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Scope affirms Belgium’s credit rating at AA with Stable Outlook.

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Scope affirms Belgium’s credit rating at AA with Stable Outlook.

A diversified, wealthy economy with strong funding flexibility, sound external position and structural reform efforts support the rating. High debt levels, weak productivity growth, labour market rigidities and housing price vulnerability are constraints.

Scope Ratings AG today affirms the Kingdom of Belgium’s long-term local-currency issuer rating at AA. The agency also affirms the long-term foreign-currency issuer rating of AA, along with affirming a short-term issuer rating of S-1+ in both local and foreign currency. The sovereign’s senior unsecured debt in both local and foreign currency is also affirmed at AA. All Outlooks are Stable.

Rating drivers

The AA rating is supported by Belgium’s euro area membership, a wealthy and diversified economy, strong external position, strong funding position and a track record of structural reform efforts. Despite these strengths Belgium faces challenges including a high public debt to GDP ratio, weak productivity growth, labour market rigidities and rising vulnerabilities in the housing market. The confirmation of the Stable Outlook reflects Scope’s view that the risks for the ratings remain broadly balanced. Belgium’s wealthy economy, with GDP per capita 13% above the OECD average, has proven resilient. The exceptionally low GDP volatility, a strong diversification of the economy and deep integration in the euro area make the country highly resilient to shocks. Scope expects real GDP growth in 2018 to increase by 1.9% and in 2019 by 1.7%, supported by continued monetary expansion in the euro area. Relatively weak capacity investment, population ageing, and labour market rigidities keep potential growth around 1.5% over the medium-term. Employment growth has helped to reduce Belgian unemployment rates, despite ongoing misalignment between worker skills and industry needs, which results in uneven productivity growth. In recent years, domestic demand has been the main engine of the economic upswing, accompanied by a surge in business investment.

The ratings also benefit from Belgium’s external sustainability, which Scope considers to be robust given its positive net international investment position (NIIP) of 55% of GDP in 2017. The current account was in balance and is expected to remain positive over the medium-term. Both the strong external position and positive net exports buffer the government from higher risk premia.

The Belgian government has also implemented several structural reforms aimed at improving cost competitiveness, paving its way to further fiscal consolidation. The reform process initiated in 2014-15 has been continued in 2018 by the centre-right coalition with a new package of tax and labour market measures. The recent pension reform was an important step in addressing the long-term costs of population ageing. New measures expand the tax base by reducing exceptions and plans to improve disadvantaged groups’ chances on the labour market through better vocational training and major school reforms. These measures are expected to enhance potential growth over the medium term.

After limited progress in recent years, the headline deficit declined significantly in 2017 to 1.0% of GDP from 2.5% on average in 2015 and 2016. This reflected both significant structural fiscal consolidation efforts, as well as the sustained cyclical conditions and strong corporate tax revenues. The fiscal position is expected to stabilise with headline deficits at 1.1-1.3% in 2018 and 2019. The 2018 budget is anticipated to decrease in revenue and expenditures, which is mainly driven by lower tax income and interest payments. Scope anticipates local (2018), regional and national elections (2019) to raise uncertainties, especially if the winning parties face difficulties to form a new government.

Further fiscal consolidation efforts could accelerate the decline in the high public debt-to-GDP ratio. The debt to GDP ratio is projected to continue falling, from 103% of GDP in 2017 approaching to 93% in 2020 assuming primary surpluses to remain at 1.4% and GDP growth at 1.6% over the medium term.

Despite these strengths, several challenges weigh on the ratings. The combination of high public debt (103% in 2017) and private debt ratios (106.1% of GDP in 2016) entail risks to financial stability when the ECB ceases its asset purchase programmes and interest rates start to increase. The recent pension reforms contribute to a more positive outlook, but potential contingent liabilities stemming from demographic transitions remain a major risk to public finances. Compared to its peers, Belgium faces the largest gross-financing needs (GFN). However, the high share of long-term debt denominated in euro and a relatively long average debt maturity of 9.3 years in 2017, one of the highest in the euro area, contribute to low refinancing risk over the medium-term. In addition, the central government is expected to sell equity stakes in Belgian banks (a total of 10bn. Euros), the equivalent of a 2% debt reduction.

