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Finance and economics
Updated: 1 hour 26 min ago

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...

The euro area’s economy loses momentum

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

ECONOMISTS have spent the past decade wringing their hands over the health of the euro area’s economy. Last year, in a welcome respite, it expanded by a robust 2.3%, outstripping forecasts and matching America’s growth rate. But it has appeared less rosy-cheeked since.

Symptoms include moderation in a number of monthly indicators. Industrial production fell in January and February, as did business confidence; retail-sales growth was disappointing. The purchasing managers’ index (PMI), an output survey regarded as a good early indicator of GDP growth, has fallen from exuberant—and perhaps unsustainable—levels at the turn of the year, though it still points to decent growth (see chart).

Germany, the bloc’s largest economy, has not been immune. A summary indicator compiled by the Macroeconomic Policy Institute, a German think-tank, which includes production, sentiment and interest-rate data, suggests that the probability of a recession has risen, from 7% in March to 32% in April. A...

A new NAFTA may be agreed on soon

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

The new NAFTA model has many moving parts

ONE year ago, a member of President Donald Trump’s administration drafted a short executive order to withdraw America from the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade deal with Canada and Mexico. The obvious interpretation was that Mr Trump was irresponsibly bullying the Mexicans and Canadians into giving America better terms. A kinder view held that he was aiming at a domestic audience. Congress was dragging its feet at the time over the confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the president’s chosen trade negotiator. Mr Trump’s threats were a way to kick it into action.

One year on, with Mr Lighthizer long since in place, America’s attitude to NAFTA seems no less hostile. Its threat of withdrawal still hangs over the talks, and in March Mr Trump waved the stick of tariffs on steel and aluminium in case a deal to revise NAFTA could not be reached by May 1st. This tough talk may yield an agreement within the next few...

Many results in microeconomics are shaky

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

MICROECONOMISTS are wrong about specific things, Yoram Bauman, an economist and comedian, likes to say, whereas macroeconomists are wrong in general. Macroeconomists have borne the brunt of public criticism over the past decade, a period marked by financial crisis, soaring unemployment and bitter arguments between the profession’s brightest stars. Yet the vast majority of practising dismal scientists are microeconomists, studying the behaviour of people and firms in individual markets. Their work is influential and touches on all aspects of social policy. But it is no less fraught than the study of the world economy, and should be treated with corresponding caution.

For decades non-economists have attacked the assumptions underlying economic theory: that people are perfectly informed maximisers of their own self-interest, for instance. Although economists are aware that markets fail and humans are not always rational, many of their investigations still rely on neoclassical assumptions as “good...

Technology can tackle investors’ flaws

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

TECHNOLOGY has transformed finance. Consumers bank and buy their insurance policies online. They use technology to manage their pensions and other investment portfolios. But can tech improve returns? Only if it is used wisely.

If it is cheaper to trade, then costs will take a smaller chunk out of long-term returns. Technology also allows fund managers to replicate stockmarket indices, giving investors access to broadly diversified equity portfolios for a fraction of a percentage point in annual fees.

But the ease and cheapness of trading, along with the vast range of options available, create a terrible temptation. Worldwide there are nearly 7,400 exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and related products. These funds are not used only by “buy and hold” investors. Nearly half of the top 20 traded securities on American markets, by value, are ETFs.

Just because you can trade does not mean you should. And just because there is a fund specialising in smaller Vietnamese companies, or...

Donald Trump is sending shockwaves through global commodities markets

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

THE notion that the gentle flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause chaos on the other side of the world is well known. But commodity markets have been tested in recent weeks by what could be called the 800-pound-gorilla effect: the idea that chest-beating in the White House can unleash turmoil in global metals, agricultural and energy markets.

President Donald Trump has slapped sanctions on Russia’s biggest aluminium producer, Rusal, intensified a trade tiff with China and tweeted a gibe against OPEC, the oil-producing cartel. His actions have shaken commodity markets at a time when speculation in futures is near the record heights of 2012, making markets even more volatile (see chart). Aluminium, nickel and palladium prices have soared and then plummeted. Soyabean markets are under threat. Oil prices are at their highest levels for more than three years.

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A market-design economist wins the John Bates Clark medal

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

Parag Pathak penned a pupil-picker paper

BOSTON parents were fed up. To get their children into public schools they had to submit a list of their preferences. Spots were allocated first to those who put a school top. Only then would schools consider pupils who put them second or third. Sounds fair? Hold on. The best schools are popular. Picking them risks rejection. Good schools are sought after, too. If put second they may also fill up, leaving only places at worse schools. Should parents aim for the best and risk mediocrity, or settle for the good?

On April 20th the American Economic Association (AEA) awarded the John Bates Clark medal, given annually to a leading economist under 40, to Parag Pathak of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He researches market design—eg, creating mechanisms to allocate resources without money, such as school places in Boston. Solutions he devised there have been applied widely, from New York to New Orleans. The AEA...

The lapsing of Finland’s universal basic income trial

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 14:50

THE concept of a universal basic income (UBI), an unconditional cash payment to all citizens, has in recent years captured the imagination of a wide spectrum of people, from leftist activists to libertarian Silicon Valley techies. Proponents see a neat solution to poverty and the challenges of automation; detractors argue it would remove the incentive to work. Trials of UBI have been launched, or are about to be, in several countries. Most are publicly funded, although Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup accelerator, is starting a privately funded experiment in America.

Finland was one of the first movers. In January 2017 it began a trial for 2,000 people, each receiving €560 ($680) a month. That drew legions of foreign journalists and camera crews. This week, however, international media attention abruptly centred on the ending of the experiment in December 2018. Headlines suggested that it had been “scrapped” or had “failed”. The truth is more nuanced.

The trial...

Crypto money-laundering

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:33

AS LONG as dirty money has been around, so has money-laundering. Between $800bn and $2trn, or 2-5% of global GDP, is washed annually, estimates the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Criminals have swapped money for precious metals, mis-stated invoices, rinsed cash through casinos or simply strapped it to their bodies and flown to places where banks don’t ask questions. Now they have a new detergent: crypto-currencies.

Such data as there are suggest that crypto-laundering is still a small share of the whole. But crypto-currencies’ attractions—global availability, the speed and irreversibility of transactions and the ability to hide identities—are plain. Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, Europe’s police agency, has estimated that 3-4% of the continent’s annual criminal takings, or £3bn-4bn ($4.2bn-5.6bn), are crypto-laundered. He thinks the problem will get worse. America’s Drug Enforcement Administration believes international gangs are using crypto-currencies more.

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Regulating virtual currencies and ICOs

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:33

THE pattern is familiar. Computer geeks develop technology that threatens to overturn established markets and habits. Regulators then scramble to understand and tame the beast. This is what is happening in the financial world in the wake of an explosion of crypto-currencies. Over the past year the pool of virtual currencies has both deepened, from $30bn to $400bn, and widened, with the spread of “initial coin offerings” (ICOs, a form of fundraising in which investors in young companies are issued with virtual tokens). Hedge funds, students and pensioners have all been caught up in the crypto craze.

This worries authorities, because the crypto-sphere is far from risk-free. Valuations can leap and plunge: after a giddy rise, between December and February the price of bitcoin dropped from nearly $20,000 to less than $7,000. (It is now around $9,000.) Several ICOs have turned out to be scams. Legitimate tokens are in danger of being stolen. Some crypto-currency exchanges have been hacked.

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