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Updated: 33 min 9 sec ago

Protecting American steel from imports makes no sense

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

AS AN example of all that is wrong with Donald Trump’s view of trade, the probe he has ordered into the steel industry is particularly hard to beat. If it results, as seems to be the plan, in blanket punitive tariffs slapped on steel imports, the consequences would be dire: the American economy would be hurt by a rise in the price of an essential material; it would invite retaliation that would cost American jobs, not save them; and the underlying problem—massive global steel overcapacity—would persist.

For Trumpists, steel is an emblem of their country’s descent from greatness. Ever since the 1960s, when production peaked at 168m tonnes a year, the industry has been in decline. Today it makes half as much as 50 years ago and employs just a third of the workers. Steelmakers have long blamed foreign rivals for their woes and lobbied hard for protection. So Mr Trump is not the first president to try to shield the industry from foreign competition. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan signed a series of agreements to limit imports. In 2002 George W. Bush imposed tariffs of up to 30%. Back then the bogeymen were steelmakers in Europe and Japan; now it is China, where a glut of steel has squashed prices.

Cheap steel, however, is a boon to many producers as well as to consumers. Higher prices would hit firms that use the metal, such as carmakers. Mr Bush’s tariffs,...

Exchange-traded funds become too specialised

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

THERE comes a time when every financial innovation is taken a bit too far—when, in television terms, it “jumps the shark” and sacrifices plausibility in search of popularity. That may have happened in the exchange-traded fund (ETF) industry. The latest ETF to be launched is a fund that invests in the shares of ETF providers.

The notion has a certain logic. The ETF industry has been growing fast, thanks to its ability to offer investors a diversified portfolio at low cost. The assets under management in these funds passed $3trn last year, up from $715bn in 2008. Some investors might well want to take advantage of that rapid expansion.

But by no stretch of the imagination would this be a well-diversified portfolio; it would be a focused bet on the financial sector. And many of the companies in the portfolio, such as BlackRock, a huge fund manager, and NASDAQ, a stock exchange, are involved in a lot more than just ETFs. Even if the ETF industry keeps growing, the bet could still go wrong.

The new fund (with the catchy title of the ETF Industry Exposure and Financial Services ETF) is just the latest example of the industry’s drive to specialisation. The...

The threat of war can bring much-needed investment

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

PONDER the dire state of infrastructure in America and some other advanced economies, and their governments’ fecklessness boggles the mind. Time was when they were able to make badly needed investments; the roads and the universities were a priority. What changed? Not for nothing do pundits cite the hustling governments of China and Singapore as evidence that liberal democracies are no longer fit for purpose. But democracy is not the problem; rather, governments may lack motivation in what is, despite appearances, an unusually peaceful world.

War is hell; the less of it the better. Yet it has also been a near-constant feature of human history, and a constant stimulus to political evolution. Defence is a textbook example of a public good. Security benefits all residents of a country, and cannot be denied to citizens who prefer not to pay for it. There is little incentive for private forces to provide defence—unless by doing so they can take over the right to extract compensation from the society they protect. Throughout history, the legitimate government is the one that can best defend its people.

As populations have grown and technology has advanced, the job...

Credit Suisse unveils another change of course

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

EUROPE’S most troubled big banks may at last be on the road to recovery. Not only is economic growth perking up; uncomfortable decisions, put off too long, are also being taken. In recent months UniCredit, Italy’s largest lender, has written down bad debt by €8.1bn ($8.7bn) and tapped shareholders for €13bn. Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest, has raised €8bn in equity and decided to keep a retail business it had hoped to sell. On April 27th it reported first-quarter net income of €575m, up from €236m a year earlier, although revenue fell.

Like Deutsche, Credit Suisse is freer to make plans after a recent settlement with American authorities over mis-selling mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis. On April 26th Switzerland’s second-biggest bank reported first-quarter net income of SFr596m ($594m), far better than forecast, reversing a SFr302m loss a year before. Along with most of Wall Street, which published earnings earlier in the month, and Deutsche it benefited from a good quarter for fixed-income trading. It expects to wind up a unit in which it has dumped unwanted assets by the end of 2018, a year ahead of schedule.