Belgium faces weak productivity growth, which largely stems from sectoral misplacement of labour and structural weaknesses in the education system. High regulation of network industries and some professional services restrict competition, resulting in a negative productivity gap, compared to Belgium’s peer rating group. The skill mismatch is a major driver of the sectoral imbalances, based on regional disparities (unemployment rates ranging from 5-6% to 16%), youth unemployment (close to 20% and higher than the EU average), as well as low employment rates among migrants (50% among non-EU28 citizens). Improving employment and labour participation rates will be key to improve sustainability of public finances with an ageing population. Overall unemployment is expected to remain clearly below the ratios of its euro area peers with the trend rate expected to decline further towards 6-6.5% over the medium-term.

Scope believes that short-term vulnerabilities are emerging in Belgium’s housing market. Real estate prices increased by 20% since the great financial crisis leading to steady increases in household debt to around 104% of income, higher than the euro area average. Although households have high net financial wealth of approximately 243% of GDP in 2017, a third of the households can cover no more than six months of debt service. Both the large ratio of private mortgage debt among lower-income households and high repayment rates relative to income contribute to a potential vulnerability. The housing market faces the risk of a significant price correction when interest rates start to rise. A low ratio of variable interest loans mitigates this risk to some extent, but this would nonetheless adversely affect household wealth and thus hence the balance sheets for financial institutions. The recent rejection of a proposed capital surcharge on risky mortgages from the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) by the government inhibits pre-cautionary actions by the NBB. A new proposal is currently under discussion with the government.

Sovereign rating scorecard (CVS) and Qualitative Scorecard (QS)

Scope’s Core Variable Scorecard (CVS), which is based on relative rankings of key sovereign credit fundamentals, signals an indicative A (a) rating range for Belgium. This indicative rating range can be adjusted by up to three notches on the Qualitative Scorecard (QS) depending on the size of relative credit strengths or weaknesses versus peers based on qualitative analysis. For Belgium, the following relative credit strengths have been identified: i) economic policy framework, ii) macro-economic stability and sustainability iii) fiscal policy framework, iv) debt sustainability v) market access and funding sources, vi) current account vulnerability vii) external debt sustainability, viii) vulnerability to short-term external shocks, ix) banking sector performance and x) banking sector oversight and governance.
The combined relative credit strengths and weaknesses indicate a sovereign rating of AA for Belgium. A rating committee has discussed and confirmed these results.

For further details, please see Appendix 2 of the Rating Report.

Outlook and rating-change drivers

The assignment of AA Stable trend reflects Scope’s view that risks to the ratings are now broadly balanced.

The ratings could be downgraded following: i) a sharp deterioration in the economic outlook, ii) a strong deterioration in fiscal results, and/or iii) a reversal of structural reforms. The rating could be upgraded if: i) growth accelerated sharply, ii) debt were to be reduced more than expected, and/or iii) reforms significantly boosted growth potential.

Rating committee

The main points discussed during the rating committee were: i) Belgium’s impact on economic growth potential, ii) fiscal performance and debt sustainability, iii) market access and funding sources, iv) vulnerabilities in the housing market.

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here’s how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 1

By Jeff Carlson, author of The Photographer’s Guide to Luminar 4 and Take Control of Your Digital Photos

suggests “the product you’re creating is not the camera, the lens or a webcam’s clever industrial design. It’s the subject, you, which is just on e part of the entire image they see. You want that image to convey quality, not convenience.”

Technology experts at Reincubate saw an opportunity in the rise of remote-working video calls and developed the app, Camo, to improve the video quality of our webcam calls. As part of this, they consulted the digital photography expert and author, Jeff Carlson, to reveal how we can look our best online. 

It’s clear by now that COVID-19 has normalised remote working, but as part of this the importance of video calls has risen exponentially. While we’re all used to seeing the more casual sides of our colleagues (t-shirt and shorts, anyone?), poor webcam quality is slightly less forgivable.

But how can we improve how we look on video? We consulted Jeff Carlson for some top tips– here is what he had to say.

  1. Improve the picture quality of your call

The better your camera, the higher quality your webcam calls will be. Most webcams (as well as currently being hard to get hold of and expensive), are subpar. A DSLR setup will give you the best picture, but will cost $1,500+. You can also use your iPhone’s amazing camera as a webcam, using the new app from Reincubate, Camo.

Jeff’s comments “The iPhone’s camera system features dedicated coprocessors for evaluating and adjusting the image in real time. Apple has put a tremendous amount of work into its imaging software as a way to compensate for the necessarily small camera sensors. Although it all works in service of creating stills and video, you get the same benefits when using the iPhone as a webcam.”

Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate explains why the team created Camo, “Earlier this year our team moved to working remotely, and in video calls everyone looked pretty bad, irrespective of whether they were on built-in Mac webcams or third-party ones. Thus began my journey to build Camo: an iPhone has one of the world’s best cameras in it, so could we make it work as a webcam? Category-leading webcams are noticeably worse than an iPhone 7. This makes sense: six weeks of Apple’s R&D spend tops Logitech’s annual gross revenue.”

  1. Place your camera at eye level

A video call will never quite be the same as a face-to-face conversation, but bringing your camera up to eye level is a good place to start. That can involve putting your laptop on a stand or pile of books, mounting a webcam to the top of your display screen, or even using a tripod to get the perfect position.

Jeff points out, “If the camera is looking down on you, you’ll appear minimized in the frame; if it’s looking up, you’re inviting people to focus on your chin, neck, or nostrils. Most important, positioning the camera off your eye level is a distraction. Look them in the eye, even if they’re miles or continents away.

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 2

Low camera placement from a MacBook

  1. Make the most of natural lighting

Be aware of the lighting in the room and move yourself to face natural lighting if you can. Positioning the camera so any natural light is behind you takes the light away from your face, which can make it harder to see and read expressions on a call.

Jeff Carlson’s top tip: “If the light from outside is too harsh, diffuse it and create softer shadows by tacking up a white sheet or a stand-alone diffuser over the window.” 

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 3Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 4

Backlit against a window Facing natural light

  1. Use supplementary lighting like ring lights

The downside to natural lighting is that you’re at the mercy of the elements: if it’s too bright you’ll have the sun in your eyes, if it’s too dark you won’t be well lit.

Jeff recommends adding supplementary lighting if you’re looking to really enhance your video calls. After all, it looks like remote working will be carrying on for quite some time.

“The light can be just as easy as a household or inexpensive work light. Angle the light so it’s bouncing off a wall or the ceiling, depending on your work area, which, again, diffuses the light and makes it more flattering.

Or, for a little money, use a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella with daylight bulbs (5500K temperature), or if space is tight, LED panels. Larger lights are better for distributing illumination– don’t be afraid to get them in close to you. Placement depends on the look you’re going after; start by positioning one at a 45-degree angle in front and to the side of you, which lights most of your face while retaining nice shadow detail.” 

In some cases, a ring light may work best. LEDs are arranged in a circle, with space in the middle to put the camera’s lens and get direct illumination from the direction of the camera.

  1. Centre yourself in the frame

Make sure you’re getting the right angle and that you’re using the frame effectively.

“You should aim for people to see your head and part of your torso, not all the space between your hair and the ceiling. Leave a little space above your head so it’s not cut off, but not enough that someone’s eyes are going to drift there.”

  1. Be mindful of your backdrop

It’s not always easy to get the quiet space needed for video calls when working from home, but try as best you can to remove anything too distracting from your background.

“Get rid of clutter or anything that’s distracting or unprofessional, because you can bet that will be the second thing the viewers notice after they see you. (The Twitter account @RateMySkypeRoom is an amusing ongoing commentary on the environments people on television are connecting from.)”

A busy background as seen by a webcam

  1. Make the most of virtual backgrounds

If you’re really struggling with finding a background that looks professional, try using a virtual background.

Jeff suggests: “Some apps can identify your presence in the scene and create a live mask that enables you to use an entirely different image to cover the background. While it’s a fun feature, the quality of the masking is still rudimentary, even with a green screen background that makes this sort of keying more accurate.”

  1. Be aware of your audio settings

Our laptop webcams, cameras, and mobile phones all include microphones, but if it’s at all possible, use a separate microphone instead.

“That can be an inexpensive lavalier mic, a USB microphone, or a set of iPhone earbuds. You can also get wireless lavalier models if you’re moving around during a call, such as presenting at a whiteboard in the camera’s field of view.

The idea is to get the microphone closer to your mouth so it’s recording what you say, not other sounds or echoes in the room. If you type during meetings, mount the mic on an arm instead of resting it on the same surface as your keyboard.”

  1. Be wary of video app add-ons

Video apps like Zoom include a ‘Touch up your appearance’ option in the Video settings. This applies a skin-smoothing filter to your face, but more often than not, the end result looks artificially blurry instead of smooth.

