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Finance and economics
Updated: 2 hours 38 min ago

A banking centre seeks to reinvent itself

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

ON A clear day, sunset over Lake Zug is magnificent. Snow-dusted mountains cut through the orange glow above and are mirrored in the lake below. “Zug is our spiritual home,” says Jeremy Epstein, from Washington, DC, who has just taken 40 foreigners to tour the small Swiss town south of Zurich. They came not for sunsets, though, but to find out how Zug has become known as “crypto-valley”—meaning the home of many firms dealing in crypto-currencies and related activities.

Switzerland’s famous banking secrecy is falling to a global assault on money-laundering and tax evasion. But financial security remains in demand. The country should seek to become the “crypto-nation”, said the economy minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, last month. Zug aims to be the capital of that nation.

To that end, Switzerland is maintaining loose rules for crypto-businesses, even as other countries are tightening theirs. An industry is developing to store tangible crypto-assets, such as the hard drives on...

Economists cannot avoid making value judgments

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

AMID the name-calling and bluster that mar many fights between economists are a few common tactics. Belligerents may attack the theory used to support a claim, or the data analysis used to quantify an effect. During the debate over President Donald Trump’s tax bill, to take a recent example, economists bickered over which side had more credibly calculated the economic effect. They did not, for the most part, argue about whether it was morally acceptable to pass a regressive tax reform after years of wage stagnation and rising inequality. To do so would strike many economists as entirely un-economist-like. Yet economics has not always been so shy about moral philosophy. As well as “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith wrote a Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Great 20th-century economists like Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow also took questions of values very seriously. Their successors would do well to take several pages from their books.

Modern economists have attempted to...

The long-term returns from collectibles

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

BONDS, shares and Treasury bills are all very well, but in the end they are just pieces of paper. They are not assets you can hang on the wall or display to admiring neighbours. Many rich people like to invest their wealth in more tangible form; property, of course, but also collectibles such as art, fine wine and classic cars.

Is that wise? Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) have run the numbers for their annual analysis of the financial markets in the Credit Suisse global investment-returns yearbook. Some of these assets have done rather better than others (see chart). Fine wine delivered the best returns; surprising to cynics who might assume that, in the long run, the value of wine vanishes as it turns into vinegar. Really old wine often has historical resonance. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1787 was sold for $156,450 in 1985 because it was thought to belong to Thomas Jefferson.

Estimating the returns from these assets,...

OPEC mulls a long-term alliance with Russia to keep oil prices stable

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

OIL bears beware. On February 20th Suhail al-Mazrouei, OPEC’s rotating president and energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the 14-member producers’ group is working on a plan for a formal alliance with ten other petrostates, including Russia, aimed at propping up oil prices for the foreseeable future. If it comes to anything, it could be OPEC’s most ambitious venture in decades.

The result will not be, he insists, a “supergroup”. The notion of Saudi Arabia and Russia joining forces as the Traveling Wilburys of the oil world may be a bit jarring. It remains an idea in “draft” form. But whatever its chances, it attempts to shift a belief widely held by participants in oil markets: that non-American oil producers are helpless against the shale revolution.

That belief has strengthened because of a renewed flood of American shale production in the latter part of 2017 after prices of West Texas Intermediate climbed above $50 a barrel. The International Energy Agency (IEA),...

Donald Trump mulls restrictions on steel and aluminium imports

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

TEN months ago the Trump administration took aim at steel and aluminium imports, giving itself a year to decide whether they threatened national security and, if so, what to do about it. On February 16th it concluded that America is indeed under threat. The president has until mid-April to choose whether to respond.

The reports handed to Donald Trump by the Department of Commerce, which led the investigations, describe America as effectively under siege. Its steel industry might struggle to respond to a crisis similar to the second world war, they fret, as foreigners are filling a third of American demand for steel, even as 28% of national capacity lies idle. The share of primary aluminium (the kind smelted from ore, rather than recycled metal) that is imported is 91%, and 61% of local smelting capacity lies cold. Doubters can point out that the Department of Defence requires a tiny slice of American steel supply, and that America’s largest supplier for both metals, Canada, is an ally (see...

