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Updated: 37 min 18 sec ago

A big merger in the asset-management industry

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

From fishing buddies to co-CEOs: that is how the relationship between Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, and Keith Skeoch, his counterpart at Standard Life, will change after the companies this week announced plans to join forces. The merged company, to be based in Scotland, will have £660bn ($800bn) in assets under administration, making it Britain’s largest, and Europe’s second-largest, “active” asset manager.

Competition is forcing asset managers to consolidate. Henderson and Janus Capital teamed up last October; Amundi and Pioneer did the same in December. They hope to defend market share from fast-growing “passive” fund managers, whose funds track market indices rather than try to beat them, as active funds do. The research involved in trying to pick winners inevitably makes actively managed funds dearer than passive ones; once these costs are factored in, active managers tend to underperform passive ones. The fee gap is wide enough to have attracted scrutiny from British and European regulators: in Britain passive funds’ fees are around 0.15% of assets under management, compared with 0.9% at...

The subdued mood in Singapore’s financial industry

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

SINGAPORE owes its existence, and its prosperity, to its place at the heart of intra-Asian trade. In more than 50 years of independence, the city-state has striven mightily to attract investment from all over the world. Such has been its success, indeed, that others hope to imitate its open, low-tax model. In Britain, for example, there has been talk of the country turning into a “European Singapore” once withdrawal from the EU is complete. (It would be a nice start if London’s Tube operated with anything like the same efficiency as Singapore’s subway network.)

The current mood in Singapore, however, is far less buoyant than you might imagine. Singapore has survived and thrived by steering a middle course between America and China. It has been alarmed both by the isolationist rhetoric of President Donald Trump and by recent, highly unusual, public spats with China.

Global trade growth has slowed in recent years. Despite signs of a pickup, this has had a big effect in a city that has the world’s second-busiest port and that (according to Barclays, a bank) is the country most exposed to the global value chains created by multinational...

Foreign buyers push up global house prices

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

MANY Americans were taken aback when news broke in January that Peter Thiel, an internet billionaire and adviser to Donald Trump, had New Zealand citizenship. For five years this backer of an “America first” president had kept his Kiwi passport quiet. Then the government released details of his $10m-lakeside estate.

A growing horde of rich foreigners see New Zealand as a safe haven. In 2016 overseas investors bought just 3% of all properties. But their purchases were concentrated at the expensive end of the market, which is growing fast: sales involving homes worth more than NZ$1m ($690,000) increased by 21%. That helped push prices in the country up by 13% over the past year, to lead The Economist’s latest tally of global house-price inflation (see table).

New Zealand is one of several countries where the impact of foreign money on housing is under scrutiny. Prices have also risen rapidly in Australia and Canada. Central bankers fret about the dangers fickle capital flows pose to financial stability. London’s mayor has ordered a study on foreign ownership in the capital after property prices...

Deutsche Bank raises capital, and changes course

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

THREE times since the financial crisis, Deutsche Bank’s bosses have turned to its shareholders for cash: €10.2bn ($13.6bn) in 2010, €3bn in 2013 and €8.5bn in 2014. Since becoming chief executive in 2015, John Cryan has had no plans to ask for more. Deutsche still needed to thicken its equity cushion, but disposals, cost cuts and earnings (if any: it has made losses for the past two years) would provide the stuffing.

Well, plans change. On March 5th Mr Cryan announced an €8bn rights issue. Some comfort for investors: the price, €11.65 a share, is 39% below the previous close; and Mr Cryan, who had suspended the dividend, promises a return to “competitive” payouts next year. In another reversal, Deutsche will keep rather than sell Postbank, a mass-market retail business that was once part of the post office. Deutsche has owned it since 2010.

Postbank and the posher “blue” Deutsche Bank brand will be more closely integrated—notably, sharing computer systems. Mr Cryan is also selling a slice of Deutsche’s asset-management division and some lesser assets. And he is reorganising its corporate and investment bank to concentrate on...

Economists argue about the impact of Chinese imports on America

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

COMPETITION from Chinese imports may have cost some Americans jobs, but economists have done pretty well out of it. Since 2013 David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson have published nine separate studies digging into the costs of trade. They have found that, of the fall in manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, one-quarter could be attributed to a surge in imports from China. Other sectors failed to soak up the extra workers. Their research also suggested that the China shock has cut the supply of marriageable men and opened the door of the White House to Donald Trump.

In recent weeks a dispute has erupted over their results. Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at Gallup, a pollster, alleged “serious flaws” in one paper, prompting a fierce eight-page response from the authors, and an acrimonious public tiff.