“Zoom also includes settings for suppressing persistent and intermittent background noise, and echo cancellation. They’re all set to Auto by default, but you can choose how aggressive or not the feature is.”

  1. Be the best looking person in the virtual room

What’s important to remember about video calls at this point in time is that most people are new to what is, really, personal broadcasting. That means you can easily get an edge, just by adopting a few suggestions in this article. When your video and audio quality improves, people will take notice.

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation 5

By Keith Phillips, CEO of TISATech

If just six or seven months ago someone had told you that in a matter of weeks people around the world would be locked down in their homes, trying to navigate modern work systems from a prehistoric laptop, bickering with family over who’s hogging the Wi-Fi, migrating online to manage all financial services digitally, all while washing their hands every five minutes in fear of a global pandemic… You’d think they had lost their mind. But this very quickly became the reality for huge swathes of the world and we’re about to go through that all over again as the UK government has asked that those who can work from home should.

Unsurprisingly, statistics show that lockdown restrictions introduced by the UK government in March, led to a sharp increase in people adopting digital services. Banks encouraged its customers to log onto online banking, as they limited (and eventually halted) services at branches. This forced many customers online as their primary means of managing personal finances for the first time.

If anyone had doubts before, the Covid-19 pandemic proved to us the importance of well-functioning, effective digital financial services platforms, for both financial institutions and the people using them.

But with this sudden mass online migration, it’s become clear that traditional banks have struggled to keep up with servicing clients virtually. Legacy banking systems have always stilted the digitisation of financial services, but the pandemic thrust this issue into the limelight. Fintech firms, which focus intently on digital and mobile services, knew it was only a matter of time before financial institutions’ reliance was to increase at an unprecedented rate.

For years, fintechs have been called upon by traditional players to find solutions to problems borne from those clunky legacy systems, like manual completion of account changes and money transfers. Now it is the demand for these services to be online coupled with the need for financial services firms to cut costs, since Covid-19 hit the economy.

Covid-19 has catalysed the urgent need to bring digital transformation to a wider pool of financial services businesses. Customers now have even higher expectations of larger institutions, demanding that they keep up with what the younger and more nimble challengers have to offer. Industry leaders realise that they must transform their businesses as soon as possible, by streamlining and digitising operations to compete and, ultimately, improve services for their customers.

The race for digital acceleration began far before the recent pandemic – in fact, following the 2008 financial crisis is likely more accurate. Since the credit crunch, there has been a wave of new fintech firms, full of young, bright techies looking to be the next big thing. Fintechs have marketed themselves hard at big conferences and expos or by hosting ‘hackathons’, trying to prove themselves as the fastest, most innovative or the most vital to the future of the industry.

However, even during this period where accelerating innovation in online financial services and legacy systems is crucial, the conditions brought about by the pandemic have not been conducive to this much-needed transformation.

The second issue, which again was clear far before the pandemic, is that fact that no matter how nimble or clever the fintechs’ solutions are, it is still hard to implement the solutions seamlessly, as the sector is highly fragmented with banks using extremely outdated systems populated with vast amounts of data.

With the significance of the pandemic becoming more and more clear, and the need for better digital products and services becoming more crucial to financial services firms and consumers by the day, the industry has finally come together to provide a solution.

The TISAtech project was launched last month by The Investing and Saving Alliance (TISA), a membership organisation in the UK with more than 200 leading financial institutions as members. TISA asked The Disruption House, a specialist benchmarking and data analytics business, to create a clearing house platform for the industry to help it more effectively integrate new financial technology. The project aims to enhance products and services while reducing friction and ultimately lowering costs which are passed on to the customers.

With nearly 4,000 fintechs from around the world participating, it will be the world’s largest marketplace dedicated to Open Finance, Savings, and Investment.

Not only will it provide a ‘matchmaking’ service between financial institutions an fintechs, it will also host a sandbox environment. Financial institutions can pose real problems with real data and the fintechs are given the space to race to the bottom – to find the most constructive, cost-effective solution.

Yes, there are other marketplaces, but they all seem to struggle to achieve a return on investment. There is a genuine need for the ‘Trivago’ of financial technology – a one stop shop, run by an independent body, which can do more than just matchmaking. It needs to go above and beyond to encompass the sandboxing, assessments, profiling of fintechs to separate the wheat from the chaff, and provide a space for true collaboration.

