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What does institutional bitcoin mean?

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Blackrock’s chief investment officer of global fixed income told CNBC on Wednesday that the world’s largest asset manager had “started to dabble” in bitcoin.

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This was all the excuse bitcoin needed to charge ahead to a new record high of $52,533.

The institutional buzz around bitcoin started when US-listed Microstrategy, a business intelligence company, revealed in August 2020 that the company had invested $250m of its excess cash in bitcoin as a hedge against the dollar.

One inadvertent consequence of the treasury management move was that Microstrategy’s shares would soon be considered a precious “listed” proxy for owning bitcoin outright, especially by those money managers bound by strict risk-controlled investing mandates that stop them dabbling in crypto.

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The incident proved a gateway moment for institutional interest in bitcoin, culminating in December’s big reveal by Ruffer, the UK-based asset manager, that it too had made a primary investment worth £550m.

Bitcoin has been on a tear ever since then, propelled even higher in recent weeks by electric carmaker Tesla’s announcement that it too has been diversifying its treasury holdings into the crypto asset.

The truly big question is what does it mean for bitcoin now that institutional names are dipping their toes in the asset class and potentially bringing major money inflows with them (beyond the obvious of “number go up”).

A commodities investing echo?

One good precedent to look at is the impact pension funds had on commodity prices when they similarly decided around 2005/6 that they needed to look to alternative investments to diversify against their dollar exposure.

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While the idea of pension funds investing in commodities such as oil, metals and even agricultural goods (usually through futures) is entirely normal today, back in the mid-noughties it represented a big step away from conventional money-managing mandates. The big point of controversy at the time was the lack of yield (a source of controversy with gold itself as well) and hence the overt price risk this would expose the funds to.

To lower the risk, pension funds and institutional managers mostly piled into commodity index products that tracked the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) or into commodity ETFs.

Institutional money’s collective impact on the commodities futures curve over this period is still hotly debated, but it has long been theorised that it may have contributed to the overpricing of commodity futures relative to their spot-price fundamentals, leading to the normalisation of a contango structure in commodity prices, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.

This, in turn, sent a signal to the market to keep producing commodities irrespective of natural demand because the contango structure made it financially lucrative to produce for the simple purpose of storing rather than consuming them.

None of this would have been financially viable if not for the institutional wall of money sitting on the futures curve happy to lose value at every consecutive monthly roll of futures positions into a contango structure. The effect of this was a negative yield for such commodity investing funds.

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For as long as the price of commodities kept going up to compensate for the yield destruction the positions proved manageable. But once commodity prices reversed, it didn’t take too long for institutions to figure out sitting idle on the curve was a lossmaking strategy that could be exploited by physical producers and trading houses on the ground. When that happened, backwardation returned to the market unlocking all the previously stored-up commodities that had been funded by the contango structure.

The effect was a total collapse in the price of commodities (led by oil) over the course of 2015 (GSCI chart courtesy of Trading Economics):

Institutional crypto yield generation?

Unlike core commodity markets, bitcoin’s futures are illiquid and immature. Even so, the natural state of bitcoin’s futures curve has for a long time (much like gold’s) tended towards a contango structure, not backwardation like it does with most other commodities. This is down to its financialised nature.

The other big difference with bitcoin is that, unlike bulky industrial commodities, which require active professional and expert management to physically hold, the crypto asset can be easily stored by institutional managers.

These two elements are important because they provide institutional managers with the opportunity not just to expose themselves to higher bitcoin prices, but also (if they wish) to lock-in a healthy yield with their holdings.

For as long as the bitcoin curve remains in contango, that means it’s a very different proposition for institutional managers than commodity investing was. (For more on how contango trades work, see here.)

How a bitcoin contango trade (and you can bet your bottom cryptodollar there will be hedge funds already doing so) works in theory is simple.

An institution buys physical bitcoin ($51,811 at pixel time) but sells a future ($52,045 at pixel time on the CME) at a premium to the price they acquired the original bitcoin for at the same time. The process hedges their exposure to the price of bitcoin (thus removing risk) while locking-in a risk-free yield that can be collected provided the position is held to the settlement point. It pays to put the position on for as long as the yield generated outnumbers the cost of managing and securing the physical bitcoin, and the cost of capital to fund the position.

