27 March 2019

Stuart Taylor

27 March 2019

Good morning,

It might be more than two years since they returned to being ordinary US citizens but for Michelle and Barack Obama, life away from the White House continues to prove lucrative.
 
Yesterday it was revealed that the former first lady’s autobiography, Becoming, is on track to become the most successful memoir in modern publishing history after selling 10 million copies since its launch nearly five months ago.
 
The potential to strike commercial gold with brand Obama is exactly what made publisher Penguin Random House shell out more than $65m to secure the hotly-contested rights to Michelle and Barack’s memoirs. The 44thpresident is yet to release his own account of his time in the Oval Office but I expect, in time, the Obamas will hold numbers one and two on the all-time bestselling list.
 
And with a multi-million pound film and documentary deal in the pipeline with Netflix, the future is bright for this presidential pair. But what about the authors of the tomes that sit next to the Obama books on store shelves around the globe?
 
The rise of ‘robotic authors’ has become a topic of attention following February’s launch of GPT-2, software that claims to be able to create literature that is indiscernible from works written by a human. It is the brainchild of a non-profit technology laboratory based in California and backed by Elon Musk, a man who is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what we perceive as possible. In essence, it is a text generator, using complex algorithms and copious amounts of human-written text to predict what would come next, be it a novel, short story or news article.
 
Both the Guardian and Financial Times assessed the GPT-2 programme in recent days after testing it with some classic titles. Alternative narratives to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen were devised at the click of a computer mouse. The artificial text created plausible sentences but, put together, they came across as a rambling stream of inconsistencies. That makes it well qualified to comment on the Brexit shenanigans in this daily briefing, but not much good for anything else.   

Marcus du Sautoy summed it up in the FT when he said that the text produced may be fairly coherent but the failure to maintain an overarching narrative is because artificial intelligence is unable to demonstrate true creativity. A sentence is more than just a number of words in a sequence. Those words must invoke emotion, knowledge, and countless other sensations that computers, so far, can’t replicate.
 
Musk has claimed that the full version of the programme is too dangerous for the public to use for fears of misuse. However, it feels like that’s the showman’s way of masking its clear inefficiencies. For the time being, the threat that robots are coming to take over our bookshelves is a work of fiction.

News

MPs will today vote on a number of alternatives to Theresa May’s Brexit plan in an attempt to find a way through the political stalemate. Speaker John Bercow will select around half a dozen options, likely to range from cancelling Brexit altogether to leaving the EU without a deal, with MPs marking each option with a "yes" or "no". The prime minister will meet with backbench MPs today in an effort to win them over to her deal, with speculation that she will need to set out a timetable for her departure if she is to have any success in getting her deal through the Commons.
 
All new cars sold in the UK and Europe are to be fitted with anti-speeding technology as part of a major safety shake-up. It is estimated the move will reduce traffic collisions by 30% and significantly reduce the number of lives lost on the road. The introduction of a speed limiter will be made mandatory from 2022.
 
The future of healthcare is set to be a key battleground in the 2020 US election after Donald Trump’s administration stepped up its legal efforts to dismantle all of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It is a reversal of its previous stance that only parts of the policy better known as Obamacare should be repealed. (£)

Business & Economy

Renault is thought to be keen to reignite merger talks with Nissan within the next year and also acquire another carmarker, with Fiat Chrysler among the top targets. The plans are part of a strategy to compete on the world stage with the likes of Volkswagen and Toyota and come more than four months after the arrest of Carlos Ghosn, the former chief executive of Renault and chairman of Nissan. (£)
 
Sports Direct is mulling over a £61.4m takeover approach for Debenhams. The potential offer of 5p a share would be a 127% premium to Debenhams’ closing price of 2.2p and is seen as a last-ditch attempt by Mike Ashley to prevent creditors seizing control of the struggling retailer. (£)
 
Thomas Cook has said it will review its money business as it aims to focus on “greater efficiencies across the business”. As part of the changes, Anth Mooney, the UK boss of retail and money who was brought in two years ago to modernise financial services, will be leaving the company. Thomas Cook has had a tough time of late, issuing two profit warnings following a slump in summer trading. The company has held a strategic review of its airline operations and announced plans last week to close 21 travel agencies and to cut 320 retail jobs. (£)

Markets

What happened yesterday?

The FTSE 100 bounced back from two sessions of losses to end the day’s trading with a slight gain. London’s blue-chip index increased 0.26% to finish at 7,196.3 points, with Ocado leading the gains. A new deal to license its food home delivery technology in Australia helped shares increase four per cent and continue the company’s recovery after a huge fire last month destroyed one of its UK warehouses.
 
