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KKR, a private-equity giant, lays out its succession plan

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 14:44

IN MOST four-decade-old firms run by greying co-founders, investors would have long since demanded clarity on succession. But private equity works differently: the industry has been dominated by its pioneers ever since its origins in the 1970s. So an announcement on July 17th about its future leadership by KKR, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, puts it a step ahead of its rivals. Its aim of ensuring that the firm has the right structure in place “for decades to come” is not obviously shared across the industry.

KKR has been run since 1976 by two of its founders, Henry Kravis and George Roberts (both in their early 70s). They are staying on as co-chairmen and co-chief executives but with less of a day-to-day role. Lining up behind them are a pair of 40-somethings, Joe Bae and Scott Nuttall, who will join the board and take the titles of co-president and co-chief operating officer.

Such explicit, public succession planning is unusual. Stephen...

Could bond funds break the market?

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 14:44

GOOD generals know that the next war will be fought with different weapons and tactics from the last. Similarly, financial regulators are right to worry that the next crisis may not resemble the credit crunch of 2007-08.

The last crisis arose from the interaction between the market for mortgage-backed securities and the banking system. As investors became unsure of the banks’ exposure to bad debts, they cut back on their lending to the sector, causing a liquidity squeeze. Since then, central banks have insisted that commercial banks improve their capital ratios to ensure they are less vulnerable.

Might the next crisis originate not in the banking system, but in the bond market? That is the subject of a new paper* from the Bank of England. The worry centres on the “liquidity mismatch” between mutual funds, which offer instant redemption to their clients, and the corporate-bond market, where many securities may be hard to trade in a crisis. The danger is that forced...

The Big Mac index

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 15:21

THIRTY-ONE years ago, The Economist created the Big Mac index as a way of gauging how different currencies stacked up against the dollar. The index is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, the idea that in the long run, exchange rates should adjust so that the price of an identical basket of tradable goods is the same. Our basket contains one item, a Big Mac.

The latest version of the index shows, for example, that a Big Mac costs $5.30 in America, but just ¥380 ($3.36) in Japan. The Japanese yen is thus, by our meaty logic, 37% undervalued against the dollar.


Africa is Islamic banking’s new frontier

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 15:21

IN 2008 Ethiopia’s conservative central bank experimented: it authorised interest-free banking. Interest is prohibited under sharia law, so the move was lauded as a step towards expanding financial services for the country’s large and often poor Muslim minority. But momentum soon stalled. An attempt to launch a fully-fledged Islamic bank foundered. Today most of Ethiopia’s big commercial banks offer a narrow range of Islamic financial products, but to few customers. Islamic finance in Ethiopia was stillborn.

Outside Africa, Islamic finance is in much healthier condition. Between 2007 and 2014, the sector tripled in size (although growth has slowed lately). Total assets are around $1.9trn. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 2% of this, yet it should be especially fertile territory. The continent’s Muslim population is 250m and growing. And according to the World Bank, as many as 350m Africans do not have a bank account.

Several countries are vying to become...

Climate change and inequality

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 15:21

ON JULY 12, the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica disgorged a chunk of ice the size of Delaware, a small state on America’s east coast. America’s government seems unfazed by the possibility that such shifts might one day threaten Delaware itself. Its climate defiance grows not only from the power of its fossil-fuel industry and the scepticism of the Republican party, but also from a sense of insulation from the costs of global warming. This confidence is misplaced. New research indicates not only that climate change will impose heavy costs on the American economy, but also that it will exacerbate inequality.

Calculating the economic effects of climate change is no simple matter. It means working out how a given increase in global temperature affects local weather conditions; how local weather affects things like mortality and crop yields; how those changes add to or subtract from regional GDP; and how thousands of local-level changes in GDP add up nationally or globally. No sweat....

Can the world thrive on 100% renewable energy?

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 15:21

A WIDELY read cover story on the impact of global warming in this week’s New York magazine starts ominously: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” It goes on to predict temperatures in New York hotter than present-day Bahrain, unprecedented droughts wherever today’s food is produced, the release of diseases like bubonic plague hitherto trapped under Siberian ice, and permanent economic collapse. In the face of such apocalyptic predictions, can the world take solace from those who argue that it can move, relatively quickly and painlessly, to 100% renewable energy?

