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The future of insurance is happening without insurance firms

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

EVERY MORNING, from a room in Birmingham, some of the world’s largest firms are briefed by phone on the weather in store. As continents, arrows and weather fronts flicker across their screens, meteorologists at The Weather Company (TWC) help British grocers decide whether to stock soups or salads, and Chinese energy firms when to operate wind turbines. Yet such sessions are getting rarer. Computed by 172 models crunching 400 terabytes of data—33 times the amount Twitter stores every 24 hours—most of TWC’S 25bn daily forecasts now feed directly into customers’ computer systems.

Big data has turned weather into a big business. TWC, which was bought by IBM in 2016, serves governments, media channels and 40% of the world’s airlines. But many property insurers, whose fortunes rely on forecasting climate-induced losses, are still learning how to use the information, says Leon Brown of TWC. Their cluelessness is symptomatic of a problem for all insurance lines, including casualty, life and health. Reinsurance firms (which insure the insurers) and Asian insurance champions are almost the only innovators in an industry that is moving at a glacial pace.

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Many think the European Central Bank will cut rates soon

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

THE EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK’S firepower is sadly depleted. The interest rate on the reserves that banks hold with it is sub-zero; its quantitative-easing (QE) scheme has hoovered up assets worth €2.6trn ($2.9trn)—equivalent to over a fifth of the euro area’s GDP. Even so, in June Mario Draghi, the bank’s boss, promised further stimulus if the economy does not buck up. Statistics published since then suggest little recovery. Cue much speculation about another attempt to revive growth.

Many expect an announcement at the bank’s meeting in September, along with updated economic forecasts. But its next gathering on July 25th could still surprise, or at least lay the groundwork for stimulus. With individual instruments nearing limits, it is expected to deploy a combination.

Of late its weapon of choice has been guidance on the path of interest rates. It has promised to keep rates steady for longer, at least until mid-2020. But markets expect rates not merely to stay on hold, but to fall—by a tenth of a percentage point, from -0.4%, in coming months.

Banks complain that negative interest rates shrink their margins: they have to pay the central bank to hold their deposits, but fear that if they pass negative rates on, their depositors will withdraw their cash. Profits and lending both fall, preventing the rate from...

China’s growth is the slowest in nearly three decades: get used to it

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

CHINA’S ECONOMY is slowing, again. After a good start to the year annual growth slipped to 6.2% in the second quarter, the weakest in nearly three decades. That is hardly cause for panic: for an economy now worth nearly $14trn, such a growth rate is impressive. As the trade war with America hurts exporters, it also underlines the extent to which China’s economy is now fuelled by domestic demand. The question for the coming months is whether that domestic strength will remain sufficient to offset the trade turmoil.

The export picture has clearly worsened. Last year, even as America’s president, Donald Trump, first levied tariffs on China, the country still managed to increase its exports by 10%. But this year Chinese exports have all but stopped growing.

In May Mr Trump ratcheted up tariffs on Chinese goods, and he has threatened to hit China with yet more duties if trade negotiators fail to resolve an impasse. China, for its part, appears to be in no rush to reach a deal: Zhong Shan, the hard-nosed commerce minister, recently joined the Chinese negotiating team. In published comments this week he blamed America for the trade war, calling it “a classic example of unilateralism and protectionism”.

China’s willingness to take a more unyielding stance partly reflects confidence in its own economy. Activity...

Housing microfinance can help poor people build better homes

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

WHENEVER MICHAEL JJOGA earns some money from his welding business, he buys a bag of cement. Brick by brick he has built a two-roomed house for his family on land he cleared himself in Wakiso district, in central Uganda. Another house stands half-finished nearby until he collects enough iron sheets to make a roof. Across the glade a chorus of bleats drifts from a crumbling hut, shaped from thatch and earth. He used to live in it; now it shelters his goats.

By 2025 some 1.6bn city dwellers will be living without decent, affordable housing, according to consultants at McKinsey. Many more people lack adequate shelter in the countryside. While governments and private developers fall short, people like Mr Jjoga are building houses themselves. They construct in stages, over years or even decades, preferring to buy a stack of bricks than to put money in a bank. Some move in well before completion. Lenders long overlooked this self-help model, but financed it unwittingly: perhaps a fifth of microloans to businesses are thought to be diverted into housing.

Now some lenders are starting to target this market directly. Conventional mortgages are rare in developing countries: in Uganda, which has 40m people, there are only 5,000. Instead, banks and microlenders offer smaller housing loans, paid back over shorter periods of 1-3 years...

