The Economist

Subscribe to The Economist feed The Economist
Finance and economics
Updated: 2 hours 33 min ago

Can refugees help to plug Europe’s skilled-labour gaps?

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

THE canteen of Stockholm University could scarcely be more Swedish. Young blond students sip coffee and tap away on Macs. In room 3.89, an outpost of the campus, is another, newer Sweden. Refugees, all of them teachers, from lands far to the south and east are preparing for the classrooms of their new home. Several keep their coats on as Khadije Obeid takes them through the basics of the curriculum and shows a YouTube clip about education law. “In Syria the teacher has much authority,” says Samer, an English teacher, as he raises his hand above his head. “Here he is equal to the students,” he adds as he lowers it.

The ten women and seven men are on a “fast-track” programme for refugees with experience in occupations where labour is short. As well as learning Swedish, they get 26 weeks of daily classes, teaching practice and mentoring. The hope is that they will then train or, if their previous qualifications are recognised, go straight to the classroom. The government is running some 30 other...

The hounding of Greece’s former statistics chief is disturbing

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

IMAGINE the tale of Sisyphus, the mythical king doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, retold by Kafka. The result would be very like the tortuous story of Andreas Georgiou, Greece’s former statistics chief.

Since 2011 Mr Georgiou has faced several criminal charges. One is that he inflated budget-deficit figures, forcing Greece to seek a bail-out and resulting in alleged damages of €171bn ($190bn). Another is that he violated his duty by failing to seek approval from the statistical agency’s board before sending the figures to the European authorities.

Although Mr Georgiou was acquitted several times on both charges, the acquittals were annulled and he was retried. In 2017 he was found guilty of a violation of duty. He has now learnt that the Supreme Court had rejected his appeal, rendering the conviction final. It carries a two-year suspended sentence. In May prosecutors said they were refiling the charges that he inflated...

As Western lenders retreat, African banks see an opportunity

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

ADE AYEYEMI’S office in Lomé, the capital of Togo, is a good place to think about crossing borders. Ghana is ten minutes’ drive away. From his window the boss of Ecobank can watch trucks rumble along the seafront, some bound for Burkina Faso, a day’s journey, or Mali, perhaps another day on. At night, cargo ships twinkle offshore. From here Ecobank’s vision—“to integrate the continent”, Mr Ayeyemi says—is clear. Whether it will be profitable is less obvious.

Ecobank was founded in 1985 by business leaders with backing from the Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc. It has branches in 33 countries, more than any other African bank (see chart). It is not alone in its ambitions. Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa (UBA) wants to make half its profits elsewhere in the continent by 2022. South Africa’s Standard Bank recently opened in Ivory Coast, its 20th African country. Moroccan banks are trekking across the Sahara.

African bankers have long preached some version...

Rate rises affect global markets—and may feed back to America

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

ON JUNE 13th the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, the seventh such increase since it began shouldering rates away from zero in December 2015. Markets shrugged—a rather different reaction from the one that followed a policy adjustment made five years ago this month. The chairman then, Ben Bernanke, dared advise investors that the Fed might soon start winding down its stimulative bond-purchases. Traders fell to their fainting couches, but not before pausing to sell. Yields on ten-year Treasury bonds leapt. Currencies around the world flopped. This “taper tantrum”, as it became known, raised concerns that Fed tightening might so perturb global markets that America itself could suffer. Having survived both tapering and rate increases, Fed officials now seem inclined to dismiss such worries. They should not. The danger of a nasty Fed feedback loop remains.

Wise central bankers are prepared for ill winds blowing from abroad. Thanks to...

Other American banks may have misbehaved as Wells Fargo did. Which ones?

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

Role model

IF THERE is a single example of how dramatically the regulatory environment has changed for American banks in the past 18 months, it may be the trickle of information that has recently emerged about an inquiry into their sales practices. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a banking watchdog, began it in 2016 after widespread malpractice was uncovered at Wells Fargo, one of the country’s biggest banks. It ended the inquiry quietly by writing to several banks on June 4th; it sent the letters to Congress on June 11th. The public learned of the probe only because of diligent reporting by American Banker, a trade publication which appears to have gleaned its information mainly from banking consultants.

The OCC responded to American Banker’s report by releasing enough information to suggest that some banks were guilty of at least minor jiggery-pokery. It confirmed as much in testy exchanges...

