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Finance and economics
Updated: 26 min 51 sec ago

In Japan, the move from cash to plastic goes slowly

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

BIC CAMERA, a Japanese electronics retailer, accepts payments in so many ways that the list nearly obscures the till: credit, debit and pre-paid cards; mobile wallets; ApplePay and Alipay; and, in some stores since April, bitcoin too.

Efforts are under way to wean Japan off genkin, or cash. Handling notes and coins is expensive for businesses; many operate on tight margins because a persistent lack of inflation has inhibited price rises. The government reckons more cashless payments could help the economy, too, encouraging people, including a growing number of tourists, to spend more. (And help it collect more tax.) Entrepreneurs think the data that come with cashless methods could promote new business.

Yet cash still dominates. Thank a preponderance of ATMs in ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores), safe cities where people are happy to carry wads of cash, and wariness about handing over personal data. Last year cash accounted for 62% of consumer transactions by...

Jerome Powell is poised to be named chairman of the Fed

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

Heir to the chair?

YOU could forgive Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, for feeling peeved. With unemployment at just 4.2%, and inflation at 1.6%, she is close to achieving the Fed’s two goals of curbing joblessness and pinning price rises at 2%. Ms Yellen is a Democrat appointed by Barack Obama in 2014. The tenures of past three Fed chairs were all extended by presidents from the other party. Yet as we went to press, President Donald Trump was expected to nominate Jerome Powell, a Republican on the Fed’s board, to replace Ms Yellen.

If picked, Mr Powell—also an Obama appointee—would stand out from recent incumbents. He would be the first Fed chairman since William Miller, who left office in 1979, with no formal economics training; and, according to the Washington Post, the richest since the 1940s.

Mr Powell, who is 64, is a lawyer-turned-banker. His first role in Washington was at the Treasury during...

Increasingly, hunting money-launderers is automated

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

KEEN, no doubt, to stay alive, drug traffickers tend to be prompter payers than most. For software firms, this is just one of many clues that may hint at the laundering of ill-gotten money. Anti-money-laundering (AML) software, as it is called, monitors financial transactions and produces lists of the people most likely to be transferring the proceeds of crime.

Spending on this software is soaring. Celent, a research company, estimates that financial firms have spent roughly $825m on it so far this year, up from $675m last year. Technavio, another research firm, reckons the market is even bigger and will grow at more than 11% annually in coming years. This is partly because authorities are increasingly quick to punish institutions that let down their guard. Deutsche Bank, for example, has been hit with fines worth at least $827m this year alone. Governments, eager to appear tough on crime, are urging prosecutors to go after not just institutions, but also their employees.

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As the global economy picks up, inflation is oddly quiescent

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

A FEW years ago, the news about the euro-zone economy was uniformly bad to the point of tedium. These days, it is the humdrum diet of benign data that prompts a yawn. Figures this week show that GDP rose by 0.6% in the three months to the end of September (an annualised rate of 2.4%). The European Commission’s economic-sentiment index rose to its highest level in almost 17 years. Yet when the European Central Bank’s governing council gathered on October 26th, it decided to keep interest rates unchanged, at close to zero, and to extend its bond-buying programme (known as quantitative easing, or QE) for a further nine months.

The central bank said it would slow down the pace of bond purchases each month, to €30bn ($35bn) from January. But Mario Draghi, the bank’s boss, declined to set an end-date for QE. A hefty dose of easy money will be necessary, he argued, until inflation durably converges on the ECB’s target of just below 2%. It shows few signs of doing so, despite the economy’s...

October 30th marked the 70th birthday of the WTO’s precursor

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

Britain signs up

SUPERLATIVES surrounded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) when it was signed on October 30th 1947. A press release heralded it as “the most far-reaching negotiation[s] ever undertaken in the history of world trade.” The Economist grumbled it was “one of the longest and most complicated public documents ever issued—and one of the hardest to comprehend.” The Daily Express, a British newspaper, growled: “The big bad bargain is sealed.”

The agreement’s complexity matched the tangle of global trade affairs. In the preceding decades a thicket of protectionism had strangled commerce and slowed recovery from the Depression of the 1930s. The GATT’s length matched its scope. It included both tariff cuts and promises to forswear new duties. Covering 23 countries responsible for 70% of world trade, it came to embody the rules-based multilateral system.

After 48 years as a...

Asian households binge on debt

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

ONE of the more persistent beliefs about the global economy is that Asians are more frugal than others. Explanations have drawn on culture (the self-discipline of Confucianism), history (memories of privation) and public policy (flimsy social safety-nets forcing people to save). For Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, and other theorists of “Asian values”, thrift was one of them. Whatever the true reason, data long supported the basic claim that Asian households were indeed careful with their cash. But over the past few years consumers across the region have done their best to prove that prudence was perhaps just a passing phase.

Household debt in advanced economies has generally declined as a percentage of GDP since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the Bank for International Settlements. In a number of Asian countries, however, it has been going in the opposite direction (see chart). The biggest increase has been in China, where households have borrowed about $4.5trn over the past decade. But Chinese...

Catalonia and the perils of fiscal redistribution

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

POPULISM is the weapon not just of the downtrodden. As the crisis in Catalonia demonstrates, the rich have economic anxieties of their own. Catalonia has an identity distinct, in important ways, from that of the rest of Spain. But the recent drive for independence has been energised by anger over the flow of fiscal redistribution from rich Catalans to their countrymen: people seen, in parts of the restless north-east, as thankless and lazy as well as alien. Paradoxically, globalisation has inflamed separatism around the world by raising the question Catalans now confront: to whom, exactly, do we owe a sense of social responsibility?

Every country or restive region has its own idiosyncratic history. Yet over the long run national borders are surprisingly malleable. Some circumstances offer better prospects for the small and newly independent than others. The smaller the country, the more easily its government can satisfy its people’s political preferences. A broadly satisfying...

Investors call the end of the government-bond bull market (again)

Thu, 11/02/2017 - 15:51

FOR the umpteenth time in the past decade, a great turning-point has been declared in the government-bond market. Bond yields have risen across the world, including in China, where the yield on the ten-year bond has come close to 4% for the first time since 2014. The ten-year Treasury-bond yield, the most important benchmark, has risen from 2.05% in early September to 2.37%, though that is still below its level of early March (see chart).

Investors have been expecting bond yields to rise for a while. A survey by JPMorgan Chase found that a record 70% of its clients with speculative accounts had “short” positions in Treasury bonds—ie, betting that prices would fall and that yields would rise. Meanwhile a poll of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) in October found that a net 85% thought bonds overvalued. In addition, 82% of the managers expected short-term interest rates to rise over the next 12 months—something that tends to push bond yields higher.

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