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Africa’s informal economy is receding faster than Latin America’s

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

COMMON to all men, according to Adam Smith, is “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange”. Less common is a willingness to report all of this enterprise to the authorities (which have a propensity to register, regulate and tax). South Africa’s spaza shops (convenience stores often run from people’s homes), Kenya’s jua kali (a Swahili term referring to the “hot sun” under which craftsmen traditionally made and sold their wares) or Senegal’s tight-knit networks of Mouride street peddlers—all contribute to the informal economy. This shadow economy, which includes unregistered enterprises and off-the-books activity by registered firms, is difficult to measure, almost by definition. But this week the IMF released new estimates of its size.

The fund’s economists inferred the size of the informal economy indirectly, based on more visible indicators that either cause informality (heavy taxes, high unemployment and patchy rule of law) or follow...

The EU ponders moving euro clearing from London after Brexit

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 14:53

BREXIT has thrust a mundane, if crucial, bit of financial-market plumbing into the spotlight: the clearing of financial instruments. Clearing-houses sit in the middle of a securities or derivatives transaction, and ensure that deals are honoured even if one counterparty goes bust. In November a study commissioned by the London Stock Exchange (LSE) warned that if euro clearing was forced out of the City, 83,000 British jobs could be lost, and a further 232,000 affected. On May 4th the European Commission said it was looking into new rules for euro-denominated clearing. One option is relocation from London, an idea greeted in the City with a mixture of incredulity, disdain and fear.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the G20 group of big economies made it mandatory to settle most simple derivatives trades through clearing-houses. By 2016, 62% of the notional $544trn global over-the-counter derivatives market was settled in this way. Globally, London handles 37% of foreign-exchange...

In China, a TV soap on corruption attracts a mass following

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 06:04

RARELY has a Chinese city boss had more fans than Li Dakang, the earnest, driven Communist Party chief of Jingzhou. “I want development, I want speed and I want GDP,” he recently intoned. “But I want it to be modern GDP, GDP that comes without pollution.” Over the past month tens of millions have tuned in to watch him strive to fulfil these promises. On their smartphones, they share images of the heavy-eyed man with an easy smile, quoting his words and cheering him on. His policies have even been immortalised in a musical tribute, “The GDP Song”.

Li Dakang is not real, nor is Jingzhou. They exist only on “In the Name of the People”, a wildly popular 55-part television series about China’s battle against graft. Since its first broadcast in March, the show has attracted attention for its depiction of official corruption, unusual in the context of Chinese censorship. Less noted is the insight it has offered into a range of China’s economic problems—not just in its storyline...

America’s Treasury ponders issuing 40-, 50- or 100-year bonds

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 14:55

HOW can governments borrow most cheaply? The answer matters hugely for taxpayers. Take America: it has $14trn in outstanding national debt, fully three-quarters of GDP. Interest payments alone are expected to reach $280bn this fiscal year—ie, more than three times the combined budgets of the Departments of Education, Labour and Commerce.

The problem largely comes down to deciding how much long, medium and short-dated debt to sell. Almost every country issues a combination of these maturities. In the current low interest-rate environment, however, many argue that governments should sell proportionately more long-dated bonds to make sure they are able to pay historically low rates for many decades to come, thereby saving taxpayers money in the long run.

Some countries have already ploughed ahead. In recent years Britain, Canada and Italy have sold 50-year bonds; Mexico, Belgium and Ireland have issued 100-year debt. The latest country to flirt with the idea is America: last month the Treasury sent out a survey to bond-dealers to gauge market appetite for 40-, 50- and 100-year bonds. On May 3rd officials said that Steve Mnuchin, the...

Worries mount about car finance in America and Britain

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 14:55

THOUSANDS of second-hand cars, ranging from dented clunkers to Bentleys, glisten under the evening floodlights at Major World, a car dealership in Queens, a borough of New York. “Business has been good,” says a crisply-dressed salesman, scurrying between prospective customers. Almost everyone who wants to buy a car at Major World can get approved for a loan, he explains, regardless of their credit score, or lack of one: when banks turn buyers down, the dealership offers them its own in-house financing.

