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Updated: 51 min 4 sec ago

Japan still has great influence on global financial markets

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 16:14

IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.

“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds....

Japanese banks’ foreign exposure may threaten financial stability

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

THE maelstrom that hit global financial markets a decade ago is known in Japan as the Lehman Shock, after the bankruptcy of the American investment bank that caused it. Japanese banks themselves escaped relatively unscathed, owing to defences built during the 1990s, when the country struggled with deflation and excessive debt. But they seem to have forgotten the lesson. Risk-taking is back.

Squeezed at home by razor-thin margins and negative interest rates, both major and regional banks have been on a spree abroad. Banks have more than doubled borrowing and lending in dollars since 2007. Dollar-denominated assets of Japanese banks topped $3.5trn at the end of 2016, according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel. That leaves them vulnerable to currency swings and external shocks, it warns.

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Private equity is piling into health care

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

LAST month KKR, a private-equity firm, announced that it would buy Envision Healthcare, one of America’s largest providers of doctors to hospitals. The deal was valued at $9.9bn, including debt. If shareholders agree to the sale, it will be the largest in a string of health-care investments by KKR, including an ambulance service, a company that helps treat children with autism and a maker of medical devices.

“Ten years ago only a few private-equity houses had dedicated health-care teams,” says Dmitry Podpolny of McKinsey, a consultancy. “Today nearly everyone does.” Last year saw a frenzy of deal activity, the highest by value since the go-go year of 2007.

Private-equity funds are not the only ones keen on the industry. Institutional investors, tech-focused funds, generalist asset managers and corporate buyers are sniffing around, too. As they chase a limited number of targets, they are pushing up prices. Not high enough to dampen interest, however: health care is loved by...

Why simple rules are best when spreading your investment bets

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

BENJAMIN GRAHAM is considered the father of value investing, the business of picking stocks that are cheap. He might also fairly be described as the father of not trying to pick stocks at all. In his book “The Intelligent Investor”, Graham distinguished between two archetypes. Enterprising investors are willing to devote time and care to stock-picking. Defensive investors want a quiet life. So they should simply buy a diversified list of leading stocks instead.

The emergence of low-cost indexed funds has made it easy to be this kind of know-nothing investor. Yet there is still a decision to make, namely asset allocation. How much of a portfolio should be in risky stocks and how much in safe bonds? In theory the split depends on expected returns, volatility (how much asset prices fluctuate), the investor’s appetite for such volatility—and even the investor’s age and job. Thankfully Graham had a simpler answer: a 50-50 split between stocks and bonds, maintained by adjusting as required by market prices.

The merit of this approach—or indeed the 60-40 rule favoured by many pension funds—is simplicity. There is a better chance of sticking to a simple, fixed-weights rule than a complex one. Deciding on the right portfolio weights is not the most important part of asset allocation. What matters is sticking to whatever weights are chosen. And that requires...

Car dealerships have become targets for cross-border investment

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

Wheeler dealer

DARREN GUIVER started out as a trainee at a Ford dealership in 1986. He moved quickly up through management, buying dealerships until he had created Spire Automotive group, a network of 12 across south-east England. Two years ago Group 1, America’s third-largest dealership network, made him an offer he couldn’t resist. So Mr Guiver joined thousands of small dealers selling out to global investors and dealership groups. 

Since 2014 around 1,000 such dealerships have been bought or sold in America. According to Kerrigan Advisors, a firm that helps sellers, around 200 more will change hands this year. The largest deal to date came in 2015, when Warren Buffett bought Van Tuyl Group, a network of 78 dealerships with over $8bn in annual revenue. Holding companies such as South Africa’s Imperial and Super Group have been buying showrooms across England. Penske, an American group, has become the largest dealer network in Europe by revenue.

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As private-equity firms mature, the way they buy and sell is changing

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

“SELL in May and go away,” say the denizens of Wall Street, and to the usual summer lethargy is added the excuse of a heatwave. But for those working in private equity, there is no let-up. The “shops”, as private-equity funds like to call themselves, are stuffed with money and raising more: $1.1trn in “dry powder” ready to spend around the world, according to Preqin, a consultancy, with another $950bn being raised by 3,050 firms.

So hot is the market that there are rumours of money being turned away. Even the firms themselves, which receive fees linked to assets under management, cannot fathom how to use all that may come their way. It is not for want of trying. The year to date has seen nearly 1,000 acquisitions (see chart 1). Health care has been particularly vibrant (see next article).

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America and the EU are both toughening up on foreign capital

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

“DEAR Donald, let’s remember our common history,” wrote Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, on a picture of a military cemetery in Europe that he presented to President Donald Trump during talks on July 25th. The reminder of shared values and sacrifices may have helped nudge the two men towards a truce in the incipient transatlantic trade war (see article). That truce will help America and Europe to co-operate on another front.

Both suspect that investment from China is a ploy to gain access to advanced technology and undermine domestic security. European officials are thrashing out the details of an EU-wide investment-screening mechanism, proposed by Mr Juncker in 2017. A government white paper on national security and investment published on July 24th suggests that post-Brexit Britain will be no...

