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The IMF nudges up its forecast for global growth

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, and, in Washington, chirpy forecasts from the IMF that often prove a bit too chirpy. On April 18th the fund released its semi-annual World Economic Outlook (WEO), raising its forecast for global growth in 2017 to 3.5%.

Growth forecasts for the emerging world have not changed. The IMF’s global optimism is based instead on hopes of increased growth in the rich world. The fund takes a rosy view of the American economy, citing both high levels of consumer confidence and Donald Trump’s plans for more government spending. In Britain the IMF now reckons GDP will grow by 2.0% in 2017, up from earlier estimates of 1.5% (issued in January) and 1.1% (last October). The IMF has also raised its forecasts for Japan and the euro area.

Snipers point out that IMF forecasts have been far from perfect. Some glitches are excusable. In the spring of 1990, it predicted that Kuwait’s economy would grow by 0.8% that year. It actually fell by 26%. The IMF’s model did not allow for an Iraqi invasion. But other errors are less easily explained: between 1990 and 2007, the IMF’s spring forecasts...

America’s big banks have an encouraging first quarter

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

WHAT a difference a year makes. When America’s big banks reported first-quarter earnings for 2016, the mood was glum. The Federal Reserve was proving tardier than hoped in raising interest rates, which held down lending margins. Jitters about the world economy meant rotten results for investment-banking units, in what is usually their best season of the year. Regulators added to the misery: last April the Fed rejected the “living wills”—plans for liquidating lenders that get into trouble—of five of the six largest banks.

This spring bankers are happier. Business perked up last year after that dismal start. Donald Trump’s election in November, accompanied by promises to ginger up the American economy, cut corporate taxes and roll back regulation of finance, gave banks’ shares a lift (see chart). The Fed raised rates in December and again in March and is likely to keep increasing them. And 2017’s first-quarter results have, mostly, seen an improvement—though the cheer was not evenly shared.

“Wall Street activities have performed better than Main Street ones,” says Mike Mayo, an independent bank analyst. Revenues from capital-market businesses...

Digitisation shakes up corporate-bond markets

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

JUST a few decades ago, an asset manager wanting to trade shares, bonds or derivatives almost always had to call up the trading desk at a big investment bank. Today shares and many derivatives can be traded with a few simple clicks (or even in fully automated fashion, using algorithms). But buying and selling bonds, especially corporate bonds, is still an old-fashioned business. Over four-fifths of trading in American corporate bonds still takes place with a dealer, usually over the phone. Yet digitisation is at last beginning to change the structure of bond markets: witness the announcement on April 11th by Tradeweb, an electronic-trading platform, that it is to offer “all-to-all” trading in European corporate bonds, ie, a system in which any market participant can trade with any other.

Electronic bond-trading is not in itself new. Tradeweb’s platform, initially limited to trading of American Treasuries, was unveiled in 1998. Around half of Treasuries, and nearly 60% of European government bonds, are now traded electronically, reckons Greenwich Associates, a consultancy. But for corporate bonds, progress has been slower: only 25% of global trading volume in...

How and when to use private money in infrastructure projects

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

WHEN the Indiana Toll Road was opened in 1956, there were eight pairs of travel plazas, or rest stops, along the 156-mile (250km) stretch linking Chicago to Ohio and points eastward. As cars became faster and less thirsty, travellers had less reason to stop regularly for petrol or snacks. Three of the travel plazas closed in the 1970s. Restaurants shuttered, even if offered free rent. The remaining plazas, dwindling in number, fell into disrepair. The abiding memory some road users had of Indiana was of grubby toilets along the toll road.

Those rest-stops are at last getting a makeover. IFM, an Australian infrastructure fund, is investing $34m in the toll-road’s plazas, part of a $200m-plus upgrade. Half of the road’s length, with 57 bridges, is being resurfaced, using a treatment known as “crack-and-feed”, which lasts longer than simply patching the top. IFM, which acquired a 66-year lease on the road in a $5.8bn deal in 2015, says a private-sector operator has the right incentives to invest for the long term. Fewer tyre blowouts mean less gridlock, more road users and more revenue.

