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Updated: 2 hours 19 min ago

The history of growth should be all about recessions

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

“THROUGHOUT history, poverty is the normal condition of man,” wrote Robert Heinlein, a science-fiction writer. Until the 18th century, global GDP per person was stuck between $725 and $1,100, around the same income level as the World Bank’s current poverty line of $1.90 a day. But global income levels per person have since accelerated, from around $1,100 in 1800 to $3,600 in 1950, and over $10,000 today.

Economists have long tried to explain this sudden surge in output. Most theories have focused on the factors driving long-term economic growth such as the quantity and productivity of labour and capital. But a new paper* takes a different tack: faster growth is not due to bigger booms, but to less shrinking in recessions. Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University and John Wallis of the University of Maryland have taken data for 18 countries in Europe and the New World, some from as far back as the 13th century. To their surprise, they found that growth during years of economic expansion has fallen in the recent era—from 3.88% between 1820 and 1870 to 3.06% since 1950—even though average growth across all years in those two periods increased from 1.4% to 2.55%.

Instead, shorter and shallower slumps led to rising long-term growth. Output fell in a third of years between 1820 and 1870 but in only 12% of those since 1950. The rate of decline per...

Ireland’s food industries would be worst hit by a hard Brexit

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 14:42

IN 1962 Tony O’Reilly, head of the Irish Dairy Board, had an idea that would help transform Ireland’s economy. He wanted to create a premium brand for Irish butter to break into the growing British market. The new product, named Kerrygold and backed with a large marketing budget, was sold in half-pound packs in a parchment wrapping so shoppers could inspect the butter’s quality. Its success was an inspiration to other exporters and changed perceptions of Irish business.

Half a century on, the Irish economy has been transformed into a global trading hub. Some 90% of its exports are shipped by multinational companies. Many of these are American giants such as Intel, a chipmaker, and Pfizer, a drugs firm. But some are home-grown food firms, such as Kerry Group. Observers speak of a dual economy: a “modern” capital-intensive part, powered by foreign direct investment (FDI), usually from America; and a “traditional” jobs-intensive food business, which still looks to the British market. The prospect of Brexit is pulling these two parts of the economy in opposing directions.

For decades Ireland has appealed to foreign companies as a low-tax, English...

America’s disproportionate weight in global stockmarket indices

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 14:57

THE aims of a stockmarket index are threefold. First, to reflect what is actually going on in the market; second, to create a benchmark against which professional fund managers can be judged; and third, to allow investors to assemble well-diversified, low-cost portfolios. On all three counts there are reasons to worry about the MSCI All-World Country Index, one of the most widely used gauges of the global stockmarket.

That is because the American market has a weighting of 54% in the index, as high as it has ever been (it reached the same level in 2002). In other words, anyone using the index to monitor the market is seeing a picture heavily distorted by Wall Street. The relative performance of international fund managers against the index will largely depend on how much exposure to America they are willing to take on. Anyone buying a tracking fund is, in effect, making a big bet on the American market. Things are worse if investors track the MSCI World Index, which covers only developed markets. In that benchmark, America’s weight is 60.5%.

There is nothing wrong with the way that MSCI calculates its indices; the weights reflect how America dominates global...

America’s disproportionate weight in global stockmarket indices

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 14:57

THE aims of a stockmarket index are threefold. First, to reflect what is actually going on in the market; second, to create a benchmark against which professional fund managers can be judged; and third, to allow investors to assemble well-diversified, low-cost portfolios. On all three counts there are reasons to worry about the MSCI All-World Country Index, one of the most widely used gauges of the global stockmarket.

That is because the American market has a weighting of 54% in the index, as high as it has ever been (it reached the same level in 2002). In other words, anyone using the index to monitor the market is seeing a picture heavily distorted by Wall Street. The relative performance of international fund managers against the index will largely depend on how much exposure to America they are willing to take on. Anyone buying a tracking fund is, in effect, making a big bet on the American market. Things are worse if investors track the MSCI World Index, which covers only developed markets. In that benchmark, America’s weight is 60.5%.