Bond yields reliably predict recessions. Why?

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:51

AS NAMES for market phenomena go, “inverted yield curve” lacks a certain punch. It is no “death cross” or “vomiting camel”. But what it lacks in panache, the inverted yield curve more than makes up for in predictive potency. Just before each of America’s most recent three recessions the yield curve for government bonds “inverted”, meaning that yields on long-term bonds fell below those on short-term bonds. Economists and stockmarkets seem unconcerned that inversion looms again (see chart). But despite generally strong economic data, there is reason to heed the warning signs flashing across bond markets.

There is nothing particularly magical about the yield curve’s predictive power. Short-term interest rates are overwhelmingly determined by changes in central banks’ overnight policy rates—for example, the federal funds rate in America, which has risen by 1.75 percentage points since December 2015. Long-term rates are less well-behaved. They reflect the average short-term rate over a bond’s lifetime...

As inequality grows, so does the political influence of the rich

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

SQUEEZING the top 1% ought to be the most natural thing in the world for politicians seeking to please the masses. Yet, with few exceptions, today’s populist insurgents are more concerned with immigration and sovereignty than with the top rate of income tax. This disconnect may be more than an oddity. It may be a sign of the corrupting influence of inequality on democracy.

You might reasonably suppose that the more democratic a country’s institutions, the less inequality it should support. Rising inequality means that resources are concentrated in the hands of a few; they should be ever more easily outvoted by the majority who are left with a shrinking share of national income.

Indeed, some social scientists think that historical expansions of the franchise came as governments sought credible ways to assure voters that resources would be distributed more equitably. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that in the 19th century governments across the West faced the threat of...

Mario Draghi’s replacement is already being discussed

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

A LOT rests on the shoulders of the euro zone’s top central banker. The president of the European Central Bank (ECB) is not just in charge of ensuring monetary and financial stability in one of the world’s largest economies. In the absence of a single European fiscal authority, it also falls to the ECB to act as a backstop for the currency bloc. In times of crisis, the very survival of the monetary union seems to depend on the president’s words and actions. Central-bank bosses in America, Japan or Britain bear no burden as great.

With such demands, though, comes great influence. Those in need of convincing need only cast their minds back to July 2012. Greek interest rates were soaring and investors were entertaining the possibility that the euro zone would break up. But Mario Draghi, the ECB’s boss, soothed markets with a promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Six years on, that commitment still helps to contain Italy’s sovereign-bond yields, despite unease about its new government...

In China, a rare public spat between officials as debt pressures build

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

LIKE other countries, China has bureaucratic infighting. But it does better than most at keeping tussles hidden from outside view, especially under Xi Jinping, a president who brooks no dissent. So it has been highly unusual to see a spat between the central bank and finance ministry spill into the open. It reveals cracks in the government’s façade of unity as a campaign to control debt exacts a toll on the economy.

The disagreement started on July 13th when Xu Zhong, head of the central bank’s research department, spoke at a forum in Beijing. Officially, China is committed to a “proactive fiscal policy”, meaning that the government will spend to prop up growth. But Mr Xu argued that the finance ministry was not delivering what it had promised, thus making deleveraging more painful.

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Football talent scouts become more rational

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

Making a Kylian

CHEERS erupted from Calais to Cannes when Kylian Mbappé, a 19-year-old striker, thumped in France’s fourth goal in the World Cup final on July 15th. Among the smuggest onlookers were the accountants at Paris Saint-Germain, Mr Mbappé’s club. He was already a prized asset before the tournament, having broken the record for goals scored by a teenager in the Champions League, Europe’s premier-club competition. CIES Football Observatory, a research organisation, reckoned then that his club could charge €190m ($223m) for him. But an electrifying World Cup, with four goals, has surely increased his value.

That, at least, is how the transfer market usually responds to international tournaments. According to 21st Club, a consultancy, each time a player found the net in the World Cup and European Championship tournaments in 2004-16, his price went up by, on average, 13%. After the 2014 World Cup James Rodríguez, whose six goals for Colombia made him...

What Venezuelan savers can teach everyone else

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

ASK the chief investment officer of a fund-management firm how to spread your investments and you will be told to put so much in stocks, so much in bonds and something in hedge funds or private equity. Chances are that white-elephant buildings, eggs and long-life milk will not feature. But in Venezuela, where the inflation rate is in the tens of thousands, things that people elsewhere would shun for fear they will lose value have become stores of real wealth.

That is why you can see scaffolding and other signs of a building boom dotted around Caracas, the capital of a country that has endured an economic collapse. Businesses need to park their earnings where they will not be wiped out by inflation. A smaller-scale response to galloping prices is the emerging “egg economy”. Eggs hold their value better than cash, for a while at least. They make for a convenient currency, too. It is easier to carry around a half-dozen eggs than a trunkful of banknotes. And many tradespeople would be happier to...

Income-share agreements are a novel way to pay tuition fees

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

TO PAY for his professional flight degree at Purdue University in Indiana, Andrew Hoyler had two choices. He could rely on loans and scholarships. Or he could cover some of the cost with an “income-share agreement” (ISA), a contract with Purdue to pay it a percentage of his earnings for a fixed period after graduation.