At first glance, the answer to that question looks depressingly obvious. Despite falling costs, wind and solar still produce only 5.5% of the world’s electricity. Hydropower is a much more significant source of renewable energy, but its costs are rising, and investment is falling. Looking more broadly at energy demand, including that for domestic heating, transport and industry, the share of wind...

A new approach to financial regulation

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 15:21

An inspector Quarles

DONALD TRUMP promised to unshackle America’s financial firms from mounds of stultifying regulation and the grip of bureaucrats with little practical experience of capitalism. One way to put that pledge into practice is to appoint officials with business backgrounds and deregulatory agendas. This element of the Trump strategy was on show this week, with a presidential nomination for a critical job at the Federal Reserve and the first public address by the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), another financial regulator.

Buried in the voluminous pages of the Dodd-Frank act, an Obama-era law passed in response to the financial crisis, was the creation of a new supervisory job at the Fed. Thus far, this powerful post has been informally delegated to an existing Fed board member, first Daniel Tarullo and, since his departure, Jerome Powell. That is set to change. Randal Quarles was formally nominated for the job—...

How to kill a corporate zombie

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 14:31

WHAT is the best way to kill a zombie? Fans of Daryl Dixon, a character in “The Walking Dead”, a television series, will know the answer: a crossbow bolt to the brain. Getting rid of corporate zombies, however, is a much more complicated process.

Ageing populations mean that the workforces in developed economies are likely to stagnate, or even shrink, in coming decades. That means almost all the burden of economic growth is likely to fall on productivity improvements. There has been a lot of focus on labour-market flexibility as the key to solving this problem, but the flexibility of the corporate sector may be just as important. Indeed, there is a growing belief that the persistence of zombie firms—companies that keep operating despite a poor financial performance—may explain the weak productivity performance of developed economies in recent years.

An inability to kill off failing companies seems to have two main effects. First, the existence of the zombies drives down the average productivity level of businesses. Second, capital and labour are wrongly allocated to such firms. That stops money and workers shifting to more efficient businesses, making it harder for the latter to compete. In a sense, therefore, the corporate zombies are eating healthy firms.

One definition of a zombie company is a business whose...

Economists argue about minimum wages

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

JUST what is the point of a minimum wage? It seems a straightforward enough question to answer. Minimum wages are designed to protect vulnerable workers who might otherwise lack the bargaining power to command a decent pay package. They are a means to limit severe poverty among those in work.

Yet they also attract opposition from critics who see wage minimums as price controls that discourage firms from hiring as many workers as they otherwise might. For decades, feuding camps of dismal scientists have tussled over whether the good done by minimum wages outweighs the bad. A series of recent minimum-wage increases in America will shine a light on that question and others as well. Indeed, the time may have come for economists to broaden their view of just what a minimum wage is meant to accomplish.

As voter frustration at stagnant pay has grown, politicians on the American left have spotted an opportunity to court popularity by calling for higher minimum wages. Democrats are united behind a demand for a national...

Wanna buy some cash? It will cost you

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

ALMOST anything can be bought and sold online. Even so, sales of ordinary banknotes at a big premium are puzzling. On a newish e-commerce site in Japan called Mercari, ¥10,000 ($90) notes were on sale earlier this year for as much as ¥13,000. So bizarre was the phenomenon that it created a furore, leading the firm to ban such deals in April. A rival site, Yahoo Auctions, soon followed suit. The buyers were not indulging a passion for rare banknotes. They simply wanted the money. In need of emergency finance, and having used up all their bank limits, they resorted to buying cash with their credit cards.

The ban has prompted some crafty work-arounds. “Valuable portraits” of Yukichi Fukuzawa, a thinker revered as a guiding light of Japan’s 19th-century modernisation, have been on sale for as much as ¥15,000. That is a hefty premium to the highest-denominated banknote, ¥10,000, which happens to be adorned with Fukuzawa’s likeness. Or take the bottles of water claiming to...

The City of London prepares for Brexit

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

OVER a year has passed since Britons voted to leave the European Union. More than three months have gone by since Britain gave formal notice to quit. Less than 21 months remain until March 29th 2019, the scheduled date of Brexit. Yet banks, insurers, asset managers and other financial firms that use London as a base from which to serve the entire EU are little wiser than they were on referendum day about what Brexit will entail. They must plan for it nonetheless.