There is nothing wrong with the way that MSCI calculates its indices; the weights reflect how America dominates global...

Banks’ equity-research operations are in decline

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

EQUITY research, the business of providing analysis of companies’ financial performance, may be a stodgy industry but it is not a simple one. Regulators fret about the sector’s Byzantine payment structure: investment banks dominate the market, but do not charge for it. They dole it out free to clients in the hope of future trading business. The understandable fear is that this set-up produces conflicts. Banks may be wary of issuing reports critical of companies; fund managers may end up choosing banks because of their research rather than the efficiency of their brokerage services. New regulations will overturn this model entirely.

MiFID 2, an ambitious set of European financial rules coming into effect next January, will force asset managers to disclose how much they spend on research. So banks will have to “unbundle” their services, billing clients for research and trading separately. Although the rules are being introduced by European regulators, banks across the world will have to change their pricing practices to comply.

These rules will be hugely, and beneficially, disruptive to a grossly inefficient industry. At present, banks blast...

Lacklustre power demand in Asia throws a cloud over coal

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

THE Hazelwood power station in Australia’s state of Victoria started generating electricity 52 years ago. The stark symbol of an era when coal was king, Hazelwood was one of Australia’s dirtiest: its fuel was the Latrobe valley’s brown coal, a bigger polluter than the black sort. The station was due finally to close on March 31st. Days earlier, chimney stacks were demolished at Munmorah, a black-coal station north of Sydney, already closed. Australia has shut ten coal-fired power stations over the past seven years, yet coal still generates about three-quarters of its electricity.

This fits a pattern across much of Asia, which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s coal demand. The biggest economies besides Japan, which hopes to replace nuclear with “clean” coal, are either closing down old plants or rethinking plans to build new ones. This is casting a deepening cloud over the coal industry.

Two reasons explain the looming overcapacity in countries ranging from China and India to Australia (South-East Asia remains hooked on coal). Firstly, electricity demand is stagnant, falling or growing less strongly than expected, which has put considerable financial...

Stockmarkets give up some of their Trump bump

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

HONEYMOONS don’t last for ever. Having been a reluctant bride to President Donald Trump when courted in the run-up to November’s election, the American stockmarket quickly melted into a mood of romantic euphoria. Shares rose by 12% between election day and March 1st (see chart). But in recent days, sentiment has dimmed. There is talk of the “Trump-disappointment trade”.

For the markets to experience some kind of sell-off is hardly a surprise. The S&P 500 index had gone more than 100 days without a 1% decline, the longest such streak since 1995. And the setback should not be exaggerated. The S&P 500 remains well above its pre-election level, compared with the dollar, which has given up around half its gains. The ten-year Treasury-bond yield, which hit 2.62% on March 13th, has dropped back to 2.38%.

The immediate cause of the retreat seemed to be the failure of Mr Trump to repeal his predecessor’s health-care bill. That logic was hardly a great advertisement for capitalism, implying that the fewer Americans had access to health insurance, the happier investors would be. But the broader rationale seemed to be that, if the Republicans...

An improbable global shortage: sand

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

INDIA’S “sand mafia” is doing a roaring trade. The Times of India estimates that the illicit market for sand is worth around 150bn rupees ($2.3bn) a year; at one site in Tamil Nadu alone, 50,000 lorryloads are mined every day and smuggled to nearby states. Gangs around the country frequently turn to violence as they vie to continue cashing in on a building boom.

Much of the modern global economy depends on sand. Most of it pours into the construction industry, where it is used to make concrete and asphalt. A smaller quantity of fine-grade sand is used to produce glass and electronics, and, particularly in America, to extract oil from shale in the fracking industry. No wonder, then, that sand and gravel are the most extracted materials in the world. A 2014 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates they account for up to 85% by weight of everything mined globally each year.