Credit Suisse’s...

The market in Initial Coin Offerings risks becoming a bubble

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

WOULD you care to invest in Gnosis, a prediction market where users can bet on outcomes of events such as elections? Or in ZrCoin, a project to produce zirconium dioxide, used to make heat-resistant alloys? How about an “immersive reality experience” called “Back to Earth”?

These are just three of a new wave of what are called Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). Nearly $250m has already been invested in such offerings, of which $107m alone has flowed in this year, according to Smith+Crown, a research firm. But it was in April that ICOs, or “token sales”, as insiders prefer to call them, really took off. On April 24th Gnosis collected more than $12m in under 15 minutes, valuing the project, in theory, at nearly $300m.

ICO “coins” are essentially digital coupons, tokens issued on an indelible distributed ledger, or blockchain, of the kind that underpins bitcoin, a crypto-currency. That means they can easily be traded, although unlike shares they do not confer ownership rights. Instead, they often serve as the currency for the project they finance: to pay users for a correct prediction, as does Gnosis; or for the content users contribute. Investors hope that...

The Trump administration starts to turn up the heat on trade

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:46

“WELL, I’m mostly there on most items,” said Donald Trump of his 100-day plan. As far as trade policy is concerned, his self-assessment would indeed be true—if tweets and executive orders ratcheting up tensions in a growing number of trade disputes constituted progress.

However, although Mr Trump has withdrawn America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade deal, he has neither labelled China a currency manipulator nor made progress in renegotiating the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On April 26th his administration denied reports that it was poised to trigger America’s withdrawal from the agreement. No new “America-first” trade deals have emerged, and his trade-related executive orders have requested reports or investigations. Mr Trump has created more work for pencil-pushers than for exporters.

The slow pace might reflect the obvious ideological infighting within his team, a desire for evidence before acting or the realisation that Congress, which sees trade policy as within its remit, must be kept on side. Congress officially delegates responsibility for trade to the United States Trade Representative. But it has yet...

Managing financial risk on London’s massive Crossrail project

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

THE eastbound platform on the Elizabeth line at Farringdon Station in central London is 30 metres below ground. Its length is as striking as its depth. At more than 200 metres, it is almost twice as long as the typical platform on the Tube. When service begins in December 2018, it will increase rail capacity in central London by 10%, thanks to the longer trains. Travellers nearest to the terminal stations at Reading and Heathrow, to the west of the city, and Shenfield and Abbey Wood, to the east, have a shot at the acme of commuter luxury: a seat.

Crossrail, as the £14.8bn ($19bn) infrastructure project is known, is on track to deliver other small miracles. With 85% of the work completed, the project is on-budget and on-time, in spite of its size and complexity. The programme required ten new stations, some with passenger tunnels linking them to existing Tube lines. The Elizabeth line itself will snake through 13 miles (21km) of twinned tunnels, including a section under the Thames. Tunnelling is a risky business. You never can tell if you’ll run into a hold-up. The Crossrail dig has yielded 10,000 items of interest to archaeologists. At Farringdon the diggers found...

A trade economist wins the John Bates Clark medal

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

IN 1853 the government of India, then directed by Britain’s East India Company, began construction of a vast rail network, continued by the British Raj, established in 1858. At the time, most inland transport in India was hauled by draught animals: with carts where roads existed and were passable; packed on animals’ backs when they were not, which was often. Moving goods across the great expanse of the subcontinent was costly and painfully slow. That changed with the arrival of the railway. Between 1853 and 1930 more than 67,000km (42,000 miles) of rail was laid across India, providing transport that was fast, cheap and reliable. A bullock could carry a pack 30km a day; an engine could haul freight 600km over the rails in the same time.