The pound’s slide is about more than Brexit

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

IN THE WEE hours of June 24th 2016 the pound plunged. The unexpected victory of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum meant sterling lost 7% in a single day. Three years later the pound is falling once again. It is now at a two-year low, having fallen by 5% against the dollar since April—and 1% in the past month, the worst performance of any big currency (see chart). Many Britons ascribe any movement in the pound to the twists and turns of the Brexit saga. The cause of its recent slide is, however, more complicated.

Sterling has been weaker since the referendum because the prospect of Brexit has led economists to cut their forecasts for economic growth. It reached a low in October 2016 when Theresa May, the prime minister, promised a “hard” Brexit. Yet it appreciated fairly steadily in 2017 and 2018.

This was in part because the economy was surprisingly strong. GDP grew only slightly more slowly in 2016-18 than before the referendum. Unemployment fell to...

Lots of investors bet on “factors”, such as size, value and momentum

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 14:52

THE FINAL of the European Football Championship in 1976 was settled by a penalty shoot-out. The winning kick, scored by Antonin Panenka of Czechoslovakia, was a thing of beauty. From Panenka’s long run-up and body shape, the West German goalkeeper, Sepp Maier, guessed that the kick would go hard to his left. He dived in anticipation. But Panenka did something novel. He calmly chipped the ball down the centre of the goal, which Maier had just vacated.

Armed with this story, we come scrambling back to the present to contemplate another game of fine margins: investment. Here too success often depends on the ability to outwit others. Indeed proponents of factor investing—buying baskets of stocks with characteristics that have been shown to beat the market averages—say it works by exploiting the enduring weaknesses of investors. If the dumb money keeps shooting for the corners, you profit by going down the middle. Just hold your nerve.

This requires a faith that the future will be like the past. And where there is faith, there is always doubt. The world of investing evolves, just as football has. As more players adopted the Panenka, goalkeepers cottoned on. A new category emerged: the failed Panenka. A consideration of this begs a scary thought for factor investors: what if returns will be hurt by the ubiquity of the...

A debate is under way about the cost of higher education

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 17:11

IN MANY WAYS the flood of bold, progressive policy proposals coursing across America’s political landscape began in 2015, when Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, put a plan to make higher education at public universities free at the centre of his upstart campaign for the presidency. Then the idea seemed radical, even gimmicky. Now it is noteworthy when leading Democrats oppose the notion. Yet some do, for example Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, and their arguments still pack a punch. Why indeed should taxpayers’ money be spent on the children of the rich rather than more generous financial aid for the poor? The Democratic debate over free college is in fact part of a deeper disagreement about how best to structure a welfare state.

Across much of the rich world, a public-university education is free or nearly free, apart from the cost of books and living expenses. (Danish students even receive a stipend to help pay for such things.) But those in America and Britain pay tuition fees which are high and growing higher. In Britain, a change in the law in 1998 allowed public universities to begin charging. The average tuition fee at four-year public universities in America has roughly tripled over the past three decades after adjusting for inflation. Rising fees represent an evolution towards a means-tested...

Why everybody is concerned about corporate-bond liquidity

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

IN SEPTEMBER 2007 Britain suffered its first bank run in a century. Television pictures showed a long queue of depositors outside a branch of Northern Rock. Alistair Darling watched in dismay from Portugal, where he and his fellow European Union finance ministers were gathered. “They’re behaving perfectly rationally, you know,” Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, said in the smarty-pants manner that economists are cherished for. Mr Darling was uncharmed. “It was not what I wanted to hear,” he recalled.

What Lord King probably had in mind was a well-thumbed textbook model. Banks have a liquidity mismatch. One side of the balance-sheet is hard-to-sell loans; the other side is deposits that can be withdrawn in a trice. If depositors believe that a bank is sound, there will be no runs on it. But if enough start to demand their deposits back, it makes sense for everybody to join the rush.

This model can also be applied in other areas. Take the corporate-bond market. Every policy body of stature, from the IMF to the European Central Bank (ECB), has worried about a growing mismatch between investors’ expectations that they can sell out at any moment and an underlying shortage of liquidity in the market. More investors are using corporate-bond funds as an alternative to cash. But fewer dealers are willing to trade...