Politicians across the spectrum agree on the need to upgrade America’s...

Markets worry more about political turmoil than encroaching autocracy

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 13:40

THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, government bonds and stockmarket all gained ground as the results came in.

It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.

In Turkey investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan’s proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, rule that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s tenure, when he was seen as a liberalising democrat, saw rapid economic growth; his transformation into an emerging autocrat has not put investors off. Since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. In 1922, when Mussolini took power in Italy, its equity market returned 29% and its government bonds 18%, according...

Markets worry more about political turmoil than encroaching autocracy

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 13:40

THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, government bonds and stockmarket all gained ground as the results came in.

It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.

In Turkey investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan’s proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, rule that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s tenure, when he was seen as a liberalising democrat, saw rapid economic growth; his transformation into an emerging autocrat has not put investors off. Since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. In 1922, when Mussolini took power in Italy, its equity market returned 29% and its government bonds 18%, according...

Unshackling Europe’s sugar producers

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:25

Can cane be beet?

IN A rickety warehouse on the banks of London’s Thames sit mountains of caramel-coloured raw cane-sugar. For centuries the sweet stuff has come across the seas to Tate & Lyle Sugars’ dockside factory, to be refined into the white stuff. Cane accounts for four-fifths of global sugar production, but only one-fifth of Europe’s. Most of the continent’s sugar is made from beet, thanks to a technique developed in the Napoleonic wars, when an English blockade hit French cane-sugar imports.

No surprise, then, that the sugar-beet industry has been well guarded by Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy. But in recent years the EU has reformed its system of quotas and subsidies to lower food prices and enhance its farmers’ competitiveness; production quotas for milk were dismantled in 2015, for example. Now it is sugar’s turn. From October this year, the EU will abolish its minimum price and production quota for beet. Its complex restrictions on sugar imports will remain, however, as will its income support for farmers.

The beet sector has already been restructured in anticipation. EU compensation schemes have...

Why the Federal Reserve should keep its balance-sheet large

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

HOW much money should exist? The Federal Reserve must soon confront this deep question. The Fed has signalled that towards the end of 2017 it will probably begin to unwind quantitative easing (QE), the purchase of financial assets using newly created bank reserves. The central bank’s balance-sheet swelled from about $900bn on the eve of the financial crisis to about $4.5trn by 2015 as it bought mortgage-backed securities and government debt (see chart). If and when the Fed shrinks its balance-sheet, it will also retire the new money it created.

Economists such as Milton Friedman popularised the study of the quantity of money in the 1960s and 1970s. By the financial crisis, however, the subject had gone out of fashion. The interest rate, it was agreed, was what mattered for the economy. The Fed varied the supply of bank reserves, but only to keep rates in the market for interbank loans where it wanted them to be.

The Fed’s injection of emergency liquidity into financial markets in 2008, however, sent interest rates tumbling. To regain control, it started paying interest on excess reserves (ie, those reserves in excess of those required by...

The mysterious quiescence of the gold market

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

AMERICA has bombed Syria, and its relations with Russia have deteriorated. North Korea is developing a long-range nuclear missile, a development which Donald Trump has vowed to stop, unilaterally if necessary. There is talk of a “reflation trade”, with tax cuts in America pepping up global growth.

All this ought to be good news for gold, the precious metal that usually gains at times of political uncertainty or rising inflation expectations. But as the chart shows, gold took a hit when Mr Trump was elected in November and is still well below its level of last July. As a watchdog, gold has failed to bark.

Bullion enjoyed a ten-year bull market from 2001 to 2011, when it peaked at $1,898 an ounce. This long upward run was bolstered in its later stages by two developments: first, the use of quantitative easing (QE) by central banks, which gold bugs argued would inevitably lead to high inflation; and second by the euro crisis, which caused nervousness about the potential for a break-up of the single currency and about the safety of European banks. By 2013, however, euro-zone worries were fading and, despite QE, no inflation had been seen. The...

