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Updated: 44 min 12 sec ago

How protectionism sank America’s entire merchant fleet

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:54

IN APRIL 1956 the world’s first container ship—the Ideal X—set sail from New Jersey. A year later in Seattle the world’s first commercially successful airliner, Boeing’s 707, made its maiden flight. Both developments slashed the cost of moving cargo and people. Boeing still makes half the world’s airliners. But America’s shipping fleet, 17% of the global total in 1960, accounts for just 0.4% today.

Blame a 1920 law known as the Jones Act, which decrees that trade between domestic ports be carried by American-flagged and -built ships, at least 75% owned and crewed by American citizens. After Hurricane Irma, a shortage of Jones-Act ships led President Donald Trump on September 28th to waive the rules for ten days to resupply Puerto Rico. This fuelled calls to repeal the law completely.

Like most forms of protectionism, the Jones Act hits consumers hard. A lack of foreign competition drives up the cost of coastal transport. Building a...

A new study details the wealth hidden in tax havens

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:54

SWITZERLAND, which developed cross-border wealth-management in the 1920s, was once in a league of its own as a tax haven. Since the 1980s, however, tax-dodgers have been spoilt for choice: they can hide assets anywhere from the Bahamas to Hong Kong. The percentage of global wealth held offshore has increased dramatically. But it has been hard to say how much that is, and who owns it.

Few offshore centres used to disclose such data. But in 2016 many authorised the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) to make banking statistics publicly available. Using these data, a new study by Annette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman, three economists, concludes that tax havens hoard wealth equivalent to about 10% of global GDP. This average masks big variations. Russian assets worth 50% of GDP are held offshore; countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates climb into the 60-70% range. Britain and continental Europe come in at 15%, but Scandinavia at only a few per cent.

One conclusion is that high tax rates, like those in Denmark or Sweden, do not drive people offshore. Rather, higher offshore wealth is correlated with factors such as political and economic instability and an abundance of natural resources.

Proximity to Switzerland also remains a good indicator. But assets held there have declined since the...

A Chinese carmaker agrees to buy a Danish investment bank

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:54

A COMPANY that moves up the value chain from refrigerator parts to cars is impressive but not that surprising. A car company that buys an investment bank is audacious. But Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a conglomerate based in Hangzhou, China, did not become big by paring its ambitions. Having successfully made the fridge-parts-to-cars transition at home, it went global in 2010. It acquired Volvo, a Swedish carmaker, from Ford of America. Now Geely is back in Scandinavia for another acquisition. This time it is buying one of Denmark’s biggest banks.

Saxo Bank announced on October 2nd that Geely would acquire 51.5% of its shares. It will spend over $800m on the deal, which still requires regulatory approval. Sampo Group, a Finnish insurance company, will acquire 19.9% of Saxo shares for €265m ($311m), and Kim Fournais, Saxo’s co-founder and chief executive, will retain 25.7%. The sellers are Sinar Mas, an Indonesian conglomerate, and TPG, an American private-equity firm.

Saxo was an early adopter of online securities trading and still invests heavily in financial technology. It makes a substantial portion of its profits from selling trading platforms to other firms. Daniel Donghui Li, Geely’s chief financial officer, says Geely hopes to expand Saxo’s technologies into Asia. Besides facilitating this expansion, Geely does not intend to change how Saxo...

Manias, panics and Initial Coin Offerings

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 08:48

EVERY market mania reaches a point when pitches to would-be investors enter the realm of the surreal. So it goes for “initial coin offerings”, or ICOs. A new one by a firm called POW invites Facebook users to claim tokens for nothing; when they later become convertible into other tokens, the first to take advantage of the offer could “become worth $124bn…making them the richest person on Earth”, the blurb says. Not a bad return for no money invested and no risk borne. However bizarre, bubbles are hard to resist: no one wants to be the only one of their friends left out. They can also be financially ruinous. But gambling on a craze, even a highly dubious one, can be about more than blind greed.

The ICO boom is an outgrowth of the emerging, occasionally inscrutable world of cryptocurrencies. These are a form of money (bitcoin and ether are examples) used in transactions which are recorded on a distributed public ledger called a blockchain. An ICO is a scheme to raise funds for an...

Venture capitalists with daughters are more successful

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 10:03

RICHARD NESBITT, a former chief operating officer at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, has long been an evangelist for women in business. In “Results at the Top”, a book he wrote with Barbara Annis, he describes his efforts to convince men to promote women. When speaking to bosses, he stresses data showing that companies with more senior women are more successful. But he has noticed that men with daughters tend to be more receptive to his message. At least for venture-capital (VC) firms, recent research confirms this observation, as well as the assertion that gender diversity boosts performance.

Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang at Harvard University wanted to determine whether VC firms with more women managers do better. Answering this question is tricky—firms that hire more women may have other characteristics that lead to success. VC-investing remains a predominantly male activity. In the authors’ sample of 988 VC funds in 301 firms, around 8% of new hires were women. Very few firms...

The Bank of Japan sticks to its guns

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 10:03

SEVENTH time lucky? Minutes of the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) policy meeting in July, published on September 26th, showed that the central bank had, for the sixth time since 2013, pushed back the date at which it expected prices to meet its 2% inflation target—to the fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Four-and-a-half years since Haruhiko Kuroda took office as governor and embarked on an unprecedented experiment in quantitative easing (QE), the bank is still far from its goal. It has swept up 40% of Japanese government bonds and a whopping 71% of exchange-traded funds. The bank’s balance-sheet has tripled. It is now roughly the size of the American Federal Reserve’s.

Yet, despite his apparent failure, and despite a snap general election, Mr Kuroda may yet stay for another five years when his term runs out next April. If not, most of his likely successors are signed up to the same reflationary policy. At least one member of the bank’s board gave warning at its...

Three trade cases facing the Trump administration spell trouble

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 09:48

Ruinously competitive

IN 1845 Frédéric Bastiat, a French economist, wrote an open letter to his national parliament, pleading for help on behalf of makers of candles and other forms of lighting. The French market was being flooded with cheap light, he complained. Action was necessary: a law closing all windows, shutters and curtains. Only that would offer protection against the source of this “ruinous competition”, the sun.

Three similar pleas are facing the administration of President Donald Trump. But these are not parodies. On September 22nd the United States International Trade Commission paved the way for import restrictions on solar panels, ruling that imports had injured American cell manufacturers. On September 26th the Department of Commerce pencilled in tariffs of 220% on airliners made by Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer. A third decision on washing machines is due by October 5th.

This cluster of cases represents around $15bn...

Once a leader in virtual currencies, China turns against them

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 09:48

BITCOIN and China always made odd bedfellows. Devotees of bitcoin love its independence from central authorities; in China the central authorities love their power. That they would accept a cryptocurrency that weakened their control over something as fundamental as the management of money seemed unlikely. Yet China had become the world’s biggest bitcoin market, dominating both its trading and computer-powered “mining”.

It was not meant to be. Bitcoin’s surprising success in China appears to be nearing its end. A series of bans announced over the past month have made clear that bitcoin and all fellow travellers, from ethereum to litecoin, have little place within its borders. Some hope that the bans are temporary. The government has, after all, declared an ambition to make China a leader in the blockchain technology that is integral to bitcoin. But its seems more likely that officials will tighten their grip on China’s remaining crypto-coin bastions.

Bitcoin had been in trouble in China since February, when the central bank, aiming to stem illicit capital flows, ordered exchanges to halt virtual-currency withdrawals until they could identify their customers. China’s share of global bitcoin-trading went from more than 90% to just about 10% (see chart).


Nordic payments firms have become acquisition targets

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 09:48

THE Vikings were slow to adopt coins. They preferred to pay by cutting pieces off silver bars, at least until contact with the rest of Europe convinced them of the benefits of standardised coins. Today their Nordic descendants are abandoning coins and notes in favour of electronic payments. Two Nordic e-payments firms have recently announced that they will be acquired by foreign companies. The rest of the world, too, is using less cash. And they want the financial backing to enter new markets.

On September 25th Nets, a payments firm based in Denmark, announced that Hellman & Friedman, an American private-equity firm, had offered to acquire it for DKr33.1bn ($5.3bn). Nets is following Bambora, a Swedish-based payments firm, for which Ingenico, a French electronic-payments firm, offered €1.5bn ($1.7bn) in July.

Nets was created in 2010 from the merger of payments companies in Denmark and Norway. It has a strong presence in both countries. Dankort, Denmark’s national...

The next financial crisis may be triggered by central banks

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 08:33

AS WITH London buses, don’t worry if you miss a financial crisis; another will be along shortly. The latest study on long-term asset returns from Deutsche Bank shows that crises in developed markets have become much more common in recent decades. That does not bode well.

