It's no secret why. Oil and gas account for 55% of Russia's exports -- and with oil prices around $50 a barrel, the country is raking in petrodollars as never before. Moscow's foreign currency reserves now total $113 billion -- nine times their level at the end of 1999, and a comfortable cushion against any new crisis. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has used the oil and gas windfall to reduce Russia's external debt, get government expenditures in hand, and fashion a functioning tax system.
Not all of the news from Russia is favor- able, however. Structural issues such as banking reform and deregulation may help explain why the third major rating agency, Standard & Poor's, hasn't yet raised Russian bonds to investment grade. But the financial situation is so solid that analysts are convinced an S&P upgrade is just months away. Remember the Y2K bug? That was the big switch in computer code at the millennium that some warned would bring many of the world's computer systems crashing down. It didn't happen. Now comes talk of a mini-Y2K that could screw things up for retailers and their customers.
On Jan. 1, all retailers using bar-code scanners in the U.S. and Canada must switch to new 13-digit bar codes, up from 12 digits. This will bring them in line with the Europeans. Many retailers have modified their scanners, but analysts believe some smaller ones have not done so.
What could really tie the industry in knots, however, is that many retailers -- even some biggies -- haven't rewritten the software they use for tracking sales, orders, and inventories. AMR Research expects 10% to 20% of retailers will have problems with scanners or software. "It could cause some major disruptions," says Ray Tromba, a director of retail services at IBM.
The topic is not one retailers are eager to discuss as they roll into the holidays. Calls to major retailers, includ-ing CVS (CVS
) and Kroger (KR
), didn't yield interviews. So attention, post-holiday shoppers: You might want to set aside some extra time to allow for technical difficulties. It's the latest scheme by advertisers to get their mes-sages across in the age of TiVo. But long before the expected rollout of new ads next spring, tech-savvy couch potatoes already have a way to zap them.
The new TiVo idea, disclosed in mid-November, is to program tags onto advertisements that are played on TiVo's personal video recorders. Say a user is watching a recorded episode of The West Wing. As she fast-forwards through a car ad, a picture of a new SUV appears on the screen, along with an invitation to click for a chance to win the car in a sweepstakes. Those who click get an extended 60-to-90-second ad designed just for TiVo. If enough viewers can be enticed this way, it could boost ad sales for TiVo while easing advertisers' fears that growing numbers of viewers will skip over their messages.
Only one problem: Legions of tech-savvy TiVo users know how to program their service to skip over ads 30 seconds at a time. The one-time secret, now widely avail-able on the Web, involves hitting the following sequence on the remote while watching a recorded pro-gram: Select, Play, Select, 30, Select. The TiVo dings twice, acknowledging the change, and users no longer fast-forward through ads; they leap over them in 30-second jumps. A TiVo spokesperson says there are no plans to block this hack. "It's a backdoor thing that people do," she says. For frustrated advertisers, the hunt continues. Just how lazy and inept can men be? Casual Male (CMRG
), the big-and-tall chain, has sold about 100,000 "zipper ties" in the past year. The "Zipper," a pre-knotted tie that slips over the head, gets tightened by way of a zipper on the back. Zipper ties have been mainly a $10 novelty item. But Casual Male gets up to $25 a tie. TV talk-show host Tony Danza gushed over the tie and ESPN2 host Jay Crawford raved that it has "changed his life." Says Casual Male CEO David Levin: "A lot of men see it as a timesaver or seldom wear a tie and never learned how to tie it properly." As neither Danza nor Crawford are big-and-tall customers, will mainstream haberdashers follow suit? People are beginning to forget about Martha Stewart, who started serving her five-month sentence at Alderson Prison in West Virginia in October. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by Shay Roberts at TheMarthaPrisonGiftShop.com. The site sells "Martha-in-jail" theme goodies such as T-shirts and caps. Its best-seller: An apron that reads "Alderson Federal Prison: Protecting you from homemakers."
While the site enjoyed lively sales when the domestic diva first entered the slammer, the action has cooled. "People are used to the idea [of Stewart being behind bars]," says Roberts. He's hopeful that interest will pick up when Stewart reenters civilian life in March. Chris McGurk isn't your typical Hollywood mogul. The MGM Studios (MGM
) vice-chairman has a track record of green-lighting movies heavy on social import but light on blockbuster appeal. Just check out his credits: No Man's Land (about the war in Bosnia), Osama (about the oppression of women by the Taliban), and Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore's documentary on guns).
McGurk, 47, is at it again. On Dec. 22, MGM's United Artists will release Hotel Rwanda. Made for $16 million, the movie recounts the slaughter of 1 million people in clashes between Hutus and Tutsis. It's the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), a hotel manager who over 100 days uses his cunning to save the lives of 1,200 people while the U.N. and others failed to intervene. "The Rwandan genocide has a lot of parallels today in terms of questions about intervention," says McGurk. Spoken like a man determined to break out of the holiday movie clutter. Mamoru Sawahashi has been driving in circles for 16 months, but he still feels he's making headway. Sawahashi is working on hyperfast fourth-generation (4G) cellular service for Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo (DCM
). Since July, 2003, his team has driven an Isuzu van in a half-mile loop around the verdant Miura Peninsula south of Tokyo 250 times a week to test reception from a nearby antenna. "There are many problems to be solved, but we have made a lot of progress," says Sawahashi.
That's right: 4G. Sure, most of the world has yet to adopt 3G, but in Japan millions use 3G every day to make videophone calls, download clips of soccer games, check traffic, and send animated e-mails to friends. So DoCoMo is looking ahead, and this year it plans to devote $91 million to 4G research. Inside the white van, traveling at up to 25 mph, Sawahashi's team has managed transmission speeds up to 300 megabits per second -- 20 times as fast as the speediest 3G links and about 150 times faster than most wired broadband connections to U.S. homes.
Make no mistake: 4G isn't ready for prime time. The signal degrades when the van gets more than a half-mile from the base station. And forget about putting a 4G phone in your pocket. The receiver is the size of a refrigerator and consumes as much power. DoCoMo doesn't expect to launch 4G before 2010.
Skeptics wonder if anyone will ever need that much mobile bandwidth. And technologies such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max will probably be acceptable, cheaper alternatives for many uses -- even if not so fast. But DoCoMo is confident that if it builds it, applications will come. Once those services arrive and subscribers clog the airwaves using them, fear not: DoCoMo is already working on 5G and 6G. Carlyle Group is betting on a neglected corner of telecom -- the phone book. The Washington (D.C.) private equity firm has bought the Hawaiian operations of Verizon (VZ
) for $1.7 billion -- only $2,300 per line. But the jewel, says Managing Director James Attwood Jr., is Verizon Hawaii's Yellow Pages. Why does Carlyle see gold in the Yellow Pages? Attwood aims to expand online, where he expects dramatic ad growth.
That strategy has worked before. Carlyle bought Qwest Communications' (Q
) directory biz for $7.5 billion in 2002. In July, Carlyle took part of it public as Dex Media (DEX
), netting investors a return of 250%, says Attwood. He expects similar results in Hawaii. "The market has come to appreciate the stability [and] high-cash-flow nature of the Yellow Pages," he says. So has Carlyle.