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Updated: 2 hours 42 min ago

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...

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...

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