But there are some caveats to its risk-free nature. The trade is only as riskless as your futures counterparty. (For more about that see here). This is why until bitcoin futures were traded on a reputable and regulated exchange like the CME, which had proper experience in managing risk and margins, anyone conducting the trade was at risk of having their profits wiped out by the non-performance of their counterparty. And in the early era of the bitcoin Wild West that was a bona fide risk.

The launch of CME bitcoin futures, however, heralded in a new risk-controlled crypto era. Not only did CME futures make it possible to short bitcoin without having to worry about counterparty risk, enabling better price discovery in general, they also facilitated the introduction of contango trades. This was especially the case for regulated and creditworthy institutions who had the capacity to both fund the margin capital needed to operate at the CME and met the exchange’s minimum credit standards.

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The contango trade as the ultimate HODL

As institutional money moves into cryptocurrency it will become increasingly important to analyse not just what the institutions are investing in but how they are investing in it.

In theory, institutional managers starved of risk-free yield in the core financial sector, should be hugely tempted to synthesise yield with bitcoin contango HODLs.

Whether they do or not, however, will come down to the nature of their investing mandates.

In many cases, despite the free money on the table, the associated security risk and other complexities of holding physical bitcoin could keep the crypto asset out of their reach in pure form. In that case, institutions might choose to buy proxies like Microstrategy, ETFs (as and when they are issued) or, more perilously, futures instead.

If institutional managers did decide to invest most heavily in bitcoin futures, the risk remains they would end up taking the other side of hedge fund or broker/dealer contango trades. This would risk institutions replicating the negative yield exposure they experienced with commodities investing. It would also engineer a compartmentalised system of exposures across the industry.

The signals from the markets would also not be what they seemed. In terms of pure positioning analysis (as derived from CFTC commitment of traders reports), if hedge funds and broker/dealers were indeed playing the contango trade they would appear to be shorting bitcoin even if in reality they were stringently HODLing underlying bitcoin.

Of course, there is one other bitcoin yield-generating strategy that institutions could be inclined to adopt: lending their physical bitcoin holdings for a fee to counterparties for shorting purposes (as they already do with equities). This would become all the more tempting if and when bitcoin’s price began to plateau or depreciate.

If and when bitcoin’s price did stabilise, it might even pay for institutions to compensate for bitcoin’s lack of yield by lending out their holdings to corporations for capital investing purposes, in traditional merchant banking mode.

At which point some clever crypto entrepreneur will propose the creation of an average bitcoin lending rate to benchmark deals against. And we will have not just recreated Libor but anchored it to a settlement system that cannot be bailed out with extraordinary central bank intervention.

And that, in an environment where it’s proving much more difficult to expire old Libor than first appreciated, could be quite a proposition.

Related links:
Markets must speed up efforts to ditch Libor, warns watchdog – FT
2020: The year bitcoin went institutional – FT Alphaville



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Red flags raised over cannabis ETF ‘hype’

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Visit our ETF Hub for investor news and education, market updates and analysis and easy-to-use tools to help you select the right ETFs.

Cannabis stocks have been on a roll this year, with rising expectations for full federal legalisation in the US pushing many marijuana-related equities to unprecedented highs.

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The S&P/TSX Cannabis index almost tripled in value between the US presidential election in early November and February 10. Even after a subsequent sell-off, it is still trading at twice the level seen in early November.

But investors in the burgeoning array of exchange traded funds tracking the sector are being warned to ensure they understand exactly what it is they are buying. Even some ETF managers are raising red flags.

“In recent months, Canadian [cannabis] stocks have traded in a way that doesn’t make sense. They have traded on false optimism, on hype and on misinformation,” said Dan Ahrens, chief operating officer and portfolio manager at AdvisorShares, the largest marijuana ETF provider by assets.

Financial Times analysis of 59 companies found in eight major cannabis ETFs reveals that 43 made a loss over their last reported 12-month period, 27 chalked up net losses that were larger than their total revenue, and six — with a combined market capitalisation of $794m — had no sales at all.