The choice of the IMF’s next boss could be a coronation

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

FOR THE purposes of decision-making, the IMF’s 189 member countries are divided into 24 constituencies of peculiar shapes and sizes. Ghana, for example, belongs to the same group as Afghanistan. Ecuador sits with East Timor. But in choosing the next boss after Christine Lagarde moves to the European Central Bank in October, the most decisive constituency may be a different group entirely: the “New Hanseatic League”. This includes eight small, northern members of the European Union (EU) with bad weather and good credit ratings. They lost out in the fight for big EU jobs earlier this month. In compensation they may have a large say in Europe’s pick to lead the fund.

That could be good news for Mark Carney, the charismatic and credentialled boss of the Bank of England. As well as Canadian and British citizenship, he holds a passport from Ireland, one of the new Hanseatics. If Ireland champions his cause in the league, and the league backs him within the union, he would be hard to resist within the fund. By convention the IMF is led by whichever European candidate the Americans can live with. And the Americans are unlikely to object to him, especially after the Europeans dutifully supported Washington’s choice to run the World Bank earlier this year.

What about an Asian rival? One obvious candidate is Tharman Shanmugaratnam...

A new study tracks the surge in Chinese loans to poor countries

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

LOAN TALKS with Belarus; funding for bridges in Liberia; a possible gas project in Timor-Leste; accusations of exploitation in Tanzania; a corporate dispute in India; pledges to support the Rwandan private sector. And that was just the past few weeks. Such is the frenetic pace of China’s overseas lending that its outstanding loans have risen from almost nothing in 2000 to more than $700bn today. It is the world’s largest official creditor, more than twice as big as the World Bank and IMF combined. Yet tracking the money is hard because of limited transparency in its disclosures.

A new study by Sebastian Horn and Christoph Trebesch of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and Carmen Reinhart of Harvard University offers the most comprehensive picture yet of China’s official credit flows (including state-owned banks). It adds to concern about whether China has sowed the seeds for debt problems abroad. They find that nearly half of China’s lending to developing...

To get a ticket to Wimbledon you must be rich, patient or lucky

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

ECONOMICS IS ALL about allocating scarce resources. Usually that is done by pricing. If demand for strawberries exceeds supply, prices will rise. Customers may switch to raspberries, or farmers may plant more strawberries. But some markets are more complex. 

Take those for tickets to popular events—like Wimbledon. The tournament is played over a fortnight each July at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which has a fixed capacity. Raising prices until demand met supply would exclude most tennis fans, tarnishing the tournament’s image. A price overshoot would leave some seats empty, ruining the atmosphere.

Around a sixth of seats on Centre Court, where the big-draw matches are played, are reserved for debenture-holders, who pay through the nose for a specific seat for five years. These can be freely resold. Debentures for 2021-25 went for £80,000 ($100,000); a single resale ticket costs thousands.

Other seats are rationed in different ways. The first is chance: the All England Club runs a ballot six months before the tournament each year. Winners get the option to buy a randomly allocated pair of tickets at a price that varies according to the day and court—this year, between £33 and £190. These cannot be resold.

The second is queuing. Except on the final four days, 500 tickets for the top...

Recep Tayyip Erdogan sacks the head of Turkey’s central bank

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

TURKEY’S ECONOMY had just begun to show signs of recovery. High interest rates, a measure of calm following local elections earlier this year and attempts to rebuild a strained relationship with America had allowed the lira, which fell by 12% against the dollar in the first four months of the year, to strengthen. Inflation had fallen to 16%, from 25% last autumn.

But in the small hours of July 6th Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, put the progress in jeopardy by sacking Murat Cetinkaya, the boss of the central bank. Though Mr Cetinkaya was not widely admired by investors, his peremptory removal unsettled markets. Mr Erdogan compounded the damage by proclaiming that high lending rates were to blame for inflation (a view roundly mocked by economists) and making clear that it was he who was in charge of monetary policymaking. “We told him several times to cut interest rates at meetings on the economy,” said the president of Mr Cetinkaya. “We said that if rates fall, inflation will fall. He didn’t do what was necessary.”

Mr Erdogan scored an own goal, says Paul McNamara, an investment director at GAM, an asset manager. “The best case is that they get a lira sell-off that keeps rates higher than they otherwise would have been. The worst case is that they set off a currency avalanche.” Mr Cetinkaya’s sacking showed...

Recognising reality at Deutsche Bank

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 14:51

“THE MOST fundamental transformation of Deutsche Bank in decades.” So Christian Sewing described his refashioning of the chronically unprofitable firm, announced on July 7th. Germany’s biggest lender is trimming its investment bank—and excising the trading of shares altogether. Mr Sewing, chief executive since April 2018, intends to cut costs by €5.8bn ($6.7bn) a year, a quarter of the total, by 2022. Eighteen thousand jobs, a fifth of the payroll, will go. Some equity traders were shown the door on July 8th.