Working out the impact of this took Dave Donaldson (a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics when he started trying) nearly a decade. He dug through mountains of yellowed colonial-era records that had never before been collated and digitised. He found that eight different kinds of salt were sold across India, each sourced from just one region: this quirk allowed him to use local differences in the price of salt to calculate...

The IMF nudges up its forecast for global growth

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, and, in Washington, chirpy forecasts from the IMF that often prove a bit too chirpy. On April 18th the fund released its semi-annual World Economic Outlook (WEO), raising its forecast for global growth in 2017 to 3.5%.

Growth forecasts for the emerging world have not changed. The IMF’s global optimism is based instead on hopes of increased growth in the rich world. The fund takes a rosy view of the American economy, citing both high levels of consumer confidence and Donald Trump’s plans for more government spending. In Britain the IMF now reckons GDP will grow by 2.0% in 2017, up from earlier estimates of 1.5% (issued in January) and 1.1% (last October). The IMF has also raised its forecasts for Japan and the euro area.

Snipers point out that IMF forecasts have been far from perfect. Some glitches are excusable. In the spring of 1990, it predicted that Kuwait’s economy would grow by 0.8% that year. It actually fell by 26%. The IMF’s model did not allow for an Iraqi invasion. But other errors are less easily explained: between 1990 and 2007, the IMF’s spring forecasts...

America’s big banks have an encouraging first quarter

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

WHAT a difference a year makes. When America’s big banks reported first-quarter earnings for 2016, the mood was glum. The Federal Reserve was proving tardier than hoped in raising interest rates, which held down lending margins. Jitters about the world economy meant rotten results for investment-banking units, in what is usually their best season of the year. Regulators added to the misery: last April the Fed rejected the “living wills”—plans for liquidating lenders that get into trouble—of five of the six largest banks.

This spring bankers are happier. Business perked up last year after that dismal start. Donald Trump’s election in November, accompanied by promises to ginger up the American economy, cut corporate taxes and roll back regulation of finance, gave banks’ shares a lift (see chart). The Fed raised rates in December and again in March and is likely to keep increasing them. And 2017’s first-quarter results have, mostly, seen an improvement—though the cheer was not evenly shared.

“Wall Street activities have performed better than Main Street ones,” says Mike Mayo, an independent bank analyst. Revenues from capital-market businesses...

Digitisation shakes up corporate-bond markets

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

JUST a few decades ago, an asset manager wanting to trade shares, bonds or derivatives almost always had to call up the trading desk at a big investment bank. Today shares and many derivatives can be traded with a few simple clicks (or even in fully automated fashion, using algorithms). But buying and selling bonds, especially corporate bonds, is still an old-fashioned business. Over four-fifths of trading in American corporate bonds still takes place with a dealer, usually over the phone. Yet digitisation is at last beginning to change the structure of bond markets: witness the announcement on April 11th by Tradeweb, an electronic-trading platform, that it is to offer “all-to-all” trading in European corporate bonds, ie, a system in which any market participant can trade with any other.

Electronic bond-trading is not in itself new. Tradeweb’s platform, initially limited to trading of American Treasuries, was unveiled in 1998. Around half of Treasuries, and nearly 60% of European government bonds, are now traded electronically, reckons Greenwich Associates, a consultancy. But for corporate bonds, progress has been slower: only 25% of global trading volume in...

How and when to use private money in infrastructure projects

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:49

WHEN the Indiana Toll Road was opened in 1956, there were eight pairs of travel plazas, or rest stops, along the 156-mile (250km) stretch linking Chicago to Ohio and points eastward. As cars became faster and less thirsty, travellers had less reason to stop regularly for petrol or snacks. Three of the travel plazas closed in the 1970s. Restaurants shuttered, even if offered free rent. The remaining plazas, dwindling in number, fell into disrepair. The abiding memory some road users had of Indiana was of grubby toilets along the toll road.

