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Updated: 2 hours 33 min ago

Markets fret about America’s turn toward protectionism

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 15:55

IN THE run-up to the presidential election of 2016, investors were nervous about Donald Trump. They liked his tax-cutting, anti-regulation promises, but fretted about his foreign and trade policies. Some dubbed the two agendas “Trump lite” and “Donnie Darko”.

Almost as soon as it became clear that Mr Trump would become president, the markets decided to believe in the optimistic version. His tweeting and decision-making may have been erratic, but investors seemed to forgive the president his peccadilloes as a wife might her errant husband: “He may not be faithful but he’s a good provider.”

Fears about trade conflict almost disappeared. In last month’s survey of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, just 5% regarded a trade war between America and China as the biggest risk facing the markets, compared with 45% who worried about a return of inflation or a crash in the bond markets.

The announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminium on March 1st thus came as a...

Will China’s Belt and Road Initiative outdo the Marshall Plan?

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 15:55

SEVENTY years ago America passed the Economic Co-operation Act, better known as the Marshall Plan. Drawing inspiration from a speech at Harvard University by George Marshall, America’s secretary of state, it aimed to revive Europe’s war-ravaged economies. Almost five years ago, at a more obscure institution of higher learning, Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, China’s president, Xi Jinping, outlined his own vision of economic beneficence. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it has become known, aims to sprinkle infrastructure, trade and fellow-feeling on more than 70 countries, from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Mr Xi’s initiative, which also has geopolitical goals (see Banyan), has invited comparison with America’s mid-century development endeavour. Some even suggest it will be far bigger. But is that credible? The Marshall Plan,...

How digitisation is paying for DBS

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 15:55

MOST banks gush about digital technology, fearing all the while that some born-digital usurper, large or small, will do to them what Amazon has done to retailers, Uber to taxi-drivers and Airbnb to hoteliers. Some have reorganised themselves to become nimbler, copying startups by forming small teams to generate, test, reject and improve ideas at speed. Apps are improving, new products are appearing and online marketplaces are being built. Only a few are turning enthusiasm into money. One of those is DBS.

Singapore’s (and South-East Asia’s) biggest bank is a stockmarket darling. Its share price has roughly doubled in the past two years, outstripping the gains of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and United Overseas Bank (UOB), its main local rivals (see chart). The price exceeds DBS’s net book value per share by 50%. That owes something to the city-state’s buoyant economy—GDP rose by 3.6% last year, the most since 2014—and recovering housing market, and to the doubling of the dividend when DBS reported fourth-quarter results on...

Active fund managers hold fewer and fewer stocks

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 15:55

THE past decade has been tough for conventional “active” fund managers, who try to pick stocks that beat the market. They have been losing business to “passive” funds—those that try to replicate a benchmark, like the S&P500 index. Passive funds have much lower fees.

Figures from Inalytics, a company that analyses fund managers’ portfolios, suggest that active managers are changing strategy in response. The average number of stocks in global equity portfolios has halved, from 121 to 61 (see chart). In a sense, active managers have become more active, making bigger bets on individual stocks. This makes their portfolios less like the index, meaning they can beat the market by a larger margin. But they can also do a lot worse. The portfolios examined by Inalytics have outperformed, but in the long term the average manager is unlikely to do so, since the index reflects average performance.

Moreover, managers incur costs and the index does not. The result of more active management...

Investment by women, and in them, is growing

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 10:33

MARCH 8th, International Women’s Day, always brings a flood of reports about gender inequalities in everything from health outcomes to pay and promotion. But one gap is gradually narrowing: that in wealth. As money managers seek to attract and serve rich women, and as those women express their values through their portfolios, the impact will be felt within the investment industry and beyond.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, between 2010 and 2015 private wealth held by women grew from $34trn to $51trn. Women’s wealth also rose as a share of all private wealth, though less spectacularly, from 28% to 30%. By 2020 they are expected to hold $72trn, 32% of the total. And most of the private wealth that changes hands in the coming decades is likely to go to women.

One reason for women’s growing wealth is that far more of them are in well-paid work than before. In America, women’s rate of participation in the labour market rose from 34% in 1950 to 57% in 2016. Another is that women are...

