Business

British sports car maker Lotus bought by China’s Geely

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Lotus Evora 400Image copyrightLotus
Image caption The new Lotus Evora 400

Lotus, the British sports car maker, is being bought by China’s Geely.

The purchase is part of a deal by Geely to buy a 49.9% stake in Malaysian carmaker Proton, which owns Lotus.

Geely, which also owns the London Taxi Company and Sweden’s Volvo Car Group, will take a 51% stake in Lotus.

Jean-Marc Gales, who became Lotus chief executive in 2014, has been trying to return the Norwich-based company to consistent profit after two decades in the red.

It was effectively locked out of United States in 2015 when its airbags failed to comply with new car safety regulations, but Lotus returned to the American market last summer.

While the Lotus car company has not been involved in Formula 1 racing since the 1990s it runs an engineering consultancy selling sports car technology.

Geely is expected to use its research in composite materials and lightweight technology to help it comply with increasingly demanding emission regulations in China.

Proton decline

The stake in Proton is expected to give Geely access to the south-east Asian market, where it wants to use Volvo technologies to reclaim market share.

James Chao, of consultancy IHS Markit Automotive, said: “Geely has validated the model of using their Volvo technology platform to create good products. That should be the same for Proton.”

Proton also gives Geely access to right-hand-drive markets around the world, including Malaysia, the UK, India and Australia.

Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Made in KL – the Proton assembly line in Malaysia

Proton was founded in 1983 by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, but its fortunes have dwindled from national champion to being a minor player even in its own domestic market.

It will continue to be majority owned by the Malaysian DRB-HICOM group.

The Malaysian government gave Proton 1.5bn ringgit ($364m) in financial aid last year on condition that it find a foreign partner.

Malaysia’s second finance minister, Johari Abdul Ghani, said: “Proton will always remain a national car and a source of pride. Our very own much-loved brand now has a real chance in making a comeback.”

Geely aims to produce three million cars by 2020 across all its operations.

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Tiffany & Co suffers fall in US sales

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Tiffany HardWareImage copyrightGetty Images

Tiffany & Co has reported a surprise sales slump in the Americas, its largest market, sending shares lower.

The upmarket jeweller sold fewer products than expected in the three months to April, with like-for-like sales falling 4%.

Tiffany has struggled to attract younger customers as consumers opt for less expensive brands.

Worldwide sales in stores open for more than a year fell by 3% – the sixth consecutive quarter of declines.

Analysts had expected a 1.1% rise and the miss sent shares down more than 7% to $86.51 in morning trading in New York.

The stock has risen more than a third over the past 12 months, however.

Tiffany’s net sales rose slightly to $899.6m (£694m), but that was also short of analysts’ forecasts.

Net profit for the quarter rose $5.4m to $92.9m (£71.6m) compared with the same period last year.

In January, Tiffany hired former Coach creative director Reed Krakoff as its first chief artistic officer and named pop star Lady Gaga as the face of its fashion jewellery collection, Tiffany Hardware.

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Nokia 3310 sparks wave of nostalgia as it goes on sale

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Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionRory Cellan-Jones swaps his smartphone for a retro Nokia 3310

The rebooted Nokia 3310 has gone on sale, nearly 17 years after the original made its debut.

The phone, which has a two megapixel camera and relies on 2.5G connectivity to offer only limited internet access, is being sold for £49.99.

The battery is claimed to offer up to 22 hours of talk time, and up to a month in standby mode.

One expert said its success depended on how much people would be willing to pay for a device that “oozes nostalgia”.

“For someone like me, it’s an exciting day,” commented Ben Wood, from technology consultancy CCS Insight.

“If you put this in the hands of a millennial who’s addicted to Snapchat, of course it’s the wrong phone.

“But with over 20 million mobile phones in the UK, approximately one million are feature phones, or ‘dumb phones’ if you want to call them that. This is still a sizeable market.

“This is a premium version, so the question is how much are people willing to pay for that?”

Image copyrightTwitter / Madras Lion

Image copyrightCarphone Warehouse
Image caption Dom Joly gets his hands on a suitably sized version of the new handset

Youtube technology vlogger Safwan Ahmedia was one of the first to buy one.

