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The high economic costs of India’s demonetisation

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

MOST economists might hazard a guess that voiding the bulk of a country’s currency overnight would dent its immediate growth prospects. On November 8th India took this abstruse thought experiment into the real world, scrapping two banknotes which made up 86% of all rupees in circulation. Predictably, the economy appears indeed to have been hobbled by the sudden “demonetisation”. Evidence of the measure’s costs is mounting, while the benefits look ever more uncertain.

At least the new year has brought a semblance of monetary normality. For seven weeks queues had snaked around banks, the main way for Indians to exchange their old notes for new ones or deposit them in their accounts. That is over, largely because the window to exchange money closed on December 30th. The number of fresh notes that can be withdrawn from ATMs or bank counters is still curtailed, but the acute cash shortage is abating, at least in big cities.

As data trickle through, so is evidence of the economic price paid for demonetisation. Consumers, companies and investors all wobbled in late 2016. Fast-moving consumer goods, usually a reliable growth sector, retrenched by 1-1...

When stars die, insurers count the cost

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

Carrie trade

THE death of Carrie Fisher, a much-loved actor in the “Star Wars” movies, left a hole in the force for fans. It may also burn a hole in the pockets of underwriters, syndicated under Lloyds of London. They may have to fork out as much as $50m to meet Disney’s claim for its loss. The studio, which owns the sci-fi saga, had wisely taken out so-called contractual-protection insurance (CPI) in case death thwarted a contractual obligation: in Ms Fisher’s case to film and promote future “Star Wars” episodes.

Contrary to the headlines, 2016 was not an especially lethal year to be a celebrity. Like the rest of us, they do die. But unlike most of us, their employers can be left with astronomic bills. When Paul Walker, an actor in “The Fast and the Furious”, a series of action movies, died in 2013 while filming the seventh instalment, Universal Pictures had to spend considerable effort (and dollars) to make his on-screen persona live on. This included hiring body-doubles and digitally inserting Mr Walker into the movie with hundreds of computer-generated images.

Most workers are easier to replace....

Anthony Atkinson, a British economist and expert on inequality, died on January 1st

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

“TIME is of the essence,” wrote Sir Anthony Atkinson, a British economist, in a report on measuring global poverty, published in July 2016. His sense of urgency may have been influenced by another constraint. In 2014 Sir Anthony had been diagnosed with incurable cancer. Some might have paused; he sped up. He chaired the World Bank commission that produced the poverty report, and wrote a book, “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”, in just three months. On January 1st, his time ran out.

In his lifetime, he was tipped for a Nobel prize. On his death, fellow economists rushed to describe him as “one of the all-time greats” and emphasised his extraordinary “decency, humanity and integrity”. The two were linked. For him, economics was about improving people’s lives.

A six-month stint volunteering as a nurse in a hospital in deprived inner-city Hamburg was an early influence. He saw poverty, and went on to spend his life combating it. He fought his battles gently—shying away from the adversarial style he experienced as a student at Cambridge—but with rigorous precision and an unfailing sense of social justice.

As economists fell in...

“Open outcry” is in retreat but futures and options trading-volumes surge

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

Nothing to outcry about

AS A new trading year began this week in the art-deco tower that houses the Chicago Board of Trade, big men were clustered around pits dealing in futures and options tied to various commodities. Their approach dates back to the building’s opening in 1930, and was once familiar in cities throughout America. But after decades of attrition, on December 30th the CME Group (named after the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) closed the “open outcry” trading pits that it operated in New York. In America, Chicago’s hue and cry has become unique.

Even this exchange is a shadow of its former self. There are now nine pits, down from 32 in 2007. A once teeming trading floor was closed in 2015. Most activity in the contracts still traded in the pits is electronic. No one in the surviving CME pits in Chicago seems worried by the New York closures. But they have a symbolic impact. The markets have long been a colourful, fractious component of America’s financial architecture.

They have always lured the ambitious. Two alumni of New York’s commodity markets have joined the Trump administration. Gary Cohn...

2016 may have been an economic as well as political turning-point

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

THANKS to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, 2016 is widely viewed as a political turning-point. But it may also come to be seen as an economic turning-point, marking the third big change of direction since the second world war.

The post-war period from 1945 to 1973 was the era of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and capital controls. It was a time of rapid economic growth in the rich world as countries rebuilt themselves after the war and as the technological innovations of the first half of the 20th century—cars, televisions, and so on—came into widespread use. High taxes reduced inequality; fiscal policy was used to control the economic cycle. It all came crashing down in the early 1970s as the fixed-currency system collapsed, and an oil embargo imposed by Arab producers ushered in stagflation (ie, high unemployment combined with inflation).