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Moreover, of the 16 that were profitable, 14 were not primarily cannabis companies at all, and were at most tangentially involved in the industry.

Line chart of S&P/TSX Cannabis index  (rebased) since US presidential election  showing Smokey Joe?

The list of stocks, drawn up by data provider TrackInsight, includes tobacco giants Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands, drinks company Constellation Brands, fertiliser company Scotts Miracle-Gro, cigarette paper manufacturer Turning Point Brands, two real estate companies, a lighting company and one, Amyris, involved in everything from cosmetics and fragrances to developing Covid-19 vaccines.

Most genuine cannabis companies “are pretty small and nearly all are unprofitable”, said Peter Sleep, senior portfolio manager at 7 Investment Management.

“A lot of them are companies with no sales and no other research . . . These companies are purely issued to pay the directors’ fees and to get into ETFs,” he said.

“I don’t own the garbage that some of the other ETFs own,” said Ahrens, whose cannabis ETFs are among a minority that are actively managed. “We greatly underweight what you might call the usual suspects. Aurora [Cannabis], Tilray, Hexo, WeedMD. All these companies are wildly unprofitable.

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“I’m surprised that some of the other competitor ETFs hold big tobacco, or even Scotts Miracle-Gro,” which is “primarily a lawn fertiliser and weedkiller company”, he said.

Moreover, the listing regime for cannabis stocks in North America, overwhelmingly the dominant market, is so counter-intuitive it could accurately be described as wacky.

In the US, 15 states have legalised recreational cannabis, but it remains illegal at the federal level. As a result, any company involved in this trade is barred from listing on any US stock exchange. With the Toronto stock exchange also off limits, most trade on small, relatively obscure Canadian exchanges.

However, companies focused on Canada’s fully legalised market (but not directly involved in that of the US) are free to list in the US, and most have done so in order to tap the greater capital available.

Mark Noble, executive vice-president of ETF strategy at Toronto-based Horizons ETFs, which runs marijuana funds, said the Canadian market was worth just $2bn a year, whereas annual sales in the 15 US states that have legalised the drug are already $15bn.

Yet the bulk of inflows are going into US-listed stocks — that is, the companies that only have access to the smaller and more mature Canadian market.

As a result, the 10 largest Canadian operators now trade at an enterprise value to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) ratio of 92.2, compared to just 14.8 times for the top 10 in the US, according to analysts from Canada’s CIBC World Markets.

“We view the indiscriminate nature of the rise in valuations puzzling, as the move in share prices seems to benefit those with little to no stated ambitions in the US,” they added.

Noble said “the majority of stocks that are doing extremely well right now from a performance perspective are being driven by US retail investors buying them, but these are overwhelmingly Canadian legal cannabis companies that are listed in the US but can’t do business in the US”.

“It has created a big rally in stocks that are capital constrained, in terms of revenue. Most likely retail investors are buying the companies that are easily accessible to them and are listed on big US exchanges, but they are not buying the companies that are making money in the US.”

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Ahrens attributed the chasm in valuations to “a lack of education and misinformation”, adding that some people were “investing blind”.

“They do not understand that these companies cannot sell marijuana in the US or they are under the impression that everything is going to be legalised and these companies will do a lot of business in the US. That is a false premise in my opinion.”

The prospect of federal legalisation, ignited by Joe Biden’s presidential victory, does provide some rationale for buying the US-listed Canadian companies, in that they would then presumably be able to enter the more lucrative US market.

Opinions are divided on the likelihood of legalisation, though, which would require 60 votes in the US Senate, ie the support of at least 10 Republican senators as well as the more dope-friendly Democrats.

Not everyone is concerned about the stretched valuations of lossmaking companies, however.

Jay Jacobs, head of research and strategy at New York-based Global X, said it had launched 25 thematic ETFs over the past 10 years, including a cannabis one, and that “what we see across a lot of fast-growing industries is that they are not focused on profitability, at least at this stage of their growth.

“It’s about market share, building scale, trying to get customers. They are reinvesting all their cash flow into growth. They are not trying to be profitable, not trying to pay dividends or return capital to investors in other ways,” he argued.