Image copyrightTwitter / Safwan Ahmedia

Image copyrightTwitter / Jess Volpe

Image copyrightTwitter / Jonathan Beckett

“The interest shown for this reimagined classic has been backed up by incredibly strong levels of pre-registration, and we have already sold out of very limited stock online”, Carphone Warehouse’s Andrew Wilson said.

And a spokesperson for Vodafone told the BBC: “We are delighted to be stocking the phone as demand has been really high”.

EE is registering levels of interest in the device, but O2 and Three said they had no plans to sell the handset.

Nokia 3310 specifications
Weight 79.6g
Operating system Nokia S30+
Connectivity 2.5G, Bluetooth 3.0
Camera Two megapixels
Storage (internal / removable) 32MB, microSD up to 32GB
Battery life 22 hours of talk time, up to a month on standby
Price £49.99

The new device was announced at February’s Mobile World Congress technology show in Barcelona.

It is being built under licence by the Finnish start-up company HMD Global, which also makes several Nokia-branded Android smartphones.

Nokia produced more than 126 million of the original 3310 handsets between 2000 and 2005, when they were phased out.

But it has not made mobile phones since 2013, when it sold its handset business to Microsoft.

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Google plans to track credit card spending

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Person using map service on a smartphoneImage copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Google can use location data to close the gap between the physical and digital worlds although users can block this

Google is planning to track billions of credit and debit card sales to compare online ad clicks with money spent offline.

Google Attribution will allow advertisers to see whether online ad campaigns generate offline sales.

Announcing the service, Google said that it captures around 70% of credit and debit card transactions in the US.

Critics said it represented another blow to privacy.

Google announced the new product in a blogpost, saying: “For the first time, Google Attribution makes it possible for every marketer to measure the impact of their marketing across devices and cross-channel – all in one place.”

Google has vast amounts of data on net users, from services such as AdWords, Google Analytics and DoubleClick Search which combine details about the ads displayed on devices with what has been searched for in Google.

Google can also collect location information from phones, allowing it to work out when a user has seen an ad, and whether they have searched for the product advertised and gone to an offline shop to buy it.

It introduced store visit measurements back in 2014, using the location data on mobiles to track when people visited a store.

“In under three years, advertisers globally have measured over five billion store visits,” it said.

It added that Google’s “third-party partnerships” already capture approximately 70% of credit and debit card transactions in the US, but did not reveal who the partners were or how information was captured.

Google will not have access to the details about what individuals spend – instead they learn the value of all purchases in a certain time period.

“While we developed the concept for this product years ago, it required years of effort to develop a solution that could meet our stringent user privacy requirements,” a spokesman said.

“To accomplish this, we developed a new, custom encryption technology that ensures users’ data remains private, secure, and anonymous.”

“What’s really fascinating to me is that as the companies become increasingly intrusive in terms of their data collection, they also become more secretive,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the Washington Post.

The measurement of store visits will be aggregated and anonymised and no location data will be shared with advertisers.

Users can opt out of the service by going to their ads setting page and unchecking the box that says: “Also use Google Account activity and information to personalise ads on these websites and apps and store that data in your Google Account”.

Users can also disable personalisation for all Google ads. And they can pause or delete their location history.

The service is currently limited to the US and is likely to hit barriers when it is rolled out in Europe later this year, privacy campaigners say.

The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation aims to tighten the ways online firms use and collect data and will require online firms to get explicit consent from consumers about data use.

“The one thing people regularly state as ‘creepy’ online is when an advert follows them around the internet. These plans appear to extend ‘creepy’ into the physical world,” said Renate Samson from Big Brother Watch.

“If people want to avoid having their shopping habits monitored on the high street by Google, by shops or by banks they should restrict the amount of data they hand over.

“Companies track and monitor in order to advertise to us. If we don’t want them to do that, take control; don’t give your email address for a digital receipt, check the terms and conditions, avoid using loyalty cards and where possible choose to pay with cash.”