Japan’s central bank chooses continuity over tradition

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

GOVERNORS of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) tend not to linger long in their post. Twenty-two people have headed the institution since 1914, compared with 16 at the Federal Reserve and 12 at the Bank of England. The last time a BoJ governor won a second term was 1961, when Japan’s economy was growing by over 11% and inflation was over 5%. As Richard Werner, the author of “Princes of the Yen”, a history of the central bank’s failures, points out, by tradition the job alternates every five years between a candidate backed by the finance ministry and a “true-born” BoJ insider.

This tradition will be broken by the reappointment of Haruhiko Kuroda, who was nominated for a second term on February 16th. If he completes it, he will become the longest-serving governor in the BoJ’s history.

With luck that might be long enough for him to reach the central bank’s elusive inflation target of 2%, a goal set five years ago which he had hoped to meet by 2015. Although the BoJ has bought...

Changing the guard at HSBC

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

YOU spend 38 years at a mighty global bank, the last seven as chief executive. As boss you clean up a stinking mess, the legacy of ill-conceived acquisitions and shoddy practice. You shell out billions in fines and legal costs. You shed businesses and cut jobs by a quarter. You build a solid capital base. You maintain dividends. On your last day, you announce decent results, with revenue growing after five years of shrinkage and profits up nicely. The market’s parting gift to you? The share price falls by 3%.

Analysts had expected better from Stuart Gulliver’s final report as boss of Britain’s HSBC, the world’s seventh-biggest bank by assets, on February 20th. They were surprised by charges for impaired loans to two companies, thought to be Carillion, a failed British contractor, and Steinhoff, a troubled South African retailer, and miffed that HSBC put off buying back more shares. That, the bank said, must wait until it has raised $5bn-7bn of “additional tier-1” capital (debt that...

Protestantism might be good for the wallet, after all

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

Spirit and flesh

CAN religion make people wealthier? In 1905 Max Weber, a German sociologist, argued that it had happened in Europe. Protestants did not invent capitalism in the 16th century, he suggested. But, by discarding monastic asceticism and embracing the notion that diligence and self-improvement are pleasing to God, they became particularly good at it.

Weber’s idea is unfashionable these days, partly because so many non-Protestant countries have become rich and partly because of a cause-and-effect problem. Were Protestants truly better at business, or were ambitious, business-minded people drawn to Protestantism? One way of settling that question is through a randomised controlled trial of religion. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released on February 19th reports on an experiment in the Philippines that suggests Weber was onto something.

International Care Ministries (ICM), an evangelical charity, tries to...

A banking centre seeks to reinvent itself

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

ON A clear day, sunset over Lake Zug is magnificent. Snow-dusted mountains cut through the orange glow above and are mirrored in the lake below. “Zug is our spiritual home,” says Jeremy Epstein, from Washington, DC, who has just taken 40 foreigners to tour the small Swiss town south of Zurich. They came not for sunsets, though, but to find out how Zug has become known as “crypto-valley”—meaning the home of many firms dealing in crypto-currencies and related activities.

Switzerland’s famous banking secrecy is falling to a global assault on money-laundering and tax evasion. But financial security remains in demand. The country should seek to become the “crypto-nation”, said the economy minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, last month. Zug aims to be the capital of that nation.

To that end, Switzerland is maintaining loose rules for crypto-businesses, even as other countries are tightening theirs. An industry is developing to store tangible crypto-assets, such as the hard drives on...

Economists cannot avoid making value judgments

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

AMID the name-calling and bluster that mar many fights between economists are a few common tactics. Belligerents may attack the theory used to support a claim, or the data analysis used to quantify an effect. During the debate over President Donald Trump’s tax bill, to take a recent example, economists bickered over which side had more credibly calculated the economic effect. They did not, for the most part, argue about whether it was morally acceptable to pass a regressive tax reform after years of wage stagnation and rising inequality. To do so would strike many economists as entirely un-economist-like. Yet economics has not always been so shy about moral philosophy. As well as “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith wrote a Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Great 20th-century economists like Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow also took questions of values very seriously. Their successors would do well to take several pages from their books.

Modern economists have attempted to...

