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Finance and economics
Updated: 27 min 41 sec ago

Men and women in economics have different opinions

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

MEN may hail from Mars and women from Venus. But economists, surely, inhabit planet Earth, surveying it dispassionately. Alas, a new paper suggests that even dismal scientists divide on gender lines. Ann Mari May and Mary McGarvey of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and David Kucera of the International Labour Organisation surveyed economists from 18 European countries, and found that differences in the wider population can survive even an economics education. Male economists are more likely than female ones to prefer market solutions to government intervention, are more sceptical of environmental protection, and are (slightly) less keen on redistribution (see chart).

A similar study of American economists by Ms May and others also found men more sceptical of government regulation, more comfortable with drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and more likely to believe that a higher minimum wage would cause unemployment. Women were 14 percentage points less likely to agree that Walmart...

India’s state-owned banks endure a string of bad news

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

Spot the $1.8bn

OF LATE Indian bankers have felt an unfamiliar sensation: optimism. A 1.3trn-rupees ($21bn) bail-out from the government seemed to have cleaned up the bad lending decisions of years gone by. A new bankruptcy law gave them an edge in long-standing battles with recalcitrant borrowers. It seemed a few Indian companies, having for years eschewed fresh investment, might even start borrowing again.

This week woes linked to mismanagement at India’s three biggest partially state-owned lenders plunged the bankers back to their habitual gloom. On February 14th Punjab National Bank (PNB) announced it was investigating a fraud worth 114bn rupees, equivalent to about a third of its market capitalisation. A few days earlier the State Bank of India (SBI) unveiled its first quarterly loss since 1999. And Bank of Baroda has hastily announced the closure of its South African operation, accused of having shady business associations there.

The Punjab...

China’s stockmarket plunge: this time it’s different

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

A CHINESE new-year message from the American embassy in Beijing looked innocuous. It welcomed the Year of the Dog on Weibo, a microblog, with photos of the embassy staff’s pooches and a video greeting from the ambassador and his wife, each with a dog in hand. But it soon attracted 10,000 angry responses. The post had become an unlikely lightning rod for public discontent about the stockmarket.

A plunge on February 9th had left Chinese shares down by 10% on the week, their steepest fall in two years. Some punters found solace in blaming the American embassy for the rout, which started on Wall Street. For others it was a matter of convenience, because their real target, the Chinese securities regulator, knew to disable comments on its Weibo account on such a grim day for stocks.

Even so, their protests seem to have been heard. Before the market reopened this week, Chinese officials urged big shareholders to buy stocks to restore confidence. The Shanghai Stock Exchange...

The markets still have plenty to fret about

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

BULL markets always climb a wall of worry, or so the saying goes. For much of 2017, the main concerns were political and the markets seemed to surmount them as easily as a robot dog opens doors (the latest internet sensation).

But February has shown that the market is still vulnerable. The immediate trigger seems to have been the fear that inflationary pressures would cause bond yields to rise and central banks to push up interest rates; this week’s surprisingly high American inflation numbers will only add to the worries. In a narrow sense, that makes bonds look cheaper, compared with equities. In a broader sense, it increases the discount rate investors apply to future profits, lowering the present value of shares. (A caveat is needed: if higher rates reflect stronger growth, then estimates of future profits should rise, offsetting the discount-rate effect.)

The immediate effect has been to create uncertainty for investors about the direction of central-bank policy, after many years in which it could reliably be assumed that rates would stay low. This translates into a more volatile market, as illustrated by the sharp jump in the Vix, or volatility index, in early February.

The danger is that many investors seem to have treated volatility as an asset class, and have organised their portfolios accordingly. Eric Lonergan of M&G, a fund-...

Recent tax reforms in America will hurt charities

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

DESPITE its oft-professed pro-market orthodoxy, America has always had an unusually large non-profit sector. Americans gave $390bn to charity in 2016, with the bulk of contributions coming from individual donors. Historically, revenues at non-profits tend to track GDP growth. The recent tax reforms imply that despite strong economic growth, charitable contributions in America are poised to fall for the first time since the financial crisis.

The most significant threat to charities comes from changes to income tax. American taxpayers can choose either to “itemise” specific expenses, such as charitable gifts or mortgage payments, or take a “standard deduction”. In an effort both to simplify the tax code and to lower overall tax rates, the Republican-led Congress almost doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples. This will make filing taxes a lot easier for many. But it also means that far fewer Americans will have a financial incentive...