Those rest-stops are at last getting a makeover. IFM, an Australian infrastructure fund, is investing $34m in the toll-road’s plazas, part of a $200m-plus upgrade. Half of the road’s length, with 57 bridges, is being resurfaced, using a treatment known as “crack-and-feed”, which lasts longer than simply patching the top. IFM, which acquired a 66-year lease on the road in a $5.8bn deal in 2015, says a private-sector operator has the right incentives to invest for the long term. Fewer tyre blowouts mean less gridlock, more road users and more revenue.

Politicians across the spectrum agree on the need to upgrade America’s...

Markets worry more about political turmoil than encroaching autocracy

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 13:40

THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, government bonds and stockmarket all gained ground as the results came in.

It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.

In Turkey investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan’s proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, rule that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s tenure, when he was seen as a liberalising democrat, saw rapid economic growth; his transformation into an emerging autocrat has not put investors off. Since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. In 1922, when Mussolini took power in Italy, its equity market returned 29% and its government bonds 18%, according...

Markets worry more about political turmoil than encroaching autocracy

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 13:40

THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, government bonds and stockmarket all gained ground as the results came in.

It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.

In Turkey investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan’s proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, rule that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s tenure, when he was seen as a liberalising democrat, saw rapid economic growth; his transformation into an emerging autocrat has not put investors off. Since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. In 1922, when Mussolini took power in Italy, its equity market returned 29% and its government bonds 18%, according...

Unshackling Europe’s sugar producers

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:25

Can cane be beet?

IN A rickety warehouse on the banks of London’s Thames sit mountains of caramel-coloured raw cane-sugar. For centuries the sweet stuff has come across the seas to Tate & Lyle Sugars’ dockside factory, to be refined into the white stuff. Cane accounts for four-fifths of global sugar production, but only one-fifth of Europe’s. Most of the continent’s sugar is made from beet, thanks to a technique developed in the Napoleonic wars, when an English blockade hit French cane-sugar imports.

No surprise, then, that the sugar-beet industry has been well guarded by Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy. But in recent years the EU has reformed its system of quotas and subsidies to lower food prices and enhance its farmers’ competitiveness; production quotas for milk were dismantled in 2015, for example. Now it is sugar’s turn. From October this year, the EU will abolish its minimum price and production quota for beet. Its complex restrictions on sugar imports will remain, however, as will its income support for farmers.

The beet sector has already been restructured in anticipation. EU compensation schemes have...

Why the Federal Reserve should keep its balance-sheet large

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

HOW much money should exist? The Federal Reserve must soon confront this deep question. The Fed has signalled that towards the end of 2017 it will probably begin to unwind quantitative easing (QE), the purchase of financial assets using newly created bank reserves. The central bank’s balance-sheet swelled from about $900bn on the eve of the financial crisis to about $4.5trn by 2015 as it bought mortgage-backed securities and government debt (see chart). If and when the Fed shrinks its balance-sheet, it will also retire the new money it created.

Economists such as Milton Friedman popularised the study of the quantity of money in the 1960s and 1970s. By the financial crisis, however, the subject had gone out of fashion. The interest rate, it was agreed, was what mattered for the economy. The Fed varied the supply of bank reserves, but only to keep rates in the market for interbank loans where it wanted them to be.

The Fed’s injection of emergency liquidity into financial markets in 2008, however, sent interest rates tumbling. To regain control, it started paying interest on excess reserves (ie, those reserves in excess of those required by...

The mysterious quiescence of the gold market

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

AMERICA has bombed Syria, and its relations with Russia have deteriorated. North Korea is developing a long-range nuclear missile, a development which Donald Trump has vowed to stop, unilaterally if necessary. There is talk of a “reflation trade”, with tax cuts in America pepping up global growth.

All this ought to be good news for gold, the precious metal that usually gains at times of political uncertainty or rising inflation expectations. But as the chart shows, gold took a hit when Mr Trump was elected in November and is still well below its level of last July. As a watchdog, gold has failed to bark.