A new mood of optimism infects investors in China’s banks

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

GUO SHUQING, China’s new banking regulator, knows the enormity of his task. China’s banking system, he observed last month, is worth more than $33trn. So it is bigger than any other country’s, and even than Europe’s as a whole. And he is well aware of the pitfalls left by a decade of breakneck lending growth. But if Mr Guo is nervous, he is hiding it. “All problems and contradictions will be resolved,” he says.

Of course, a Chinese official can be expected to express confidence about Chinese banks. More surprising is that a small but growing number of analysts and investors seem to concur. Chinese bank shares are up by a quarter since early last year. One investment bank, Morgan Stanley, has declared that China’s lenders are “in a sweet spot”. Another, Goldman Sachs, has upgraded China to “overweight”—that is, recommending that clients buy Chinese shares—and is especially positive about the banks. Shanghai Financial News, a local newspaper, described the new mood around these giant institutions as the “return of the king”. The question is whether it will be a long, stable reign or a short-lived, turbulent one.

The clearest positive for...

The boss of scandal-plagued Barclays gets into trouble himself

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

IN HIS first 17 months running Barclays, Jes Staley seemed scarcely to put a foot wrong. The American has narrowed the British lender’s ambitions, to focus on retail business at home, corporate and investment banking on both sides of the Atlantic, and credit cards. He is pulling Barclays out of Africa, after a century, and has sped up its retreat from other markets. He has also poached several folk from JPMorgan Chase, where he spent 34 years and ran the investment bank.

On April 10th it emerged that Mr Staley had clumsily planted a boot out of bounds. Last June Barclays’ board and an executive received anonymous letters about a “senior employee” hired earlier in 2016. These, say the bank, raised concerns “of a personal nature” about this person and Mr Staley’s role in dealing with the matter “at a previous employer” (presumably JPMorgan Chase).

Mr Staley, seeing the letters as “an unfair personal attack” on the newcomer, asked Barclays’ security team to find out who had written them, but was told that this should not be done. In July he inquired whether the matter was resolved—and formed the “honestly held, but mistaken” belief that he was now free to...

A different approach to mobile money in Africa

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

WITH her phone in one hand and a live chicken in the other, Brenda Deeomba comes for her money. Her husband is a builder in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and sends his wages home through Zoona, a money-transfer company. She receives them at a roadside booth in Chongwe, a nearby town, using a PIN number sent to her phone. It is a safe way to get the money, says Ms Deeomba, above muffled squawks.

Money-transfer businesses are proliferating in Africa. But Zoona is unusual. Unlike M-PESA, the best-known, in Kenya, it is not run by a phone company. Nor is it owned by a bank. Instead, Zoona has built a business from scratch. It processed $200m in transactions last year and bubbles with ambition: Mike Quinn, its (Canadian) chief executive, talks of reaching 1bn customers.

Zoona was founded in Zambia in 2009 by two brothers, Brad and Brett Magrath. As a startup, they were at a disadvantage, having to recruit their own agents. Zoona did so by seeing them as its core customers, giving them credit and training to set up their own franchises. Some are impressively successful. In central Lusaka, Misozi Mkandawire presides over an empire of kiosks. She started with Zoona while at college. Her profits can now reach 50,000 kwacha ($5,200) a month. That is exceptional. Last year the average agent made $548 in monthly commission, before costs. Globally, nearly half of...

The EFTA countries show how hard Brexit will be for Britain

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

NORWAY offers much to envy. The food is tasty, public services are great and the people are impossibly good-looking. Its trade policy looks equally desirable. Though it trades heavily with the EU, Norway can also strike trade deals all over the world, either operating in concert with the three other members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) or on its own. Members of EFTA have dozens of deals, including two with China, with which the EU cannot even start negotiations.