With house-building in the West yet to recover fully from the 2007-08 crisis, Asia has been, by far, the main source of demand. Figures from the Freedonia Group, a market-research firm, suggest that, of the 13.7bn tonnes of sand mined...

The life and times of an Italian non-performing loan

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

MARIO (not his real name) from the pretty Italian city of Vicenza opened an account at a local bank in 1992. It afforded him an overdraft of the equivalent of €10,000. He needed it to pay the bills of his wholesale textiles company. Over the years his firm’s cash problems worsened. In 2013, after Mario had exceeded his overdraft limit by €7,000 ($9,300), the bank gave him an unsecured loan of €50,000.

The first repayment was due in January 2014, yet by June Mario had filed for voluntary bankruptcy. The bank—now owed €70,300—presented itself to the court as a creditor. It entered into an arrangement, but in December sold the loan for 5% of its book value to Banca IFIS, an Italian lender building a portfolio of soured debts. Banca IFIS employed an external debt collector and by the following April, Mario had repaid €17,000. Having made a tidy profit on its investment, Banca IFIS told the bankruptcy court the debt had been cleared.

It seems puzzling that Mario was granted a loan after being overdrawn for so long. Andrea Clamer, head of Banca IFIS’s bad-loans division, says such mysteries are central to understanding Italy’s bad-loan mountain....

Indonesia’s tax amnesty passes its deadline

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 14:48

LAST year Indonesia’s finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, invited chief executives, directors and shareholders from the country’s leading industries to banquets at her ministry. As they munched, she would give presentations setting out who among them had—and, by omission, who had not—signed up to the government’s tax amnesty. “This may be the most expensive dinner in your lifetime,” the 54-year-old economist recalls telling them.

Indonesia’s tax amnesty, which began in July 2016, ended on March 31st. More than 800,000 evaders declared 4,700trn rupiah ($350bn) in assets previously hidden from the authorities. That is a staggering sum, equivalent to 40% of Indonesia’s GDP and 90% of the money supply, and revealing of the epic scale of tax-dodging.

The willingness of tax cheats to come clean partly reflects the generous terms on offer. Assets declared in the first three months were taxed at just 2-4%, compared with the individual income-tax rate of up to 30%. Those declared in the next three months were taxed at 3-6%, and those in the final three months at 5-10%. The government collected additional revenue of 125trn rupiah, equivalent to less than 3% of the...

Will robots displace humans as motorised vehicles replaced horses?

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 17:57

IN THE early 20th century the future seemed bright for horse employment. Within 50 years cars and tractors made short work of equine livelihoods. Some futurists see a cautionary tale for humanity in the fate of the horse: it was economically indispensable until it wasn’t. The common retort to such concerns is that humans are far more cognitively adaptable than beasts of burden. Yet as robots grow more nimble, humans look increasingly vulnerable. A new working paper concludes that, between 1990 and 2007, each industrial robot added per thousand workers reduced employment in America by nearly six workers. Humanity may not be sent out to pasture, but the parallel with horses is still uncomfortably close.

Robots are just one small part of the technological wave squeezing people. The International Federation of Robotics defines industrial robots as machines that are automatically controlled and re-programmable; single-purpose equipment does not count. The worldwide population of such creatures is below 2m; America has slightly fewer than two robots per 1,000 workers (Europe has a bit more than two). But their numbers are growing, as is the range of tasks they can tackle,...

The investigation into the Bangladesh Bank heist continues

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

A YEAR after one of the most spectacular robberies of modern times, the authorities in Bangladesh are still trying to crack the case. Hackers into the country’s central bank sent instructions through SWIFT, a messaging network for cross-border payments, to transfer funds from the bank’s account with the New York Federal Reserve to private accounts in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Much of the stolen $101m has yet to be retrieved; the masterminds are yet to be identified. But the probe reveals the strikingly sophisticated, and international, nature of the crime.