Tax reforms prompt upheaval in the private-equity industry

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

IN THE political cacophony surrounding America’s new tax law, the voice of the private-equity industry has been muted. This is perhaps unsurprising. The industry has managed in large measure to retain its favourable tax treatment, despite a threat from President Donald Trump to close the “carried interest” loophole on which it had grown fat.

So few expected the announcement on February 8th from KKR, a big private-equity firm, that the new law was prompting it to consider converting its status from that of a partnership to a “C corporation” (a corporate-tax-paying firm). As The Economist went to press, a competitor, Ares Management, was expected to make a similar announcement. The new law may have a lasting impact on private equity after all.

Tax has always been central to private-equity business models. The industry uses large amounts of debt, interest on which is tax-deductible, to acquire companies. So it has long been adept at minimising tax, both by making...

The digital upstarts taking on Britain’s dominant few banks

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

CHRIS MATTHEWS joined Monzo last May. “A friend mentioned it over a curry. Everyone signed up at once. Nine or ten of us.” Mr Matthews, a structural engineer living in London, transfers money monthly from the big bank where his salary lands to the online upstart, for everyday expenses. Monzo’s smartphone app lets him track his spending precisely. He has found big banks’ security procedures frustrating, but he can block and reactivate his Monzo debit card with a tap on the app.

For some British millennials, Monzo is as close to a cult as a bank can be. Its coral-pink cards are hard to miss. “People in bars will get very excited if they see you are a fellow Monzo user,” says Mr Matthews, who is 29. Founded in 2015, it has had a full banking licence since April. It launched current accounts in the autumn; more than 370,000 have been opened, mainly by customers converting pre-paid cards, with which Monzo began. Tom Blomfield, the chief executive, says its marketing budget has been “practically...

How to interpret America’s experiment with huge budget deficits

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

“DEFICITS don’t matter,” said Dick Cheney, then the vice-president, in 2004. He may have meant what he said, yet the administration he belonged to showed a decided lack of conviction when it came to borrowing, with the federal deficit never rising above 3.4% of GDP. Not so the current Republican government. In 2019 and 2020 the deficit is likely to rise to nearly 6% of GDP, the largest, outside of times of economic crisis, since the second world war. In his first term, Donald Trump’s deficits will be nearly as large, on average, as those run by Barack Obama during his presidency, according to analysis by JPMorgan. That is impressive given that Mr Obama faced the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In budgeting, as in so many areas, America is wandering into uncharted territory. What might it find there?

Orthodox economics suggests two ways in which things could go wrong. When an economy is running at close to full tilt, so that firms are borrowing and investing as much as banks are...

American banks pay depositors less than online accounts

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 15:48

EVERYONE knows that interest rates are rising—except, perhaps, one group: American savers who have put $12trn in bank accounts. They have seen the government’s deposit guarantee, purportedly designed to protect them, become a ticket for banks to receive free money. For evidence, look no further than the ubiquitous bank branches dotting America’s high streets.

Those seeking a home for their money find that, unlike petrol stations or grocers, banks are not required to post their most important price, the interest rate. Ask and you will be referred to a specialised member of staff. After a wait, numbers are typed into a computer, followed by pauses for thought, a bit of throat clearing and, often, comments that the current rates on offer may not exceed inflation. Then come hints, doubtless filtered through a compliance department, of the higher returns available on the bank’s investment offerings, which, of course, carry risks (and fees).

Only then is the diligent customer told...

Insider trading has been rife on Wall Street, academics conclude

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 15:45

The joy of knowledge

INSIDER-TRADING prosecutions have netted plenty of small fry. But many grumble that the big fish swim off unharmed. That nagging fear has some new academic backing, from three studies. One argues that well-connected insiders profited even from the financial crisis.* The others go further still, suggesting the entire share-trading system is rigged.**

What is known about insider trading tends to come from prosecutions. But these require fortuitous tip-offs and extensive, expensive investigations, involving the examination of complex evidence from phone calls, e-mails or informants wired with recorders. The resulting haze of numbers may befuddle a jury unless they are leavened with a few spicy details—exotic code words, say, or (even better) suitcases filled with cash.

The papers make imaginative use of pattern analysis from data to find that insider trading is probably pervasive. The approach reflects a new way of analysing conduct...

