The Economist

Subscribe to The Economist feed The Economist
Finance and economics
Updated: 2 hours 31 min ago

Machine-learning promises to shake up large swathes of finance

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

MACHINE-LEARNING is beginning to shake up finance. A subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that excels at finding patterns and making predictions, it used to be the preserve of technology firms. The financial industry has jumped on the bandwagon. To cite just a few examples, “heads of machine-learning” can be found at PwC, a consultancy and auditing firm, at JP Morgan Chase, a large bank, and at Man GLG, a hedge-fund manager. From 2019, anyone seeking to become a “chartered financial analyst”, a sought-after distinction in the industry, will need AI expertise to pass his exams.

Despite the scepticism of many, including, surprisingly, some “quant” hedge funds that specialise in algorithm-based trading, machine-learning is poised to have a big impact. Innovative fintech firms and a few nimble incumbents have started applying the technique to everything from fraud protection to finding new trading strategies—promising to up-end not just the humdrum drudgery of the back-office, but the...

To forecast share returns, count buy-backs as well as dividends

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

WHAT is the point of buying shares? Ultimately investors must hope that the cash they receive from the company will offer an attractive long-term return.

Over the long run, reinvested dividends rather than capital gains have comprised the vast bulk of returns. But since the 1980s American firms have increasingly used share buy-backs, which have tax advantages for some investors. Buy-backs have been higher than dividend payments in eight of the past ten years.

In a buy-back, investors receive cash for a proportion of their holdings. A new paper* in the Financial Analysts Journal argues that adding this to dividend receipts to calculate a total payout yield gives a better estimate of future returns than the dividend yield alone. It also reveals a much better match between stockmarket performance and overall economic growth.

Using data going back to 1871, the authors find that the average dividend yield has been 4.5% and the total payout yield 4.89%. Since 1970 the dividend yield has dropped to 3.03%, but the total payout yield has averaged 4.26%. Looked at on that basis, the overall income return from shares has been not that far below historical levels.

The return from shares can be broken down into three components: the initial income yield; growth in the income stream; and any change in valuation. (If shares...

What the German economic model can teach Emmanuel Macron

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

IT IS heartening that the euro area has a knack for surviving near-fatal crises. Yet confidence in the durability of the single currency might be stronger if it suffered fewer of them. Europe dodged its latest bullet on May 7th in France, when Emmanuel Macron, a liberal-minded (by local standards) upstart centrist, defeated Marine Le Pen for the presidency. Even so, an avowed nationalist and Eurosceptic captured 34% of the vote, leaving Mr Macron with five years to assuage widespread frustration with the economic status quo. An obvious model lies just across the Rhine, where the unemployment rate—below 4%, down from over 11% in 2005—is testimony to the potential for swift, dramatic change. Yet Germany’s performance will not be easy to duplicate.

It would be unfair to call France the sick man of Europe; half the continent is wheezing or limping. Yet there is certainly room for French improvement. Real output per person has barely risen in the past decade. Government spending stands at 57% of GDP, outstripping the tax take; France’s budget deficit, at 3.4% of GDP, is among the largest in the euro area’s core. The biggest worry, however, is the labour market. The unemployment rate, now 10.1%, is stubbornly high. Nearly a quarter of French young adults are unemployed. Worklessness...

Internship

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

The Economist invites applications for the 2017 Marjorie Deane internship. Paid for by the Marjorie Deane Financial Journalism Foundation, the award is designed to provide work experience for a promising journalist or would-be journalist, who will spend three months at The Economist writing about economics and finance. To apply, write a covering letter and an original article of no more than 500 words suitable for publication in the Finance and economics section. Applications should be sent by June 2nd to deaneintern@economist.com. For more information, please visit www.marjoriedeane.com.

Is efficient-market theory becoming more efficient?

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

BUILD a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Find a way to beat the stockmarket and they will construct a high-speed railway. As investors try to achieve this goal, they draw on the work of academics. But in doing so, they are both changing the markets and the way academics understand them.

The idea that financial markets are “efficient” became widespread among academics in the 1960s and 1970s. The hypothesis stated that all information relevant to an asset’s value would instantly be reflected in the price; little point, therefore, in trading on the basis of such data. What would move the price would be future information (news) which, by definition, could not be known in advance. Share prices would follow a “random walk”. Indeed, a book called “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” became a bestseller.