The row centres on how the effect of the China shock is measured. The trio wanted to isolate the effects of extra Chinese supply, rather than of something happening in America, so they checked that imports of particular Chinese products were surging in other rich countries, too. They then compared places in...

Green finance for dirty ships

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

Smokestack lightening

SHIPPING may seem like a clean form of transport. Carrying more than 90% of the world’s trade, ocean-going vessels produce just 3% of its greenhouse-gas emissions. But the industry is dirtier than that makes it sound. By burning heavy fuel oil, just 15 of the biggest ships emit more oxides of nitrogen and sulphur—gases much worse for global warming than carbon dioxide—than all the world’s cars put together. So it is no surprise that shipowners are being forced to clean up their act. But in an industry awash in overcapacity and debt, few have access to the finance they need to improve their vessels. Innovative thinking is trying to change that.

A new report from the Carbon War Room (CWR), an international NGO, and UMAS, a consultancy, highlights the threat that new environmental regulations pose to the industry. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN’s regulatory agency for shipping, has agreed to cap emissions of sulphur from 2020. Last month the European Parliament voted to include shipping in the EU’s emissions-trading scheme from 2021. Without any retrofitting of ships to meet the new...

The retreat of globalisation threatens the Dutch economy

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:30

AS ANY football fan knows, little delights the Dutch more than beating the Germans. So, as the country prepares for an election on March 15th, it should be cheering an economy that, after lagging behind Germany’s for years, is at last outpacing it. GDP grew by 2.1% last year, which was the fastest rate since 2007 and a stronger performance than its neighbours, including Germany. Unemployment has fallen to 5.3% and more people are in work than before the crisis in 2007-08.

After years of belt-tightening, households are spending again, thanks to a strong housing-market recovery and rising wages. Government finances are sound. This year the budget may be in balance—perhaps even in surplus—and public debt may drop below 60% of GDP. Yet this sunny outlook has not brightened the mood of a tetchy election campaign.

That is not so surprising. Marieke Blom, the chief economist at ING, a bank, attributes the positive forecast mostly to tough government reforms over the past few years—particularly raising the retirement age to 67 (from 2021) and reforming the financing of the health-care system. Years of reform, austerity and...

A planned merger of LSE and Deutsche Börse unravels

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

IT HAD been billed as a bridge between Europe’s two main financial hubs. It has become, however, a symbol of their growing competition—and of the uncertainty into which Brexit has plunged the EU’s markets. A planned merger between Deutsche Börse (DB) and the London Stock Exchange (LSE), both listed companies, seems on the verge of collapse. This week the LSE rejected the latest demand of the European Commission (EC) to sell parts of its business to allay competition concerns.

The €29bn ($30bn) merger was first announced a year ago and is the companies’ third attempt to join forces since 2000. It brings together the operators of the British, German and Italian stock exchanges, as well as some of the largest clearing-houses in Europe. Before it would approve the deal, the EC launched an investigation into its impact on competition. Last September it identified a number of concerns, including about the derivatives market once the clearing-houses merged. In early February the LSE sought to ease that concern by confirming the sale of its Paris-based clearing unit, LCH.

Not good enough, the EC countered a few weeks later: the sale of...

China and currency manipulation

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

SINCE his election as president, Donald Trump has not softened his criticism of China over its alleged meddling to control the value of its currency, the yuan. On the contrary, he has called China “the grand champion” of currency manipulators. The kindest interpretation of this is that Mr Trump is out of date, as his own government could tell him.

America’s Treasury makes a six-monthly assessment of the foreign-exchange policies of its big trading partners. The criteria it uses to identify currency manipulators are regarded by many economists as inadequate. They do not include, for example, the domestic purchasing power of a currency. Nevertheless, even by those flawed criteria, China is far from the champion. Indeed it seems to have quit the tournament altogether.

The Treasury uses three measures: whether the country runs a sizeable surplus in trade with America; whether its current-account surplus exceeds 3% of GDP; and whether it spends more than 2% a year to buy foreign assets to suppress the value of its currency. Over the past year, no country has checked all three boxes. China, in the latest report, only...

The Trump administration’s trade strategy is dangerously outdated

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

The trade guns of Navarro

ON THE campaign trail, Donald Trump’s trade policy was an alarming mixture of coruscating complaints and fierce threats of protectionist retaliation. But the world has been in the dark about how much of this rhetoric his administration might turn into reality. A flicker of light came on March 1st as the administration’s trade-strategy document was presented to Congress. Washington wonks see the hand of Peter Navarro, Mr Trump’s trade adviser and author of a book (and film) called “Death by China”. Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for the United States Trade Representative (USTR), has not yet been confirmed.