After it leaves the EU, Britain will look much like an EFTA country: a rich economy with close links to Europe, but also seeking trade deals elsewhere. It is superficially an attractive prospect. Yet EFTA’s half-in-half-out relationship with the EU hinders its trade as much as it helps.

EFTA’s flexibility in trade stems from its odd relationship with the EU. Switzerland has a series of bilateral agreements, whereas Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the single market through the European Economic Area (though with opt-outs for agriculture and fisheries). Crucially, however, all are outside the EU’s customs union, an agreement which...

Rescuing Myanmar’s farmers from the debt trap

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

Living on borrowed rice

WHEN Myo Than was a young man, his family had 12 hectares of farmland in Dala, a rural township just across the river from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. His mother sold most of it after his father died. Mr Myo Than grows rice on what’s left, but water shortages mean he reaps just one harvest each year. He borrows money from the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank (MADB)—1.5m kyats ($1,100) this year, at an annual rate of 8%—to cover planting costs. But rice is a low-return crop. To repay the bank he borrows from local moneylenders at a rate of around 4% each month. Mr Myo Than owes them $7,300. He has given his land deeds to a moneylender as security.

Mr Myo Than’s predicament is not unusual: poor crop returns and usurious loan terms have kept Myanmar’s farmers trapped in poverty and debt. Around 60% of Myanmar’s population are engaged in agriculture. Most are poor, and farm small plots of land using age-old manual techniques. Farmers scythe rice fields; water buffaloes pull wooden ploughs; hay-laden bullock-carts trundle down narrow roads.

Many farmers borrow to cover planting costs, buy equipment or...

East Germany’s population is shrinking

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 17:47

WERE it not for the graffiti on abandoned buildings, Bitterfeld-Wolfen, two towns north of Leipzig joined as one in 2007, would seem devoid of young people. Pharmacies, physiotherapy surgeries and shops selling garden gnomes line the sleepy streets. In its heyday the place had a booming chemical industry. Today “the air is much cleaner and we can finally hang out laundry,” says an elderly local out on a morning stroll. “But many jobs were lost and so few children are left.” He points out a building that was once a school; today it is one of many care homes.

Despite an influx of 1.2m refugees over the past two years, Germany’s population faces near-irreversible decline. According to predictions from the UN in 2015, two in five Germans will be over 60 by 2050 and Europe’s oldest country will have shrunk to 75m from 82m. Since the 1970s, more Germans have been dying than are born. Fewer births and longer lives are a problem for most rich countries. But the consequences are more acute for Germany, where birth rates are lower than in Britain and France.

If Germany is a warning for others, its eastern part is a warning for its west. If it were still a country, East...

Japan's labour market is tight. So why aren’t wages rising?

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

TRIMLY DRESSED deliverymen, polite and punctual, are ubiquitous in Japan. So it was shocking to see one of them kicking his parcels and hurling his trolley outside a block of Tokyo flats after apparently finding no one at home. Captured on a camera phone last December, this incident of “parcel rage” went viral, forcing Sagawa Express, one of Japan’s biggest delivery companies, to say sorry to its customers. Many Japanese will have felt sympathy, though, for the video’s frazzled star.

Over 10% of the country’s firms admit that some workers frequently put in more than 100 hours of overtime in a month. A manager at a nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture worked twice that long in February 2016 before killing himself two months later. The problem is especially acute in low-skilled service industries. Over the past two decades, e-commerce has vastly increased the number of parcels handled by firms like Sagawa. Last year, one employee committed suicide after being violently bullied by his boss.

In a survey in 2015 by the Japan Institute of Labour Policy and Training, some workers blamed their own lack of ability for why they put in so many extra hours. Others...

Donald Trump’s review of trade deficits is a blast from the past

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

“WE are in a trade war,” said Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, on March 31st. That day Mr Trump duly loosed off a couple of warning shots, announcing two trade-related executive orders. (He forgot to sign them in the ceremony itself.) As tactics go, this was hardly shock and awe. Rather, it was supposed to suggest that nastier weaponry is on the way.