The pandemic has taught us that we are more effective if we work together. We need mass support and collaboration to find solutions to problems. Businesses and industries are no different. If fintechs and financial institutions can work together, there is a real chance that we can start to lessen the economic hit for many businesses and consumers by lowering costs and streamlining better services and products. And even if it is just making it that little bit easier to manage personal finances from home when fighting with your children for the Wi-Fi, we are making a difference.

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders 6

By Sean King, Director of International Tax at McGuire Sponsel

The American retail giant, Target Corporation, has a market cap of $64 billion and access to seemingly limitless resources and advisors. So, when the company engaged in its first global expansion, how could anything possibly go wrong?

Less than two years after opening its first Canadian store in 2013, Target shut down all133 Canadian locations and terminated more than 17,000 Canadian employees.

Expansion of an operation to another country can create unique challenges that may impact the financial viability of the entire enterprise. If Target Corporation can colossally fail in its expansion to Canada, how might Mom ‘N’ Pop LLC fare when expanding into Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia?

Successful global expansion requires an understanding of multilayered taxes, regulatory hurdles, employment laws, and cultural nuances. Fortunately, with the right guidance, global expansion can be both possible and profitable for businesses of any size.

Permanent establishment

Any company with global ambitions must first consider whether the company’s expansion outside of the U.S. will give rise to a taxable presence in the local country. In the cross-border context, a “permanent establishment” can be created in a local country when the enterprise reaches a certain level of activity, which is problematic because it exposes the U.S. multinational to taxation in the foreign country.

Foreign entity incorporation

To avoid permanent establishment risk, many U.S. multinationals choose to operate overseas through a formal corporate subsidiary, which reduces the company’s foreign income tax exposure, though it may result in an additional level of foreign income tax on the subsidiary’s earnings. In most jurisdictions, multinationals can operate their business in the foreign country as a branch, a pass through (e.g., partnership,) or a corporation.

As a branch, the U.S. multinational does not create a subsidiary in the foreign country. It holds assets, employees, and bank accounts under its own name. With a pass through, the U.S. multinational creates a separate entity in the foreign country that is treated as a partnership under the tax law of the foreign country but not necessarily as a partnership under U.S. tax law.

U.S. multinationals can also create corporate subsidiaries in the foreign country treated as corporations under the tax law of both the foreign country and the U.S., with possibly two levels of income taxation in the foreign country plus U.S. income taxation of earnings repatriated to the U.S. as dividends.

Check-the-box planning

Under U.S. entity classification rules, certain types of entities can “check the box” to elect their classification to be taxed as a corporation with two levels of tax, a partnership with pass-through taxation, or even be disregarded for U.S. federal income tax purposes. The check the box election allows U.S. multinationals to engage in more effective global tax planning.

Toll charges, transfer pricing and treaties

When establishing a foreign corporate subsidiary, the U.S. multinational will likely need to transfer certain assets to the new entity to make it fully operational. However, in many cases, the U.S. multinational cannot perform the transfer without recognizing taxable income. In the international context, the IRS imposes certain outbound “toll charges” on the transfer of appreciated property to a foreign entity, which are usually provided for in IRC Section 367 and subject to various exceptions and nuances.

Instead, the U.S. multinational may prefer to license intellectual property to the foreign subsidiary for a fee rather than transfer the property outright. However, licensing requires the company and foreign subsidiary to adhere to transfer pricing rules, as dictated by IRC Section 482. The U.S. multinational and the foreign subsidiary must interact in an arms-length manner regarding pricing and economic terms. Furthermore, any such arrangement may attract withholding taxes when royalties are paid across a border.

Are you GILTI?

Certain U.S. multinationals opt to focus on deferring the income recognition at the U.S. level. In doing so, they simply leave overseas profits overseas and delay repatriating any of the earnings to the U.S.

Despite the general merits of this form of planning, U.S. multinationals will be subject to certain IRS anti-deferral mechanisms, commonly known as “Subpart F” and GILTI. Essentially, U.S. shareholders of certain foreign corporations are forced to recognize their pro rata share of certain types of income generated by these foreign entities at the time the income is earned instead of waiting until the foreign entity formally repatriates the income to the U.S.

The end goal

Essentially, all effective international tax planning boils down to treasury management. Effective and early tax planning can properly allow a company to better achieve its initial goal: profitability.

If global expansion is on the horizon for your company, consult a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.

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