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Updated: 1 hour 57 min ago

Of Indian banknotes cancelled last year, 99% are accounted for

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:51

ON NOVEMBER 8th 2016, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stunned its 1.3bn people by announcing that most banknotes would soon become worthless. Indians then queued for weeks on end to exchange or deposit their banned money at banks. The comfort for the poor was that the greedy, tax-dodging rich would suffer more, as they struggled to launder their suitcases full of cash by year-end.

Not so. A report from the central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), on August 30th suggests that of the 15.4trn rupees ($241bn) withdrawn—roughly 86% of all banknotes by value—15.3trn rupees, or 99% of them, have been accounted for. Either the “black money” never existed or, more likely, the hoarders found a way of making it legitimate.

Defenders of the scheme say it is merely one plank of a wider fight against informal economic activity and corruption. Banks have enjoyed an influx of cash. Digital payments are up (from a low base), as issuance of replacement notes has not caught...

Foreign jurisdictions try to lure legal business from London

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:51

National treasures

LOFTILY as they may disdain the profit motive, Britain’s judges are, on a national level, money-spinners. English law is often specified as the one under which commercial contracts are to be interpreted and enforced. And disputes often end up being heard in British courts. But, like any business, the law is competitive, and other jurisdictions want to snatch a share of this market. London is mounting its defences.

It has several hard-to-beat advantages: the use of English; a reputation for fairness; the centuries of precedent that lend predictability. Richard Caird, a partner at Dentons, a global law firm, notes that a foreign company can expect an impartial decision in an English court, even if it is pitted against a British firm. Over 70% of cases in the English commercial courts involve a foreign party. In 2015, Britain had a £3.4bn ($5.2bn) positive balance of payments on legal services.

One way for other financial...

On NAFTA, Donald Trump’s most dangerous opponents are at home

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:51

EVER game for a fight, President Donald Trump is picking one again with Canada and Mexico, America’s partners in the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On August 27th he tweeted that both were being “very difficult”, adding: “May have to terminate?” His strategy, of getting a better deal by threatening to pull out altogether, is odd. It worsens relations with America’s negotiating partners, at a time when Mr Trump’s plans face just as much opposition at home.

Before April American business was quietly hoping that a Trump presidency would lead to more tax cuts than trade tensions. That changed when news leaked that Mr Trump was poised to withdraw from NAFTA. Suddenly the deal had louder champions in American business, including the energy and technology industries.

Knowing this, Canada and Mexico seem unruffled by Mr Trump’s latest threats as they go into the second round of NAFTA renegotiations on September 1st. Earlier ones prompted panicky phone calls from...

Market concentration can benefit consumers, but needs scrutiny

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:51

WHEN Amazon announced in June that it would buy Whole Foods, an upmarket grocer, for $13.7bn, other firms shuddered. The spread of Amazonian tentacles is worrying to those wary of concentrated corporate power. But shoppers entering their local Whole Foods these days find oddly low prices alongside the new stacks of Echoes, Amazon’s voice-activated digital helpmate. This raises a question. Is Amazon hellbent on building a world-straddling monopoly, or merely injecting innovation and competition into yet another new market? For antitrust regulators, the welfare of the consumer is the priority. Yet working out how to protect it is harder than ever.

Competitiveness in most industries is a matter of degree. In the idealised marketplace of economics textbooks, the price people pay for goods equals the cost of producing an additional unit. Any higher, the theory goes, a competitor could cut the price a smidgen, sell another unit and profit. Yet outside commodity markets, most firms can...

Analysts struggle to make accurate long-term market forecasts

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:51

WHAT is the right way to invest for the long term? Too many people rely on past performance, picking fund managers with a “hot” reputation or backing those asset classes that have recently done well. Just as fund managers cannot be relied on to be consistent, returns from asset classes are highly variable. The higher the initial valuation of the asset, the lower the future returns are likely to be.