The first executive order was aimed at making trade rulebreakers “face the consequences”. Some bits were vague: officials have 90 days to develop and implement a plan to combat customs violations. Others seemed trivial. The government has lost $2.3bn of revenue over 14 years from importers going bankrupt before paying duties; almost half of this relates to imports of fresh garlic and preserved mushrooms.

The second executive order seemed more in keeping with Mr Trump’s (trade) warmongering. Officials have 90 days to produce an “omnibus” report, naming the trading partners with which America had a “significant” trade deficit in goods in 2016 and shaming them if the reasons for that deficit are “unfair”. Based on what it finds, Mr Trump promised to “take necessary and lawful action”.

Top of...

How Chávez and Maduro have impoverished Venezuela

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

IT IS hard to convey the severity of Venezuela’s unfolding crisis. Its extent is astounding: the economy shrank by 10% last year, and will be 23% smaller than in 2013 by the end of this year, according to IMF forecasts. Inflation may exceed 1,600% this year. The human details are more poignant: over the past year around three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight, averaging 8.7kg per person, because of a scarcity of food. No war, foreign or civil, is to blame for this catastrophe. Venezuela did this to itself. And its woes are deepening, as the regime of President Nicolás Maduro lurches towards dictatorship. Fifty years ago, Venezuela was an example to the rest of Latin America, a relatively stable democracy and not much poorer than Britain. How did this tragedy occur?

Venezuela’s economy is built on oil—its leaders boast it has the world’s largest proven reserves—and it is tempting to blame fickle crude prices for its woes. Oil accounts for more than 90% of Venezuelan exports. It helps to fund the government budget and provides the foreign exchange that the country needs to import consumer goods. Nearly everything of consequence in the economy, from...

Payday lending is declining

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

IN MAY 2013 Gloria James borrowed $200 from Loan Till Payday, a lender near her home in Wilmington, Delaware. Rather than take out a one- or two-month loan for a $100 fee, as she had done several times before, she was offered a one-year loan that would set her back $1,620 in interest, equivalent to an annual rate of 838%. Ms James, a housekeeper making $12 an hour, agreed to the high-interest loan but quickly fell behind on her payments. After filing a lawsuit in federal court, a Delaware judge ruled that the loan in question was not only illegal but “unconscionable”.

Her story is remarkably common. Americans who live pay cheque to pay cheque have few places to turn when they are in financial distress. Many rely on high-interest payday loans to stay afloat. But government efforts to crack down on the $40bn industry may be having an effect.

Roughly 2.5m American households, about one in 50, use payday loans each year, according to government statistics. The typical loan is $350, lasts two weeks, and costs $15 for each $100 borrowed. Although payday loans are marketed as a source of short-term cash to be used in financial emergencies, they are often used to meet chronic budget shortfalls—in 2015 more borrowers in California took out ten payday loans than took out one. Critics say the industry dupes its vulnerable customers into paying high fees and...

The president of the Richmond Fed resigns

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

Lacker has sad finish

FOR almost five years inquiries have sought to establish how Medley Global Advisors, a research firm, revealed details of Federal Reserve minutes a day before they were publicly released in October 2012. On April 4th the saga took a sudden twist when Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed (and hence a member of the committee that sets interest rates), quit over the leak.

Mr Lacker spoke to Medley the day before it published its note, in which it revealed that there was “intense debate” within the Fed over the third stage of its quantitative-easing programme, that the central bank was poised to buy more Treasury bonds at a later date, and that the Fed had mulled a promise not to raise interest rates until unemployment fell below 6.5%. (Both the bond-buying and the promise did later happen.) According to Mr Lacker, who was the meeting’s sole dissenter, when Medley mentioned confidential information on the call he “did not refuse or express his inability to comment and the interview continued”. This, he said, “could have been taken...as an acknowledgment or confirmation of the information.”

During an...

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