China’s tighter regulation of shadow banks begins to bite

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

THE teller at ICBC, China’s (and the world’s) biggest bank, ushers a new, well-heeled customer into a private room. It is not for VIP treatment but a stern warning. The customer wants to invest in products offering higher returns than a basic savings account. The teller fixes a camera on her and reels off a series of questions. Are you aware that prices can go down as well as up? Do you understand that the bank does not guarantee this product? Only when the customer has been recorded saying “yes” does she get her wish.

Some complain that these videotaped agreements, now mandatory at Chinese banks selling similar investment products, feel like interrogations. But for the financial system, they are a step away from the precipice. Banks have used such transactions to channel cash into off-balance-sheet loans, serving riskier corners of the economy. Firms with little lending expertise have also muscled into the same space.

The catch-all phrase to describe this is shadow banking. It...

How to play Argentina

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

THERE is a type of footballer who inspires the affection of fans and the ire of coaches. He is talented, usually extravagantly so. But he is also wayward to the same lavish degree. Discipline seems beyond him, on or off the pitch. It was said of one of this kind, Stan Bowles of Queens Park Rangers and England, that if he could pass a betting shop as well as he passed a ball he’d be a rich man.

Which brings us, naturally, to Argentina—not to its footballers, who have mostly fulfilled their potential, but to its economy, which has not. A century ago, it was the country of the future. It betrayed that promise without ever quite extinguishing hopes that it might eventually live up to it. Like a talented but troublesome sportsman, it keeps being given another chance. The board of the IMF will soon approve a $50bn support package for Argentina. It has had countless such programmes in the past without much changing. The fund is betting that this time is different. Should investors make a similar wager...

How open is America?

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 15:09

“JUSTIN has agreed to cut all tariffs and all trade barriers between Canada and the United States,” claimed President Donald Trump to laughter on June 8th, at the G7 summit in Quebec. The next day, in apparent seriousness, Mr Trump—who has slapped tariffs and quotas on imports of aluminium and steel from all the G7 countries, and others—called for unfettered trade within the group: “No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be.”

Over the next two days a more familiar Mr Trump reappeared. After Mr Trudeau said, at a post-summit press conference, that Canada would not be pushed around, he fired off a barrage of tweets calling him “very dishonest & weak”. He blasted Europe too. And he tweeted: “Sorry, we cannot let our friends, or enemies, take advantage of us on Trade anymore.”

Suspend disbelief and suppose that Mr Trump’s offer of a barrier-free world is serious. He may want to tear down tariffs and quotas out of a yearning for open markets and lower prices for...

Two Asian stock exchanges tussle over market data

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:45

BUYING and selling shares in India is not for the faint of heart. Its own central-bank governor reckons equity capital is taxed up to five times. Never fear. There is a well-established alternative. Investors can just as easily buy financial instruments that track share prices but are not themselves shares. Such “derivatives” are used across the world to mirror markets in everything from platinum to pork bellies. But they also raise awkward questions: can the exchange that generates prices by matching buyers and sellers stop a rival using the data to create its own derivatives?

A quarrel between the Singapore Exchange (SGX) and the National Stock Exchange (NSE) in Mumbai touches that very issue. Since 2000 global investors wanting exposure to Indian shares but not Indian red tape and tax have gone via SGX. Under a licence from NSE, punters could trade a derivative linked to the Nifty 50, an index which is to India what the FTSE 100 is to Britain or the S&P 500 is to America.

...

A case for owning euro-zone shares

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:45

IN AN episode of “Seinfeld”, a 1990s television comedy, George Costanza, a serial failure played by Jason Alexander, decides that every instinct he has is wrong. So he resolves to do the opposite. He is soon squiring a new girlfriend and is up for a dream job. “It’s all happening because I’m completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment I’ve ever had,” he says.

Success in investing often means going against the grain—and your own feelings. To do otherwise is to be swept along by the general greed and fear. Still, fear is a useful emotion. It would be unwise, for instance, to ignore the recent turmoil in Italy, where bond yields spiked in response to concerns that the country might be on the road to leaving the euro. Though the worst fears have subsided, the coalition that was eventually given the president’s blessing to form a government looks capable of causing trouble.

A natural inclination in the circumstances is to turn away from euro-zone assets—not...