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Merian acquisition helps Jupiter cope with pandemic disruption

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The acquisition of smaller rival Merian helped asset management group Jupiter to cope with the turbulence created by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, but it still suffered outflows as investors pulled money from its funds.

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The company said on Friday that underlying pre-tax profits rose by a tenth to £179m in 2020 on revenues that increased 18 per cent to £448m, helped by a significant contribution from Merian.

Andrew Formica, chief executive, said Jupiter had “laid strong foundations” for future growth. 

Jupiter also announced that it would pay a special dividend of 3p per share on top of an unchanged full-year ordinary dividend of 17.1p.

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Formica said the acquisition of Merian was a “transformational deal” for Jupiter. “Financially it has exceeded our expectations, delivering greater than expected synergies and already making a significant contribution to group profits,” he said.

The company’s assets under management increased 37 per cent in 2020 to £58.7bn at the end of December, helped by a £17bn contribution from Merian.

But investors pulled £4bn from Jupiter’s funds last year, compared with withdrawals of £4.5bn in 2019.

Formica pointed out that Jupiter’s strategies returned to net inflows in the nine months from the end of March following the disruption that affected financial markets globally in the first quarter of 2020.

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“Against a backdrop of strengthening investor sentiment and improved momentum as we turn the corner in the battle against Covid-19, I am confident that Jupiter is strongly positioned for future growth,” he said.

Statutory pre-tax profits dropped 12 per cent from £151m in 2019 to £132.6m last year, due to exceptional costs mainly relating to the Merian deal. Earnings per share fell 23 per cent to 21.3p.

David McCann, an analyst at Numis, said: “Longer term, we regard Jupiter as a strong asset management franchise with plenty of potential.”



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2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid offers power, not efficiency

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If you’re looking for a large family SUV with three rows of seating and you also want it to be hybrid you pretty much have two choices: the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and the subject of this review, the Ford Explorer Hybrid.

Both of these near full-size SUVs are on a mission to save you money at the pumps. But both go about it quite differently.

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If absolute efficiency is your main criteria, the Toyota will serve you well. However, if passing power and the largest towing capacity are what you need, the Ford would likely fare better.

I found the Explorer to be a bit of a mixed bag, one that I wanted to like more than I did, mainly because I really dig the way it looks and I feel the Explorer’s evolutionary styling has reached a high point with this latest iteration. Its slim headlamps, commanding grille, wide stance and muscular proportions strike a great balance between elegance and utility, and would fare just as well at the valet as it would on the school run. And if you aren’t keen on advertising the green-ness of your vehicle, you’d be happy to note that it took me a few minutes to spot the tiny little hybrid badge on the rear lift gate, so telling this apart from your run-of-the-mill Explorer is virtually impossible for all but the most knowledgeable.

The cabin on the other hand is a bit of a let down with a sombre design, some poorly fitted trim pieces and a tacked on infotainment screen that looks like an afterthought. More expensive trims come with an even larger, rather goofy looking portrait-oriented screen, making me happy that my tester wasn’t equipped with it.

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There are good things, though, like a myriad of thoughtful storage cubbies, ample room to move about, including in the third row where my 6-foot frame was able to fit just fine, a large cargo area, and generally excellent ergonomics with plenty of physical buttons and knobs so you don’t need to dive into the infotainment to do something like turn on the heated seats, or the A/C.

The Hybrid powertrain is available exclusively on the Limited Trim so it comes well equipped out of the box with intelligent 4WD, 20-inch wheels, voice-activated navigation, a terrain management system with multiple drive modes, 360 degree camera, wireless charge pad, remote start and a heated steering wheel. You also get standard second row captain’s chairs and a power-folding third row.

Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance is also standard and it includes adaptive cruise control, lane centering, evasive steering assist, and speed sign recognition.

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You’ll pay quite a bit for all this with a base price of $53,799 representing quite a premium over a base level Highlander Hybrid, although the Ford does give you more content.

