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Updated: 44 min 58 sec ago

Mini-grids could be a boon to poor people in Africa and Asia

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

A FORESTED village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid. Drive past a police checkpoint a few miles away and you are in territory loyal to “the guys”, a euphemism for Maoist guerrillas. That makes Narotoli more marginalised than most places. A few months ago it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

Two years before the grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network. Mini-grids are different from the rooftop solar panels and batteries (sometimes linked up in “micro-grids”)...

Donald Trump insists on trade reciprocity. But what kind?

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

IN THE sixth episode of “The Apprentice”, a reality-television show first broadcast in 2004, Donald Trump, as always, fired a contestant vying for a job in his company. She was, he said, the worst negotiator. And she had failed to fight back when belittled by her teammate. The episode was entitled “Tit For Tat”.

That same principle of reciprocity guides Mr Trump’s trade policy as president. And it is animating his tariff war with China. On July 6th America imposed 25% duties on Chinese imports worth about $34bn. (Another $16bn-worth will be hit in due course.) China responded by slapping tariffs on a similar amount of American goods (including a cargo of soyabeans aboard the Peak Pegasus that arrived at the port of Dalian mere hours later).

The two sides disagree, however, about which is tit and which tat. China believes it is responding dollar-for-dollar to American aggression. But America too believes it is retaliating: punishing China for trade and...

Development-impact bonds are costly, cumbersome—and good

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

IF A girl in a poor country goes to school, she will probably have a more comfortable life than if she stays at home. She will be less likely to marry while still a child, and therefore less likely to die in childbirth. So, not surprisingly, there is an Indian charity that tries to get girls into school and ensure they learn something, and there are Western philanthropists willing to pay for its work. What is noteworthy is how they have gone about this transaction.

On July 13th the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, presents the results of the world’s first large development-impact bond, which paid for girls’ education in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. In this novel way of funding charitable work, a financial institution gives money to a charity, which tries to achieve various specified outcomes. If a neutral arbiter rules that it has succeeded, a donor or philanthropist repays the investor, plus a bonus. If it fails, the investor loses some or all of its money.

This...

Why the euro zone hasn’t seen more cross-border bank mergers

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

MERGERS of euro-area banks from different countries, a banker jokes, are “very much like teenage sex. There’s a lot of talk, but little action. And when it does happen, there’s a lot of disappointment.” In recent months gossip has linked each of France’s three biggest banks (BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole and Société Générale), as well as UniCredit, Italy’s largest, with Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest listed bank. Lately chatter has connected UniCredit and Société Générale. But no big, cross-border takeover is imminent.

A stream of deals in the 2000s—notably UniCredit’s purchase of HypoVereinsbank, another leading German lender, in 2005—has slowed to a trickle (see chart, top panel). Policymakers at both the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) would like the flow to revive. The euro area’s banking markets are still essentially national ones. “European banking remains as fragmented today as it was in 2012,” notes Magdalena Stoklosa of Morgan Stanley. Domestic...

Is North Korea the next Vietnam? Don’t count on it

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

AS AMERICA presses North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, it has pointed to Vietnam as an example of the prosperity that awaits the isolated state. “It can be your miracle in North Korea as well,” Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said on July 8th, on a visit to Hanoi. It is not the first time Vietnam has been held up as a model for North Korea. Over the years, officials from the two countries have discussed lessons from Vietnam’s reforms. North Korea sees Vietnam as less threatening than China and more of a peer, making it a more welcome mentor. But North Korea’s economic path is likely to be more fraught.

Yes, there are similarities. Like North Korea’s economy today, Vietnam’s used to be largely collectivised. The Vietnamese Communist party’s ability to retain power at the same time as freeing markets must appeal to Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, who has vowed to improve his country’s economy. In 1985, on the eve of Vietnam’s doi moi liberalising...