An attempt to revise the Dodd-Frank Act reaches a milestone

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 10:33

AFTER 25 hearings, thousands of pages of comments and many unworkable bipartisan working groups, America’s Senate has finally produced a possible consensus bill to tweak the Dodd-Frank Act, the vast swathe of banking regulation passed soon after the 2008-09 financial crisis. On March 6th, in a technical move that counts as significant progress in Washington’s creaky bureaucracy, 16 Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in voting to allow several hours of debate before passing the bill on to the Senate leadership.

Amendments may yet be added and the entire edifice could fracture, but the vote, after years of effort, suggests a bill might now pass. If it does, it would then have to be reconciled with a different bill passed by the House of Representatives. But this now seems possible as well, if only because the alternative would be no amendment to Dodd-Frank at all.

One certainty is that, whatever the bill’s fate, there will be disappointment. Bernie Sanders, a socialist who ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, said passage would create massive economic disruption. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator since 2012 who helped ensure the current law’s expansive scope, said the proposal was a “punch in the gut to American consumers”, and “bank lobbyists …dragging us back to the bad old days”.

Dodd-Frank was passed in...

New research suggests the dollar’s level drives world trade

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

AGUS SACCHAL sells sheets and blankets from a warehouse in Buenos Aires, for which he is paid in Argentine pesos. While the pesos go into his wallet, two other banknotes are stuck to his office window. One is a ten-yuan note from a visit to China, where he went in search of cheap textiles. The other is a $5 bill, pinned next to an invoice, also in dollars. Though he does not trade with America directly, when importing he uses the greenback.

Argentina’s rocky financial history makes the dollar’s dominance there unsurprising. Still, it is an extreme case of a wider phenomenon. After gathering data on 91% of the world’s imports, by value, Gita Gopinath of Harvard University found that America accounts for nearly 10%. But its currency is used in over 40% of invoicing.

Recent research suggests that this creates a link between a weak dollar and buoyant trade flows—and vice versa. Trends since 1999 are suggestive (see chart). During 2017 the dollar depreciated by 7% against a basket of other currencies, as global trade flows surged...

Capital is on its way to America, but for bad reasons

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

ACCORDING to President Donald Trump, money is pouring into America from abroad. The tax reform he signed into law in December means American firms can no longer defer paying taxes on profits left sitting in foreign subsidiaries. The change has led to some uplifting headlines. Apple said that it would make a one-off tax payment of $38bn relating to its past accumulation of $252bn in foreign earnings. Presumably, it will now start to bring this cash home. “Huge win for American workers and the USA!” tweeted Mr Trump. Yet despite the prospect of large-scale profit repatriations, the dollar has been strangely weak of late. Since the start of November, when tax reform began looking likely to pass, the greenback has fallen by about 3%. What is going on?

Start with the fact that repatriations are mostly not true capital inflows. An analysis by Zoltan Pozsar of Credit Suisse finds that, as of March 2017, American corporations had amassed around $2.2trn of earnings in overseas subsidiaries. About half...

Automation will drive interest rates higher, a new report concludes

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

REAL interest rates in the developed world have been low ever since the financial crisis of 2008-09 (see chart). The global economy might have struggled to recover had that not been the case; higher rates would have caused many more companies and homeowners to default.

Central banks are now starting to push rates slightly higher. And according to a new paper* from Bain, a management consultancy, the trend towards robotics will push them higher still—at least for a decade. That could be a shock for the financial markets.

Bain estimates that by 2030 American companies will have invested as much as $8trn in automation. As companies scramble to borrow money in order to buy machinery and robots, the resulting investment boom will drive up rates.

Automation will boost productivity, which has grown sluggishly in recent years. This slowdown may have been caused by the shift from manufacturing to services, where productivity gains are harder to achieve. Between 1993 and 2014, the...

Labour-monitoring technologies raise efficiency—and hard questions

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

BOSSES have always sought control over how workers do their jobs. Whatever subtlety there once was to this art, technology is now obliterating. In February Amazon received patents for a wristband apparently intended to shepherd labourers in its warehouses through their jobs with maximum efficiency. The device, were Amazon to produce and use it, could collect detailed information about each worker’s whereabouts and movements, and strategically vibrate in order to guide their actions. Using such technology seems an obvious step for firms seeking to maximise productivity. Whether workers should welcome the trend, or fear it, is harder to say.