Where the Toyota uses a 4-cylinder and a CVT, Ford ups the ante with a 3.3-litre V6, and a 10-speed automatic transmission. An electric motor sandwiched in between the engine and transmission provides extra power and torque. The Highlander uses a trio of small motors including one on the rear axle for electric all-wheel drive. The Explorer uses a real mechanical AWD system.

With a combined power output of 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque, the Explorer Hybrid feels downright muscular with a great exhaust note and chunky power delivery that you wouldn’t expect from a hybrid. A 1.5 kWh battery pack provides electric operation for short distances at lower speeds and under light throttle usage.

Problem here is that the Explorer is a heavy vehicle and that small battery pack can only do so much, so you’ll be dipping into gasoline power more often than not. I try to drive hybrids like I do their gas-only counterparts and with the Explorer Hybrid my mixed road driving netted a rather disappointing 14L/100 km. With about 60 per cent of that on city streets, your experience might vary but the Highlander Hybrid I drove a few months prior used just 7L/100km, exactly half the fuel the Explorer did. And that’s really hard to ignore.

It’s an enjoyable drive, though, with an abundance of torque, whisper-quiet operation, and a comfortable and planted ride. The rear-biased 4WD system is also excellent on a snowy road, and even equipped with an all-season tire, the Explorer felt confident and controllable. That’s still not an excuse for a not fitting a real set of winter tires, as traction is still limited. 4WD might get you going faster, but it doesn’t make an ounce of difference when it comes to slowing back down.

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If there’s one thing that gets in the way of the driving experience, it’s the 10-speed automatic and its clunky shifts, more obvious at low speeds. I found it indecisive and prone to gear hunting, getting downright confused as to what gear it should be in under certain scenarios.

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There’s a lot of good things about the Explorer and I feel given time it will be a much better overall product than it is right now. You should definitely not dismiss it because it’s a very good family vehicle, the tech is easy to use and works really well, and if you’re familiar with Ford products you’ll probably really like it.

I would, however, recommend against the hybrid. The base turbocharged 4-cylinder is just as powerful and only slightly less efficient. Natural Resources Canada actually rates its fuel consumption lower on the highway. And it will even tow more.




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Bill Gates gives surprise reason he’ll never invest in Bitcoin

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Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates says he will not invest in Bitcoin because it’s “not a great climate thing” and says he prefers to back companies that make products.

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The American business magnate entered Clubhouse for the first time on Wednesday night where he talked about the cryptocurrency which has proved a popular investment with other billionaires such as SpaceX and Tesla mogul Elon Musk.

Clubhouse is a new invite-only conversation app, which has already hosted several talks with high-profile celebrities.

The Microsoft co-founder, promoting his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” was interviewed by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, where he spoke about his label as a “Bitcoin skeptic”.

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Gates is not a fan of Bitcoin
(Image: Zuma Press/PA Images)

“Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to mankind. So it’s not like a great climate thing,” Gates said. “If it’s green electricity and it’s not crowding out other uses, eventually maybe that’s OK.

“I don’t see the topics as deeply related, even though you might label me a Bitcoin skeptic — that is, I haven’t chosen to invest money.

“I buy malaria vaccines. I buy measles vaccines. I invest in companies that make products.

“It’s not a, ‘Hey, somebody’s going to buy this for more money than I paid for it.’

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Gates has long been a ‘Bitcoin skeptic’
(Image: via REUTERS)

“But if other people find their fortune that way, I applaud them.”

He added: “There are other ways of doing digital currency that our foundation is involved with which are done in local currency, the transactions are not secret they are reversible – you can’t use it for ransom and things like that – and yet the transaction fees are so low that it’s empowering the poorest.

“We work with India to do their digital currency, we’re working with all of the countries in Africa so I’m a huge fan, the biggest investor in digital currency so financial services are available to everyone on the planet.”

Gates has been sceptical about Bitcoin in public before, telling CNBC in 2018 that he would “short” it if he could.

In another interview this week he discussed Tesla founder Elon Musk’s enthusiasm for the virtual currency.

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“My general thought would be that if you have less money than Elon, you should probably watch out,” he told Bloomberg.

