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Finance and economics
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Lessons to a columnist’s previous self

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 14:54

IN A British television show, “Doctor Who”, the titular character is able to travel anywhere in time and space in his Tardis police box. Given access to that technology, what useful message would this columnist impart to his previous self, nearly 12 years and 550 columns ago?

The first lesson would be to avoid confusing the economy with the financial markets. If you looked at share prices alone, you might assume the intervening period had been calm; the S&P 500 index is around double its level when this column began in September 2006. But though the markets have long since recovered their sangfroid after the crisis of 2008-09, the trend growth rate of developed economies has never regained its strength. That is a bitter irony given that the crisis originated within the financial sector, bringing to mind a teenager who crashes their parents’ car and leaves them with the bill.

In part, the market’s resilience was owing to the remarkable strength of corporate profits, something else that would not have been obvious 12 years ago. Back then American profits were only just reaching a post-war high, relative to GDP. When they plunged in 2009, it looked like a return to normal. But the pre-crisis levels were rapidly regained and, indeed, surpassed. Explanations for the strength of profits include less competition in some...

Europe must agree a common position to avoid Donald Trump’s tariffs

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 14:54

DIPLOMATS are racking up the air miles, but the prospect of trade war has not receded. Negotiations between American and Chinese representatives in Beijing ended on May 4th without agreement. Indeed, the two sides’ starting positions are so different that a mutually agreeable deal is hard to imagine. Talks will resume next week when Liu He, China’s vice-premier, travels to Washington. Negotiators will need to work quickly. From May 23rd America can impose its first set of tariffs against China, on around $50bn of goods. The Chinese would soon retaliate.

America is edging towards trade conflict not just with an avowed rival but with its closest friends. In March, when President Donald Trump announced plans for tariffs on steel and aluminium, America’s allies were granted temporary exemptions to allow time to negotiate deals. Those exemptions are due to run out on June 1st.

Many countries are already off the hook, having agreed to restrict shipments to America. South...

The world’s biggest Muslim country wants to boost sharia finance

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 14:54

Still pretty interesting

THE Indonesia Stock Exchange greeted its latest listing on May 9th: that of BRIsyariah, the Islamic arm of state-controlled Bank Rakyat Indonesia, the country’s biggest bank by assets. The initial public offering (IPO) of 27% of BRIsyariah’s equity raised around 1.3trn rupiah ($92m). Islam outlaws the payment of interest, the basis of conventional banking. Yet despite being home to an eighth of the world’s Muslims—225m, in a population of 260m—Indonesia’s Islamic banks are tiny. They account for just 5.8% of all banks’ assets. In neighbouring Malaysia, which has been promoting Islamic finance for many years, Islamic banks’ share exceeds 25%.

But Indonesia’s are growing fast. According to the Financial Services Authority (OJK), the industry’s supervisor, last year their assets rose by 19%, against 9.8% for conventional banks. BRIsyariah’s IPO will help tackle what the OJK says is the biggest obstacle to their development: a want of...

Internship

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 14:54

The Economist invites applications for the 2018 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 finance and economics. 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, see www.marjoriedeane.com

A Canadian startup applies machine-learning to corporate bond issuance

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 14:54

WITH the exception of a few governments big enough to run their own auctions, anyone wishing to issue bonds must seek bankers’ help. A hefty fee will buy assistance in calibrating the size, structure and timing of a bond issue, as well as connections to lots of buyers. And once a bank has agreed to underwrite an issue, it bears the risk of failing to get a good price for the bonds. But the process is old-fashioned and inefficient (the head of bond origination at one American bank jokes that “not a lot has changed since 1933”), and the accuracy of the advice is hard to gauge. Overbond, a financial-technology startup in Toronto, wants to change all that.

Investment bankers responsible for bond issuance still operate largely by feel, calling up asset managers to get a sense of demand, rather than by crunching numbers. Rules against insider trading mean they cannot talk directly with their trader colleagues. Data on existing bonds are more abundant. In America, for instance, information on the price,...

Make Bank of America great again

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

IN THE skyscraper that is Bank of America’s New York headquarters, the chief executive, Brian Moynihan, looks relaxed. The bank has just announced record first-quarter earnings. Its return on equity is comfortably in double digits. Its share price has been on a roll. The revival of America’s second-largest bank, he avers, was inevitable. Any dark moments? None, except perhaps when America’s sovereign debt was downgraded in 2011 and all the country’s banks suffered. Early hints at the current prosperity? On his first day in the job, in 2010, he says. Vast losses from bad debt and litigation merely obscured billions of dollars in operating profits. “We just had to get rid of what was dragging us down.”

In fact, this renaissance was anything but predictable. Over little more than half a century Mr Moynihan’s two predecessors, Hugh McColl and Ken Lewis, had transformed the tiny North Carolina National Bank into an institution that could claim a business relationship with half of all American...

Even though more people are doing it, studying is still worthwhile

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

WHICH has provided a better return in recent decades: America’s stockmarket or education? The latter, according to a research review by George Psacharopoulos and Harry Patrinos for the World Bank. The two economists looked at 1,120 studies, across 139 countries, and came up with an annual average “rate of return”—actually a pay premium, the increase in hourly earnings from an extra year of schooling—of 8.8%. The analogy is inexact, but for comparison America’s stockmarket returned an annual 5.6% over the past 50 years.

Their figure excludes social gains, such as lower mortality rates associated with greater education. The premium is higher for girls and for primary education. It is also higher in poor countries, presumably because the smaller the share of educated people, the higher the pay they can command. The same reasoning suggests that the return should have dwindled as educational attainment rose. Instead, it has stayed strong, especially for higher education (see chart)....