The idea helped inspire the creation of index-trackers—funds that simply buy all the shares in a benchmark like the S&P 500....

Noble Group, a big Asian commodities trader, is teetering

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 14:49

THE difficulties facing Noble Group, a beleaguered Hong Kong commodities trader, are multiplying. On May 23rd the firm was forced to suspend trading of its shares in Singapore after their value slumped by more than 28% in half an hour. The panicked selling came after S&P Global, a ratings agency, warned that Noble was at risk of defaulting on large debt repayments that are due within the next 12 months. Investors were also rattled by reports from Reuters and the Financial Times suggesting that Sinochem, a Chinese conglomerate at one time tipped to take a stake in Noble, had lost interest in a deal.

Founded in 1986 by Richard Elman, a former scrap-metal merchant from London, Noble grew from an initial investment of $100,000 to be worth more than $10bn at its peak in 2010. But investors took fright in 2015 when a previously unknown group called Iceberg Research began publishing reports questioning Noble’s accounting practices (Noble has vigorously defended its...

America’s trade policy has a new face, Robert Lighthizer

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

AS IS well known, Donald Trump wants the press to focus not on what he calls “fake” news about himself, but on his administration’s achievements. On May 12th he helpfully tweeted an example: “China just agreed that the US will be allowed to sell beef, and other major products, into China once again. This is REAL news!”

His first trade deal was real, if short of the “Herculean accomplishment” touted by his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. It promised American credit-rating agencies, payment companies and beef exporters new access to the Chinese market, and set a deadline for progress, of July 16th.

Parts of the deal lack detail, so it may yet disappoint. China has been offering since 2006 to open its market to American beef, but with hefty restrictions. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) had already ruled that China’s restrictions on foreign payment-card companies broke its rules. And the Chinese incumbent is so entrenched that American cards may still struggle to compete.

Maybe Mr Trump picked the wrong “real” news. More important for his trade agenda was the Senate’s confirmation on May 11th of Robert Lighthizer as the new United States Trade Representative (USTR). He will matter much more for economic relations with China than a hasty mini-deal. And now that he is in place, renegotiation of the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can...

Numismatics—acquiring old coins—outperforms other investments

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

A penny for your dreams

BEHIND the heavily fortified door of Stack’s Bowers, a gallery of rare coins in New York, smiling salesmen show off their precious wares neatly displayed in pristine glass cabinets. To the untutored eye, it looks like pocket change. Numismatists, who study the history and art of old money, see well-preserved coins as aesthetic masterpieces worth many times their face value. At an auction organised by Stack’s Bowers on March 31st, an American cent from 1793 (pictured) sold for $940,000, becoming the costliest penny ever.

An index of tangible alternative asset classes compiled by Knight Frank, a consultancy, shows that returns on rare coins over ten years to the end of 2016 were 195%, easily beating art (139%), stamps (133%), furniture (-31%) and the S&P 500 index (58%). Coins are more portable than paintings or furniture, and boast a higher value-to-volume ratio. Stamps may be lighter, but, come doomsday, cannot be melted down...

A surge in the value of crypto-currencies provokes alarm

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

IT IS hard to predict when bubbles will pop, in particular when they are nested within each other. It helps to keep this image in mind when considering one of the biggest surges in asset values of recent years: the market value of all the world’s crypto-currencies has trebled since the beginning of the year, and is now worth more than $60bn (see chart).

Bitcoin is the best known of these currencies, especially after hackers this month instructed victims to pay ransoms in the anonymous digital cash in order to get their computer files decrypted. Not that many bitcoins exist: there are about 16.3m of them, with only 1,800 new ones minted every day. But growing demand has pushed bitcoin’s price to a record recent high of about $1,830, up from $450 a year ago.

Problems abide. Earlier this year some of the biggest exchanges, such as Bitfinex, experienced problems with their correspondent banks and were unable to pay out real-world currencies to account-holders. To get their...

Insurers get a new global accounting regime

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

LISTED firms in over 120 countries, including all large economies bar America, issue financial statements according to international financial reporting standards (IFRS) set by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). One industry, however, has been in practice free to keep using divergent national standards: insurance. That, too, is about to change. IFRS 17, issued on May 18th and coming into force in 2021, is the first standard for insurers to require consistent accounting across all countries using IASB rules (ie, again excluding America).

