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Finance and economics
Updated: 2 hours 38 min ago

Fund managers rarely outperform the market for long

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

THE big investment shift of recent years is from active to passive. Clients have been buying index funds, which passively track a benchmark like the S&P 500 index, and shunning fund managers who actively try to pick the best shares.

One reason for the shift is that passive managers charge lower fees than active funds. Many clients would be happy to pay more if that translated into better performance. However, it is very difficult for investors to select fund managers who can reliably beat their peers. Performance does not persist, as the latest data from S&P Dow Jones Indices show clearly.

Suppose you had picked one of the best-performing 25% of American equity mutual funds in the 12 months to March 2013. In the subsequent 12 months, to March 2014, only 25.6% of those funds stayed in the top quartile (see chart). That result is no better than chance. In the subsequent 12-month periods, this elite bunch is winnowed down to 4.1%, 0.5% and 0.3%—all figures that are worse...

Investors snap up Argentina’s 100-year bonds

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

ONE hundred years ago, Argentina was not the country it is today. Thanks to a belle époque of lavish foreign investment, rapid inward migration and bountiful agricultural exports, its GDP per person in 1917 was comparable to that of Germany and France. Although the first world war brutally interrupted international trade and investment, the country profited from filling the bellies of soldiers on the front with tinned corned beef.

No one knows how Argentina may change over the next 100 years. But many investors seem willing to bet on one forecast: that its government will in 2117 repay $2.75bn-worth of dollar-denominated, 100-year bonds, sold to enthusiastic investors on June 19th.

Since Argentina has defaulted six times in the past 100 years, that belief seems brave. But instead of looking backwards, investors are looking from side to side, at the miserable yields on offer elsewhere. Argentina’s “century” bonds yield almost 8%....

China enters the big leagues of global markets

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

FROM shoes to shirts and phones to fridges, made-in-China goods have blanketed the globe over the past three decades, entering every country and just about every home. But one kind of Chinese good few abroad dare touch: its financial assets. Outsiders own less than 2% of its shares and bonds, far below the levels of foreign ownership seen in other markets. Capital barriers and financial risks have put investors off. This, however, is changing. The globalisation of China’s capital markets is slowly gathering steam, as symbolised by the inclusion of Chinese stocks and bonds in global indices.

MSCI, a company that designs stockmarket indices, announced on June 20th that it will bring Chinese equities into two of its benchmarks: one that covers emerging markets; and another that follows stocks around the world. To begin, it will include a small number of shares, just 222 of the more than 3,000 listed in China. But its decision matters to asset managers who track their performance...

Barclays and four former executives are charged with fraud

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

IN 2008, as banks cracked on both sides of the Atlantic, Britain’s government prepared to shore up tottering lenders. It eventually poured £45bn ($71bn) into the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and £20.3bn into Lloyds, which ministers coaxed into buying the stricken HBOS. Barclays, however, needed no such help: the bank raised enough equity from private investors, notably in Qatar, to meet higher capital targets set by regulators as the crisis deepened, and thus escape a taxpayer rescue.

However, for five years Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has been investigating Barclays’ dealings with the Qataris. On June 20th those inquiries yielded criminal charges. These include (remarkably, some will say) the first such charges to be levelled at the head of a big international bank as a result of the crisis. John Varley is a pillar of London’s financial establishment. Save for one short break he spent 28 years at Barclays, more than six in the top job, before standing down at...

Hong Kong’s stock exchange proposes a controversial reform

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

The big bored

BOSSES at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) ought to be feeling smug. In five of the past eight years it has been the world’s leading exchange for initial public offerings (IPOs). Chinese companies have swarmed to list on its comparatively mature, open and transparent capital market, generating over 90% of the funds raised there in the past five years. Yet, launching a long-awaited consultation on reforms on June 16th, HKEX warned of “stagnation” if it does not change. It has one eye on its regional rivals. Last year Singapore knocked it into fourth place in a prominent ranking of financial centres. As Shenzhen and Shanghai, where trading volumes dwarf Hong Kong’s, open up, they could eat Hong Kong’s lunch.

Besides tinkering with the rules on Hong Kong’s main board and its second one, the Growth Enterprise Market, the proposed changes include, most contentiously, a third board. This would be designed to attract fizzy “new economy”...