Other winners were internationally focused stocks, including Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline and Reckitt Benckiser, lifted by a stronger dollar as US benchmark 10-year yields recovered from 15-month lows. The biggest faller was cruise group Carnival, which dropped 8.5% after it cuts its profit guidance.
 
The more UK-focused FTSE 250 index was up 0.80% at 18,949.26 in afternoon trade. Mid-cap housebuilder Crest Nicholson added five per cent after it named Galliford Try's Peter Truscott as its new chief executive. Galliford dipped 2.4%.
 
On the currency markets, sterling was up 0.05% against the dollar at $1.3209 and 0.39% against the euro at €1.1714.

Finals
Churchill China
Hilton Food Group
Inspired Energy
RHI Magnesita N.V. (DI)
M&C Saatchi
Touchstone Exploration Inc NPV (DI)
 
Interims
Bellway

AGMs
Amino Technologies
Premier Veterinary Group
RM
 
Int. Economic Announcements
(11:00) MBA Mortgage Applications (US)
(12:30) Balance of Trade (US)
(12:30) Current Account (US)
(14:30) Crude Oil Inventories (US)

Columns of Note

In his weekly FT column, Martin Wolf says that the Brexiter slogan that Britain was to “take back control” was both brilliant and delusional, as they have come to realise control is different from sovereignty. Wolf says that, when it comes to economic prowess, the UK as the fifth largest economy is a large minnow, but still a minnow, in a very big lake and needs to stay in the EU if it is to have any significant global sway. (£)
 
Writing in The Times, Daniel Finkelstein says that for as long as the European Research Group (ERG) withholds its support for Theresa May’s central policy on Brexit, the government cannot govern and will have to break the deadlock somehow. He says that a general election is one such feasible way to do that but warns the consequences will be disastrous for the Conservatives and see Jeremy Corbyn enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister. (£)

Did you know?

In England and Wales it is legal to consume alcohol at home or on private premises from the age of five.

Parliamentary highlights

TODAY
 
House of Commons
Oral questions
Scotland
 
Prime Minister's Question Time
 
Motion
Draft Food Additives, Flavourings, Enzymes and Extraction Solvents (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Steve Brine
 
Draft Protecting Against the Effects of Extraterritorial Application of Third Country Legislation (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Dr Liam Fox
 
Draft Animal Health, Plant Health, Seeds and Seed Potatoes (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Michael Gove
 
Draft Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2019 - David Mundell
 
Adjournment
Sustainability of community and sub-post offices - Gavin Newlands
 
House of Lords
Oral questions
Ensuring all alternative education providers are providing a quality education. - Lord Storey
 
Conservative Manifesto commitment to give a one-year National Insurance contributions holiday to firms employing those from disadvantaged groups - Baroness Burt of Solihull
 
Proportion of UK Export Finance’s expenditure on support for energy production was spent on fossil fuels and renewables - Baroness Sheehan
 
Decision by the National Portrait Gallery and Tate to forego the intended donations from the Sackler Trust - The Earl of Clancarty
 
Scottish Parliament
Portfolio Questions

Scottish Green Party Debate
Revoking Article 50
 
TOMORROW

House of Commons
 
Oral questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (including Topical Questions)
 
Church Commissioners, the House of Commons Commission, the Public Accounts Commission and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission
 
Business Statement
Business Questions to the Leader of the House - Andrea Leadsom
 
Backbench Business
General Debate on Beer Taxation and Pubs - Mike Wood
 
General Debate on Permitted Development and Shale Gas Exploration - Wera Hobhouse
 
House of Lords
Oral questions
Speech of the Chief Executive of Ofcom encouraging public service broadcasters to collaborate to compete with global giants such as Netflix and Amazon in producing high-quality original content - Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury
 
Modernising the way productivity is measured in the economy - Lord Haskel
 
Domestic production, marketing and trade of meat prepared according to the rules of religious slaughter - Baroness Ludford
 
Debate
Report from the Liaison Committee 'New special inquiry committees 2019–20'
 
Orders and regulations
Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 2018 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2019 - Lord Duncan of Springbank
 
Employment Rights (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019; Agency Workers (Amendment) Regulations 2019; Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Lord Henley
 
Debate
Continuing and evolving role of the Commonwealth and the UK’s relationship with it - Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
 
Scottish Parliament
General Questions
 
First Minister’s Questions
 
Scottish Government Debate: Progressing Towards a Fairer Scotland for Disabled People