A referendum on the way money is created

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:45

TO ITS opponents, the Vollgeld initiative is “suicidal” and a “dangerous experiment”. To its supporters, it is the ticket to a “fairer and more stable banking system”. Swiss voters will decide for themselves on June 10th, when the proposal for sovereign money, which would rewire the country’s banking system, are put to a referendum that, in theory, would be binding.

The heart of the argument is whether private-sector banks should be able to create money. In modern economies, most money takes the form of deposits in commercial banks, rather than the cash in circulation and the reserves determined by the central bank. And bank deposits are mainly created through bank lending. Lenders can thus lend far more than they hold in central-bank reserves.

Vollgeld supporters want to take such money-creating powers away from banks. Bank deposits are not as safe as sovereign money, they say. If a bank collapses, depositors lose...

In developing countries, many people cannot afford not to work

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:45

No time for tweeting

AMERICA’S unemployment statistics attract close attention, even from presidents. Early on June 1st President Donald Trump tweeted that he was looking forward to the latest figure (3.8%), released that morning. China’s unemployment numbers, by contrast, attract mostly ridicule. They have barely budged since 2011 despite the upheavals of the period.

Many China-watchers therefore hoped that a new measure of unemployment, dating from 2016 but published monthly since April, would be more revealing. Unlike the older statistic, which counts only those registered as jobless at local labour offices, the new measure draws on a survey of the labour force, collected by trained enumerators and beamed directly to Beijing beyond the grasp of local officials. It now covers 120,000 households across urban China (on top of a longer-running survey of 31 cities), providing, in theory, a representative snapshot of the biggest unemployed population in the world.

...

The market for driverless cars will head towards monopoly

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:45

THE race to bring driverless cars to market is fierce and crowded. All the leading carmakers are in the field: on May 31st SoftBank’s Vision Fund said that it would invest $2.25bn in the autonomous vehicle (AV) arm of General Motors. So are tech upstarts, from Uber to Tesla to Waymo, Alphabet’s self-drive division and the leader in driverless technology, which recently announced plans to add 62,000 minivans to the fleet of cars that will make up its autonomous ride-hailing service. Intense competition has both benefits and costs, but will probably prove short-lived. Thanks to powerful economies of scale, the roads may soon be ruled by no more than a handful of firms.

The advantages of scale begin with data. Like humans, the computers which power driverless cars improve with experience. The computers sitting in AVs are essentially in the business of learning and improving on what a good human driver would do, write Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb in their new book, “Prediction...

American firms will be hit hard by retaliatory tariffs

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 09:18

Riding for a fall

“LOOK at all these bikers…we love the bikers!” declared the pre-presidential Donald Trump, surveying a crowd of motorcycle-owners gathered by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, in 2016. Riders of Harley-Davidsons, in particular, have been among Mr Trump’s noisiest supporters since the early days of his campaign. Riders of “hogs” often see themselves as rowdy rebels. Perhaps this is why many have identified with Mr Trump’s disdain for conventional politics.

Alas, the love affair may be heading for trouble. Mr Trump’s trade policies have put Harley-Davidson in a double bind. The company uses a lot of steel and aluminium to make its bikes. Although much of that is domestically sourced, Mr Trump’s tariffs on imports have led to higher prices for locally made metals, too, thus raising costs. And the European Union is poised to impose retaliatory tariffs on a variety of American exports, including motorcycles and whiskey. Harley-Davidson had bet on a...

President Trump’s tariffs have united his opponents at home and abroad

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 09:18

“HOW am I going to compete?” asks Sohel Sareshwala. He runs Accu-Swiss, a Californian company making customised components for the manufacture of semiconductors and cars. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium, both of which he uses as inputs, are eating into his profit margins and delaying his orders. Meanwhile, Mr Sareshwala’s competitors abroad, free of such concerns, can undercut him.

Mr Sareshwala is not alone in his frustration. On June 1st Mr Trump extended tariffs to countries that supplied 81% of America’s steel imports and 96% of aluminium imports in 2017, arguing that this was necessary to protect national security. Tight quotas apply to most of the rest. Only Australia was let off, perhaps because of a friendship between the president and Greg Norman, an Australian golfer, who lobbied on his government’s behalf. Mr Trump’s tariffs and quotas have drawn a chorus of disapproval from American buyers of metal, the governments of Mexico, Canada and the European Union,...