By the early 1980s, a new system had emerged. Currencies floated, capital controls were abolished, the financial sector was liberalised, industry was privatised and tax rates on higher incomes were cut. In this system inequality widened again (although...

Supervisors put off finalising reforms to bank-capital rules

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 15:42

SOME banks find existing capital requirements too taxing. To no one’s surprise, on December 23rd Monte dei Paschi di Siena, at present Italy’s fourth-biggest bank, asked the Italian state for help, having failed to raise from the private sector €5bn ($5.2bn) in capital demanded by the European Central Bank before the year’s end. Three days later Monte dei Paschi said that the ECB had redone its sums—and concluded that the stricken lender faced an even bigger shortfall, of €8.8bn.

Plenty of other European banks—in far better nick than poor old Monte dei Paschi, which is overloaded with bad loans—are grumbling that they too may eventually have to find more capital. They have spent years plumping up cushions that the financial crisis showed to be worryingly thin, but fear that proposed adjustments to Basel 3, the latest global standards, will require more. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, which draws up the standards, had hoped to agree on the revisions by the end of 2016. It’s not there yet: on January 3rd an imminent meeting of central-bank governors and supervisors, to approve the changes, was postponed.


The “WTO option” for Brexit is far from straightforward

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 19:35

THE two sides of the Brexit debate do not agree on much, but they agree on this: if Britain fails to reach a trade deal with the EU it will have to revert to the “WTO option”. This involves trading only under rules set by the World Trade Organisation. The Leave camp is happy with this idea; Remainers less so. But the awkward truth is that the WTO option is not much of a fallback. Becoming an independent WTO member will be tortuous.

It is puzzling that Brexiteers, whose campaign was summed up as “Vote Leave, take back control”, seem happy with the WTO option. The WTO is truly global, with only a handful of countries outside it (zealous as they are about sovereignty, Brexiteers do not want to join the ranks of Turkmenistan and Nauru). But forsaking one unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels for another housed in a leafy district of Geneva seems perverse. WTO members are at the mercy of its “dispute-settlement” regime, which allows other countries to enforce penalties.

Inconsistency has its upside. Membership of the WTO appears to be good for trade. Most economists believe Britain’s overall trade will suffer if Britain leaves the single market. But Brexiteers argue that, out of the EU’s clutches, Britain will be the WTO’s star pupil, striking trade deals across the world. China’s explosive export growth after...

Sub-national currencies struggle to survive

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 15:56

Five Bowies make a Winston

TUCKED away in a corner of Brixton, in south London, a rainbow-coloured ATM dispenses cash, looking for all the world like any other. But the notes it spews out are not pounds sterling. They are Brixton pounds (B£). Not to be mistaken for silly Monopoly money, the Brixton pound can actually be spent, legally: the currency, which has a fixed one-for-one exchange rate with sterling, is accepted at over 150 local shops and businesses. It can even be used to pay local taxes.

Launched in 2009, this is one of many such initiatives. Local currencies have been adopted in other towns and cities in Britain, such as Bristol, Exeter and Totnes. Elsewhere, examples include the eusko, used in the French Basques; BerkShares, used in western Massachusetts; and the Ithaca Hour, in Ithaca, New York. Barcelona plans an experiment in 2017.

Such schemes aim to boost spending at local retailers and suppliers, by encouraging the recirculation of money within a community. Because the currency is worthless outside its defined geographic area, holders spend it in the neighbourhood, thus creating a “...

Thomas Schelling, economist and nuclear strategist, died on December 13th, aged 95

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 15:47

WITHIN half an hour of waking up on October 10th 2005, Thomas Schelling received four phone calls. The first was from the secretary of the Nobel Committee, with news that he and Robert Aumann had jointly won that year’s prize for economics. During the fourth call, when asked how winning felt, he answered: “Well, it feels busy.” He was nothing if not truthful. He also confessed to feeling confused about which bit of his work had won the prize.

It might have been his work on addiction—flicked off like ash from his own struggles with smoking. Economists must understand, he wrote, the man who swears “never again to risk orphaning his children with lung cancer”, yet is scouring the streets three hours later for an open shop selling cigarettes. Mr Schelling’s work laid (largely unacknowledged) foundations for future behavioural economists. In his thinking, addicts have two selves, one keen for healthy lungs and another craving a smoke. Self-control strategies involve drawing battle lines between them.

The prize could also have been for his work on segregation, showing how mild individual preferences could lead to extreme group outcomes....

