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International expansion drives European middle-market growth and optimism over next 12 months

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International expansion drives European middle-market growth and optimism over next 12 months

– 86% of European middle-market companies plan revenue growth of more than 6% in the next 12 months
– 25% of European middle-market organizations plan international expansion
Cognitive technologies and hiring diverse full-time talent round out growth priorities for European executives

European middle-market companies expect to ride a wave of optimism over the next 12 months and cash in on ambitious growth plans, according to analysis published today in the annual EY Growth Barometer: Europe survey.

Bolstered by Europe’s highest economic confidence levels since the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, European middle-market executives are looking to capitalize and are unmoved by broader concerns around rising nationalist sentiments and other geopolitical uncertainties, including rising tensions over trade.

The annual survey of 863 middle-market executives in eight European countries finds that nearly two-thirds (62%) of the respondents expect growth between 6% and 10% — representing a year-on-year increase of 38 percentage points, while a further 24% are targeting double-digit growth of 11%–15% in the coming 12 months — equalling to a 16 percentage points yearly rise.

International expansion is the driving force behind this confidence, as 25% of European middle-market leaders identified it as their top growth priority.

Andy Baldwin, EY EMEIA Area Managing Partner, says:

“European business leaders are poised for a buoyant year of growth. They are showing themselves to be more agile and willing to adapt to change more than many of their global counterparts. The middle market in Europe is getting ahead of change and shaping their businesses through investment, expansion and the embrace of technologies and diverse talent pools.”

Growth beyond borders

The survey finds that growth ambitions are the highest in Russia and the Netherlands. Thirty-eight percent of middle-market leaders in both countries plan to grow over 11% in the next 12 months.

Germany and France, Europe’s largest economies respectively, are not far behind with 31% of middle-market companies looking at double-digit growth over 11% in both markets. The UK proportion of middle-market organizations showing double-digit growth ambition is lower at 24%, as the uncertainty around Brexit continues to define prospects, the survey reveals.

Amid international expansion, France leads this drive with 33% of respondents looking to enter a new overseas market. In the UK, however, only 16% of middle-market leaders place cross-border expansion as a priority. According to the survey results, Brexit continues to weigh heavily on UK middle-market business leaders as a whole, who are now focused on increasing market share (21%) and pursuing M&A opportunities (19%), rather than expansion beyond the domestic market.

Risks to growth

Given the focus on cross-border expansion, Europe’s middle-market leaders place slow or flat global growth as the top external risk (with 28% of the cohort), 18 percentage points up on 2017 and 4% more than the rest of the world. This is considered a much greater risk than related concerns such as geopolitical uncertainty (9%) and high trade barriers (2%). Other challenges include insufficient cash flow, which 37% of European middle-market CEOs perceive as the leading operational challenge to growth (up 22% from 2017).

Baldwin says: “While Brexit continues to define prospects, particularly in the UK, the critical issue for the European market is sustained global growth. So long as political actions don’t obstruct global economic growth, European company leaders will remain relatively optimistic.”

Embracing and understanding technology

The survey also finds that technology represents the most powerful change to European middle-market businesses in 2018. While last year 70% of the region’s middle-market leaders said they would never adopt robotic process automation, today an even greater percentage (75%) say they are adopting artificial intelligence (AI) within two years. In fact, 97% of all Europe’s middle-market company leaders have plans to adopt AI within five years, putting the region ahead in embracing cognitive technologies and machine learning.

However, far fewer European middle-market companies are complementing this swing with a corresponding strategy to combat against looming cyber threats. Just 7% of the region’s middle-market CEOs are investing in technology to reduce cyber risks and only 5% rate cyber threats as the key barrier to growth.

Baldwin says: “In this world of rapid transformation, agility is a key business strength. Company leaders will need to develop strong digital security strategies hand-in-hand with their AI adoption plans.”

Talent and hiring plans

In a show of confidence of ambitious revenue growth, over a third (37%) of European middle-market CEOs are looking to hire full-time employees and none intend to reduce their workforce. The survey respondents place attracting talent with the right skills (33%) as the No. 1 factor in accelerating growth and say an improved organizational culture will first and foremost attract young and digitally-native talent (36%). In line with a massive shift across the world, 42% of European middle-market company executives place diversity at the top of strategic recruitment priorities, a 29% increase from 2017.

Baldwin says: “New business challenges are creating a need for a different kind of employee, so it is promising to see that leaders are responding to change and prioritizing recruitment. As economic growth is increasingly driven by technology, the race for talent will become more and more vital to competitiveness.”

