Oil price soars to highest level in years

Gas prices are displayed at a Mobil station in New York. Oil prices are surging to the highest in years, spurred by tension in the Middle East.
Updated 19 April 2018
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Oil price soars to highest level in years

  • Syria tension sends price surging
  • Oil reaches highest in three and a half years

Oil surged Thursday close to three and a half-year peaks on simmering Mideast tensions and keen US demand.

World oil prices extended Wednesday’s gains on the back of data showing a drop in US stockpiles — indicating improved demand — and expectations that a Russia-OPEC output cap deal will be kept in place.

Tensions in the oil-rich Middle East also kept prices elevated.

“Saudi Arabia still calls the shots on global oil markets, and it is increasingly obvious the Saudis are comfortable with oil at $80 or more,” said Interactive Investor analyst Lee Wild.

“Add a drop in weekly US oil reserves to the mix and the only way for crude prices is up.”

In early morning deals, oil surged to summits last seen in November 2014 before paring gains.

London Brent struck $74.44 per barrel and New York crude touched $69.27.

European equity markets meanwhile diverged amid lingering fears over Syria and a possible China-US trade war, but London rose 0.2 percent despite news of sliding March retail sales.

The British capital’s benchmark FTSE 100 index was given a shot in the arm from media reports that Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceuticals was mulling a takeover tilt at Shire.

Shire, which is based in Ireland and listed on the London stock market, saw its share price rocket 6.19 percent to 3,986.5 pence.

Both companies have yet to comment on the latest takeover speculation, but Takeda had stated in March that it was considering the purchase of Shire.

Asian markets enjoyed another day of gains Thursday as the region’s energy firms also tracked a surge in oil prices.

Fresh hopes that Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un will hold a historic summit within months also provided some much-needed optimism.

The positive trading environment is a far cry from the unease felt at the start of the week after US-led strikes on Syrian targets — in response to an alleged chemical attack — sparked worries of a confrontation with Russia, which is an ally of the Damascus regime.

However, reports have suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to ease tensions as he faces fresh sanctions.

China’s announcement of a timetable to remove restrictions on foreign ownership in its car market, the world’s biggest, also lifted optimism that a simmering trade war with the US can be avoided.

Tough rules on doing business in the country’s auto sector had been a major source of anger for Trump, who has already threatened tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports in recent weeks as part of his “America First” protectionist agenda.

However, in its quarterly report on the US economy, the Federal Reserve warned there were concerns about the trade tensions among businesses and farmers, who had seen prices rise already.

The central bank’s Beige Book report said the world’s top economy continued to see moderate growth and it expected to lift interest rates twice more this year, having already hiked them in March.

Meanwhile, the British pound struggled to bounce back against the dollar after diving from post-Brexit vote highs on data Wednesday showing a surprise drop in British inflation.


Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

Updated 24 May 2018
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Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

LONDON: Food giant Nestle plans to combine its scientific research operations into a single unit in an attempt to speed up development of new products at a time when competition from smaller rivals is intensifying.
The world’s biggest packaged food maker, with brands including Nescafe coffee and Perrier water, has been struggling with slowing sales growth for years. Now it is also under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb to increase investor returns.
To better compete, the Swiss company told Reuters it would merge its Nestle Research Center and Nestle Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) into one organization called Nestle Research.
The new entity, to be announced later on Thursday, will continue to be based in Lausanne, Switzerland and will employ around 800 people.
The reorganization, effective July 1, will not involve job cuts or the closure of facilities, a spokesman said.
By linking the “blue-sky” research done at NIHS with the more commercially focused Research Center, it hopes to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into marketable products.
It also hopes this will help it compete with smaller, nimbler rivals who have been eating away at the market share of Nestle and other big firms like Danone, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg.
Nestle Chief Technology Officer Stefan Palzer acknowledged earlier this month that his company had to keep pace with rising demand for goods that are organic, gluten-free or vegan.
“Big trends are embraced by smaller companies a bit more actively than the big companies,” Palzer told Reuters before Nestle’s streamlining plans had been finalized.
“We are adjusting our portfolio, doing many innovations and renovations to make the portfolio more relevant and to address those trends, but smaller companies are more agile.”
In the US — the world’s biggest packaged food market — small challenger brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade’s time, up from about 5 percent last year, Bernstein Research predicted last year.
The combination of research units is the latest move by Palzer aimed at speeding up development and ensuring research efforts are commercially viable.
Palzer, who took over Nestle’s innovation and research and development operations in January, is also supplementing long-term research projects with incremental product launches made faster by experimenting with new ideas more quickly.
Last month, for example, Palzer and colleagues got the idea for a vegetarian or vegan food product while on a business trip.
“Thursday we had an idea, Friday we returned to Switzerland and Monday evening I was able to taste the first prototype,” Palzer said. “Wednesday, this prototype was shown to the executive board, and Friday it was in the global pipeline.”
He declined to give more details of the product, except to say it is currently being assessed by the operations team to see how long it will take to produce and on what machinery.
Other steps include efforts to apply specific developments to more products, such as Nestle’s recent designer sugar crystals launched in low-sugar Milkybars in March, which will go into other products in the future.
The importance of agility was underlined by Nestle’s recent struggle to capitalize on resurgent demand for frozen foods.
The company says it reformulates one third of its product portfolio every year.
Nestle spent 1.72 billion Swiss francs ($1.73 billion) on R&D last year, down slightly from 2016 but up 22 percent from 2012. The company’s sales fell 2.6 percent over the same period.
As a percentage of sales, its expenditure has fluctuated only a little, but demands on the unit have increased.
Wells Fargo analyst John Baumgartner said that across 10 large publicly traded US food companies, median expenses for R&D and advertising have declined 20 percent over the past five years.
“As voids of ideas and marketing have emerged, start-ups have been more responsive to consumer needs, won the culture and created the emotional connections that drive sales,” he said in a recent note.
Palzer said some industry peers had been outsourcing innovation to cut costs, relying on acquisitions of small brands or partnerships with suppliers.
But he said it was critical for Nestle to maintain scientific expertise in-house to keep its own portfolio fresh and to be an attractive partner for collaboration with others. Nestle does R&D around the world, involving around 5,000 people.
Fundamental scientific research will remain key at Nestle, Palzer said, but he also highlighted the value of external partnerships and acquisitions that can bring in new research or capabilities more easily.
Scientific research and innovation itself is not necessarily the reason why big breakthroughs tend to be rare for multinational companies, said Shaun Browne, investment banker at Houlihan Lokey, who advises food companies on deals.
“They often don’t have the patience or passion that is really required,” Browne said. “Often these things are one individual who is just totally determined and passionate about their product and sees it through.”