In both America and Britain new-car sales reached record levels last year (2.7m cars in Britain and 17.5m in America), as did second-hand-car sales in Britain. So too did car loans: £31.6bn ($42.8bn) in Britain and $565bn in America. Even folk with poor credit records (“subprime” borrowers) have been able to find financing. So some are asking whether this latest credit boom might have sown the seeds of a new crisis.

In America worries have centred on rising delinquencies in subprime asset-backed securities (ABSs) based on car loans. Bundling car-loan repayments into ABSs to sell on to investors represents an important source of financing, particularly for non-bank lenders. Cumulative net losses on subprime car-loan ABSs issued in 2015 are at levels not seen since 2008—over 6% after only 15 months.

Some hear echoes of the financial crisis. Yet any...

Might legalising the rhino-horn trade actually help the rhino?

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 14:55

Pricier than snake-oil, and deadlier

A DEAD rhino, with a bloody stump in place of its horn, means different things. For the species it is the danger of imminent extinction; for wildlife-lovers it is barbarism; for law-enforcers it is failure. For its poachers it means income; the horn will be exported illegally to fetch tens of thousands of dollars. For economists, it means market forces are at work.

South Africa is in the throes of a poaching epidemic. Official figures show poachers killed 1,054 rhinos in 2016, up from just 13 in 2007. In Kruger National Park, home to the world’s largest rhino population, numbers are dropping despite a fall in recorded poaching incidents. Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network, worries that poachers have become better at hiding the carcasses.

The problem is international. The rhino-horn supply-chain sprawls from South Africa, home to nearly three-quarters of the world’s rhinos, to Asia, and in particular to Vietnam, where rhino horn is coveted as medicine, prescribed for fevers, alcohol dependency and even cancer.

Prohibitionists call for better law-enforcement....

Warren Buffett has many fans in China but few true followers

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 14:55

AS THE second-richest person in the world, and with a half-century record of investing success, Warren Buffett is a household name worldwide. But in China, he is something more: a celebrity. In March a special edition of Cherry Coke, featuring a cartoon image of the 86-year-old investor, hit Chinese shop shelves (Mr Buffett not only loves the sugary beverage; he is Coke’s largest shareholder). On May 6th thousands of Chinese investors will descend on Omaha for the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, his holding company, and many more will tune into a live-stream of the event. Mandarin is the only foreign language into which the proceedings will be simultaneously translated. Those who miss the broadcast can pick up one of the hundreds of Chinese books about his approach to minting money.

Mr Buffett’s stature in China stems partly from good timing. China’s modern stockmarket was launched in 1990. Just as neophyte investors grappled with earnings reports and trend lines, the Oracle of Omaha’s reputation as the world’s best stock-picker was blossoming. Compared with the regular booms and busts of the Chinese stockmarket, the steady returns of Berkshire Hathaway are...

Investors are both bullish and skittish about share prices

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 14:55

TEN years ago this month investors were pretty confident. True, there were signs that problems in the American housing market would mean trouble for mortgage lenders. But most people agreed with Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, that “the impact on the broader economy…seems likely to be contained.” The IMF had just reported that “overall risks to the outlook seem less threatening than six months ago.”

That was reflected in market valuations. In May 2007 the cyclically-adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), a measure that averages profits over ten years, was 27.6 for American equities (see chart). That ratio turned out to be the peak for the cycle. As the problems at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and others emerged, and as the world was gripped by recession, share prices plunged. By March 2009 the CAPE had fallen by more than half.

Central banks then kicked into action, slashing interest rates and buying assets via quantitative easing (QE). The stockmarkets recovered rapidly and the S&P 500 is now more than 50% higher than it was ten years ago. And the American stockmarket’s CAPE, at 29.2, is also higher than it was...