That is pretty clear with government bonds. Anyone buying a bond with a yield of 2% and holding it until maturity can expect, at best, that level of return (before inflation) and no more. (There is a small chance the government might default.) With equities, the calculations are not quite so hard-and-fast. Nevertheless, it is a good rule-of-thumb that buying shares with a low dividend yield, or on a high multiple of profits, is likely to lead to lower-than-normal returns.

So a sensible approach to long-term investing would assess the potential returns from asset classes, given...

The gap between India’s richer and poorer states is widening

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 15:01

COUNTRIES find it easier to get rich once their neighbours already are. East Asia’s growth pattern has for decades been likened to a skein of geese, from Japan at the vanguard to laggards such as Myanmar at the rear. The same pattern can often be seen within big countries. Over the past decade, for example, China’s poorer provinces have grown faster than their wealthier peers. India is different. Far from converging, its states are getting ever more unequal. A recent shake-up in the tax system might even make matters worse.

Bar a few Mumbai penthouses and Bangalore startup offices, all parts of India are relatively poor by global standards. Taken together, its 1.3bn people make up roughly the third and fourth decile of the world’s population, with an income per person (adjusted for purchasing power) of $6,600 dollars. But that average conceals a vast gap. In Kerala, a southern state, the average resident has an annual income per person of $9,300, higher than Ukraine, and...

The gap between India’s richer and poorer states is widening

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 15:01

COUNTRIES find it easier to get rich once their neighbours already are. East Asia’s growth pattern has for decades been likened to a skein of geese, from Japan at the vanguard to laggards such as Myanmar at the rear. The same pattern can often be seen within big countries. Over the past decade, for example, China’s poorer provinces have grown faster than their wealthier peers. India is different. Far from converging, its states are getting ever more unequal. A recent shake-up in the tax system might even make matters worse.

Bar a few Mumbai penthouses and Bangalore startup offices, all parts of India are relatively poor by global standards. Taken together, its 1.3bn people make up roughly the third and fourth decile of the world’s population, with an income per person (adjusted for purchasing power) of $6,600 dollars. But that average conceals a vast gap. In Kerala, a southern state, the average resident has an annual income per person of $9,300, higher than Ukraine, and...

Does ageing explain America’s disappointing wage growth?

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

WHEN America’s unemployment was last as low as it has been recently, in early 2007, wages were growing by about 3.5% a year. Today wage growth seems stuck at about 2.5%. This puzzles economists. Some say the labour market is less healthy than the jobless rate suggests; others point to weak productivity growth or low inflation expectations. The latest idea is to blame retiring baby-boomers.

The thinking goes as follows. The average worker gains skills and seniority, and hence higher pay, over time. When he retires, his high-paying job will vanish unless a similarly-seasoned worker is waiting in the wings. A flurry of retirements could therefore put downward pressure on average wages, however well the economy does. The first baby-boomers began to hit retirement age around 2007, just as the financial crisis started. And since 2010, the first full year of the recovery, the number of middle-aged workers has shrunk considerably. They have been replaced partly by lower-earning youngsters (see...

The “free” economy comes at a cost

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

FACEBOOK, whose users visit for an average of 50 minutes a day, promises members: “It’s free and always will be.” It certainly sounds like a steal. But it is only one of the bargains that apparently litter the internet: YouTube watchers devour 1bn hours of videos every day, for instance. These free lunches do come at a cost; the problem is calculating how much it is. Because consumers do not pay for many digital services in cash, beyond the cost of an internet connection, economists cannot treat these exchanges like normal transactions. The economics of free are different.

Unlike conventional merchants, companies like Facebook and Google have their users themselves produce value. Information and pictures uploaded to social networks draw others to the site. Online searches, selections and “likes” teach algorithms what people want. (Now you’ve bought “The Communist Manifesto”, how about a copy of “Das Kapital”?)

The prevalence of free services is partly a result of...