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Ineos to buy Dong Energy’s oil and gas arm in £1bn deal

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Gas flareImage copyrightThinkstock

British petrochemicals group Ineos is set to become a major North Sea player after acquiring Danish firm Dong Energy’s entire oil and gas business in a deal worth up to $1.3bn (£1bn).

The transaction includes production, development and exploration sites off Denmark, Norway and west of Shetland.

Ineos said the move would make it the biggest private group operating in the North Sea.

The company has been looking recently to expand its upstream arm.

Last month it struck a $250m (£192m) deal with BP to buy the Forties pipeline system, which transports nearly 40% of the UK North Sea’s oil and gas production.

In the latest move, Ineos – which is controlled by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe – will pay Dong just over $1bn, plus up to $250m in contingent payments.

About 440 staff will transfer from Dong on completion of the deal, which is expected in the third quarter.

Image copyrightPA
Image caption Ineos already owns a major refinery in Grangemouth

Dong’s oil and gas assets include stakes in Ormen Lange, the second largest gas field in Norwegian waters, and Laggan-Tormore, a new gas field west of Shetland which came on-stream early last year.

Dong produced 100,000 barrels of oil and gas per day in 2016, down from 115,000 in 2015.

It is also estimated to have as much as 570 million barrels of commercial and potential oil and gas reserves across the Danish, Norwegian and UK continental shelves.

Mr Ratcliffe said the business was a “natural fit” for the group, which owns a major refinery in Grangemouth.

He added: “This business is very important to us at this stage of our growth plans and we are delighted with the expertise that comes with it.

“We have been successful in our petrochemical businesses, focusing on operating our assets safely, efficiently and reliably and we intend to do the same with our oil and gas assets.

“We are keen on further growth and already see lots of opportunity within this impressive portfolio when it transfers to Ineos.”

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RBS case faces fresh delay as talks drag on

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RBS had looked close to an estimated £200m out-of-court deal after making a last ditch offer to the claimants in the case just before a trial was due to begin.

A settlement would stave off the prospect of former boss Fred Goodwin giving evidence in open court on the case, which centres on an ill-fated 2008 rights issue.

The judge, Mr Justice Hildyard, on Monday allowed the start of proceedings to be delayed to see if discussions could lead to an agreement.

On Tuesday, the High Court was told that the majority of investors were willing to settle.

But a day later Jonathan Nash QC, representing the group, said both sides had agreed to ask for an adjournment until 7 June – which was agreed by the judge.

Mr Nash said that “progress towards a settlement remains good” and it was still hoped that a “final compromise of the claims made in these proceedings” would be reached.

A further hearing would still take place this Thursday to update the judge on progress.

An agreement could bring an end to years of pursuit over the £12bn rights issue launched by Mr Goodwin just months before the lender needed rescuing by British taxpayers.

The RBS offer this week represents the latest in a string of last-ditch efforts by the bank to avoid the lead-up to its 2008 cash call being played out in public.

Investors allege that RBS, under Mr Goodwin’s leadership, misled them about the state of the bank’s finances when it raised billions of pounds from them just months before it had to be rescued.

Mr Goodwin, along with Sir Tom McKillop, the former RBS chairman, are named alongside the state-backed bank as defendants in the case.

The Government continues to own more than 70% of the bank, and there is little prospect of it ever recouping the money it paid to avert its outright collapse.

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Ikea unpacks Jesper Brodin as new chief executive

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Peter Agnefjall (l) and Jesper BrodinImage copyrightIkea
Image caption Peter Agnefjall (l) will hand over the reins to Jesper Brodin in September

Ikea, the Swedish flatpack furniture giant, has named Jesper Brodin as its new chief executive from September.

Mr Brodin is the company’s head in Sweden and will succeed Peter Agnefjall, who had been in the role for four years.

Ikea is now based in the Netherlands and the new boss will work in Leiden.

The new chief executive said he was “very honoured and excited” about his new role.

Mr Agnefjall said he will take some time off with his family before embarking on his next challenge.

Lars-Johan Jarnheimer, chairman of Ikea’s parent company INGKA Holding, said: “Under Peter’s leadership, Ikea Group has expanded into new and crucial markets, accelerated our retail transformation in order to meet the changing needs of customers and taken our sustainability commitments further.”