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Airbus CEO urges trade war ceasefire, easing of COVID travel bans

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Airbus CEO urges trade war ceasefire, easing of COVID travel bans 1

By Tim Hepher

PARIS (Reuters) – The head of European planemaker Airbus called on Saturday for a “ceasefire” in a transatlantic trade war over aircraft subsidies, saying tit-for-tat tariffs on planes and other goods had aggravated damage from the COVID-19 crisis.

Washington progressively imposed import duties of 15% on Airbus jets from 2019 after a prolonged dispute at the World Trade Organization, and the EU responded with matching tariffs on Boeing jets a year later. Wine, whisky and other goods are also affected.

“This dispute, which is now an old dispute, has put us in a lose-lose situation,” Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said in a radio interview.

“We have ended up in a situation where wisdom would normally dictate that we have a ceasefire and resolve this conflict,” he told France Inter.

Boeing was not immediately available for comment.

Brazil, which has waged separate battles with Canada over subsidies for smaller regional jets, on Thursday dropped its own complaint against Ottawa and called for a global peace deal between producing nations on support for aerospace.

Faury said the dispute with Boeing was particularly damaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has badly hit air travel and led to travel restrictions or border closures. He expressed particular concern about widening bans within Europe.

“We are extremely frustrated by the barriers that restrict personal movement and it is almost impossible today to travel in Europe by plane, even domestically,” he said.

“The priority no. 1 for countries in general is to reopen frontiers and allow people to travel on the basis of tests and then eventually vaccinations.”

The comments come as businesses increase pressure on governments to reopen economies as coronavirus vaccine roll-outs gather pace across Europe.

France has defended recently introduced border restrictions, saying they will help the government avoid a new lockdown and stay in force until at least the end of February.

Germany installed border controls with the Czech Republic and Austria last Sunday, drawing protest from Austria and concerns about supply-chain disruptions.

Berlin calls the move a temporary measure of last resort.

Poland said on Saturday it had not ruled out imposing restrictions at the country’s borders with Slovakia and the Czech Republic due to rising COVID-19 cases.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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Why a predictable cold snap crippled the Texas power grid

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Why a predictable cold snap crippled the Texas power grid 2

By Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly

(Reuters) – As Texans cranked up their heaters early Monday to combat plunging temperatures, a record surge of electricity demand set off a disastrous chain reaction in the state’s power grid.

Wind turbines in the state’s northern Panhandle locked up. Natural gas plants shut down when frozen pipes and components shut off fuel flow. A South Texas nuclear reactor went dark after a five-foot section of uninsulated pipe seized up. Power outages quickly spread statewide – leaving millions shivering in their homes for days, with deadly consequences.

It could have been far worse: Before dawn on Monday, the state’s grid operator was “seconds and minutes” away from an uncontrolled blackout for its 26 million customers, its CEO has said. Such a collapse occurs when operators lose the ability to manage the crisis through rolling blackouts; in such cases, it can take weeks or months to fully restore power to customers.

Monday was one of the state’s coldest days in more than a century – but the unprecedented power crisis was hardly unpredictable after Texas had experienced a similar, though less severe, disruption during a 2011 cold snap. Still, Texas power producers failed to adequately winter-proof their systems. And the state’s grid operator underestimated its need for reserve power capacity before the crisis, then moved too slowly to tell utilities to institute rolling blackouts to protect against a grid meltdown, energy analysts, traders and economists said.

Early signs of trouble came long before the forced outages. Two days earlier, for example, the grid suddenly lost 539 megawatts (MW) of power, or enough electricity for nearly 108,000 homes, according to operational messages disclosed by the state’s primary grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

The crisis stemmed from a unique confluence of weaknesses in the state’s power system.

Texas is the only state in the continental United States with an independent and isolated grid. That allows the state to avoid federal regulation – but also severely limits its ability to draw emergency power from other grids. ERCOT also operates the only major U.S. grid that does not have a capacity market – a system that provides payments to operators to be on standby to supply power during severe weather events.

After more than 3 million ERCOT customers lost power in a February 2011 freeze, federal regulators recommended that ERCOT prepare for winter with the same urgency as it does the peak summer season. They also said that, while ERCOT’s reserve power capacity looked good on paper, it did not take into account that many generation units could get knocked offline by freezing weather.

“There were prior severe cold weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp staff summarized after investigating the state’s 2011 rolling blackouts. “Extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.”

ERCOT spokeswoman Leslie Sopko did not comment in detail about the causes of the power crisis but said the grid’s leadership plans to re-evaluate the assumptions that go into its forecasts.

The freeze was easy to see coming, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.

“When I read that this was a black-swan event, I just have to wonder whether the folks who are saying that have been in this business long enough that they forgot everything, or just came into it,” Apt said. “People need to recognize that this sort of weather is pretty common.”