Puerto Rico declares bankruptcy at last

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 09:33

THE government of Puerto Rico said in 2015 that the island could not pay its debts. Yet it was only on May 3rd that it kicked off the biggest bankruptcy case in America’s history. Public-sector debts total almost $74bn (around 100% of GNP). The drawn-out fiscal crisis has both imperilled Puerto Rico’s economy and upended the island’s politics.

Something akin to bankruptcy is possible only because of a federal law passed in 2016. Until then, the island’s legal status as a territory afforded it no escape from its debts (were Puerto Rico a state, its public utilities could have declared bankruptcy). The law established a “financial oversight board”, appointed in Washington, with the task of reaching a deal with bondholders. But it also allowed for bankruptcy-like proceedings should negotiations fail.

A two-thirds majority of bondholders would have forced all of them to accept a reduction in the value of their debt. Yet agreement was always unlikely. Puerto Rica’s constitution says payments to holders of so-called “general obligation” bonds have priority over all other expenditure. But another group of creditors have first dibs on revenue from the sales tax....

Price-bots can collude against consumers

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 08:54

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, is a favourite summer retreat for well-to-do Americans. A few years ago, visitors noticed that petrol prices were considerably higher than in nearby Cape Cod. Even those with deep pockets hate to be ripped off. A price-fixing suit was brought against four of the island’s petrol stations. The judges found no evidence of a conspiracy to raise prices, but they did note that the market was conducive to “tacit collusion” between retailers. In such circumstances, rival firms tend to come to an implicit understanding that boosts profits at the expense of consumers.

No one went to jail. Whereas explicit collusion over prices is illegal, tacit collusion is not—though trustbusters attempt to forestall it by, for instance, blocking mergers that leave markets at the mercy of a handful of suppliers. But what if the conditions that foster such tacit collusion were to become widespread? A recent book* by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, two experts on competition policy, argues this is all too likely. As more and more purchases are made online, sellers rely increasingly on sophisticated algorithms to set prices. And algorithmic...

Euro-area GDP growth outpaces America’s

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 10:40

THE appeal of GDP is that it offers, or seems to, a summary statistic of how well an economy is doing. On that basis, the euro-area economy is in fine fettle; indeed, it is improving at a faster rate than America’s. Figures released on May 3rd show that GDP in the currency zone rose by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2017, an annualised rate of around 2%. That is quite a bit faster than the annualised 0.7% rate reported for America’s GDP.

These figures probably overstate the gap between the two economies. In recent years, first-quarter estimates of GDP growth in America have later been revised upwards substantially. Still, the euro-zone economy is clearly picking up speed, even as America’s goes through a soft spot. A jump in car sales in March saw Europe as a whole overtake America as the world’s second-largest market (behind China). Euro-zone manufacturing grew at its fastest pace for six years in April, according to the purchasing managers’ index, a closely watched gauge...

Euro-area GDP growth outpaces America’s

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 10:40

THE appeal of GDP is that it offers, or seems to, a summary statistic of how well an economy is doing. On that basis, the euro-area economy is in fine fettle; indeed, it is improving at a faster rate than America’s. Figures released on May 3rd show that GDP in the currency zone rose by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2017, an annualised rate of around 2%. That is quite a bit faster than the annualised 0.7% rate reported for America’s GDP.

These figures probably overstate the gap between the two economies. In recent years, first-quarter estimates of GDP growth in America have later been revised upwards substantially. Still, the euro-zone economy is clearly picking up speed, even as America’s goes through a soft spot. A jump in car sales in March saw Europe as a whole overtake America as the world’s second-largest market (behind China). Euro-zone manufacturing grew at its fastest pace for six years in April, according to the purchasing managers’ index, a closely watched gauge...