The restyling has taken five months to plan (during which time Deutsche also pondered and dismissed a merger with its Frankfurt neighbour, Commerzbank). It looks bold. Yet it is also a belated recognition of reality. For years after the financial crisis, Deutsche clung to the hope that it would again strut alongside Wall Street’s most glamorous names, as it had for a heady 20 years. Mr Sewing has binned the last threads of that ambition. The remodelled Deutsche—150 years old next year—will look a lot more like the sober servant of international companies it originally was.

Mr Sewing is reshaping the bank around four lines. At the centre will be a corporate bank, chiefly providing European businesses with cash management, trade finance, foreign exchange and so forth: dull-sounding work but steady. A substantial...

Should egalitarians fear low interest rates?

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 15:09

JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES once fantasised about a world of permanently low interest rates. In the final chapter of “The General Theory” he imagined an economy in which abundant available capital causes investors’ bargaining power, and hence rates, to collapse. In such a world markets would reward risk-taking and entrepreneurial talent, but not the mere accumulation of capital. The result would be the “euthanasia of the rentier”.

That low rates could feature in a leftish Utopian vision might come as a surprise today. It is commonly argued that a decade of monetary-policy stimulus has filled the pockets of the rich. Low rates and quantitative easing (QE) are said to have sent stock and bond markets soaring, thereby exacerbating wealth inequality. They have also boosted house prices, adding to intergenerational tension. A glance at financial markets suggests more of the same is coming: long-term rates have tumbled this year in anticipation of monetary easing, while stockmarkets have boomed.

Central bankers have defended their policies by arguing that, without loose money, unemployment would have been much higher, badly hurting the poor. That is true. But the effect of monetary stimulus on financial markets has nonetheless angered left and right alike. Judy Shelton, one of President Donald Trump’s new picks for the board of the...

A new trade deal has FOMO as its secret sauce

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

THE MOTIVE force behind trade deals is supposed to be “FOMO”—the fear of missing out. If negotiators fail to grab new markets for their exporters, the theory goes, rivals may snap those markets up first. On June 28th two trading partners seized better access to each other’s markets as Mercosur, a customs union comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, agreed to a new trade deal with the European Union. An EU press release gloated that European companies would gain an “important head start into a market with an enormous economic potential”.

The details have yet to be published. But the pact should improve market access for French cheese, Brazilian orange juice and Argentine fish, as well as car parts made in Europe, which now attract Mercosur tariffs of 14-18%. European companies will be eligible to compete for government contracts within Mercosur. Customs procedures will be simplified. Based on current trade patterns, the annual bill for tariffs on Mercosur’s imports from the EU should fall by over €4bn ($4.5bn), more than four times the equivalent sum for the deal the EU recently signed with Japan.

Though 9% of Mercosur’s tariff lines, and 5% of the EU’s, will remain above zero, a “standstill” clause commits the members not to raise any of the tariffs above an agreed rate. In effect the EU has insured itself...

The rise and rise of private capital

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

THE BIGGEST event on Wall Street in 1956 was the IPO of a company that had stayed private for more than half a century. Investors queued to secure shares in the Ford Motor Company. Their price jumped $5 on the first day’s trading. Yet by the time the company listed, it had no real need for capital. Henry Ford, its founder, had long been hostile to the idea of going public. It was almost a decade after his death in 1947 when the family foundation at last decided to sell some of its Ford shares to the public.

This year’s wave of high-profile flotations has some similarities. Uber, Lyft, Slack and the rest are not old as Ford was when it listed. But nor are they in the first flush of youth. New firms are staying private for longer. The number of public firms in America has declined by more than a third since the 1990s.

One explanation is that today’s tech firms have less need of public capital. More of the value of startups is tied up in ideas than in fixed assets such as factories. Tech moguls like the opportunities a public listing brings. But, like Henry Ford, they are less keen on the loss of control—and the scrutiny (business secrecy matters a great deal for ideas-led firms). Yet the crucial shift has been not a fall in demand for capital, but a rise in its supply. Sums that could once be raised only on public markets...