“Elon has tonnes of money and he’s very sophisticated, so I don’t worry that his Bitcoin will sort of randomly go up or down.”

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Dual-class shares: duelling purposes | Financial Times

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The ship looks set to sail on Britain’s aversion to dual-class shares. A government commissioned review, released on Friday, backs the structure, which is popular with tech founders keen to retain control after taking public money.

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Lex, among others, has opposed weighted voting rights as poor governance. Advocates point to the bigger picture: spurn dual-class shares and lose out on big initial public offerings. London would not be the first to cave. A similar argument saw Hong Kong capitulate after Alibaba took its record $25bn IPO to New York in 2014. Singapore swiftly followed suit; even Shanghai now hosts companies with dual-class shares on its tech-oriented board.

Ron Kalifa, author of the UK report, lays out the numbers: the US nabbed 39 per cent of the 3,787 IPOs on major exchanges between 2015 and 2020, while the UK took under 5 per cent. US companies with dual-class shares have outperformed peers, but this is as much to do with tech credentials as, say, Mark Zuckerberg’s stranglehold on Facebook votes. Proponents also applaud the poison pill conferred by weighted voting rights. This, they say, would have seen off pesky foreign buyers of British assets such as Arm and Worldpay, coincidentally Kalifa’s own old shop.

If dual-class shares are inevitable, curbs should be too. Sunset clauses, converting founders’ shares to ordinary class over time, are one obvious step already in use. At Slack, for example, shares convert over 10 years to common stock. Another is to exclude certain votes; on executive pay, say, or related party transactions.

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One big caveat: dual-class shares will not open the floodgates to new listings. Ask Hong Kong, a market four times as liquid as London. Post-relaxation of the rules, China tech listings continued to flock to the US because valuations are higher. Last year, despite ground-zero Sino-US relations and tightened accountancy rules, Chinese tech companies flocked to the US. The current run of “homecomings” — US-listed companies such as Alibaba securing secondary listings in Hong Kong — is politically driven. More effective, certainly, but not an option for the UK.

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Used EV rebate going away for PHEVs in Ontario by end of this weekend

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Buying a used plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) in Ontario could be $2,000 more expensive by the end of this weekend, as two privately funded $1,000 rebates available for used PHEV buyers will expire by this Sunday at 11:59pm, though the rebates will remain for buyers looking for a pre-owned battery-electric vehicle on March 1 and beyond.

Program administrators Plug ‘N Drive announced the changes Thursday on the plugndrive.ca site. The current program offers any used plug-in vehicle buyer in Ontario with a $1,000 rebate when taking a one-hour EV seminar online by the non-profit EV organization, and another $1,000 if the EV buyer also takes any running internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle off the road.

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“This is a privately funded rebate and the funder made the decision,” said Cara Clairman, founder and CEO of Plug ‘N Drive. “He wants to focus his funding on fully electric (vehicles), where the environmental benefit is greatest, which is his prerogative.”

Meanwhile in Nova Scotia, the new provincial government announced on Wednesday that it will introduce EV rebates for both new and used plug-in vehicles: $3,000 for new vehicles, $2,000 off for used EVs, and a $500 rebate for e-bikes.

Recently elected Premier Iain Rankin announced said it was key to bring electric vehicles to the province, and will apply to plug-in vehicles up to $55,000.

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“The rebates will apply starting today,” Rankin said, in his first announcement as premier, with further details on this and further energy efficiency measures with homes to be released in the next month, he said. “We looked at programs in other provinces, and this complements the federal government rebate program,” with a similar price cap of $55,000.

Rankin also said he committed during his campaign to expand EV fast-charging infrastructure in commercial businesses as well, in hopes of increasing EV uptake in the province.

Nova Scotia becomes the fourth province to currently offer an EV rebate, after Quebec ($8,000), BC ($3,000) and the Yukon ($5,000); the current provincial government in Ontario cancelled its EV rebate soon after it was elected in 2018. Not counting Ontario’s privately funded EV rebates through Plug ‘N Drive, Nova Scotia becomes the second province after Quebec (which offered up to a $4,000 rebate starting in 2019) to offer a provincial rebate on used electric vehicles.

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