Japanese banks grapple with ultra-low interest rates

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 15:47

BANKS the world over are wrestling with low interest rates. Nowhere have they grappled for longer than in Japan. Although the Bank of Japan (BoJ) introduced negative rates only in January, almost 20 months after the European Central Bank, its rates have been ultra-low for years: they first hit zero in 1999. In its long battle against deflation, it pioneered “quantitative easing”—buying vast amounts of government bonds—which depresses longer-term rates and thus banks’ lending margins. Since September the BoJ has also aimed to keep the ten-year bond yield at around nought, while holding its deposit rate at -0.1%.

Banks have had some relief lately: since Donald Trump’s election in November, the yield curve has steepened slightly—and share prices have leapt—as American interest rates have risen and the yen has tumbled. But on December 20th the BoJ kept policy on hold.

For Japan’s biggest lenders, negative rates are “an irritant, not a catastrophe”, says Brian Waterhouse of CLSA, a broker. Every tenth of a percentage point below zero, he estimates, shaves 5% from the earnings of the three “megabanks”: Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG...

2016 in charts

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 15:47

What not to expect in 2017

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 15:47

IF 2016 was a year of shocks, what will the next 12 months bring? It is time for the annual tradition (dating all the way back to 2015) when this column tries to predict the surprises of the coming year.

By definition, a surprise is something the consensus does not expect. A regular survey of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) points to what most people believe. Following the election of Donald Trump, investors are expecting above-trend economic growth, higher inflation and stronger profits. They have invested heavily in equities and have a much lower-than-normal exposure to bonds.

So it is not too difficult to see how the first surprise might play out. Expectations for the effectiveness of Mr Trump’s fiscal policies are extraordinarily high. But it takes time for such policies to be implemented, and they may be diluted by Congress along the way (especially on public spending). Indeed, it may well be that demography and sluggish productivity make it very hard to push economic growth up to the 3-4% hoped for by the new administration. Neither fiscal nor monetary stimulus has done much to lift Japan out of its...

Do fiscal rules work in emerging markets?

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

FROM its headquarters in Brasília, a sterile, technocratic city, Brazil’s federal government doles out money for health, education, generous pensions and artistic awards, among other things. Over the past two decades, this spending has grown by more than 185% in real terms. Over the next 20 years, its growth will be zero.

That, at least, is the intention of a constitutional amendment passed this week by Brazil’s Senate. The measure, which allows federal spending (excluding interest payments and transfers to states and municipalities) to grow no faster than inflation, is an unusually ambitious example of a fiscal rule: a quantitative limit on budget-making, which lasts beyond a single year and perhaps beyond a single government.

The best known, and least loved, fiscal rule is the euro area’s stability and growth pact. But such rules are also now common among emerging economies. According to the IMF’s latest count, 56 developing countries in 2014 had rules of some kind, including 15, like Brazil, that impose limits on the growth of public spending.

The reasons so many emerging-market governments choose to limit their fiscal...

A cheaper currency does not always boost economic growth

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

IN SEPTEMBER 2010 Brazil’s then-finance minister, Guido Mantega, gave warning that an “international currency war” had broken out. His beef was that in places where it was difficult to drum up domestic spending, the authorities had instead sought to weaken their currencies to make their exports cheaper and imports dearer. The dollar had recently fallen, for instance, because the Federal Reserve was expected to begin a second round of quantitative easing. The losers in this battle were those emerging markets, like Brazil, whose currencies had soared. Its currency, the real, was then trading at around 1.7 to the dollar.

These days a dollar buys 3.4 reais, but no one in Brazil or in other emerging markets with devalued currencies is declaring a belated victory. A cheap currency has not proved to be much of a boon. Indeed new research from Jonathan Kearns and Nikhil Patel, of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), a forum for central banks, finds that at times a rising currency can be a stimulant and a falling currency a depressant. They looked at a sample of 44 economies, half of them emerging markets, to gauge the effect of changes in the exchange rate on exports and imports (the trade channel) and also on the price and availability of credit (the financial channel).

They found a negative relationship between changes in GDP and currency shifts via...

European insurers and the curse of low interest rates

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

INSURANCE is banking’s boring cousin: it lacks the glamour, the sky-high bonuses and the ever-present whiff of danger. So European stress tests for insurers, whose results were due to be published on December 15th after The Economist went to press, have attracted far less attention than those for banks in July. Yet insurance also faces a grave threat, from prolonged low interest rates.

Insurers invest overwhelmingly in bonds, so low interest rates make their lives difficult. The last time the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) conducted an insurance stress test, in 2014, a quarter of participants scored poorly: they would not have met their capital requirements in the test’s long low-interest-rate scenario. The proportion jumped to 44% in an alternative scenario involving an asset-price shock. The new results are unlikely to be better. Each year of low interest rates worsens the problem. Higher-yielding bonds mature and insurers end up with ever more newer ones with low, or even negative, interest rates.

Insurers are focused on the problem. One strategy is to outsource more to...