Investors in aircraft should get set for turbulence

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

AIR shows are where the aerospace business shows off. At this year’s Paris show, the world’s largest, which opened at Le Bourget airport on June 19th, the military types are most ostentatious. Aeronautical party tricks include helicopters that ascend into the sky tail-first and stealth fighters that fly backwards.

But no one is keener to strut their stuff than Airbus and Boeing, the world’s two biggest makers of airliners. At the 2015 show the pair sold 752 planes worth around $107bn. But the party atmosphere at that event—with copious food and wine laid on for customers and journalists alike—has given way this year to a more sober mood, weaker sales and a bring-your-own-lunch policy. This should give pause to investors in one of the world’s fastest-growing asset classes: aircraft.

Airbus and Boeing still booked plenty of orders. But for the first time, most came from lessors, which lease them to operators, rather than from the airlines that use them. This...

The Federal Reserve risks truncating a recovery with room to run

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

WHEN it comes to inflation, the Federal Reserve sometimes resembles a child freshly emerged from an age-inappropriate horror film. To its members, runaway price increases seem to lurk in every oddly shaped shadow. On June 14th America’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the third time in six months, even as inflation lingered below its 2% target, as it has for most of the past five years. Some critics reckon the Fed’s 2% inflation target is too constraining. Indeed, in recent comments on a letter from prominent economists calling for a higher target, Janet Yellen, the chairman, signalled openness to the idea. But the Fed’s problem is less its target than an unforgiving pessimism about American productivity. If its bleak view is wrong, the Fed itself is partly to blame for slow growth.

Economists generally treat productivity growth as a “real” factor, outside central-bank control. Thus, it is thought to depend on things such as technological progress, workers’ skill levels and the flexibility of the economy. But productivity growth is cyclical: it varies depending on whether an economy is booming or busting. Central banks might therefore have more influence over it than they are prepared to admit.

Economies have a growth speed limit, determined by changes in population and productivity. When unemployment is high, the economy can grow...

Klarna, a Swedish fintech unicorn, gets a full banking licence

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 13:43

BANKS moan incessantly about over- regulation. Yet their banking licences come with perks: in most places only licensed institutions can accept deposits and offer current accounts; within the EU, “passporting” means a bank licensed in one country may operate across the single market. So some European financial-technology (“fintech”) upstarts have started to seek banking licences. On June 19th, Klarna, a Swedish payments firm valued at $2.25bn, became the latest—and the largest so far—to get one.

European fintech firms have various reasons for seeking approval as a bank. Bunq, a Dutch firm and one of the first to get a licence, started out in payments, like Klarna, but expanded to deposit accounts. Some, like N26 in Germany or Atom Bank in Britain, sought to be full-service, online retail banks from the outset. Others, such as ClearBank, a new British clearing and settlement bank, want to offer services to other firms.

Of those focused on the retail market, Klarna is...

Finland tests a new form of welfare

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 11:38

Mr Jarvinen, benched too long

JUHA JARVINEN, an unemployed young father in a village near Jurva, in western Finland, brims with ideas for earning a living. He has just agreed to paint the roofs of two neighbours’ houses. His old business, making decorative window frames, went bust a few years ago. Having paid off debts, he recently registered another, to produce videos for clients.

Mr Jarvinen says that for six years he hoped to start a new business but it was impossible. The family got by on his wife’s wages as a nurse, plus unemployment and child benefits. He had a few job offers from local businesses, which are mainly in forestry, furniture and metalwork. But anything less than a permanent, well-paid post made no sense, since it would jeopardise his welfare payments. To re-enroll for benefits later would be painfully slow.

Mr Jarvinen’s luck turned in January, when he was picked at random from Finland’s unemployed (10% of the...

Inflation has not yet followed lower unemployment in America

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:54

THAT central banks cannot endlessly reduce unemployment without sparking inflation is economic gospel. It follows from “a substantial body of theory, informed by considerable historical evidence”, according to Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve. Her conviction explains why, on June 14th, the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, to a range of 1-1.25%.

Excluding food and energy, prices are only 1.5% higher than a year ago; the Fed’s inflation target is 2%. But Ms Yellen thinks unemployment is below its so-called “natural” rate, so inflation should soon rise. Is she right? Or has the relationship between unemployment and inflation, dubbed the Phillips curve, gone missing?