Deutsche defines a crisis as a period when a country suffers one of the following: a 15% annual decline in equities; a 10% fall in its currency or its government bonds; a default on its national debt; or a period of double-digit inflation. During the 19th century, only occasionally did more than half of countries for which there are data suffer such a shock in a single year. But since the 1980s, in numerous years more than half of them have been in a financial crisis of some kind.

The main reason for this, argues Deutsche, is the monetary system. Under the gold standard and its successor, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the amount of credit creation was limited. A country that expanded its money supply too quickly would suffer a trade deficit and pressure on its currency’s exchange rate; the government would react by slamming on the monetary brakes. The result was that it was harder for financial bubbles to inflate.

But since the early 1970s more countries have moved to a floating exchange-rate system. This gives governments the flexibility to deal with an...

Europe’s capital markets face a big shake-up and are not ready

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 08:33

FINANCIERS usually regard new regulations as dull, annoying drudgery best left to lawyers or the compliance department. That is not an option with the second iteration of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID 2), a European Union law years in the making and entering into force on January 3rd 2018. The law introduces radical changes to trading in trillions of euros-worth of stocks, bonds and derivatives. But its sheer scope and complexity mean that an unprecedented number of issues and technicalities are still unresolved.

MiFID 1, in force since 2007, was aimed at shares, and spawned a proliferation of new trading venues ranging from electronic platforms to “dark pools” run by investment banks, breaking the oligopoly of dozy national stock exchanges. The new, more ambitious, law seeks to bring transparency to a far wider range of asset classes, notably bonds and derivatives.

The single reform that has probably received most attention is the requirement...

The cost of innovation has risen, and productivity has suffered

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 08:33

WERE there far fewer undiscovered ideas out there than in our more primitive past, how would people know? This is not an idle question; decoding the mysteries of nature, from atmospheric pressure to electricity to DNA, allowed people to bend the natural world to their will, and to grow richer in the process. A dwindling stock of discoverable insights would mean correspondingly less scope for progress in the future—a dismal prospect. And some signs suggest that the well of our imagination has run dry. Though ever more researchers are digging for insights, according to new research, the flow of new ideas is flagging. But that uncovering new ideas is a struggle does not mean that humanity is near the limits of its understanding.

The development of new ideas—meaning scientific truths or clever inventions—allows economies to grow richer year after year. Adding more workers or machinery to an economy boosts GDP, but only for a while. Applying ever more men with hoes to the cultivation of a field will generate diminishing returns in terms of crop yields, for instance; wringing more from the soil eventually requires the use of better seed-stock or fertiliser. Unless humanity finds new ways to do more with the same amount of labour and capital, growth in incomes peters out to nothing.

Dwindling growth in incomes is not a bad description of what has happened in...

The teaching of economics gets an overdue overhaul

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

ECONOMISTS can be a haughty bunch. But a decade of trauma has had a chastening effect. They are rethinking old ideas, asking new questions and occasionally welcoming heretics back into the fold. Change, however, has been slow to reach the university economics curriculum. Many institutions still pump students through introductory courses untainted by recent economic history or the market shortcomings it illuminates. A few plucky reformers are working to correct that: a grand and overdue idea. Overhauling the way economics is taught ought to produce students more able to understand the modern world. Even better, it should improve economics itself.

The dismal science it may be, but economics is popular on campus. It accounts for more than 10% of degrees awarded at elite universities each year, by one estimate, and many more students take an introductory class as part of their general-education requirements. Teachers of such courses aim to grab the attention of their glassy-eyed...

Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

A year earlier than expected, Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund, the world’s largest, surpassed $1trn in assets on September 19th. It had gained over $100bn in the past year, thanks in large measure to the global stockmarket boom in 2017: around two-thirds of its assets are held as equities (over 1% of shares globally). It helps that Norwegians continue to earn fat revenues from pumping North Sea oil and gas, which go to the fund to be invested abroad. The fund is so big it is becoming a tool for 5m-odd Norwegians to shape values abroad. It is an increasingly activist shareholder, speaking out on executive pay, ethical behaviour, companies’ use of water, child labour and more. Both its size and influence are likely to keep on growing.

Ukraine’s return to the debt markets worries economic reformers

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

MUCH has changed since Ukraine last tapped global debt markets in 2013. The next year the “Maidan revolution” drove out the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych; and Russia annexed Crimea and stoked a war in Ukraine’s east. The economy languished, with GDP contracting by 16% in 2014-15; only an IMF rescue staved off collapse. Unable to pay its debts, Ukraine in 2015 submitted its creditors to a 20% “haircut”, or debt reduction (an offer rejected by just one creditor, Russia, which is pursuing Ukraine in British courts). This week the government returned to the international markets, issuing $3bn in dollar-denominated bonds.