Salaries for new pilots are low. Mr Hoyler made $1,900 per month in his first year of work. Without the ISA, monthly loan payments would have been more than $1,300. Instead, for the next eight-and-a-half years he will pay 7.83% of his income. He thinks that, as his pay accelerates, he will end up paying $300-400 more each month than with a loan. But low early payments, and the certainty that they would stay low if his earnings did, made an ISA the better option, he says. “I’ve been able to pay what I could afford.”

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David Solomon will be the new CEO of Goldman Sachs

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:55

Songs of Solomon

LAME-DUCK periods can last for only so long. It was clear beforehand that a Goldman Sachs earnings call this week would be packed with questions about succession. When would the chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, step down? (He had said in March he was leaving, but gave no date.) What would his departure mean for the firm’s other over-achievers? Several had already decamped, including Harvey Schwartz, the bank’s co-president and co-chief operating officer. Left as heir-apparent was the man he had shared both jobs with, David Solomon, but with no hint of when his elevation would take place.

On July 17th Goldman ended the speculation by confirming the choice of Mr Solomon as CEO and saying that he would take over in October, earlier than predicted. Quarterly results presented that day by Martin Chavez, the chief financial officer, who is thought to be in his own succession battle to replace Mr Solomon, beat forecasts. Still, the share price sagged....

Mini-grids could be a boon to poor people in Africa and Asia

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

A FORESTED village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid. Drive past a police checkpoint a few miles away and you are in territory loyal to “the guys”, a euphemism for Maoist guerrillas. That makes Narotoli more marginalised than most places. A few months ago it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

Two years before the grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network. Mini-grids are different from the rooftop solar panels and batteries (sometimes linked up in “micro-grids”)...

Donald Trump insists on trade reciprocity. But what kind?

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

IN THE sixth episode of “The Apprentice”, a reality-television show first broadcast in 2004, Donald Trump, as always, fired a contestant vying for a job in his company. She was, he said, the worst negotiator. And she had failed to fight back when belittled by her teammate. The episode was entitled “Tit For Tat”.

That same principle of reciprocity guides Mr Trump’s trade policy as president. And it is animating his tariff war with China. On July 6th America imposed 25% duties on Chinese imports worth about $34bn. (Another $16bn-worth will be hit in due course.) China responded by slapping tariffs on a similar amount of American goods (including a cargo of soyabeans aboard the Peak Pegasus that arrived at the port of Dalian mere hours later).

The two sides disagree, however, about which is tit and which tat. China believes it is responding dollar-for-dollar to American aggression. But America too believes it is retaliating: punishing China for trade and...

Development-impact bonds are costly, cumbersome—and good

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

IF A girl in a poor country goes to school, she will probably have a more comfortable life than if she stays at home. She will be less likely to marry while still a child, and therefore less likely to die in childbirth. So, not surprisingly, there is an Indian charity that tries to get girls into school and ensure they learn something, and there are Western philanthropists willing to pay for its work. What is noteworthy is how they have gone about this transaction.

On July 13th the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, presents the results of the world’s first large development-impact bond, which paid for girls’ education in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. In this novel way of funding charitable work, a financial institution gives money to a charity, which tries to achieve various specified outcomes. If a neutral arbiter rules that it has succeeded, a donor or philanthropist repays the investor, plus a bonus. If it fails, the investor loses some or all of its money.

This...

Why the euro zone hasn’t seen more cross-border bank mergers

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

MERGERS of euro-area banks from different countries, a banker jokes, are “very much like teenage sex. There’s a lot of talk, but little action. And when it does happen, there’s a lot of disappointment.” In recent months gossip has linked each of France’s three biggest banks (BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale), as well as UniCredit, Italy’s largest, with Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest listed bank. Lately chatter has connected UniCredit and Société Générale. But no big, cross-border takeover is imminent.

A stream of deals in the 2000s—notably UniCredit’s purchase of HypoVereinsbank, another leading German lender, in 2005—has slowed to a trickle (see chart, top panel). Policymakers at both the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) would like the flow to revive. The euro area’s banking markets are still essentially national ones. “European banking remains as fragmented today as it was in 2012,” notes Magdalena Stoklosa of Morgan Stanley. Domestic...

Is North Korea the next Vietnam? Don’t count on it

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

AS AMERICA presses North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, it has pointed to Vietnam as an example of the prosperity that awaits the isolated state. “It can be your miracle in North Korea as well,” Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said on July 8th, on a visit to Hanoi. It is not the first time Vietnam has been held up as a model for North Korea. Over the years, officials from the two countries have discussed lessons from Vietnam’s reforms. North Korea sees Vietnam as less threatening than China and more of a peer, making it a more welcome mentor. But North Korea’s economic path is likely to be more fraught.

Yes, there are similarities. Like North Korea’s economy today, Vietnam’s used to be largely collectivised. The Vietnamese Communist party’s ability to retain power at the same time as freeing markets must appeal to Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, who has vowed to improve his country’s economy. In 1985, on the eve of Vietnam’s doi moi liberalising...

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