Little is new in the document’s promises of “ new and better trade deals” or of strict enforcement of American trade laws. But a preference for bilateral trade deals over multilateral ones is a change of tack. And the tone is certainly confrontational: “It is time for a more aggressive approach.” The document also gives an indication of how a Trump administration might take a trade fight to China: by using sections 201 and 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

The first weapon, section...

India’s twin balance-sheet problem

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

IF INDIA is indeed the world’s fastest-growing big economy, as its government once again claimed this week, no one told its bankers and business leaders. In a nation of 1.3bn steadily growing at around 7% a year, the mood in corner offices ought to be jubilant. Instead, firms are busy cutting back investment as if mired in recession. Bank lending to industry, growth in which once reached 30% a year, is shrinking for the first time in over two decades (see chart). If this is world-beating growth, what might a slowdown look like?

India’s macroeconomy chugs along (though the quality of government statistics remains questionable), but its corporate sector is ailing. The sudden and chaotic “demonetisation” of 86% of bank notes in November hardly helped. But the origins of India’s troubles go much deeper. After India dodged the worst of the financial crisis a decade ago, a flurry of investment was made on over-optimistic...

Interest rates and investment returns

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

IF THERE is one aspect of the current era sure to obsess the financial historians of tomorrow, it is the unprecedentedly low level of interest rates. Never before have deposit rates or bond yields been so depressed in nominal terms, with some governments even able to borrow at negative rates. It is taking a long time for investors to adjust their assumptions accordingly.

Real interest rates (ie, allowing for inflation) are also low. As measured by inflation-linked bonds, they are around -1% in big rich economies. In their latest annual report for Credit Suisse on global investment returns, Elroy Dimson of Cambridge University and Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School look at the relationship between real interest rates and future investment returns. Very low real rates have in the past been associated with poor future equity returns (see chart).

That may come as a nasty shock for state and local-government pension funds in America. They have to assume a future rate of return on their investments when calculating how much they need to contribute to their plans each year. Most opt for 7-8%, a level...

Second-degree moral hazard

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

MORAL hazard is a problem that crops up often in economics. People behave differently if they do not face the full costs or risks of their actions: deposit insurance makes customers less careful about picking their bank, for example.

Moral hazard can also be second-hand. Take medicine. A patient with private insurance may be happy to sit through extra tests, and a doctor may be happy to order them. Doctors might be more reluctant to order tests if they know that the patient would bear the full cost.

A newly published paper* sets out to test this secondary problem by examining a common-enough situation—taking a taxi ride in a strange city. The authors, a trio of academics at the University of Innsbruck, sent researchers on 400 taxi rides, covering 11 different routes, in Athens, Greece. In all cases, the researchers indicated they were not familiar with the city. But in half the cases, the researchers indicated that their employers would be reimbursing them for the journey. The researchers in the latter group were 17% more likely to be overcharged for their trip and paid a fare that was, on average, 7% higher.

The most common...

Competition for private-equity deals heats up

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

TIME was, the private-equity industry felt spoiled for choice. The difficulty was choosing deals, not finding them. Yet according to numbers from Dealogic, a data provider, that have been crunched by Bain & Company, a consultancy, private-equity houses are now losing out in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) to non-financial companies. In 2016 private equity’s global share of all deals dipped to 4.2%, the lowest level since the depths of the post-crisis recession in 2009. This was down from 5.4% as recently as 2014 and an all-time high of 7.9% in 2006. The same trend is evident in Europe and in America, private equity’s two biggest markets (see chart).

Yet the pressure on private-equity firms to deploy their capital has never been greater. The industry has raised well over $500bn from investors in each of the past four years, the longest such streak ever. The amount of uninvested cash they are sitting on (“dry powder”) reached a record $1.47trn at the end of 2016. Of that, $534bn was specifically earmarked for buy-outs. Investors, who pay fees as a percentage of the capital they have committed, even when it is still uninvested,...

An impossible mind: the late Kenneth Arrow

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:56

SOME great economists are Aristotelians, discerning the logic of markets from tangible examples around them. Others are Platonists, using their powers of reasoning to grasp ideal economic forms, of which actually existing markets are but flickering shadows. Kenneth Arrow, who died on February 21st aged 95, was both. His ideas gave economics some of its most compelling abstractions and most fruitful applications.

The abstractions won him the Nobel prize at the age of 51. (He remains the youngest winner and the most cited by others in their prize lectures.) He established the conditions under which prices might successfully co-ordinate production and exchange, eliminating shortages and surpluses. Adam Smith provided the best metaphor for this underappreciated feat: the “invisible hand”, guiding resources to their best uses. Ken Arrow and his co-author, Gérard Debreu, provided the best algebra.