Islamic banking grows in Bangladesh, no thanks to the authorities

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

Cash is still king

IN MOTIJHEEL, the main business district in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, an iron fence and terrible traffic divide two branches of the country’s oldest private bank—a “conventional” one and an Islamic one. Abdus Sattar, manager of the Islamic one, says that when he joined AB Bank, in 2005, his was “a loser branch”. Today, like most Islamic banks in the country, it is more profitable and better run than its conventional peers. Islamic banking’s future in the country, however, remains murky.

Bangladesh has eight full-fledged Islamic banks; a handful of orthodox banks, like AB, also offer Islamic-banking services alongside others. Islami Bank Bangladesh, founded in 1983 by Saudi and Kuwaiti investors, commands 90% of Islamic-banking assets and deposits. It is also the biggest private lender overall, with 14,000 staff, 12m depositors and a balance-sheet of $10bn. Its success was built on the “two Rs”: remittances and ready-made...

Private-equity returns can be replicated with public shares

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

IT IS hard for individual investors to match the returns achieved by private-equity funds. But what if their success in outperforming the public markets could be tracked and replicated? A few pioneering firms claim to have done just that. DSC Quantitative Group, a Chicago-based fund, and State Street, an asset manager, both offer “investable” indices, launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, that allow investors to mimic the performance of American private equity.

Both firms needed a measure of the industry’s returns. DSC teamed up with Thomson Reuters, a data firm, to compile an index; State Street had been making one since 2004, using data it gleans as a custodian of private-equity assets.

They then match the private-equity risk-and-return profile with a basket of public assets. DSC’s index first matches the sector weights of the private portfolio with equivalent public companies, and adds a modest amount of debt (around 25%) unevenly across the sectors—all using...

How the shape of global banking has turned upside down

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

IN THE 1980s, when Citicorp was America’s largest bank and pursuing every avenue for international expansion, John Reed, the bank’s boss, would muse about moving its headquarters to a neutral location, notably the moon. Such sentiments are inconceivable today. Jamie Dimon, boss of JPMorgan Chase, Citi’s successor atop the league tables, recently said he is an American “patriot” first, head of a bank second. His strategy, though hardly shunning international markets, reflects this.

Mr Dimon turned down several big foreign acquisitions before and during the financial crisis. His stellar reputation may rest as much on those undone deals as on those completed. Citi, meanwhile, has been lopping off foreign affiliates. It has retail operations in just 19 countries, down from 50 in 2007. Further contraction may be in the offing. Bank of America has long chosen to live down to its name, as an almost entirely domestic bank.

The same process is under way in western Europe. Visible...

Financial-market index-makers are growing in power

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

IT WAS in 1896 that Charles Dow, co-founder of Dow Jones & Company, created the index that still bears his name. Today, indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 (for shares listed in New York), or the FTSE 100 (for London), are among the best-known brands in financial markets. The role they play has expanded massively in recent years. Index-makers have become finance’s new kingmakers: arbiters of how investors should allocate their money.

Stockmarket indices were devised as a measure of the overall market, against which those trading in shares could compare their performance. At first they were concocted by the press or by exchanges themselves. For bonds, indices were compiled by the banks that traded them. Except for a few of the very earliest indices, such as the Dow, which is weighted by share price, nearly all are weighted by market capitalisation or, in the case of bond indices, by the volume of debt outstanding.

Three large firms—...

Are men more irrationally exuberant than women?

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 14:45

Tiger investor?

WOULD more women on the trading floor inject a dose of sanity into the world’s financial markets? This question gained prominence after the 2007-08 crisis. As Christine Lagarde, then France’s finance minister and now head of the IMF, quipped, had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, history would have been different. Many studies support this idea, showing that testosterone-laden men are prone to overconfidence in trading. Women are more cautious.

But things may not be so simple. Previous research has mostly used evidence from the West. To test if the conclusions apply universally, Wang Jianxin of China’s Central South University, Daniel Houser of George Mason University and Xu Hui of Beijing Normal University looked at both America and China. And they found that in China’s markets, women can be just as manic as men.

The economists arranged for 342 students to form experimental markets. They were allocated dividend-paying...

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