It is not the first time the theory has failed. After the financial crisis unemployment soared to 10%. This surfeit of workers should have sent inflation tumbling. But prices held up well; in October 2009, when unemployment peaked, underlying inflation was 1.3%, only a little...

The IMF is back in Africa

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

The old outfit is back

ZAMBIANS have good reason to distrust the IMF. In the 1990s, under the fund’s guidance, their government cut spending, scrapped subsidies, liberalised the exchange rate and privatised over 200 state-run firms. This “structural adjustment” was painful: employment shrivelled and, by the end of the decade, income per person had shrunk by 8%. In the words of Binwell Sinyangwe, a novelist, “they were the years of money first or else no friendship”.

So it was with some trepidation that Zambia welcomed an IMF mission, which concluded on June 10th. As in the 1990s, Zambia has been hit by plummeting prices for copper, its main export. The proposed package, which is likely to be finalised over the coming months, could be worth $1.3bn, which would be the country’s biggest with the fund in two decades.

The retro feel extends across Africa, where GDP grew last year by 1.4%, the slowest rate this century. Ghana agreed on a three-...

What history says about inequality and technology

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

ONE factor behind the rise of income inequality in America over the past four decades is that the labour market has increasingly favoured the well-educated. Real wages for college graduates have risen by over a third since 1963, whereas wages for those without high-school diplomas have dropped. As more of the economy becomes automated, doomsayers worry that the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow. History shows, however, that this need not be so.

The recent rise in earnings for skilled workers is a rare historical phenomenon. Compiling records from churches, monasteries, colleges, guilds and governments, Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, has put together a comprehensive dataset of English wages that stretches back to the 13th century. Mr Clark notes that in the past the skilled-wage premium, defined as the difference in wages between craftsmen, such as carpenters and masons, and unskilled labourers has been fairly stable, save for two...

How Chinese overcapacity hits American workers

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

The fear of being crushed

ALUMINIUM smelting is sweaty work. Inside the Hawesville plant of Century, an American aluminium producer, it can get so hot that the workers lie outside in the blazing summer sun to cool off. Dennis Harbath, the plant manager, oversees operations. He is worried about the workers. “They have mental fatigue,” he says.

The source of the stress is a number scrawled on a wall in white chalk. That is the dollar price of a tonne of aluminium, set on the London Metal Exchange (LME). The workers keep track of it on their smartphones. Their wives ask about it, too. “It’s hard to stay on the LME rollercoaster when trying to support a family,” says one.

A few years ago, they weren’t particularly aware of the price, says Andy Meserve, the local union president. That changed after 2015, when the price plunged to below $1,500 per tonne, prompting Century to shut down 60% of the plant’s capacity and lay off hundreds of workers....

The Treasury publishes proposals to cut red tape

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

TEN days after he became America’s 45th president in January, Donald Trump vowed to “do a big number on Dodd-Frank”, the elephantine law that recast financial regulation after the crisis of 2007-08. Soon after, he asked his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, to measure all America’s rules (not just Dodd-Frank) against seven broad principles, including the prevention of bail-outs by the taxpayer and making regulation more efficient.

On June 12th Mr Mnuchin gave the first part of his answer, in a 147-page report on banks. Later instalments will cover capital markets, insurance and asset management, and non-bank institutions and financial technology. Banks of all sizes will be cheered by its proposals to ease regulation, make “stress tests” of their resilience less onerous and tame the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a watchdog born of the Dodd-Frank act. To allay the confusion caused by America’s many regulators, Mr Mnuchin wants to give co-ordinating power to the...

The EU wants to supervise London clearing-houses after Brexit

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

THE Brexit devils will be in the details. That much is clear from the European Commission’s latest plans for euro-denominated clearing, a crucial bit of financial plumbing. Clearing-houses sit in the middle of a securities or derivatives transaction, and make sure that deals are honoured even if one side defaults. Clearing has become a much bigger business in the wake of the financial crisis, after which the G20 group of large economies mandated that over-the-counter derivatives should be cleared: 62% of a notional $544trn global market is now settled in this way.

London houses have an outsize role, clearing 97% of dollar interest-rate swaps and 75% of those in euros. Britain’s largest clearing-house, LCH, owned by the London Stock Exchange, alone clears over 50% of interest-rate swaps across all currencies. This has long had EU regulators worried about systemic-risk implications, and led them to consider their post-Brexit options. On June 13th the commission proposed a law that would set up a new system of direct supervision for clearing-houses that handle transactions in euros or other EU currencies, but are located outside the EU, as those in London will be.