Even stockmarket bulls are more cautious than at the start of the year

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 14:48

BEARS sound clever; bulls make money. This piece of financial acumen, imparted by a trader to a colleague, is hard to beat for brevity. It also makes a good point. There is something about market pessimism that endows bears with an aura of wisdom that is not always deserved. The cautious sound clever because they appear to have weighed the odds. Optimists seem heedless by comparison. Yet it is only by taking on risk that investors can hope to make money.

So it is telling that even bulls are now sounding cautious. The economy and stockmarket in America have had a good run, after all. The expansion, which started in 2009, is now the second-longest on record. Unemployment is low. The Federal Reserve is hawkish. This mix tends to kill a bull market sooner rather than later. The question is how much further stocks can rise. Is there still time for bulls to make money? Or will being a bear save you money as well as make you sound clever?

In this debate, each side has a distinctive way of...

Investors are gorging on American assets

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 09:18

ECONOMISTS think prices, like spilt ketchup, are sticky. They move only slowly as firms digest economic conditions. Financial markets are an exception. Computerised trading by thousands of participants means prices, especially of currencies, can move in a McFlurry.

Since The Economist last updated the Big Mac index (BMI), our lighthearted guide to currency valuation, burger prices have remained constant in 19 of 44 countries. But every currency has shifted in value (see chart 1). Our index uses a nugget of economic wisdom called purchasing-power parity: currencies should adjust until goods cost the same everywhere. If, once converted into dollars, Big Mac prices vary, one or other currency looks dear. Big movements in exchange rates, without similarly supersized shifts in burger prices, can send a currency up or down the index.

...

The growth of index investing has not made markets less efficient

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

IN THE autumn of 1974 Paul Samuelson, a prominent economist and Nobel prizewinner, issued a challenge. Most stockpickers should go out of business, he argued. Even the best of them could not always beat the market average. But there was a snag. “If this advice to drop dead is good advice, it is obviously not counsel that will be eagerly followed.” An alternative was needed to set an example. Someone should set up a low-cost, low-turnover fund that simply tracked the S&P 500 index of stocks.

The following year Vanguard, then a fledgling firm, took up Samuelson’s challenge and launched an index fund for retail investors. It was not eagerly received. Denounced on Wall Street as “un-American”, the index fund raised a mere $17m in the half-decade after its launch. It has been only in the past two decades that index investing has prospered. Indexed funds have grown around six times faster than those tended by active fund managers who select stocks to buy. Lots of investors now get the average...

China’s statistics are bad. Many criticisms of them are worse

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

“Our people crave, more than anything else, to know the extent of the nation,” says the narrator in “Do You Love Me?”, a short story by Peter Carey set on an imaginary world that lionises cartographers. To satisfy that craving, the country carries out a regular, exhaustive census: a “total inventory of the contents of the nation”. Helpful householders even move their possessions—furniture, appliances, utensils, heirlooms—into the street for easier counting.

China, like many countries, is keen to know its own extent. This year it is preparing its latest economic census, a twice-a-decade undertaking. Like the census in Mr Carey’s fable, it is a “mammoth task”. The most recent one employed 3m people, counted more than 8m enterprises and estimated a GDP of almost 59trn yuan ($9.5trn at the time). This year’s census may find that GDP per person has exceeded $10,000, enough to form a tidy pile of possessions on the street.

But why, many people will ask, does China...

As its trade tussle with America heats up, China is on the back foot

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

FOR months Chinese officials have stuck to the same script: China does not want a trade war, but will win if dragged into one. As hostilities turn more serious, this confident façade has taken a blow. Chinese equities have plunged into bear-market territory. The yuan had its biggest monthly fall against the dollar on record. Economic indicators have weakened. Even bombastic state-run media have turned introspective, counselling against arrogance.

All this, and the tit-for-tat trade battle is only just getting under way. On July 6th, after The Economist went to press, America was due to impose its first major set of tariffs on China: 25% duties on $34bn-worth of imports, notably machinery and electronic parts. China was set to retaliate with tariffs on goods worth the same amount, hitting products from soyabeans to sport-utility vehicles. Both countries have listed more tariffs to follow, on goods worth another $16bn. Both have also warned that they are willing to inflict...