Passive funds tracking an index lose out when its make-up changes

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 15:45

IS THERE hope for fund managers after all? Conventional “active” managers, who try to pick stocks that will beat the market, have been losing ground to “passive” funds, which simply own all assets in a given sector in proportion to their market value. The main advantage of the latter group is that they charge a lot less.

William Sharpe, a Nobel prizewinning economist, argued in 1991 that the “arithmetic of active management” means that the average fund manager is doomed to underperform. To understand why, assume that there are equal numbers of active and passive managers and, between them, they own all the market. The market returns 10%. How much will the passive managers earn? The answer must be 10%, before costs. The active managers own that bit of the market the passive managers don’t. But that proportion of the market must, thanks to simple arithmetic, also return 10%, before costs. Since the costs of active investors are higher, the average active manager must underperform. These numbers...

Wells Fargo suffers a rare punishment—a cap on assets

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 15:45

ON HER way out, Janet Yellen, who stood down as the Federal Reserve’s chair on February 2nd, paused to add yet another sanction to those already imposed on Wells Fargo for foisting unwanted insurance and banking products on clients. The latest punishment is a highly unusual one. Wells will be blocked from adding assets to the $2trn held on its balance-sheet at the end of 2017. Two other regulators had already imposed fines and penalties soon after the shenanigans began emerging in 2016. The bank has gone through a big reorganisation. The Fed’s belated response presumably took into account not only the errant conduct but also the political fallout. The government, as well as the bank, had been embarrassed.

At first glance, Wells is an odd target for such treatment. During the financial crisis it proved itself the best of the big banks, with relatively high underwriting standards and manageable losses. The scandal was huge—millions of clients were pushed into unwanted products. But the financial...

South-to-South investment is rising sharply

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 15:45

AT A meeting in Namibia last month Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, made a pitch to lure African investors to an economy ruined by Robert Mugabe. That he did so first in Windhoek, not London or New York, is telling. Although flows through tax havens muddy the data, 28% of new foreign direct investment (FDI) globally in 2016 was from firms in emerging markets—up from just 8% in 2000.

Chinese FDI, a big chunk of this, shrank in 2017 as Beijing restricted outflows and America and Europe screened acquisitions by foreigners more closely. But the trend of outbound investment is widespread. Almost all developing countries have companies with overseas affiliates. Most of their investment goes to the West. But in two-fifths of developing countries they make up at least half of incoming FDI. In 2015-16 the ten leading foreign investors in Africa, by number of new projects, included China, India, Kenya and South Africa.

A World Bank survey of more than 750 firms with FDI in developing countries found that those from...

Bitcoin and its rivals offer no shelter from the storm

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 15:45

THE “biggest bubble in human history comes down crashing,” tweeted Nouriel Roubini, an economist, gleefully. After an exhilarating ride skywards in 2017, investors in crypto-currencies have been rudely reminded that prices can plunge earthwards, too. In mid-December the price of bitcoin was just shy of $20,000; by February 6th, it had fallen to $6,000, before recovering a little (see chart).

And bitcoin is not the only digital currency to have fallen. Figures from CoinMarketCap, a website, show that the total market capitalisation of crypto-currencies has fallen by more than half this year, to under $400bn. This slide has taken place amid a flurry of hacks, fraud allegations and a growing regulatory backlash.

Perhaps the most damaging allegations surround Tether, a company that issues a virtual currency of the same name. Tether allows users to move money across exchanges and crypto-currencies without converting it back into “fiat” (central-bank-backed) money first. In theory, each...

The markets deliver a shock to complacent investors

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 09:48

EVERY good horror-film director knows the secret of the “jump scare”. Just when the hero or heroine feels safe, the monster appears from nowhere to startle them. The latest stockmarket shock could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The sharp falls that took place on February 2nd and 5th followed a long period where the only direction for share prices appeared to be upwards.

In fact the American market had risen so far, so fast that the decline only took share prices back to where they were at the start of the year (see chart). And although a 1,175-point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on February 5th was the biggest ever in absolute terms, it was still smallish beer in proportionate terms, at just 4.6%. The 508-point fall in the Dow in October 1987 knocked nearly 23% off the market.


Bets on low market volatility went spectacularly wrong

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 09:48

THE Cboe Volatility Index, or Vix, known as the “fear gauge”, spikes when markets are most jittery. When Sandy Rattray, now at Man Group, an asset manager, worked on the Vix in the early 2000s, he and his team considered launching an exchange-traded product (ETP) linked to it, but concluded that it would be a “horror show” because of poor returns. Now, however, Vix-linked ETPs are a big industry, with around $8bn in assets. Formerly niche investments, they served vastly to exacerbate this week’s market turmoil, which saw the Vix’s largest ever one-day move, when it more than doubled on February 5th.