Robert Haigh, of analyst firm Brand Finance, said an internal appointment was a “sensible move” for a firm like Ikea.

“It’s a difficult decision for a company whether to look inside the company or whether to bring someone in,” he said.

“But for one with strong brand identity like Ikea, as we have seen with the recent appointment by John Lewis, it makes sense to continue that identity and culture. Ikea is still performing well and is Sweden and Scandinavia’s most valuable brand.”

Image copyrightGetty Images

Ikea’s sales have grown by double-digit percentages since it started selling its products online eight years ago, but the company is also concentrating on improving the in-store experience for customers.

Mr Haigh added: “While there has been a real decline in out-of-town shopping centres, especially in the food sector, the shopping experience can still be something people really enjoy.

“At Ikea customers like to be able to feel the product and it is almost uniquely tied in with the Ikea experience, with people also going there for the meatballs and other food.”

Ikea opened its first store in 1958 and has made ready-to-assemble furniture a global phenomenon.

Last year 783 million people visited the company’s 348 stores, while it had 2.1 billion visits to its website.

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Moody’s cuts China’s credit rating for first time since 1989

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People walking past a mall with shopping bags in Beijing. Dec 2014Image copyrightGetty Images

China’s credit rating has been cut over fears that growth in the world’s second-biggest economy will slow in the coming years.

Moody’s, one of the world’s big three ratings agencies, cut China by one notch to A1 from Aa3.

It was the first time the agency has downgraded the country since 1989.

China’s finance ministry said Moody’s was exaggerating the mainland’s economic difficulties and underestimating reform efforts.

The downgrade could raise the cost of borrowing for the Chinese government.

The ratings agency also changed its outlook for China to stable from negative.

Moody’s said that the downgrade reflected expectations that China’s financial strength would “erode somewhat over the coming years, with the economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows”.

The other two main credit rating agencies have so far left their evaluations unchanged.

Standard & Poor’s rating for China currently stands at AA- with a negative outlook, while Fitch’s rating is A+ with a stable outlook.

The Chinese economy expanded by 6.7% in 2016 compared with 6.9% the previous year, the slowest growth since 1990.


Analysis

Image copyrightGetty Images

By Karishma Vaswani, Asia business correspondent

This is the first time that Moody’s has cut its investors ratings on Chinese debt in more than a quarter of a century, so it is pretty significant.

However, it is not the first time that international institutions have sounded alarm bells about China’s rising debt levels. They have been going off for the past few years.

What this ratings downgrade on China’s debt boils down to is whether you believe the Chinese government has the ability to write off this debt. Does Beijing somehow have an ability to extend infinite credit lines, or at least reduce debt levels? And can it do so while trying to maintain strong economic growth figures?

Moody’s has obviously come down on the side of the naysayers.

In its statement it points to slowing Chinese growth and rising debt levels to keep the economy expanding. It also says that reforms may take a backseat to growth priorities.

Remember: this is a critical time for President Xi Jinping, who faces a key political congress towards the end of the year. A strong economy gives him credibility and legitimacy – and China observers tell me that the perception of stable growth is crucial for him at this time.

This is why negative assessments from international financial institutions such as Moody’s on Chinese debt are unlikely to go down well in Beijing.

China’s debt stands at something like 260% to GDP. Higher debt levels usually mean a higher level of risk.

But it is worth noting that most of this debt is held by Chinese state-owned enterprises or “quasi-state” like entities – not international investors – so it is less likely to have a spillover effect into other economies.

All the same, as the world’s second-largest economy, what happens in China matters to the rest of the world.

China’s impact on global economy


China is the world’s second-biggest importer of both goods and services.

It also plays an important role as a buyer of oil and other commodities, and its slowdown has been a factor in the decline in the prices of such goods.

Beijing’s aim to rebalance the economy towards domestic consumption has led to major challenges for manufacturers, and there have been layoffs – especially in heavily staffed state-run sectors such as the steel industry.

The downgrade comes as Beijing tries to clean up its lending practices, which have been viewed as a threat to financial stability.