The long-term returns from collectibles

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

BONDS, shares and Treasury bills are all very well, but in the end they are just pieces of paper. They are not assets you can hang on the wall or display to admiring neighbours. Many rich people like to invest their wealth in more tangible form; property, of course, but also collectibles such as art, fine wine and classic cars.

Is that wise? Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) have run the numbers for their annual analysis of the financial markets in the Credit Suisse global investment-returns yearbook. Some of these assets have done rather better than others (see chart). Fine wine delivered the best returns; surprising to cynics who might assume that, in the long run, the value of wine vanishes as it turns into vinegar. Really old wine often has historical resonance. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1787 was sold for $156,450 in 1985 because it was thought to belong to Thomas Jefferson.

Estimating the returns from these assets,...

OPEC mulls a long-term alliance with Russia to keep oil prices stable

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

OIL bears beware. On February 20thSuhail al-Mazrouei, OPEC’s rotating president and energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the 14-member producers’ group is working on a plan for a formal alliance with ten other petrostates, including Russia, aimed at propping up oil prices for the foreseeable future. If it comes to anything, it could be OPEC’s most ambitious venture in decades.

The result will not be, he insists, a “supergroup”. The notion of Saudi Arabia and Russia joining forces as the Traveling Wilburys of the oil world may be a bit jarring. It remains an idea in “draft” form. But whatever its chances, it attempts to shift a belief widely held by participants in oil markets: that non-American oil producers are helpless against the shale revolution.

That belief has strengthened because of a renewed flood of American shale production in the latter part of 2017 after prices of West Texas Intermediate climbed above $50 a barrel. The International Energy Agency (IEA...

Donald Trump mulls restrictions on steel and aluminium imports

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

TEN months ago the Trump administration took aim at steel and aluminium imports, giving itself a year to decide whether they threatened national security and, if so, what to do about it. On February 16th it concluded that America is indeed under threat. The president has until mid-April to choose whether to respond.

The reports handed to Donald Trump by the Department of Commerce, which led the investigations, describe America as effectively under siege. Its steel industry might struggle to respond to a crisis similar to the second world war, they fret, as foreigners are filling a third of American demand for steel, even as 28% of national capacity lies idle. The share of primary aluminium (the kind smelted from ore, rather than recycled metal) that is imported is 91%, and 61% of local smelting capacity lies cold. Doubters can point out that the Department of Defence requires a tiny slice of American steel supply, and that America’s largest supplier for both metals, Canada, is an ally (see...

Japan’s central bank chooses continuity over tradition

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

GOVERNORS of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) tend not to linger long in their post. Twenty-two people have headed the institution since 1914, compared with 16 at the Federal Reserve and 12 at the Bank of England. The last time a BoJ governor won a second term was 1961, when Japan’s economy was growing by over 11% and inflation was over 5%. As Richard Werner, the author of “Princes of the Yen”, a history of the central bank’s failures, points out, by tradition the job alternates every five years between a candidate backed by the finance ministry and a “true-born” BoJ insider.

This tradition will be broken by the reappointment of Haruhiko Kuroda, who was nominated for a second term on February 16th. If he completes it, he will become the longest-serving governor in the BoJ’s history.

With luck that might be long enough for him to reach the central bank’s elusive inflation target of 2%, a goal set five years ago which he had hoped to meet by 2015. Although the BoJ has bought...

Changing the guard at HSBC

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

YOU spend 38 years at a mighty global bank, the last seven as chief executive. As boss you clean up a stinking mess, the legacy of ill-conceived acquisitions and shoddy practice. You shell out billions in fines and legal costs. You shed businesses and cut jobs by a quarter. You build a solid capital base. You maintain dividends. On your last day, you announce decent results, with revenue growing after five years of shrinkage and profits up nicely. The market’s parting gift to you? The share price falls by 3%.

Analysts had expected better from Stuart Gulliver’s final report as boss of Britain’s HSBC, the world’s seventh-biggest bank by assets, on February 20th. They were surprised by charges for impaired loans to two companies, thought to be Carillion, a failed British contractor, and Steinhoff, a troubled South African retailer, and miffed that HSBC put off buying back more shares. That, the bank said, must wait until it has raised $5bn-7bn of “additional tier-1” capital (debt...