Protecting American steel from imports makes no sense

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

AS AN example of all that is wrong with Donald Trump’s view of trade, the probe he has ordered into the steel industry is particularly hard to beat. If it results, as seems to be the plan, in blanket punitive tariffs slapped on steel imports, the consequences would be dire: the American economy would be hurt by a rise in the price of an essential material; it would invite retaliation that would cost American jobs, not save them; and the underlying problem—massive global steel overcapacity—would persist.

For Trumpists, steel is an emblem of their country’s descent from greatness. Ever since the 1960s, when production peaked at 168m tonnes a year, the industry has been in decline. Today it makes half as much as 50 years ago and employs just a third of the workers. Steelmakers have long blamed foreign rivals for their woes and lobbied hard for protection. So Mr Trump is not the first president to try to shield the industry from foreign competition. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan signed a series of agreements to limit imports. In 2002 George W. Bush imposed tariffs of up to 30%. Back then the bogeymen were steelmakers in Europe and Japan; now it is China, where a glut of steel has squashed prices.

Cheap steel, however, is a boon to many producers as well as to consumers. Higher prices would hit firms that use the metal, such as carmakers. Mr Bush’s tariffs,...

Exchange-traded funds become too specialised

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

THERE comes a time when every financial innovation is taken a bit too far—when, in television terms, it “jumps the shark” and sacrifices plausibility in search of popularity. That may have happened in the exchange-traded fund (ETF) industry. The latest ETF to be launched is a fund that invests in the shares of ETF providers.

The notion has a certain logic. The ETF industry has been growing fast, thanks to its ability to offer investors a diversified portfolio at low cost. The assets under management in these funds passed $3trn last year, up from $715bn in 2008. Some investors might well want to take advantage of that rapid expansion.

But by no stretch of the imagination would this be a well-diversified portfolio; it would be a focused bet on the financial sector. And many of the companies in the portfolio, such as BlackRock, a huge fund manager, and NASDAQ, a stock exchange, are involved in a lot more than just ETFs. Even if the ETF industry keeps growing, the bet could still go wrong.

The new fund (with the catchy title of the ETF Industry Exposure and Financial Services ETF) is just the latest example of the industry’s drive to specialisation. The...

The threat of war can bring much-needed investment

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

PONDER the dire state of infrastructure in America and some other advanced economies, and their governments’ fecklessness boggles the mind. Time was when they were able to make badly needed investments; the roads and the universities were a priority. What changed? Not for nothing do pundits cite the hustling governments of China and Singapore as evidence that liberal democracies are no longer fit for purpose. But democracy is not the problem; rather, governments may lack motivation in what is, despite appearances, an unusually peaceful world.

War is hell; the less of it the better. Yet it has also been a near-constant feature of human history, and a constant stimulus to political evolution. Defence is a textbook example of a public good. Security benefits all residents of a country, and cannot be denied to citizens who prefer not to pay for it. There is little incentive for private forces to provide defence—unless by doing so they can take over the right to extract compensation from the society they protect. Throughout history, the legitimate government is the one that can best defend its people.

As populations have grown and technology has advanced, the job...

Credit Suisse unveils another change of course

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

EUROPE’S most troubled big banks may at last be on the road to recovery. Not only is economic growth perking up; uncomfortable decisions, put off too long, are also being taken. In recent months UniCredit, Italy’s largest lender, has written down bad debt by €8.1bn ($8.7bn) and tapped shareholders for €13bn. Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest, has raised €8bn in equity and decided to keep a retail business it had hoped to sell. On April 27th it reported first-quarter net income of €575m, up from €236m a year earlier, although revenue fell.

Like Deutsche, Credit Suisse is freer to make plans after a recent settlement with American authorities over mis-selling mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis. On April 26th Switzerland’s second-biggest bank reported first-quarter net income of SFr596m ($594m), far better than forecast, reversing a SFr302m loss a year before. Along with most of Wall Street, which published earnings earlier in the month, and Deutsche it benefited from a good quarter for fixed-income trading. It expects to wind up a unit in which it has dumped unwanted assets by the end of 2018, a year ahead of schedule.

Credit Suisse’s...