This testifies to the progress Ukraine has made. As Oleksandr Danylyuk, the finance minister, puts it: “We’re back; we transformed the country.” The government has largely stabilised the economy, bringing inflation down from a peak of 61% in April 2015 to a more manageable 13.5%. It has also undertaken structural reforms: overhauling energy markets,...

Ethical investment is booming. But what is it?

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

MAYBE weary of its role as a punchbag for moralists, and certainly in search of products with widespread appeal, Wall Street has taken to selling products linked to virtue. That is not easy: how does an industry focused on financial returns go about gauging goodness?

The approach started years ago with funds that called themselves “socially responsible”. More recently the terminology has evolved, with many claiming to pursue “ESG” investing, standing for “environmental”, “social” and “governance”.

Morningstar, a data-tracking firm, places any fund that uses terms such as sustainable investing, ESG and so on in its prospectus into a category that now has 204 members with $77bn in collective assets. The oldest fund in the Morningstar group dates back to 1971. But nearly half have been launched in the past three years. More quietly, the wealth-management offices of many American investment firms constantly roll out investments touting these sorts of characteristics and...

Huge volumes of data make real-time insurance a possibility

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

Mind your heads

EVEN at weddings or whale watches, the buzz of a drone is no longer a surprise. Drone photography is booming. Gartner, a consultancy, says some 174,000 drones will be sold for commercial use around the world this year, and 2.8m to consumers. It is easy to imagine a few might fall out of the sky, causing damage the pilot cannot hope to pay for: crushed wedding cakes, injured spectators and so on. Amid scores of near-misses, several incidents have already occurred. In 2014, for example, a drone filming a triathlon in Australia crashed on a competitor’s head.

Clearly, drone-users need insurance. Typically, risks are insured through the payment of an annual premium. Insure4drones, a British specialist, charges £738.86 ($1,000) to cover a DJI Phantom, a bestselling drone, for a year. From October Flock, a London startup, will offer insurance on a flight-by-flight basis, at the push of a button in an app, to any commercial drone-operator in...

Marital choices are exacerbating household income inequality

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 14:44

It’s all a matter of degree

“HERE’S what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate,” wrote Susan Patton, a human-resources consultant, in 2013. In an infamous letter to the editor of Princeton’s student newspaper, Ms Patton warned female students at the university that they will “never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of [them]”. Critics responded harshly. Ms Patton recalls that she was branded “a traitor to feminism, a traitor to co-education and an elitist”.

Economists might offer yet another critique of Ms Patton’s letter: it was largely unnecessary. It is clear to academics that people tend to marry spouses with similar levels of education. They also know that “assortative mating”, as the practice is called in the jargon, is exacerbating income inequality. In America, Britain, Denmark, Germany and Norway, they have found that household income would be more evenly spread if couples were less keen...

America holds the World Trade Organisation hostage

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:03

EIGHT months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the rules-based system of global trade remains intact. Threats to impose broad tariffs have come to nothing. Some ominous investigations into whether imports into America are a national-security threat are on hold. Mr Trump looks less a hard man than a boy crying wolf. All the same, supporters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the guardian of that rules-based system, are worried. Other dangers are lurking. There is more than one way to undermine an institution.

The WTO is meant to be a forum for reaching deals and resolving disputes. But all 164 members must agree to new rules, and agreement has largely been elusive. So if members do not like today’s rules, as interpreted by judges, they have little prospect of negotiating better ones. That puts pressure on the WTO’s judicial function, the bit that has been working fairly well.

Trouble is brewing at the WTO’s court of appeals. It is meant to have seven serving...

China sets its sights on dominating sunrise industries

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 09:18

IN RECENT days China set the record for the world’s fastest long-distance bullet train, which hurtled between Beijing and Shanghai at 350kph (217mph). This was a triumph of industrial policy as much as of engineering. China’s first high-speed trains started rolling only a decade ago; today the country has 20,000km of high-speed track, more than the rest of the world combined. China could not have built this without a strong government. The state provided funds for research, land for tracks, aid for loss-making railways, subsidies for equipment-makers and, most controversially, incentives for foreign companies to share commercial secrets.

High-speed rail is a prime example of the Chinese government’s prowess at identifying priority industries and deploying money and policy tools to nurture them. It inspires awe of what it can accomplish and fear that other countries stand little chance against such a formidable competitor. Yet there have also been big industrial-policy misses,...