The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), Britain’s financial supervisor, wants to see their contingency plans by July 14th. The European Central Bank (ECB) has also asked the banks it watches to lay out their post-Brexit strategies. This is probably not demanding for big banks, which are in constant touch with their overseers and already operate both in London and elsewhere in the EU. But some smaller lenders, especially, have work to do. “I think it is fair to say that most banks are not where they should be,” said...

Markets worry about central banks

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

IN JANE AUSTEN’S novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, Henry Dashwood’s death plunges his wife and two daughters, Elinor and Marianne, into financial distress, because his heir grants them only a meagre allowance. Bond-market investors have started to worry that something similar is about to happen to them.

Since 2009 central banks have been incredibly supportive of the financial markets—keeping short-term interest rates at historic lows and buying trillions of dollars worth of bonds. But in recent weeks, several of them have been hinting at reducing their largesse.

The Federal Reserve has been slowly pushing up interest rates and has talked about reducing the size of its balance-sheet, by not reinvesting the proceeds of bonds when they mature. There have been suggestions that the Bank of Canada might push up rates when it meets on July 12th. Both Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and Andrew Haldane, its chief economist, have hinted that a rate rise may be on...

The EU proposes pan-European pension products

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

THE story of the European Union is in part that of the steady accretion of power by its central bodies. But until now the politically touchy business of running pensions has, like taxation, been zealously guarded by national governments. No longer: on June 29th the European Commission presented a long-awaited proposal for a pan-European personal-pension product, the snazzily named “Pepp”.

Any attempt to encourage Europeans to make adequate provision for their old age is welcome. The combination of ageing populations, falling birth rates and generous state pensions could leave future generations footing the bill, unless people work for longer. Especially in countries such as Italy and Greece, where the state is the main pension provider, encouraging people to make personal savings for their retirement would be sensible (see this week’s ...

An American payments firm goes online and buys British

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 14:50

Purchasing power

A BIDDING war was briefly but eagerly anticipated. In the end, not a shot was fired. On July 4th the share price of Worldpay, a British payments processor, leapt by 28% after the company said it had received preliminary approaches from JPMorgan Chase, America’s biggest bank, and Vantiv, an American payments firm. The next day Worldpay said it had accepted a cash-and-shares bid from Vantiv, worth £7.7bn ($10bn), giving its shareholders 41% of the combined group. JPMorgan Chase, sniffily explaining that it had considered a bid after an “invitation” from Worldpay, which is a client, declined to proceed. Under Britain’s takeover code that refusal rules out a counter bid for six months. The shares slipped back by nearly 9%.

Vantiv and Worldpay are “merchant acquirers”: companies that have contracts with sellers of goods and services, and licences from credit- and debit-card companies, to accept and process card payments. They also provide...

A new trade deal between the EU and Japan

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 09:48

FREE-TRADE agreements have seemed out of fashion as President Donald Trump has set about scotching some of America’s. But on July 5th Cecilia Malmström, the EU trade commissioner, and Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, announced they had achieved consensus on a Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA). In front of the cameras, they swapped Japanese Daruma dolls, talismans of perseverance and good luck, and, they hope, of a win-win agreement.

The timing of JEEPA was just as carefully co-ordinated. When negotiations started in 2013, it was neither side’s main priority. But now both want to show that they can fill the vacuum left by America’s withdrawal under Mr Trump from its role as the world’s trade leader. To highlight its political importance, they note that this is the first trade agreement to mention the Paris climate accord, another deal Mr Trump has spurned. Haste is handy: the EU wanted success before Brexit negotiations and national...

BNP Paribas faces accusations over the Rwandan genocide

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 09:31

BNP PARIBAS, France’s biggest bank, pleaded guilty in America three years ago to assisting a monstrous regime in east Africa. In 2006 it had helped to finance Sudan’s government, which in turn supported militias that massacred tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur. The firm thus abetted genocide and circumvented American sanctions on Sudan. It agreed to pay a fine of $9bn for breaking that embargo, as well as ones on Cuba and Iran.

The bank, naturally, hopes to put that grim episode behind it. These days it makes much of its social-responsibility efforts. Its 2015 annual report, for example, trumpeted the financing of a big supermarket in Ivory Coast as typical of its contribution to African development. On July 3rd it named a new head of compliance plus a new “company engagement department”, responsible, among other things, for setting strategy on human rights.

Yet the past is hard to banish. The bank faces scrutiny over an even uglier episode. On June...