It has a wide gulf to bridge. In one example, looking at identical financial results reported under two countries’ standards, revenue differed by a quarter and net income by nearly two-fifths. Some places, such as the EU, require insurers to use updated discount rates to value future cashflows. Others, including America and many parts of Asia, allow the use of historical discount rates and assumptions valid at the time the policy...

A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital”

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

“A MODERN Marx” was how The Economist described Thomas Piketty three years ago, when he was well on his way to selling more than 2m copies of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. It was meant as a compliment, mostly: as advice to take the analysis seriously, yet to treat the policy recommendations with caution. The book’s striking warning, of the creeping dominance of the very wealthy, looks as relevant as ever: as Donald Trump’s heirs mind his business empire, he works to repeal inheritance tax. But “Capital” changed the agenda of academic economics far less than it seemed it might. A new volume of essays reflecting on Mr Piketty’s book, published this month, prods economists to do better. It is not clear they can.

“After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality”, edited by Heather Boushey, Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum, is a book by economists, for economists. In that it resembles “Capital” itself. Before he was an unlikely cultural icon...

The British government sells its last shares in Lloyds bank

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

IN OCTOBER 2008, amid post-Lehman pandemonium, Britain’s Treasury said it would pump £37bn (then $64.4bn) into three big banks: £20bn into the stricken Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS); the rest into Lloyds TSB and HBOS, a sickly rival that ministers had cajoled Lloyds into buying. After rights issues in 2009, in all the state paid £20.3bn for 43.4% of the merged Lloyds Banking Group. On May 17th Lloyds said the last state shares had been sold.

The government has recouped £21.2bn, including £400m-plus in dividends, since it started to unload its stake in 2013. The return may sound slim, but had big lenders imploded the costs of the financial crisis would surely have been far greater even than they were. (Not surprisingly, anyone holding Lloyds TSB or HBOS shares since before the crisis has made a heavy loss.)

The group is Britain’s biggest retail bank. Its brands—Lloyds Bank, with its “black horse” logo, Halifax and Bank of Scotland—boast around one-fifth of...

The markets are quiet. Too quiet?

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

HAN SOLO, a hero from the Star Wars movies, has a habit of saying, at tense moments, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Many commentators are echoing this sentiment after a recent fall in the Volatility Index, or Vix, below ten. Their fears deepened on May 17th, when the Vix lurched above 15 and American stockmarkets had their worst day in eight months. Incessant turmoil in the White House at last seemed to take its toll.

A low Vix reading is usually seen as a sign of investor complacency. The previous two occasions on which the index fell below ten were in 1993 and early 2007 (see chart). One preceded the bond market sell-off of 1994 and the other occurred just before the first stages of the credit crisis.

The value of the Vix relates to the cost of insuring against asset-price movements via the options market. An option gives the purchaser the right, but not the obligation, to buy (a call) or sell (a put) an asset at a given price before a given date. In return, like...

The markets frustrate OPEC’s efforts to push up oil prices

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:46

BORROWING three words from Mario Draghi, the central banker who helped save the euro zone, Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, and his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, on May 15th promised to do “whatever it takes” to curb the glut in the global oil markets. Ahead of a May 25th meeting of OPEC, the oil producers’ cartel, they promised to extend cuts agreed last year by nine months, to March 2018, pushing oil prices up sharply, to around $50 a barrel. But to make the rally last, a more apt three-word phrase might be: “know thy enemy”.

In two and a half years of flip-flopping over how to deal with tumbling oil prices, OPEC has been consistent in one respect. It has underestimated the ability of shale-oil producers in America—its nemesis in the sheikhs-versus-shale battle—to use more efficient financial techniques to weather the storm of lower prices. A lifeline for American producers has been their ability to use capital markets to raise money, and to use futures and...

A British firm plans a secondary market for crowd-funded shares

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 09:53

EVERYONE would like a piece of the next Google or Facebook. But the big venture-capital (VC) firms do not usually raise money from small investors. And some entrepreneurs complain that it is hard to get noticed by the hotshots in the VC industry. Hence the enthusiasm for crowd-funding, where small investors can buy a stake in startup companies.

Seedrs, a British crowd-funding firm, was set up in 2012, and has backed 500 firms so far, raising a total of £210m ($271m) from more than 200,000 users. But there are two big problems with crowd-funding. First, it is risky: most startups fail. Second, investments tend to be illiquid—shareholders have to wait for a takeover or a stockmarket flotation to recoup their investment.