Workplace discipline came into its own during the Industrial Revolution. As production came to depend ever more on expensive capital equipment, bosses, not keen to see that equipment sitting idle, curtailed their workers’ freedom, demanding they work during set hours, in co-ordination with other employees, at a pace dictated by the firm. Technology creates...

Narendra Modi wants to boost formalisation. How is he faring?

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

WATCHING money drain from your bank account has never been so much fun. On WhatsApp, a messaging service ubiquitous in India, sending rupees is now as easy as posting a selfie. Set-up is a breeze, because all Indian banks have been corralled onto a common payment platform on which anyone, from Google and Samsung to local payment firms and banks themselves, can build their own user interface. Money zips instantly from one bank account to the other, without any need to set up a pesky digital wallet or download some new app. At least outside China, there is no simpler way to shift money today.

WhatsApp’s offering is being rolled out gradually. The number of transactions routed through the United Payments Interface (UPI), the system on which WhatsApp and the rest are riding, has soared from almost nothing in early 2017 to over 150m a month in January. On current trends, UPI transfers will overtake cash withdrawals from banks within weeks. Some 665bn rupees ($10.2bn) will have shifted hands—or...

Hong Kong and Singapore succumb to the lure of dual-class shares

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

FOR Charles Li, Alibaba was the one that got away. The head of the Hong Kong stock exchange (HKEX) courted the Chinese e-commerce giant when it sought a venue for its listing five years ago, but he could not push through rule changes wanted by Alibaba to keep control of the company in its leaders’ hands. It opted instead for an initial public offering (IPO) in New York. “Losing one or two listing candidates is not a big deal for Hong Kong,” he wrote at the time. “But losing a generation of companies from China’s new economy is.” Since then he has been determined to make the next big catch.

It is finally within his grasp. After a debate that has trundled on for several years HKEX is, in the coming weeks, poised to allow companies to issue shares with different voting rights. Known as dual-class shares, these give founders the ability to control their firms, even as minority owners. This should make Hong Kong the favoured destination for the next wave of Chinese tech firms to go public, from Xiaomi, a smartphone maker, to Ant Financial,...

Russia’s credit rating rises; Brazil’s falls

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 15:44

BRAZIL and Russia, the third- and fourth-biggest emerging economies, have much in common beyond their size. Each boasts annual GDP per person of around $10,000, which depends more than either would like on natural riches. After commodity prices tumbled in 2014, their economies shrank and their currencies sank. Their central banks have fought hard against the ensuing inflation, driving it below 3%. That has allowed both to cut interest rates, contributing to modest economic recoveries.

But their fiscal fortunes have diverged. Brazil’s credit rating was cut by Fitch on February 18th, making its sovereign bonds even “junkier” (ie, more speculative). Russia’s rating, by contrast, was raised a few days later by S&P Global, which became the second agency to rate Russian sovereign debt as “investment grade”.

That might seem an odd description for a country embroiled in two wars and encumbered by sanctions. But Russia’s upgrade is not hard to justify. Though its approach to geopolitics is adventurous, its approach to...

China starts unwinding Anbang, its would-be financial giant

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 09:48

Terminal velocity

“WHEN it comes to the meaning of life, we will all return to zero one day.” So philosophised Wu Xiaohui, a Chinese tycoon, as he reflected on his success in 2015. Little did he realise how soon his words would be proved true. He founded his firm, Anbang, as a small car-insurance company just over a decade ago. By 2017 it ranked among the world’s biggest insurers, with some $300bn of assets, including stakes in hotels and financial firms in America, Europe and Asia. But then, even more vertiginous than its ascent, came its fall. On February 23rd China’s government said it had taken over Anbang and would prosecute Mr Wu for economic crimes.

Rarely in corporate history has a giant grown and collapsed so quickly. But Anbang’s tale is also interesting for what it reveals about China’s economic landscape. It is the clearest demonstration that regulators are serious about defusing debt risks that have built up in recent years. And it reveals the murky...

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