Swiss stocks are collateral damage in a worsening trade row

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

IT IS A country famed for avoiding conflict. Yet on July 1st, in a serious escalation of a trade spat with the European Union, Switzerland barred the trading of Swiss-listed companies’ shares on EU platforms. Last December the trade bloc had given Switzerland an ultimatum: sign up to a revamped deal replacing the patchwork of 120 bilateral agreements that governs trade relations between the two by June 30th, or lose stockmarket “equivalence”—a status bestowed by the EU that allows seamless trading of shares across borders. Rather than fold, Switzerland retaliated.

Before the ban traders based in the EU accounted for 60-80% of trading in Swiss shares by volume, some of that on Swiss exchanges and some on multilateral trading platforms in EU countries. Now those platforms have suspended trading in Swiss shares, as have the London Stock Exchange and Deutsche Börse. Swiss shares are available only on Swiss exchanges—and on far-distant ones, such as American and Asian trading hubs.

This does not mean that Swiss giants such as Nestlé, Novartis and Roche have suddenly become untradeable from within the EU. Though the bloc usually requires its traders to trade on its own venues, or those it recognises as equivalent, it makes an exception when too few of a company’s shares would be available. So EU traders keen to buy Swiss...

President Donald Trump is trying to fill two jobs at the Fed

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

HIRING FOR the Federal Reserve has been difficult for President Donald Trump. He clearly regrets his pick for chairman, frequently railing against Jerome Powell for keeping interest rates too high. His last two nominees could have fought his corner, but both withdrew after it became clear that neither would be confirmed by the Senate. On July 2nd he had another shot, announcing candidates to fill two vacant spots: Judy Shelton of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Chris Waller of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.

Mr Trump’s reasoning seems obvious: both look doveish. In a recent interview Mr Waller expressed scepticism about the Phillips curve—the idea that low unemployment necessarily leads to inflation. His boss at the St Louis Fed, James Bullard, voted to lower interest rates at the most recent Fed meeting. Ms Shelton has called for interest-rate cuts, saying that companies benefiting from Mr Trump’s pro-growth agenda need better access to capital.

But there the similarities end. Mr Waller is a conventional choice. Though he has questioned the Fed’s decisions on interest rates, he has also defended its balance of independence and accountability before Congress. Ms Shelton, meanwhile, who acted as an adviser to Mr Trump’s election campaign, has shown distinctly more eccentric—and fluid—views...

Borrowing against art is growing at a stunning rate

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

FEW ART collectors are as liquid as Patrick Drahi, a French telecoms magnate, who purchased Sotheby’s, an auction house, for $3.7bn in cash last month. Selling art can take months, even years. The only way to unlock its value quickly is to borrow against it. And indeed the number of owners doing so is rising. Deloitte, an accounting firm, estimates that the outstanding value of loans against art in America reached $17bn-20bn in 2017, up 13% from the previous year. Industry insiders say such lending has continued to grow at double-digit rates since then.

“Ten or 20 years ago it never crossed your mind to leverage your art collection. But the word is out now,” says Evan Beard of Bank of America Private Bank, the institution with the highest outstanding value of art-secured loans. As interest rates have fallen, borrowing has become more attractive. Open public registers make it easy to check if art is encumbered. Price estimates and auction results available online since the early 2000s have made underwriting easier. In America collectors can even keep encumbered art on their wall.

Large banks’ private-banking arms have been lending against art since the 1970s. Now the strong market is attracting specialist lenders. For a private bank, though a loan may be secured against a piece of art, it will almost always be backed in...

Japanese people need to put more aside for retirement

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:59

LAST MONTH Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA), the financial-industry regulator, lobbed a grenade into a fractious debate on how to support the world’s oldest population in retirement. The typical elderly couple, it warned, will need to top up their public pensions by a whopping ¥20m ($185,000). The furore that followed put Taro Aso, the finance minister, on the back foot. Japan’s pension system “will never collapse”, he insisted.

His attempt at reassurance was widely mocked. A cartoon in a weekly magazine depicted him helping a Buddhist deity dispatch souls to financial heaven or hell. The implication was that, aged 78 and one of Japan’s richest politicians, he personally did not risk ending up in penury.

And yet the gloomy forecast should have come as no surprise. Government mandarins have fretted over Japan’s pension system for years. The Nikkei Shimbun, a staid business newspaper, warned last year of “disaster” unless it was reformed. The system was built on the expectation that people would live until their 70s or 80s, says Naoyuki Yoshino of the Asian Development Bank Institute, a think-tank. But more than half of Japanese babies today can expect to live to over 100. A quarter of all 60-year-olds will still be alive in 35 years, estimates the government.

All 20- to 59-year-...

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