To economists versed in mathematics, a well co-ordinated economy is like a system of simultaneous equations, which all hold true at the same time. The solution to these equations is a set of prices that equates demand and supply for scarce...

Investors in America’s housing-finance giants lose in court

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:44

ONE unresolved issue from the financial crisis is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two firms that stand behind much of America’s housing market. Fannie and Freddie purchase mortgages, bundle them into securities and sell them on to investors with a guarantee. When America’s housing market collapsed a decade ago, the government had to bail them out. Its treatment of the firms since then has created a titanic legal struggle. Shareholders have cried foul. On February 21st, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling in the government’s favour.

At issue is the Obama administration’s decision in 2012 to hoover up all of Fannie and Freddie’s profits. Until then, it had received a fixed dividend on its investment. The timing of the shift was striking—just before a surge in the firms’ profitability. Since 2008 the Treasury has sucked in about $250bn from the firms, 30% more than the cost of the bail-out.

The change enraged hedge funds who had bought Fannie and Freddie’s shares and found themselves expropriated. The investors’ lawsuit held that the government overstepped its authority by seizing all profits. A...

Europe’s securitisation market remains stunted

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:44

SECURITISATION, the bundling and repackaging of income streams as tradable securities, goes in and out of fashion. America is still dealing with the fallout from the disaster in one part of the market—sub-prime mortgages—in 2008-09 (see article). In Europe, the swings in popularity have been just as marked. During the crisis, European securitised assets were hit by only small losses but the market suffered from guilt by association. It has since enjoyed a limited renaissance.

Leading the revival, oddly, are European regulators. They have sought not just to rehabilitate, but indeed actively to promote such “structured” finance. As early as 2013 the European Central Bank (ECB) was effusive not only about securitisation’s ability to spread risks, but also about its ability to channel funding to the economy, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The ECB and the Bank of England even published a rare joint paper in 2014 making the case for a “better-functioning...

The sanctity of trade statistics

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:44

MIGHT Donald Trump’s promise to shake up America’s trade policy extend to its statistics? According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, discussions are afoot on changing the way trade figures are tallied. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the country’s main statistical body, calls this “completely inaccurate”. But in trade as elsewhere, the new administration seems prone to using statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than illumination.

The proposal reportedly involves stripping out some of America’s exports from the gross numbers. America sold $1.5trn of goods abroad in 2016, but of that $0.2trn were re-exports that left the country much as they had arrived. This type of trade has been growing, reflecting America’s role as a hub for North American trade. As a share of its combined exports to Mexico and Canada, re-exports rose from 12% to 20% between 2002 and 2016. Truckers and shippers benefit from this kind of trade. But critics see it as “padding”, obscuring gloomier trends in “made in America” exports.

Stripping out re-exports makes no sense when thinking about the...

Why national budgets need to take gender into account

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:44

A good investment

LIKE many rich-country governments, Britain’s prides itself on pursuing policies that promote sexual equality. However, it fails to live up to its word, argues the Women’s Budget Group, a feminist think-tank that has been scrutinising Britain’s economic policy since 1989. A report in 2016 from the House of Commons Library, an impartial research service, suggests that in 2010-15 women bore the cost of 85% of savings to the Treasury worth £23bn ($29bn) from austerity measures, specifically cuts in welfare benefits and in direct taxes. Because women earn less, rely more on benefits, and are much more likely than men to be single parents, the cuts affected them disproportionately.

The government does not set out to discriminate, says Diane Elson, the budget group’s former chair. Rather, it overlooks its own bias because it does not take the trouble to assess how policies affect women. Government budgets are supposed to be “gender-neutral”; in fact they are gender-ignorant. Ms Elson is one of the originators of a technique called “gender budgeting”—in which governments analyse fiscal policy in terms of its...

Why taxing robots is not a good idea

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:44

BILL GATES is an unlikely Luddite, however much Microsoft may have provoked people to take a hammer to their computers. Yet in a recent interview with Quartz, an online publication, he expressed scepticism about society’s ability to manage rapid automation. To forestall a social crisis, he mused, governments should consider a tax on robots; if automation slows as a result, so much the better. It is an intriguing if impracticable idea, which reveals a lot about the challenge of automation.

In some distant future robots with their own consciousnesses, nest-eggs and accountants might pay income taxes like the rest of us (presumably with as much enthusiasm). That is not what Mr Gates has in mind. He argues that today’s robots should be taxed—either their installation, or the profits firms enjoy by saving on the costs of the human labour displaced. The money generated could be used to retrain workers, and perhaps to finance an expansion of health care and education, which provide lots of hard-to-automate jobs in teaching or caring for the old and sick.

A robot is a capital investment, like a blast furnace or a...