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Moody’s cuts rating for Chinese economy

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Moody’s downgraded China’s credit rating by one notch, from Aa3 to A1, while also changing its outlook from “negative” to “stable”.

The downgrade means that, where Moody’s previously regarded China as having a “very strong” capacity to meet its financial commitments, it now believes the country is merely in a “strong” position to do so and is slightly more at risk from changes in economic conditions.

Explaining its decision, Moody’s said the downgrade reflected its “expectation that China’s financial strength will erode somewhat over the coming years, with economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows”.

It added: “While ongoing progress on reforms is likely to transform the economy and financial system over time, it is not likely to prevent a further material rise in economy-wide debt and the consequent increase in contingent liabilities for the Government.”

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Video:China’s grand plan to revive ancient Silk Road

The decision from Moody’s follows growing concern among investors over the levels of debt building in the Chinese economy.

The country’s debt to GDP ratio stands at more than 250%, one of the highest in the world, reflecting attempts by Beijing to continue pump-priming its economy and maintain growth and job creation as millions move from the countryside to make their fortunes in the cities.

There have also been concerns about the levels of debt building up in the private sector, particularly among the banks, which have lent money to businesses that, in some cases, they are unlikely to be repaid.

Increasing signs of a house price bubble in some major cities have added to fears.

Homes in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing shot up in value by 25% or more between 2015 and 2016, with the increases spreading to smaller cities by the middle of last year, although there have been signs more recently that the breakneck rise in prices is slowing after attempts by the authorities to restrict the availability of credit.

However, in justifying its downgrade, Moody’s said it expected that borrowing levels would continue to increase in coming years, with planned reforms by the government likely to slow rises in the level of indebtedness, but not bring it to a halt.

The ratings agency went on: “While China’s GDP will remain very large, and growth will remain high compared to other sovereigns, potential growth is likely to fall in the coming years.

“The importance the Chinese authorities attach to growth suggests that the corresponding fall in official growth targets is likely to be more gradual, rendering the economy increasingly reliant on policy stimulus.

“At least over the near term, with monetary policy limited by the risk of renewing capital outflows, the burden of supporting growth will fall largely on fiscal policy, with spending by government and government-related entities – including policy banks and state-owned enterprises – rising.”

Investors reacted calmly to the news.

Close crop of flags as Chancellor Philip Hammond (L) and Bank of China chairman Tian Guoli (R) attend the UK-China High Level Financial Services Roundtable at the Bank of China head office building in Beijing on July 22, 2016.

Video:China ‘hungry’ for what UK has to offer

Yields on Chinese government bonds, which rise as the price falls, briefly edged higher before finishing largely unchanged.

The main stock index, the Shanghai Composite, finished the session 0.06% higher.

On currency markets, the yuan traded marginally lower against the US dollar, while the Australian dollar, which is often seen as reflecting China’s prospects due to the ties between the two countries, also slipped against the greenback.

Luc Froehlich, head of investment directing in Asian bonds at Fidelity International, said: “Today’s downgrade is yet another sign of the challenges faced by China, which is juggling rising leverage issues, declining economic growth rates and ongoing structural reforms.

“Despite these mounting pressures, we are confident that China’s central bank and its regulators are firmly in control of the situation.

“In particular, China’s recent regulatory tightening should help deflate the country’s credit markets and lead to long-term market stabilisation.”

The A1 rating remains the fifth strongest that Moody’s can give a country’s creditworthiness.

The UK’s creditworthiness is currently assessed as Aa1 by Moody’s, which is its second-strongest credit rating.

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Not just Bitcoin…

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Peter Smith of Blockchain
Image caption Blockchain’s Peter Smith speaks at the Consensus 2017 conference in New York

The price of Bitcoin, a digital currency once located at the fringe of finance, has been rising to new records in recent months as digital assets move into the mainstream.

On Tuesday, it shot past $2,200 (£1,700), more than doubling from just two months ago. And a newer currency, Ethereum, has climbed even faster.

Industry members say uncertainty surrounding the value of global currencies, including the pound, is driving demand for alternative currencies.