This week’s cold snap left 4.5 million ERCOT customers without power. More than 14.5 million Texans endured a related water-supply crisis as pipes froze and burst. About 65,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday afternoon, even as temperatures started to rise, according to website PowerOutage.US.

State health officials have linked more than two dozen deaths to the power crisis. Some died from hypothermia or possible carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators running in basements and garages without enough ventilation. Officials say they suspect the death count will rise as more bodies are discovered.

THIN POWER RESERVE

In the central Texas city of Austin, the state capital, the minimum February temperature usually falls between 42 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 9 degrees Celsius). This past week, temperatures fell as low as 6 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees Celsius).

In November, ERCOT assured that the grid was prepared to handle such a dire scenario.

“We studied a range of potential risks under both normal and extreme conditions, and believe there is sufficient generation to adequately serve our customers,” said ERCOT’s manager of resource adequacy, Pete Warnken, in a report that month.

Warnken could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Under normal winter conditions, ERCOT forecast it would have about 16,200 MW of power reserves. But under extreme conditions, it predicted a reserve cushion of only about 1,350 MW. That assumed only 23,500 MW of generation outages. During the peak of this week’s crisis, more than 30,000 MW was forced off the grid.

Other U.S. grid operators maintain a capacity market to supply extra power in extreme conditions – paying operators on an ongoing basis, whether they produce power or not. Capacity market auctions determine, three years in advance, the price that power generators receive in exchange for being on emergency standby.

Instead, ERCOT relies on a wholesale electricity market, where free market pricing provides incentives for generators to provide daily power and to make investments to ensure reliability in peak periods, according to economists. The system relied on the theory that power plants should make high profits when energy demand and prices soar – providing them ample money to make investments in, for example, winterization. The Texas legislature restructured the state’s electric market in 1999.

LOOMING CRISIS

Since 2010, ERCOT’s reserve margin – the buffer between generation capacity versus forecasted demand – has dropped to about 10% from about 20%. This has put pressure on generators during demand spikes, making the grid less flexible, according to North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit regulator.

That thin margin for error set off alarms early Monday morning among energy traders and analysts as they watched a sudden drop in the electrical frequency of the Texas grid. One analyst compared it to watching the pulse of a hospital patient drop to life-threatening levels.

Too much of a drop is catastrophic because it would trigger automatic relay switches to disconnect power sources from the grid, setting off uncontrolled blackouts statewide. Dan Jones, an energy analyst at Monterey LLC, watched from his home office in Delaware as the grid’s frequency dropped quickly toward the point that would trigger the automatic shutdowns.

“If you’re not in control, and you are letting the equipment do it, that’s just chaos,” Jones said.

By Sunday afternoon about 3:15 p.m. (CST), ERCOT’s control room signaled it had run out of options to boost electric generation to match the soaring demand. Operators issued a warning that there was “no market solution” for the projected shortage, according to control room messages published by ERCOT on its website.

Adam Sinn, president of Houston-based energy trading firm Aspire Commodities, said ERCOT waited far too long to start telling utilities to cut customers’ power to guard against a grid meltdown. The problems, he said, were readily apparent several days before Monday.

“ERCOT was letting the system get weaker and weaker and weaker,” Sinn said in an interview. “I was thinking: Holy shit, what is this grid operator doing? He has to cut load.”

Sinn said he started texting his friends on Sunday night, warning them to expect widespread outages.

‘SECONDS AND MINUTES’

Early Monday morning, one of the largest sources of electricity in the state – the unit 1 reactor at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station – stopped producing power after the small section of pipe froze in temperatures that averaged 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). The grid lost access to 1,350 MW of nuclear power – enough to power about 270,000 homes – after automatic sensors detected the frozen pipe and protectively shut down the reactor, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

About 2:30 a.m. (CST), the South Plains Electric Cooperative in Lubbock said it received a phone call from ERCOT to cut power to its customers. Inside the ERCOT control room, staff members scrambled to call utilities and cooperatives statewide to tell them to do the same, according to operational messages disclosed by the grid operator.

Three days later, ERCOT Chief Executive Bill Magness acknowledged that the grid operator had only narrowly avoided the calamity of uncontrolled blackouts.

“If we hadn’t taken action,” he said on Thursday, “it was seconds and minutes (away), given the amount of generation that was coming off the system at the same time that the demand was still going up.”

(Reporting by Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly; additional reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

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UK could declare Brexit ‘water wars’ – The Telegraph

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UK could declare Brexit 'water wars' - The Telegraph 3

(Reuters) – Britain could restrict imports of European mineral water and several food products under retaliatory measures being considered by ministers over Brussels’ refusal to end its blockade on British shellfish, the Telegraph reported.

Senior government sources pointed to potential restrictions on the importing of mineral water and seed potatoes, the report said.

(Reporting by Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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