent of cars on lots, equal to silver. But which blue? Dark? Light? Metallic? People who make a livelihood from car paint see vast differences between shades of a single hue, even mundane white.

“The white we have is not the white we had 20 years ago,” said Paul Czornij, head of color design for car paint at BASF. A carmaker might ask him for “a white metallic that is a little bluish, and from this grazing angle it has this property, and from this angle is has that property,” he added. “That is very exciting.”

For consumers, those fine points appear to have little effect on value. The iSeeCars data shows that metallic paint’s value advantage over nonmetallic is insignificant.

Ultimately, many buyers may choose paint color disregarding both value and popularity to achieve a third goal, Mr. Berger said: “Maybe having a color that’s different than white makes you happy.”

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Foods From Afar Hope to Catch the Eye of American Shoppers

Fonio, a cereal grain imported from West Africa, was once relegated to the shelves of tiny grocery stores frequented by immigrants primarily from Senegal and Mali. But it has gradually made its way to Whole Foods, where pouches decorated with a painted map of Africa are nestled amid packages of rice and lentils, aimed at a broader range of American consumers.

That journey was pushed in part by a Brooklyn company, Yolélé, which roughly means “let the good times roll” in Fula, a West African language. Yolélé also offers seasoned fonio pilafs, a line of fonio chips and, coming soon, fonio flour.

The company was founded in 2017 by Philip Teverow, a food industry veteran, and Pierre Thiam, a chef from Senegal who grew up eating fonio. Mr. Thiam is confident that Americans would eat fonio, too, if they had better access to it.

American Community Survey by the New American Economy, a research organization. Chinese and Mexican immigrants owned most, selling cuisines familiar to American palates. But entrepreneurs from countries like Guinea, Kazakhstan and Senegal are gaining a foothold with less well-known cuisines.

Marketing these foods in the United States has its challenges, like cultural identity and consumer perception. The savviest entrepreneurs work with designers and brand strategists to make their products more approachable.

One of the biggest hurdles is choosing visual clues — fonts, colors, illustrations and photographs — that channel a product’s physical or conceptual provenance. A brand identity that’s too sleek and polished might appear inauthentic and lose credibility. Yet folksy designs or a reliance on regional symbols can look cliché and dated.

Creating the right visuals is a “subtle balance,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. A new foreign food’s packaging must stimulate curiosity and radiate authenticity, “making you feel like there’s some sort of familiarity that maybe you had not yet discovered in yourself,” she said.

Cultural heritage is crucial for a new product, said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru. “You have to stand out,” he said, adding that there is a strong appetite for foreign cuisines and products, especially among younger generations: “They love to experiment with food.”

The global food industry has changed substantially over the past several decades, Mr. Lempert said. New foreign food brands today tend to celebrate their origins, whereas businesses just 10 years ago might have pushed to Americanize their products.

“There was a stigma there,” he said.

Supermarket distribution has also changed. “A lot of these smaller ethnic brands used to be distributed by ethnic food distributors,” Mr. Lempert said. “Now, these companies are going direct to the supermarket.”

Other strategies include posting on social media, especially Instagram, which is considered an effective, low-cost way to market products, and selling directly to consumers through websites and e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon.

But the key is often packaging. A designer’s ability tends to be a blend of creative thinking, diverse professional experience and wide travels. This often outweighs a shared nationality, ethnicity or culture; in fact, many entrepreneurs prefer working with designers from different backgrounds to better see their story through a fresh lens.

Mr. Thiam wanted to use Yolélé to claim fonio’s West African identity while avoiding labels like “exotic” and “ethnic.” He and Mr. Teverow approached Paula Scher, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, where Mr. Thiam already had connections because of his cookbooks. He said that he would have liked to use a designer of African descent, but that when he saw Ms. Scher’s map of Africa, it was “love at first sight.”

After Ms. Scher’s design hit the shelves last spring, sales surged 250 percent, Mr. Teverow said.

Using product names in foreign languages is a common hurdle for food business owners. To broaden the appeal of her classic Middle Eastern spice blends like hawaij, baharat and ras el hanout, Leetal Arazi, a co-founder of New York Shuk, worked with the graphic designer Ayal Zakin to craft a visual solution.

The labels feature elegant illustrations of the contents in each jar, like turmeric or chili peppers, balanced with a modern gold logo and a tiny stylized camel in silhouette.

“All of a sudden, you are less afraid and intimidated to pick it up,” said Ms. Arazi, whose products are sold at supermarkets like Whole Foods and specialty stores.

Mohammed and Rahim Diallo, brothers from Guinea, faced the same challenge for their intensely flavored gingery drink, Ginjan. The designer Ruen Ellis removed any mystery about the drink by listing the ingredients — ginger, pineapple, lemon, vanilla and anise — on the label below a circular logo that centers on a silhouette of Africa.

A straightforward or celebratory story that can bolster a brand’s identity isn’t always possible. Some immigrant founders have fraught relationships with their homelands, or history has convoluted their story.

In late 2018, Daniyar Chukin and the design firm Little Fury rebranded Mr. Chukin’s vaguely Russian-sounding company, Misha, to the vaguely German-sounding Wünder Creamery.

Mr. Chukin had struggled with how to market quark, a creamy yogurtlike product popular in Germany. He grew up eating it in Kazakhstan, where the Soviets had brought it. “Here I am, a Kazakh guy, marketing a product I knew as a Russian one, as a German one to American consumers,” he said with a laugh. “It’s starting to work now.”

His quark is packaged in a yogurt cup with a clean, Nordic look, and Wünder Creamery’s annual earnings are about $1 million after growing 50 percent a year, he said.

Some immigrant entrepreneurs choose to have zero visual references to their food’s country of origin.

“What if we basically just remove the whole idea of being an ethnic food?” said Nigel Sielegar, a designer from Indonesia and the owner of Moon Man, minimalist Southeast Asia dessert stall in the cavernous basement below Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

After pandemic restrictions closed his eatery, Mr. Sielegar pivoted in July to producing sweet kaya jams featuring purple ube, golden palm sugar and green pandan. The coconut milk-based jams are packaged in glass jars with “Moon Man” running diagonally in huge white type across a black label.

The company has sold more than 1,000 kaya jam jars directly to consumers nationwide, Mr. Sielegar said, and recently expanded to selling half-gallon containers wholesale to restaurants.

Package design and brand identity might seem superfluous, even shallow, but they are often the needed prompt for customers to buy, said Dan Formosa, a design consultant.

“There is a expectation of what it’s about and a sense that it’s worth trying,” he said.

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