Venezuela’s lunatic experiment in demonetisation

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

Bum notes

ANYTHING India does, Venezuela can do worse. Last month, in a dramatic effort to curb corruption, India’s government cancelled all its high-denomination banknotes without warning. Since 98% of transactions in India are done in cash, commerce seized up. It is a huge mess, but India will after a while print enough replacement notes. And it has a plausible plan to help its many poor people join the cashless digital economy.

Not so Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro says that the constant shortages of more or less everything in Venezuela are caused by evil speculators. (They are actually caused by his price controls.) Mr Maduro claims that “mafias” in Colombia are stockpiling lorryloads of bolívars, the Venezuelan currency, and sneaking across the border to buy up price-controlled goods. Given Venezuela’s soaring inflation, this seems improbable. “The idea that anybody would want to hoard a currency that has lost 60% of its value in the past two months is absurd,” says David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank.

Nonetheless, on December 11th Mr Maduro announced that the 100-...

Place-based economic policies as a response to populism

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

HOW do you solve a problem like Ohio? Over the course of a generation America’s once-thriving industrial heartland has withered. Economic stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life-expectancy. Frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners pushed Donald Trump to victory in November. That has focused attention on the plight of declining industrial areas in the rich world. Yet orthodox economics has few answers to the problem of regional inequality.

Economists used to think the best policy was often merely to wait. From 1880 to 1980 the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year, according to research by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag of Harvard University. That pattern has since broken down (see chart). Yet the shift of resources and the movement of people from declining places toward thriving ones remains an important part of the process of economic growth. In theory, the gains should be big enough to compensate those harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off. “Governments should not try to rescue failing towns,” The Economist...

The financial markets in an era of deglobalisation

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

FOR more than two decades after the early 1980s, it seemed as if the financial markets were moving in only one direction. More and more money was flowing across borders; capital markets were becoming increasingly integrated.

Since the 2008 financial crisis this particular aspect of globalisation has stalled, and even partly retreated. The reversal is illustrated by the triennial survey of foreign-exchange markets, conducted by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). Daily turnover in April was $5.1trn, down from $5.4trn in April 2013.

That is still a huge number compared with the turn of the century, when daily turnover was around the $1trn mark. But it is a sign that markets are getting a little less frenetic; spot (or instant) currency trading has fallen by 19% in three years.

Other data from the BIS confirm the trend. Cross-border banking claims peaked in the first quarter of 2008 at $34.6trn. By the second quarter of 2010, they had dropped to $27.9trn, and they have never recovered their pre-crisis levels. In the second quarter of this year (the most recent data), claims were $28.3trn. Part of this...

An early salvo in a trade war between America and China?

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

ANNIVERSARIES should be happier than that on December 11th, marking China’s 15 years as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). On that day, China expected to be unshackled from its legal label as a “non-market economy” and attain “market-economy status”. In the event, America and the European Union refused to give it the nod. On December 12th the Chinese reacted: see you in court.

The fight will focus on the wording in the original accession agreement. The Americans and the Chinese are both confident of winning. Legal experts are divided. The WTO does not provide a clear definition of a “market economy”. And clumsy legal drafting does not help.   

The meat of the row is over the method WTO members use to protect their industries against cheap Chinese imports. Alleging that Chinese companies enjoy subsidised credit, energy and raw materials, America and the EU slap anti-dumping duties on 7% (see chart) and 5% respectively of their Chinese imports. The agreement welcoming China into the WTO explicitly gave other members licence to treat it as a non-market economy until December 11th 2016. This...

Italy’s biggest bank unveils a recapitalisation plan

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 15:48

THIS is no time to be timid. Or so Jean-Pierre Mustier seems to think. On December 13th, after five months in the job, the chief executive of UniCredit presented his plan for Italy’s biggest bank. He didn’t hold back. UniCredit is shedding €17.7bn worth ($18.8bn) of bad loans, taking a one-off provision of €8.1bn. It will save €1.7bn a year by 2019, cutting 6,500 jobs on top of 7,500 previously announced to shrink its workforce by 14%. And in a rights issue next year it will raise €13bn—just €2bn less than its market value before the announcement. The markets lapped it up: the shares gained 16%, before retreating the next day.

Mr Mustier had already been busy. The previous day UniCredit sold Pioneer, its asset-management arm, to France’s Amundi (though it will still distribute Pioneer’s products). It recently unloaded its stake in Bank Pekao, in Poland, as well as 30% of Fineco, an Italian online bank of which it will retain control. The bad-debt write-down, restructuring costs and other bits and bobs will partially offset the gains from these sales and the rights issue. But the boss expects UniCredit’s ratio of equity to risk-...