Under this proposal, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), a regulator, would have direct oversight over non-EU clearing-houses deemed systemically important. Such oversight...

Getting the most out of business taxes

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

ONE of the hottest debates in economic policy at the moment is how to ensure companies are paying the optimal amount of tax. On the right, politicians think that a lower corporate-tax rate will lead to more business investment and thus faster economic growth. Hence the initial stockmarket enthusiasm after President Donald Trump was elected on a platform that included cuts in business taxes. On the left, the belief is that business is not paying its “fair share” of tax and that it can be further squeezed to pay for spending commitments. Hence the promise of the Labour Party in Britain’s recent election campaign to push the corporate-tax rate up to 26% (from 19%).

How do these theories translate into practice? To find out the effect on business investment, The Economist took the corporate-tax rates in OECD countries and divided them into quartiles from highest (1st) to lowest. Then we calculated the five-year average in each quartile for gross...

The perils of nationalisation

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

WHEN Jeremy Corbyn unveiled his Labour manifesto ahead of the recent British election, opponents gawked at pledges to renationalise the postal and rail systems. Such enthusiasm for state ownership smacks of a philosophy long since abandoned by leaders on both left and right. Despite Labour’s decent electoral performance, nationalisation is not everywhere on the march; on June 5th Donald Trump made public his desire to privatise air-traffic control. But the rise of Mr Corbyn and Bernie Sanders hints at a weakening of the rich-world consensus that the less of the economy owned by government, the better. That is a pity. Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments.

For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. Maurice Allais, an (admittedly French) economist who won the Nobel prize in 1988, recommended that the government run a few firms in each industry, the better to observe the relative merits of public and...

Death pools can bring financial security for the long-lived

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 14:53

Thinking inside the box

WHEN members of a private club in Manhattan suddenly start dropping dead at an alarming rate, Matt Scudder, a private detective, suspects more might be at play than bad luck to explain the bizarre series of suicides and violent accidents. If this sounds like the back-flap of a murder mystery, your deduction skills are as sharp as Mr Scudder’s. In Lawrence Block’s “A Long Line of Dead Men,” the cunning detective eventually uncovers the motive for the killing spree: the club of 31 men were all part of a tontine.

These ancient financial instruments are built on members paying money into a pool, which is invested and then pays out dividends once they reach a pre-agreed age. Those who live longest will see their income increase as others die; the last one standing receives the most. They are essentially a form of insurance against an unexpectedly long life.

Although most people will know them from the works of Agatha...

Bangladesh worries about falling remittances

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 14:46

IT IS a mystery. Last year Bangladesh’s army of migrant workers abroad increased by a record 750,000, to reach 8m-odd. They travel to earn money for their families. Yet the statistics suggest they are sending less money home. In the fiscal year that ends this month, recorded remittances will have fallen for the second consecutive year, this time by more than 10%, to $12bn (see chart). To explain the puzzle, look to the places they work, to technology and to the growing popularity of a fiddle used by Bangladeshi importers.

The abrupt cancellation last November by the Indian government of most banknotes by value was one factor: monthly inflows crashed, as the millions of Bangladeshis working in India were strapped for cash. In the Gulf, the source of 60% of Bangladesh’s remittances, the economy has been relatively sluggish.

But even without these shocks, remittances were falling—and fewer were being counted. Bangladesh is not unique in suffering such a downturn: for the first...

A state bail-out of Monte dei Paschi draws near

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 14:46

Not the world’s oldest customer

HELP is at hand for the world’s oldest bank. On June 1st the European Commission said it had agreed in principle to a bail-out by the Italian government of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472. For years Monte dei Paschi, Italy’s fourth-biggest bank by assets, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Last July it flunked a test by European supervisors of its capital strength. In December a private-sector restructuring scheme came to naught and the state decided to step in.

The details, including the size of the bail-out, have yet to be hammered out. In December the European Central Bank (ECB) estimated that Monte dei Paschi would need €8.8bn ($9.2bn) in capital to withstand the “adverse scenario” in last summer’s test. The Bank of Italy reckoned that the state’s share would be €6.6bn.

That included €2bn to compensate retail investors in the bank’s junior bonds, many of them ordinary customers. European state-...