Bullion enjoyed a ten-year bull market from 2001 to 2011, when it peaked at $1,898 an ounce. This long upward run was bolstered in its later stages by two developments: first, the use of quantitative easing (QE) by central banks, which gold bugs argued would inevitably lead to high inflation; and second by the euro crisis, which caused nervousness about the potential for a break-up of the single currency and about the safety of European banks. By 2013, however, euro-zone worries were fading and, despite QE, no inflation had been seen. The...

A new mood of optimism infects investors in China’s banks

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

GUO SHUQING, China’s new banking regulator, knows the enormity of his task. China’s banking system, he observed last month, is worth more than $33trn. So it is bigger than any other country’s, and even than Europe’s as a whole. And he is well aware of the pitfalls left by a decade of breakneck lending growth. But if Mr Guo is nervous, he is hiding it. “All problems and contradictions will be resolved,” he says.

Of course, a Chinese official can be expected to express confidence about Chinese banks. More surprising is that a small but growing number of analysts and investors seem to concur. Chinese bank shares are up by a quarter since early last year. One investment bank, Morgan Stanley, has declared that China’s lenders are “in a sweet spot”. Another, Goldman Sachs, has upgraded China to “overweight”—that is, recommending that clients buy Chinese shares—and is especially positive about the banks. Shanghai Financial News, a local newspaper, described the new mood around these giant institutions as the “return of the king”. The question is whether it will be a long, stable reign or a short-lived, turbulent one.

The clearest positive for...

The boss of scandal-plagued Barclays gets into trouble himself

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

IN HIS first 17 months running Barclays, Jes Staley seemed scarcely to put a foot wrong. The American has narrowed the British lender’s ambitions, to focus on retail business at home, corporate and investment banking on both sides of the Atlantic, and credit cards. He is pulling Barclays out of Africa, after a century, and has sped up its retreat from other markets. He has also poached several folk from JPMorgan Chase, where he spent 34 years and ran the investment bank.

On April 10th it emerged that Mr Staley had clumsily planted a boot out of bounds. Last June Barclays’ board and an executive received anonymous letters about a “senior employee” hired earlier in 2016. These, say the bank, raised concerns “of a personal nature” about this person and Mr Staley’s role in dealing with the matter “at a previous employer” (presumably JPMorgan Chase).

Mr Staley, seeing the letters as “an unfair personal attack” on the newcomer, asked Barclays’ security team to find out who had written them, but was told that this should not be done. In July he inquired whether the matter was resolved—and formed the “honestly held, but mistaken” belief that he was now free to...

A different approach to mobile money in Africa

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 14:51

WITH her phone in one hand and a live chicken in the other, Brenda Deeomba comes for her money. Her husband is a builder in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and sends his wages home through Zoona, a money-transfer company. She receives them at a roadside booth in Chongwe, a nearby town, using a PIN number sent to her phone. It is a safe way to get the money, says Ms Deeomba, above muffled squawks.

Money-transfer businesses are proliferating in Africa. But Zoona is unusual. Unlike M-PESA, the best-known, in Kenya, it is not run by a phone company. Nor is it owned by a bank. Instead, Zoona has built a business from scratch. It processed $200m in transactions last year and bubbles with ambition: Mike Quinn, its (Canadian) chief executive, talks of reaching 1bn customers.

Zoona was founded in Zambia in 2009 by two brothers, Brad and Brett Magrath. As a startup, they were at a disadvantage, having to recruit their own agents. Zoona did so by seeing them as its core customers, giving them credit and training to set up their own franchises. Some are impressively successful. In central Lusaka, Misozi Mkandawire presides over an empire of kiosks. She started with Zoona while at college. Her profits can now reach 50,000 kwacha ($5,200) a month. That is exceptional. Last year the average agent made $548 in monthly commission, before costs. Globally, nearly half of...

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