Protestantism might be good for the wallet, after all

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:47

Spirit and flesh

CAN religion make people wealthier? In 1905 Max Weber, a German sociologist, argued that it had happened in Europe. Protestants did not invent capitalism in the 16th century, he suggested. But, by discarding monastic asceticism and embracing the notion that diligence and self-improvement are pleasing to God, they became particularly good at it.

Weber’s idea is unfashionable these days, partly because so many non-Protestant countries have become rich and partly because of a cause-and-effect problem. Were Protestants truly better at business, or were ambitious, business-minded people drawn to Protestantism? One way of settling that question is through a randomised controlled trial of religion. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released on February 19th reports on an experiment in the Philippines that suggests Weber was onto something.

International Care Ministries (ICM), an evangelical charity, tries to...

Latvia’s top banking official is accused of demanding bribes

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 17:55

ILMARS RIMSEVICS, for 17 years the governor of Latvia’s central bank, had been due to retire next year. Instead, he is facing calls to resign. On February 17th Latvia’s anti-corruption authority detained him on suspicion of demanding bribes of at least €100,000 ($123,000). That sparked international concern. Mr Rimsevics is a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank (ECB) and privy to the most sensitive monetary-policy decisions.

The prime minister, Maris Kucinskis, says the allegations are so serious that Mr Rimsevics must stand down. But he is staying put. Released on bail on February 19th, the central bank chief says the allegations are a set-up to punish him for cracking down on lax practices. He also says he has received death threats. 

Latvia’s outsized and ill-regulated offshore banking industry has been a headache since the country regained independence in 1991. During the global financial crisis ten years ago, Parex Bank, the largest...

Latvia’s top banking official is accused of demanding bribes

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 17:55

ILMARS RIMSEVICS, for 17 years the governor of Latvia’s central bank, had been due to retire next year. Instead, he is facing calls to resign. On February 17th Latvia’s anti-corruption authority detained him on suspicion of demanding bribes of at least €100,000 ($123,000). That sparked international concern. Mr Rimsevics is a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank (ECB) and privy to the most sensitive monetary-policy decisions.

The prime minister, Maris Kucinskis, says the allegations are so serious that Mr Rimsevics must stand down. But he is staying put. Released on bail on February 19th, the central bank chief says the allegations are a set-up to punish him for cracking down on lax practices. He also says he has received death threats. 

Latvia’s outsized and ill-regulated offshore banking industry has been a headache since the country regained independence in 1991. During the global financial crisis ten years ago, Parex Bank, the...

Men and women in economics have different opinions

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

MEN may hail from Mars and women from Venus. But economists, surely, inhabit planet Earth, surveying it dispassionately. Alas, a new paper suggests that even dismal scientists divide on gender lines. Ann Mari May and Mary McGarvey of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and David Kucera of the International Labour Organisation surveyed economists from 18 European countries, and found that differences in the wider population can survive even an economics education. Male economists are more likely than female ones to prefer market solutions to government intervention, are more sceptical of environmental protection, and are (slightly) less keen on redistribution (see chart).

A similar study of American economists by Ms May and others also found men more sceptical of government regulation, more comfortable with drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and more likely to believe that a higher minimum wage would cause unemployment. Women were 14 percentage points less likely to agree that Walmart...

India’s state-owned banks endure a string of bad news

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

Spot the $1.8bn

OF LATE Indian bankers have felt an unfamiliar sensation: optimism. A 1.3trn-rupees ($21bn) bail-out from the government seemed to have cleaned up the bad lending decisions of years gone by. A new bankruptcy law gave them an edge in long-standing battles with recalcitrant borrowers. It seemed a few Indian companies, having for years eschewed fresh investment, might even start borrowing again.

This week woes linked to mismanagement at India’s three biggest partially state-owned lenders plunged the bankers back to their habitual gloom. On February 14th Punjab National Bank (PNB) announced it was investigating a fraud worth 114bn rupees, equivalent to about a third of its market capitalisation. A few days earlier the State Bank of India (SBI) unveiled its first quarterly loss since 1999. And Bank of Baroda has hastily announced the closure of its South African operation, accused of having shady business associations there.

The Punjab heist...

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