The market in Initial Coin Offerings risks becoming a bubble

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

WOULD you care to invest in Gnosis, a prediction market where users can bet on outcomes of events such as elections? Or in ZrCoin, a project to produce zirconium dioxide, used to make heat-resistant alloys? How about an “immersive reality experience” called “Back to Earth”?

These are just three of a new wave of what are called Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). Nearly $250m has already been invested in such offerings, of which $107m alone has flowed in this year, according to Smith+Crown, a research firm. But it was in April that ICOs, or “token sales”, as insiders prefer to call them, really took off. On April 24th Gnosis collected more than $12m in under 15 minutes, valuing the project, in theory, at nearly $300m.

ICO “coins” are essentially digital coupons, tokens issued on an indelible distributed ledger, or blockchain, of the kind that underpins bitcoin, a crypto-currency. That means they can easily be traded, although unlike shares they do not confer ownership rights. Instead, they often serve as the currency for the project they finance: to pay users for a correct prediction, as does Gnosis; or for the content users contribute. Investors hope that...

The Trump administration starts to turn up the heat on trade

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

“WELL, I’m mostly there on most items,” said Donald Trump of his 100-day plan. As far as trade policy is concerned, his self-assessment would indeed be true—if tweets and executive orders ratcheting up tensions in a growing number of trade disputes constituted progress.

However, although Mr Trump has withdrawn America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade deal, he has neither labelled China a currency manipulator nor made progress in renegotiating the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On April 26th his administration denied reports that it was poised to trigger America’s withdrawal from the agreement. No new “America-first” trade deals have emerged, and his trade-related executive orders have requested reports or investigations. Mr Trump has created more work for pencil-pushers than for exporters.

The slow pace might reflect the obvious ideological infighting within his team, a desire for evidence before acting or the realisation that Congress, which sees trade policy as within its remit, must be kept on side. Congress officially delegates responsibility for trade to the United States Trade Representative. But it has yet...

Managing financial risk on London’s massive Crossrail project

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

THE eastbound platform on the Elizabeth line at Farringdon Station in central London is 30 metres below ground. Its length is as striking as its depth. At more than 200 metres, it is almost twice as long as the typical platform on the Tube. When service begins in December 2018, it will increase rail capacity in central London by 10%, thanks to the longer trains. Travellers nearest to the terminal stations at Reading and Heathrow, to the west of the city, and Shenfield and Abbey Wood, to the east, have a shot at the acme of commuter luxury: a seat.

Crossrail, as the £14.8bn ($19bn) infrastructure project is known, is on track to deliver other small miracles. With 85% of the work completed, the project is on-budget and on-time, in spite of its size and complexity. The programme required ten new stations, some with passenger tunnels linking them to existing Tube lines. The Elizabeth line itself will snake through 13 miles (21km) of twinned tunnels, including a section under the Thames. Tunnelling is a risky business. You never can tell if you’ll run into a hold-up. The Crossrail dig has yielded 10,000 items of interest to archaeologists. At Farringdon the diggers found...

A trade economist wins the John Bates Clark medal

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

IN 1853 the government of India, then directed by Britain’s East India Company, began construction of a vast rail network, continued by the British Raj, established in 1858. At the time, most inland transport in India was hauled by draught animals: with carts where roads existed and were passable; packed on animals’ backs when they were not, which was often. Moving goods across the great expanse of the subcontinent was costly and painfully slow. That changed with the arrival of the railway. Between 1853 and 1930 more than 67,000km (42,000 miles) of rail was laid across India, providing transport that was fast, cheap and reliable. A bullock could carry a pack 30km a day; an engine could haul freight 600km over the rails in the same time.

Working out the impact of this took Dave Donaldson (a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics when he started trying) nearly a decade. He dug through mountains of yellowed colonial-era records that had never before been collated and digitised. He found that eight different kinds of salt were sold across India, each sourced from just one region: this quirk allowed him to use local differences in the price of salt to calculate...

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