The kind of technology that underwrites Bitcoin and newer entrants such as Ethereum, is also gaining, well, currency, as it gets put to new uses by developers and others looking to beef up cyber-security.

Policy changes in Japan and elsewhere in Asia have made it easier to trade. And of course, when it comes to price, interest generates its own momentum.

“It’s a promising technology,” says Joshua Rosenblatt, 34, a Nashville-based attorney at Frost Brown Todd, a midwestern law firm with offices in eight states. He is both an investor and works in the field. “The returns have been unreal and there’s an aspect of not wanting to miss out on a bubble.”

Industry growth

Bitcoin’s market capitalisation shot past $30bn this month, as the price climbed.

Ethereum remains smaller at about $15bn, but it is growing too. The price spiked from less than $20 in March to about $170 today, according to CoinDesk, which tracks the two currencies.

Activity is also up. The number of daily trades in Bitcoin, which is more established, has rocketed from around 40,000 at the start of 2013 to more than 330,000 today.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption New kid on the block: Founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, pictured during TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015

About 2,700 participants attended an industry conference in New York this week, according to Michael Crosby, head of strategy for CoinDesk, which hosted the event.

Mr Rosenblatt, one of the people in attendance, works with smaller investment firms and start-ups, navigating issues relating to coin offerings and “smart contracts”, which use similar technology to enforce and verify business transactions.

In the last year, the number of clients looking for that work has increased from one to about two dozen, he says.

“Our firm is kind of a middle America firm, so the fact that we’re seeing that sort of interest speaks to how much the industry has grown,” he says.

‘Absolute explosion’

Grayscale launched its first digital currency investment trust in 2013.

The New York firm now manages about $400m of investments in digital currencies, up from $60m at the end of 2015, as its client base of wealthy investors, hedge funds and other small firms has grown, and prices for Ethereum and Bitcoin have climbed.

“We’ve seen just an absolute explosion,” says Matthew Beck, an associate at the firm.

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Mr Beck says the firm expects to continue to attract interest, as investors use digital assets to diversify.

“We’re seeing investors start to diversify… and carve out an allocation for digital assets,” he says.

At the moment Bitcoin is used for cross-border transfers, payments for online activities such as gaming and gambling – and as an investment, says Peter Smith, chief executive of Blockchain, one of the major trading platforms.

The currency also made headlines as the preferred currency of the hackers behind the recent attack that crippled the National Health Service in the UK and other organisations around the world.

Going mainstream

Industry members say some companies may be buying up Bitcoin to deploy in the event of a future attack, but they maintained that broader demand is driving price gains.

“There’s a number of people from family offices [and] private equity firms – they’re making small bets and when you add that type of liquidity to the market, that’s going to drive the price up,” says Mr Crosby.

This year’s Consensus conference drew some big corporate names, such as insurer State Farm, carmaker Toyota, and consulting firm Deloitte.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Bitcoin’s market capitalisation passed $30bn this month

Fidelity Investments, a staid, Boston-based money manager known for handling retirement accounts, was one of the presenters. It now accepts Bitcoin in its cafeteria and will soon launch a feature to allow clients to check on their digital currency holdings alongside other investments.

In the scheme of global finance, a $30bn market remains “trivial”, says Blockchain’s Peter Smith. But interest from those players is a sign the industry is becoming more accepted.

“It has truthfully gotten a lot more mainstream and that’s a beautiful thing to see in many ways,” he says.

Looking at the long term

For 49-year-old Stuart Fraser, the climbing price has meant a tidy return on the roughly £15,000 worth of Bitcoin he bought in early 2014.

He estimates his holdings have more than doubled, even after subtracting the Bitcoin he used to buy a virtual reality headset and make investments in the newer Ethereum.

Investors say they are prepared for a boom-bust cycle as the market continues to evolve, technology changes, and regulations come into play.

But Mr Fraser, the managing director of Scotland-based financial technology start-up Wallet.Services, who previously worked in cyber-security, says unless he sees a promising new competitor, he doesn’t plan to cash in now.

“I think [in the] long term, it’s going to go up.”

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