After sifting 60 hard drives and thousands of pieces of paper, and interviewing dozens of people, investigators, talking anonymously in Dhaka, say they are confident about some details of the heist. They believe foreign hackers acted with inside help. The attackers’ coding style has raised suspicions of involvement by North Korea. This week the New York Times reported that American federal prosecutors were examining this possibility.

Egregious violations of the bank’s security procedures have also been uncovered. On the day of the robbery, its security cameras were...

A philanthropic boom: “donor-advised funds”

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

…and remember to claim the tax deduction

JEFF POWERS was raised as “a good Catholic boy”. So when he sold his wall-fastener business in 2012 for $225m, he wanted to give back. And, like many philanthropists, he started close to home. He donated to the hospital where his son had spent months recovering from a car accident. He helped pay for a swimming pool at his children’s school. Today he supports all sorts of causes, from scholarships in Florida to soup kitchens in New York.

The way Mr Powers finances these projects would strike old-school charitable types as odd. Traditionally, a budding philanthropist would either give directly to a charity or set up a foundation. But Mr Powers uses a donor-advised fund (DAF), a type of account held by a non-profit entity, in this case Bank of America Charitable Gift Fund, an arm of the bank. DAFs are taking root in Britain and Canada, but they are primarily an American phenomenon.

DAFs are way-stations for donor dollars. Mr Powers deposits some money into his DAF and, while he ponders where it should go, Bank of America invests it for him. At some point he will suggest a beneficiary and, as...

The unusual gap between American and European bond yields

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

AMERICA may be the world’s largest economy, but these days its government pays more than many others to borrow money. Its ten-year bond yields are higher than those in Britain, France, Singapore and even Italy.

The gap between American and German ten-year yields has been above two percentage points. For much of the past 25 years, it was very rare for the difference to exceed a single percentage point. On occasions, American yields fell below German levels (see chart).

Go back a generation and you might have expected the country with the higher bond yields to be the one with the weaker currency; investors would demand a higher yield to compensate for the risk of future depreciation. But that is not the case today. The dollar has been strong, relative to the euro, and many people expect it to strengthen further. Indeed, the higher yield on American government debt is one reason why investors might want to buy the dollar.

Instead, the gap may reflect differences in both monetary and fiscal policy. In America the Federal Reserve stopped buying Treasury bonds a while ago and has raised interest rates three times since December 2015; the...

China’s growing clout in international economic affairs

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

THE IMF “systematically impoverishes foreigners”, and the World Bank’s advice has “negative value to its best clients”. These harsh words were voiced not by lefty critics of the Washington Consensus, but by two men (David Malpass and Adam Lerrick, respectively) whom Donald Trump has picked to lead his Treasury’s dealings with the rest of the world, including the international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and IMF, and the G20 group of leading economies.

Their future boss, Steven Mnuchin, America’s treasury secretary, is not much more reassuring to the global financial establishment. At his first G20 meeting, in Baden-Baden in Germany on March 17th-18th (pictured), he vetoed a long-standing pledge to “resist all forms of protectionism”. It had often been breached. But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

To veterans of international economic affairs, this combative stance is baffling. America’s government now seems to disdain a set of institutions it nurtured into life—institutions that are more commonly criticised for following America’s will too closely. “The United States is just handing the leadership over to China of the...

The Trump administration will review all of America’s trade deals

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

ACCORDING to a document crafted by the Trump administration, a model trade agreement has 24 elements. Second on the list is “trade-deficit reduction”, giving a hint as to why Mr Trump wants to review America’s existing agreements. In January Sean Spicer, his press secretary, said the administration would “re-examine all of the current trade deals.” A presidential order to do just that is reported to be in the offing.

America boasts 14 bilateral and regional free-trade agreements (FTAs). Mr Trump seems to blame these agreements for America’s large trade deficit. Most economists disagree, seeing it as reflecting macroeconomic imbalances. The FTAs are in any case with countries representing just two-fifths of America’s two-way trade in goods, and less than 10% of its goods-trade deficit (see chart). Most (77%) of America’s deficit stems from trade with China, the European Union and Japan. None has an American FTA.

