Business Portfolio

Rumblings in the `rust belt' No sooner has the term ``bicoastal economy'' entered economic jargon than it is becoming outdated.

The phrase refers to the trend during the 1980s where the East and West Coasts have boomed economically while the interior of the country - the Midwest, and more recently the energy states in the South - has languished.

But that is changing, according to economist Joseph Duncan at Dun & Bradstreet. ``We're seeing a shift in what are considered the hot regions,'' he says. ``The next headlines will be about the strength of the `rust belt.'''

The statistics on business failures show early stirrings of recovery in the rust belt. While the number of companies closing their doors increased by 6.6 percent throughout the US in the first half of 1987 over the first half of '86, there were fewer failures in formerly depressed states like Ohio and Illinois. That will continue, Dr. Duncan says, because the weaker dollar is only beginning to boost American exports. The industrial Midwest is the most export-dependent area of the country.

It may come as a surprise that more companies are declaring bankruptcy this year than last, given that the plunge in oil prices and agricultural goods occurred more than 18 months ago. But the failure rate is deceptively high, Duncan says. Much of it is due to farmers taking advantage of a new law. Starting last November, farmers could reorganize their debt rather than liquidate by declaring bankruptcy under a new ``Chapter 12.''

The other deceptively bad news concerns brand-new companies. In the first half of 1987, Americans started 8 percent fewer companies. The reason? Tax reform. ``The uncertainty has taken the edge off of entrepreneurial enthusiasm,'' Duncan says. But like the blip in bankruptcies, this too is temporary. Once people figure out whether it's better to form a partnership, corporation, or some other form of business, Duncan predicts, the US will head into a new era of entrepreneurship. Say hello to your watch

The Japanese may not have the reputation for being inventors, but they've come up with some pretty neat inventions.

A wristwatch that talks back to you. Paper-thin stereo speakers. And, of course, self-heating cans of sake.

These innovations may have slipped by Americans and other non-Japanese-speakers. But a book of award-winning inventions in Japan, called ``The Best of Japan,'' has been translated into English. Here are some of the things the Japanese are doing:

A disposable camera for a country of shutterbugs has become an enormous hit. Fuji's ``Utsurun-desu'' is about the size of two 35-mm film boxes laid side by side, and looks like a box of film. Price: about $10.

Mitsubishi's ``Temaki'' stereo speakers, all of 0.01 millimeter thick, look like a colorful piece of cellophane. They come in green, red, or white, can be taped to the wall like a poster, rolled up, and printed on. Price: $170.

Tokyo has already become a financial center, and is now becoming a financial innovator. Bull and bear bonds, offered by Nomura Securities, let investors speculate on where interest rates (specifically, US Treasury bonds) are going. Bull-bond investors win when the price of T-bills rises, and bear-bond-holders make money when the price falls.

Every family should have its own facsimile machine, right? Toshiba and Japanese families apparently agree. The machine is about the size of a compact typewriter, and costs $1,700.

Now when you glance at your watch and grumble at the time, your watch can talk back to you. Seiko has a watch with a recorder and a thumbnail-sized speaker. It will play back messages, up to eight seconds long, when you push a button or at a pre-set time. Price: $175. Real estate on-line

Boston Real Net, which lists apartments for rent and properties for sale on a computer data base, is an idea whose time has almost come. In operation for 18 months, it's still losing money. But it's gaining attention.

Last month, 10,000 people, many of them college students, used their computers and modems to tap into the system and see what properties and roommates were available. There are about 500 rental units listed, and about 200 properties for sale (up from 50 rentals and sale properties a year ago). The service is free for users. Advertisers, including some of Boston's larger real estate agencies, as well as mortgage companies, foot the bill.

Judge Harold Greene recently gave Real Net a boost. The judge, who is overseeing telephone deregulation, decided phone companies can provide information across telephone networks, but they cannot own the information networks. That means New England Telephone can't compete with Real Net. ``But they're pleased to have someone like us transmitting information, because [users] run up the phone bill,'' says Real Net founder Thomas Pfau.

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