The Vix was always intended as a basis for financial products as well as a gauge. Vix futures were launched in 2004 and options in 2006. “Long” Vix products, which Mr Rattray looked into, seek to mirror the index . The problem is that this means buying futures contracts, with buyers having to pay a constant premium over spot prices. So these ETPs tend to lose money over time, punctuated (but not fully made up for) by gains when the Vix spikes. The largest “long” fund, VXX, issued by Barclays, has lost over 99.9% since its launch in 2009.

So other ETPs were developed to “short”—ie, bet against—the Vix index. Until this week, they were doing handsomely. Amid a long spell of subdued volatility, investors piled in. In January, assets in short-Vix funds hit a...

Central banks should gamble on productivity-improving technology

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 09:48

IN 1996 Alan Greenspan began asking why the flashy information technology spreading across America seemed not to be lifting productivity. He was not the first to wonder. A decade earlier Robert Solow, a Nobel prizewinner, famously remarked that computers were everywhere but in the statistics. But Mr Greenspan was uniquely positioned, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to experiment on the American economy. As the unemployment rate dropped to levels that might normally trigger a phalanx of interest-rate rises, Mr Greenspan’s Fed moved cautiously, betting that efficiencies from new IT would keep price pressures in check. The result was the longest period of rapid growth since the early 1960s. Despite his success, few central bankers seem eager to repeat the experiment and many remain blinkered to issues other than inflation and employment. That is unfortunate. A little faith in technology could go a long way.

Central bankers are not known to be a visionary bunch. Turning new ideas into...

Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s central-bank chief, is about to retire

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 15:43

WHEN Zhou Xiaochuan took the helm of China’s central bank 15 years ago, the world was very different. China had just joined the World Trade Organisation and its economy was still smaller than Britain’s. Foreign investors paid little heed to the new governor of the People’s Bank of China. He seemed safe to ignore: another black-haired, bespectacled official whose talk was littered with socialist bromides.

Mr Zhou is widely expected to retire in the coming weeks. He leaves with China far stronger and his own role much more prominent. No one person can take credit for the flourishing economy. But Mr Zhou, who is 70, deserves more than most. He helped forge the monetary environment for China’s growth. He also went a long way to dragging the financial system out of the mire of central planning, even if reforms fell short of his own wishes.

His achievements are surprising. China makes no pretence of having an independent central bank. The People’s Bank is under the State Council, or...

Why sub-zero interest rates are neither unfair nor unnatural

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 15:43

DENMARK’S Maritime Museum in Elsinore includes one particularly unappetising exhibit: the world’s oldest ship’s biscuit, from a voyage in 1852. Known as hardtack, such biscuits were prized for their long shelf lives, making them a vital source of sustenance for sailors far from shore. They were also appreciated by a great economist, Irving Fisher, as a useful economic metaphor.

Imagine, Fisher wrote in “The Theory of Interest” in 1930, a group of sailors shipwrecked on a barren island with only their stores of hardtack to sustain them. On what terms would sailors borrow and lend biscuits among themselves? In this forlorn economy, what rate of interest would prevail?

One might think the answer depends on the character of the unfortunate sailors. Interest, in many people’s minds, is a reward for deferring gratification. That is one reason why low interest rates are widely perceived as unjust. If an abstemious sailor were prepared to lend a biscuit to his crewmate rather than...

“Factor investing” gains popularity

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 15:43

RETAIL investors tend to dream of finding a wonder stock—a Netflix or Apple that will multiply their savings many times over. But institutional investors cannot commit too much capital to one individual company. Instead, they hope to pick the right kind of stocks, a broadly based group that will beat the market.

Two or three decades ago, fund managers would have attempted this feat by favouring one industry over another. They might, say, have bought energy stocks in the hope that the oil price would rise, while avoiding retailers because of fears about consumer spending. But in these days of computers and algorithms, there are more systematic approaches to beating the market. The aim is to find stocks with characteristics or “factors” that make them outperform. In the industry jargon, funds tracking these factors are known as “smart beta”. The money allocated to smart-beta exchange-traded funds has reached $658bn; all told, more than $1trn is invested in an explicitly factor-based fashion....