A focus on trade deficits means that tiddly deals such as those with Jordan and Oman will not face much heat. NAFTA (an agreement with Mexico and Canada), and KORUS (South Korea), will face more scrutiny because of chunky American...

An earthquake in European banking

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:44

IN BRITAIN alone millions of people make formal complaints each year about their banks. For them, Sebastian Siemiatkowski, founder of Klarna, a Swedish payments startup, brings good news. New European rules, he says, will open the door to a host of innovative services that analyse transactions, so “an app could tell you there’s a cheaper mortgage available and start the switching process for you.” Apps could warn account-holders if they spend more than a predetermined amount or are about to become overdrawn, or even nudge them to save more. Customers need barely ever interact with their bank.

To date, despite dire warnings, European retail banking has been remarkably unscathed by technology-driven disruption. Customers stay loyal, and banks still do the most of the lending. Financial-technology (“fintech”) companies are beginning to mount a challenge, most conspicuously in the online-payments industry in northern Europe: Sofort, iDEAL and other fintech firms conduct over half of online transactions in Germany and the Netherlands, for example. But their reach is more limited elsewhere in Europe. Physical payments are still overwhelmingly made with cash or bank cards.

...

Economic shocks are more likely to be lethal in America

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 19:41

AMERICAN workers without college degrees have suffered financially for decades—as has been known for decades. More recent is the discovery that their woes might be deadly. In 2015 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two (married) scholars, reported that in the 20 years to 1998, the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans fell by about 2% a year. But between 1999 and 2013, deaths rose. The reversal was all the more striking because, in Europe, overall middle-age mortality continued to fall at the same 2% pace. By 2013 middle-aged white Americans were dying at twice the rate of similarly aged Swedes of all races (see chart). Suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse were to blame.

Ms Case and Mr Deaton have now updated their work on these so-called “deaths of despair”. The results, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, are no happier. White middle-age mortality continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, contributing to a fall in life...

Economic shocks are more likely to be lethal in America

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 19:41

AMERICAN workers without college degrees have suffered financially for decades—as has been known for decades. More recent is the discovery that their woes might be deadly. In 2015 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two (married) scholars, reported that in the 20 years to 1998, the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans fell by about 2% a year. But between 1999 and 2013, deaths rose. The reversal was all the more striking because, in Europe, overall middle-age mortality continued to fall at the same 2% pace. By 2013 middle-aged white Americans were dying at twice the rate of similarly aged Swedes of all races (see chart). Suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse were to blame.

Ms Case and Mr Deaton have now updated their work on these so-called “deaths of despair”. The results, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, are no happier. White middle-age mortality continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, contributing to a fall in life expectancy among the population as a whole. The trend transcends geography. It is found in almost every state, and in both cities and rural areas. The problem seems to be getting worse over time. Deaths from drugs,...

Is the Federal Reserve giving banks a $12bn subsidy?

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 15:55

EVERY time the Federal Reserve has raised rates since the financial crisis, as it did on March 15th, it has done so in part by increasing “Interest On Excess Reserves” (IOER). This obscure policy rate is surprisingly controversial. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chair of the congressional committee that oversees the Fed, has called it a “subsidy” to some of the largest banks in America.

To understand the argument, consider the Fed’s year-end financial statement. In 2016 it earned $111.1bn in interest income on its vast portfolio of securities. But it also paid JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and other mostly big banks $12bn in interest on excess cash deposited at regional Federal Reserve banks. Such IOER payments are both woefully unpopular and critical to the Fed’s monetary policy.

Over a decade ago, to give the Fed better control of short-term interest rates, Congress authorised it to pay interest on funds in excess of those banks need to meet reserve requirements. The policy was first used during the financial crisis in 2008. But today, IOER is the Fed’s primary monetary-policy tool, essential to its setting of the...

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