Fears that China has hurt innovation in the West are overblown

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

POPULAR concern about free trade with China has focused on the loss of manufacturing jobs in America and Europe. Policymakers have an additional worry: that China’s rise is hurting innovation in the West. This fear is among the small set of issues that unites American Democrats and Republicans. In 2016 Barack Obama’s commerce secretary said that China’s state-driven economy would weaken the world’s innovation ecosystem. Donald Trump’s advisers allege that China makes it harder for foreign firms to invest in innovation by squeezing their returns. Mr Trump’s trade team was expected to raise this complaint, among others, with Chinese officials during talks in Beijing on May 3rd and 4th, as The Economist went to press. There is one problem. Data suggest that competition with China has coincided with more innovation in America, not less.

The relationship between competition and innovation is complex, even before considering trade with China. Economists agree that the right...

European universal banks can succeed. But can Deutsche Bank?

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

AFTER just 18 days as Deutsche Bank’s chief executive, Christian Sewing had two tasks to perform on April 26th. The easy one, inherited from his ousted predecessor, John Cryan, was to report predictably glum first-quarter results. Net profit dropped by 79%, year on year, to only €120m ($147m). Harder was indicating where he might lead Germany’s troubled leading lender. The rough answer is: back towards Europe, and away from any aspiration to be a global investment bank.

Mr Sewing intends to concentrate more on raising finance and managing payments and currencies for big European companies, and less on America and Asia. He plans to cut the small swaps-repurchasing business in America and to focus the buying and selling of shares for hedge funds and other investors on the most profitable clients. By 2021 corporate and investment banking’s share of total revenues will be trimmed to 50%, from 54% last year. As a result, Mr Sewing said, earnings should become more stable.

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Economists focus too little on what people really care about

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

A CYNIC, says one of Oscar Wilde’s characters, is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But, as philosophers have long known, assigning values to things or situations is fraught. Like the cynic, economists often assume that prices are all anyone needs to know. This biases many of their conclusions, and limits their relevance to some of the most serious issues facing humanity.

The problem of value has lurked in the background ever since the dismal science’s origins. Around the time Adam Smith published his “Wealth of Nations”, Jeremy Bentham laid out the basis of a utilitarian approach, in which “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In the late 19th century Alfred Marshall declared the correct focus of economics to be the “attainment and…use of material requisites of well-being”. Or, as his student, Arthur Pigou, put it, “that part of social welfare that can be brought directly or indirectly into relation with...

Transparency is being forced on Britain’s overseas territories

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

Blue-skies regulation

AS BRITAIN’S prime minister between 2010 and 2016, David Cameron championed financial transparency, targeting anonymous shell companies as the getaway cars of tax-evaders and money-launderers. On his watch Britain became the first G20 country to commit to a publicly accessible register of company owners. Mr Cameron tried to make British territories with big offshore financial centres do likewise. The arm-twisting stopped when he stepped down in 2016. But campaigners, led in Parliament by Labour’s Margaret Hodge, vowed to keep going. This week their persistence paid off.

Ms Hodge and Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP, had tabled an amendment to an anti-money-laundering bill, which was designed to force “overseas territories” in the Caribbean and Atlantic, among them the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, to set up public registers, if they had not already done so, by the end of 2020. Faced with defeat in...

A bondholder finds a sneaky way to trigger insurance against default

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

IN 2013 Codere, a Spanish gaming firm, owed money it could not repay. Its bonds were trading at just over half face value. Blackstone, a private-equity firm, offered it a cheap $100m loan. But there was a catch. Blackstone had bought credit derivatives on Codere’s debt that would pay out about €14m ($19m) if Codere missed a bond payment. So Codere delayed a payment by a couple of days to prompt a “technical default”. Blackstone got its payout; Codere got its loan and stayed afloat.

On the satirical “Daily Show”, Jon Stewart, the then host, likened the scheme to the insurance fraud in “Goodfellas”, in which mobsters insure a restaurant before blowing it up. But that missed an important point. Blackstone did not blow Codere up—quite the opposite. As it said at the time, it “provided capital when no one else would, which allowed the company to live and fight another day”. The investors who sold Blackstone credit-derivative contracts had in effect bet that Codere would not go bankrupt....

Japan’s bloated retail banks need to downsize

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:49

SWEEP past the cash machines at the Sumitomo Mitsui bank in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya shopping district and instead enjoy the personal service. Uniformed concierges welcome every customer with a bow. A dozen tellers are watched over by a manager who leaps up to meet elderly patrons. Transactions are concluded with carved signature seals stamped on paper contracts, and another round of bows.

Japan’s high-street banks are not just overstaffed. They are also overbranched. According to the World Bank, high-income countries have on average 17.3 commercial-bank branches per 100,000 adults. Japan has 34.1. If you include branches of the post office, a popular place for people to save, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) reckons the country is the world’s most overbanked.

Retail banks across most rich countries struggled to make money after the financial crisis. But Japan has been close to or in deflation for most of the past two decades. The result, according to a report last year by the BoJ, is “...

Where will the next crisis occur?

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 16:20

INTEREST rates are heading higher and that is likely to put financial markets under strain. Investors and regulators would both dearly love to know where the next crisis will come from. What is the most likely culprit?

Financial crises tend to involve one or more of these three ingredients: excessive borrowing, concentrated bets and a mismatch between assets and liabilities. The crisis of 2008 was so serious because it involved all three—big bets on structured products linked to the housing market, and bank-balance sheets that were both overstretched and dependent on short-term funding. The Asian crisis of the late 1990s was the result of companies borrowing too much in dollars when their revenues were in local currency. The dotcom bubble had less serious consequences than either of these because the concentrated bets were in equities; debt did not play a significant part.

It may seem surprising to assert that the genesis of the next crisis is probably lurking in...

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