Seedrs is trying to solve the illiquidity problem by setting up a secondary market, where buyers and sellers can exchange shares. The new market will start operating this summer, and will allow trading for a week every month, starting on the...

2017 Marjorie Deane internship

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

Internship The Economist invites applications for the 2017 Marjorie Deane internship. Paid for by the Marjorie Deane Financial Journalism Foundation, the award is designed to provide work experience for a promising journalist or would-be journalist, who will spend three months at The Economist writing about economics and finance. Applicants are asked to write a covering letter and an original article of no more than 500 words suitable for publication in the Finance and economics section. Applications should be sent to deaneintern@economist.com by June 2nd. For more information, please visit www.marjoriedeane.com.

The investment- management industry faces a big squeeze

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

MAKING money yourself from investing other people’s has been a good business for over a century. Asset managers established a key principle early on: they could charge an ad valorem fee on the amount they oversee. So when markets go up, their fees go up.

But as the title of a recent London Business School conference indicated, investment management is “an industry in disruption”. Abhijit Rawal of PwC, a consultancy, described the sector’s problems as the “four Rs”: returns are low; revenues are being squeezed; regulations are being tightened; and the robots are coming to take away business.

Plenty of potential for growth remains, as workers save for retirement. But the industry faces the same sort of cut-throat competition that technology has caused elsewhere. The oldest challenge comes from index trackers, funds that try simply to match the performance of a benchmark like the S&P 500. It took many decades for such “passive” funds to become...

William Baumol, a great economist, died on May 4th

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

ON MAY 4th William Baumol, one of the great economists of the 20th century, died. Mr Baumol, who kept working into his 90s, published more than 500 papers across a dazzling array of topics; his best-known work, describing “cost disease”, was essentially a side-project. He was a scholar whose stray thought on a sleepless night could change how people see the world.

Mr Baumol was born in the South Bronx, attended New York public schools and took an undergraduate degree at the College of the City of New York. Shaped by his family’s left-wing views, in high school he read Karl Marx, which kindled an interest in economics. He did his PhD at the London School of Economics; he defended his dissertation “over whiskies and sodas at the Reform Club”. He spent most of his long career at Princeton University. He had long been on the shortlist for a Nobel prize; sadly, death means he cannot receive one.

His contributions will endure, however. Mr Baumol’s primary intellectual focus...

India needs to curb a borrowing spree by its state governments

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

WHICH Indian state sounds more likely to repay a loan: Bihar, the country’s poorest, with a budget deficit of nearly 6% of its state GDP last year and a hole in its finances after it banned alcohol sales; or Gujarat, a relatively prosperous coastal region with a deficit nearer to 2%? According to bond markets at least, both are equally good credits, and so pay the same interest rate. As welcome as such mispricing might be to the Bihari authorities, it is brewing trouble for the rest of the Indian economy.

The borrowing habits of Bihar, Gujarat, and India’s 27 other states used to be below the radar of all but the pointiest financial eggheads. The indebtedness of India, and its annual budget deficits—both high by emerging-market standards—could largely be blamed on the profligacy of the central government in Delhi. But an explosion in the net amounts borrowed by states over the past decade (see chart), from 154bn rupees in 2006 ($3.5bn then) to an estimated 3.9trn in the fiscal year...

A new sort of hedge fund relies on crowd-sourcing

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

“QUANT” hedge funds have long been seen as the nerdy vanguard of finance. Firms such as Renaissance Technologies, Two Sigma and Man AHL, each of which manages tens of billions of dollars, hire talented mathematicians and physicists to sit in their airy offices and develop trading algorithms. But what if such talent could be harnessed without the hassle of an expensive and time-consuming recruitment process? That is the proposition Quantopian, a hedge fund and online crowd-sourcing platform founded in 2011, is testing. Anyone can learn to build trading algorithms on its platform. The most successful are then picked to manage money. Last month the firm announced it had made its first allocations of funds to 15 algorithms it had selected.

Quantopian would appear to have one striking advantage over its competitors: sheer weight of numbers. The difficulty of hiring and a desire for secrecy limit even big quant funds to a full-time research staff in the low hundreds (Man AHL, for instance...

Pages