Britain’s government cuts its losses on Royal Bank of Scotland

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 16:38

IF YOU are selling shares, they are worth not what you paid for them, but what someone else will offer. For the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the sum that counts is £2.71 ($3.62). On June 5th UK Government Investments, which manages the state’s stakes in companies, said it had placed 7.7% of RBS at that price—10p below the previous day’s market close—with institutional buyers, reducing its holding to 62.4%. The government paid £5.02 per share to rescue the bank in 2008. So on those 925m shares, taxpayers have lost £2.1bn.

The state has long looked unlikely to recoup its fivers, let alone the £6.25 per share that the National Audit Office, a public-finance watchdog, reckoned last year was a fair benchmark after adding the cost of financing the bail-out. (In 2015 it sold 630m shares, or 5.4% of RBS, for £3.30 a pop.) Even if the stockmarket valued RBS as highly as the book value of its assets—which is true of few big European banks—the price would still be only £4, a level it last saw...

The number of new banks in America has fallen off a cliff

Thu, 05/31/2018 - 15:02

THE single-storey main branch of the Texas Hill Country Bank, in Kerrville, sits at the back of a tired shopping centre, in the shade of a six-storey Wells Fargo building. When Roy Thompson, the chief executive, was hired (from Wells) in 2012, three years after it opened, he ran a radio ad campaign to alert locals to its existence. It asked listeners to help a mother (his) to find her child (Roy himself), who had gone missing after joining a community bank.

If Mr Thompson had shared the fate of many small-town bankers, he would have remained missing. Since 2012 more than 2,000 American banks have closed (see chart). Almost all were small, operating in the shadows of big banks with big budgets for marketing, technology and regulatory compliance. For the same reasons, almost no new banks have opened. Before the crisis the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) approved hundreds of bank charters each year. Since 2009 there have been only a dozen in total.

So sudden has been the stop that the FDIC is...

In investing, as in poker, following rules works best

Thu, 05/31/2018 - 15:02

AT THE annual World Series of Poker, which begins this week in Las Vegas, the main event is the no-limit Texas hold ’em tournament. In the course of two weeks of gruelling knock-out play, several thousand players are whittled down to just two, playing “heads-up” for one of the WSOP’s coveted bracelets.

In last year’s final hand, both players had pushed all their chips in, with five shared cards yet to be dealt. Scott Blumstein, who held Ace-Deuce, was a big underdog against Daniel Ott, who held Ace-Eight. With one card to come, Mr Blumstein’s hand had not improved. His chances had narrowed to 7%. Of the remaining 44 cards, only one of the other three deuces could give him victory.

The cards—and thus the odds of winning or losing—were known to both players, because they had already committed all their chips. Poker is not usually like this. Winning depends not only on your cards but on the unseen cards held by other players, on your ability to deceive them by your...

There is madness, but perhaps also method, in America’s trade policies

Thu, 05/31/2018 - 15:02

DIVINING meaning in the Trump administration’s trade announcements is a thankless task. No sooner does a policy seem settled than it is thrown up in the air once more. On May 23rd, days before a scheduled meeting with the European Union and Japan on a joint trade strategy and in the middle of talks to revamp the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it began an investigation into whether car imports are a threat to America’s national security. On May 29th, days after tariffs on imports from China were supposedly put on hold, official word came that tariffs on $50bn of Chinese imports would be imposed “shortly” after June 15th. Barring a last-minute change of heart—which would not be the first—as The Economist went to press the administration was expected to announce tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from the EU from June 1st. Whether America’s partners in NAFTA, Canada and Mexico, would also be hit was unclear.

The chaos is partly the consequence...

Turkey’s central bank has streamlined its fight against inflation

Thu, 05/31/2018 - 15:02

THE baroque era in Turkish architecture lasted deep into the 19th century, leaving behind lavish buildings, such as the Lily Mosque in Istanbul and waterside pavilions that seem to float on the Bosphorus. The baroque period in Turkish monetary policy will last until June 1st, when the central bank will simplify its equally ornate monetary-policy framework. It will henceforth rely on a single interest rate (the one-week repo rate), which it will raise to 16.5%. This will supersede a jumble of interest rates (see chart) that has left the Turkish currency perilously close to submersion.

Turkish baroque mingled Western...

Pages