Companies appear to be gaining market power

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

COMPETITION forces companies to keep prices low to attract customers. But if a few firms become powerful enough, they can see off competitors and charge more. A new working paper by Jan De Loecker of the University of Leuven and Jan Eeckhout of University College London presents evidence that this is happening across the rich world.

The researchers examine markups—selling prices divided by production costs. At 1, products are sold at cost; above 1, there is a gross profit. Using the financial statements of 70,000 firms in 134 countries, the authors find average markups rose from 1.1 in 1980 to 1.6 in 2016.

America and Europe saw the biggest increases (see chart). But in many emerging markets markups barely rose. In China they fell. That suggests rich-world firms may have been able to increase markups by outsourcing to cut labour costs. Another possibility is that corporate concentration may have increased because of lax antitrust enforcement or the growing heft of companies benefiting...

Argentina’s currency crisis is far from over

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

Too pricey to drown sorrows

ON A residential street corner in Buenos Aires, Van Koning Market sells imported beers to the city’s well-heeled. Since it opened in June last year costs have soared. The peso has plummeted, meaning wholesale prices have shot up. Inflation is running at 26%; the reduction of government subsidies means the monthly electricity bill has risen from 700 pesos to 4,000 pesos ($142). Already losing customers, Sergio Discenza, the manager, is reluctant to raise prices much. “In a normal country this would be a viable business,” he says. “But here everyone is struggling.”

The year started badly for Argentina when the worst drought in 50 years hit the harvest of maize and soyabeans, both important exports. In May a stronger dollar and higher US Treasury yields prompted international investors to flee risky assets. Most emerging-market currencies suffered, Argentina’s especially. Its twin fiscal and current-account deficits have seen the peso lose...

Central Europe’s Goldilocks economies

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 14:57

THEY evoke metal gorillas in a cavernous, floodlit hall: 640 robots with riveting guns and arms for handling parts. They will spring into action this autumn at the opening of a new plant for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), built at a cost of €1.4bn ($1.6bn) on former farmland in Nitra, in western Slovakia. Cars under construction will travel along 3.9km of elevated maglev track, taking just two days from start to completion. The robots, together with 2,800 human workers, will assemble a Land Rover Discovery every two minutes.

JLR is just the latest carmaker to come to Slovakia. VW arrived 27 years ago, followed by Kia and PSA. The firms together churn out over 1m cars annually, more per head of population than any other country. JLR considered 30 or 40 locations, says Alexander Wortberg, who oversees operations at Nitra. Mexico has cheaper workers and (for now, at least) favourable access to the American market. But Nitra is close to a new motorway and Slovakia has an impressive supply...

The American president is stirring up trouble in a volatile oil market

Wed, 07/04/2018 - 14:33

Losing room for manoeuvre

IT USED to be said that America’s shale producers were the new “swing factor” in global oil markets. It turns out that role is being taken by America’s president.

At a time when oil prices are at three-and-a-half-year highs, markets are being buffeted by three countervailing forces unleashed by President Donald Trump: his geopolitical agenda, particularly sanctions on Iran; his domestic political agenda, to lower American petrol prices before the mid-term elections; and his looming trade war with China. If he does not get his way, he may have a dangerous weapon up his sleeve—America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). His meddling risks making OPEC, the oil cartel that is a focus of his wrath, look like a paragon of predictability.

First, geopolitics. Despite an agreement late last month by Saudi-led OPEC and Russia to increase output by up to 1m barrels a day (b/d), the price of Brent crude, a benchmark, has risen to above $77 a barrel. The proximate cause this week was a brace of supply outages in Libya and Venezuela, both of which are in upheaval. But adding fuel to the price rally is the Trump administration’s pressure on America’s allies to cut oil imports from Iran to zero by November 4th, or risk punishment for violating American sanctions. This is more...

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