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Business this week

Though the idea has been mooted for decades, India’s government said the time was ripe for a serious discussion about the merits of a universal basic income. The finance ministry’s annual economic survey included a chapter on UBI as a potential and more efficient substitute for the country’s myriad welfare programmes, many of which take the form of subsidies that fail to reach the intended beneficiaries. The report emphasised that implementing a UBI would be fraught with difficulties, but its prominence in an official government document is noteworthy.

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Donald Trump held a meeting with the bosses of America’s biggest drug companies, an industry that has found itself in the president’s crosshairs for “getting away with murder” by charging sky-high prices for medicines in public health-care schemes. The discussion was amiable. Mr Trump pledged to curb regulations, notably on clinical trials, that can lengthen the time spent developing new drugs, raising costs. But he also urged American drugmakers to make more of their products at home.

Mr Trump attacked alleged currency manipulators, taking aim at China, Germany and Japan for what he claimed were deliberate attempts to keep their currencies low in order to gain a trade advantage. Peter Navarro, his trade guru, described the euro as an “implicit Deutschmark” that is “grossly undervalued”. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, pointed out that Japan’s stimulus programme is designed to reflate the economy. Expectations that the Trump administration wants a weaker dollar helped push it down by 3% against a basket of currencies in January.

The euro zone’s economy grew by 1.7% in 2016, below the 2% it notched up in 2015. Still, that was more than America’s 1.6% growth in GDP, its weakest pace in five years. Notwithstanding the Brexit vote, the best-performing economy in the G7 was probably Britain’s, which grew by 2%.

Toxic wasteland

The head of the European Banking Authority proposed creating a publicly funded “bad bank” that would buy up €1trn ($1.1trn) in toxic debt that sits on the balance-sheets of European banks. Those non-performing loans, a quarter of which are in Italy, are a drag on growth. The EBA has no power to implement such a plan. Germany, which has very low levels of bad debt, would probably oppose it.

Apple cheered investors when it reported a rise in revenue for the last three months of 2016, dispelling worries about a wobble in sales. The company sold $78.4bn-worth of goods in the quarter, up by 3% from the same period in 2015. Sales of the iPhone increased by 5%, a relief for Apple after months of shrinking demand for its signature product. China was still a weak spot, though the 12% drop in revenue there was not as bad as in some previous quarters.

Lyft was downloaded more times over a day than Uber on the Apple app store for the first time, after its rival became ensnared in more bad publicity. A campaign to persuade people to delete their Uber app took off on social media when it was accused, wrongly as it turned out, of trying to take advantage of a taxi strike at New York’s JFK airport that was being held as a protest against Mr Trump’s ban on refugees. Lyft is planning to expand to another 100 American cities this year.

Toyota sold 10.2m cars last year, meaning it can no longer claim to be the world’s biggest carmaker. That crown passes to Volkswagen, which, despite Dieselgate, parked sales of 10.3m vehicles in 2016.

Vodafone confirmed that its subsidiary in India is in merger talks with Idea Cellular. The joint subscriber base of India’s second- and third-biggest carriers would number 390m, combining Idea’s strong presence in rural areas and Vodafone’s urban base. Established operators have been shaken by the launch of the Jio network last year. Part of the Reliance empire owned by Mukesh Ambani, it has offered its customers free calls and data.

You’d better shape up

Facing a marked slowing of sales in America and forecasting a loss for this year, Fitbit decided to cut 6% of its workforce. The maker of smart fitness-trackers was a hot bet with investors at the time of its IPO in 2015, but they are now sweating. Fitbit struggles to compete in a saturated market for wearable devices.

Humanity took a gamble on its future by letting an artificial-intelligence machine take on four of the world’s best poker players. After 20 days the machine, Libratus, won, collecting $1.7m in prize money. Libratus’s achievement is another big step forward for AI: poker is a game of imperfect information, and it had to work out when its opponents were bluffing.

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