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Finance and economics
Updated: 2 hours 40 min ago

The euro area’s economy loses momentum

6 hours 31 min ago

ECONOMISTS have spent the past decade wringing their hands over the health of the euro area’s economy. Last year, in a welcome respite, it expanded by a robust 2.3%, outstripping forecasts and matching America’s growth rate. But it has appeared less rosy-cheeked since.

Symptoms include moderation in a number of monthly indicators. Industrial production fell in January and February, as did business confidence; retail-sales growth was disappointing. The purchasing managers’ index (PMI), an output survey regarded as a good early indicator of GDP growth, has fallen from exuberant—and perhaps unsustainable—levels at the turn of the year, though it still points to decent growth (see chart).

Germany, the bloc’s largest economy, has not been immune. A summary indicator compiled by the Macroeconomic Policy Institute, a German think-tank, which includes production, sentiment and interest-rate data, suggests that the probability of a recession has risen, from 7% in March to 32% in April. A...

A new NAFTA may be agreed on soon

6 hours 31 min ago

The new NAFTA model has many moving parts

ONE year ago, a member of President Donald Trump’s administration drafted a short executive order to withdraw America from the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade deal with Canada and Mexico. The obvious interpretation was that Mr Trump was irresponsibly bullying the Mexicans and Canadians into giving America better terms. A kinder view held that he was aiming at a domestic audience. Congress was dragging its feet at the time over the confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the president’s chosen trade negotiator. Mr Trump’s threats were a way to kick it into action.

One year on, with Mr Lighthizer long since in place, America’s attitude to NAFTA seems no less hostile. Its threat of withdrawal still hangs over the talks, and in March Mr Trump waved the stick of tariffs on steel and aluminium in case a deal to revise NAFTA could not be reached by May 1st. This tough talk may yield an agreement within the next few...

Many results in microeconomics are shaky

6 hours 31 min ago

MICROECONOMISTS are wrong about specific things, Yoram Bauman, an economist and comedian, likes to say, whereas macroeconomists are wrong in general. Macroeconomists have borne the brunt of public criticism over the past decade, a period marked by financial crisis, soaring unemployment and bitter arguments between the profession’s brightest stars. Yet the vast majority of practising dismal scientists are microeconomists, studying the behaviour of people and firms in individual markets. Their work is influential and touches on all aspects of social policy. But it is no less fraught than the study of the world economy, and should be treated with corresponding caution.

For decades non-economists have attacked the assumptions underlying economic theory: that people are perfectly informed maximisers of their own self-interest, for instance. Although economists are aware that markets fail and humans are not always rational, many of their investigations still rely on neoclassical assumptions as “good...

Technology can tackle investors’ flaws

6 hours 31 min ago

TECHNOLOGY has transformed finance. Consumers bank and buy their insurance policies online. They use technology to manage their pensions and other investment portfolios. But can tech improve returns? Only if it is used wisely.

If it is cheaper to trade, then costs will take a smaller chunk out of long-term returns. Technology also allows fund managers to replicate stockmarket indices, giving investors access to broadly diversified equity portfolios for a fraction of a percentage point in annual fees.

But the ease and cheapness of trading, along with the vast range of options available, create a terrible temptation. Worldwide there are nearly 7,400 exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and related products. These funds are not used only by “buy and hold” investors. Nearly half of the top 20 traded securities on American markets, by value, are ETFs.

Just because you can trade does not mean you should. And just because there is a fund specialising in smaller Vietnamese companies, or...

Donald Trump is sending shockwaves through global commodities markets

6 hours 31 min ago

THE notion that the gentle flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause chaos on the other side of the world is well known. But commodity markets have been tested in recent weeks by what could be called the 800-pound-gorilla effect: the idea that chest-beating in the White House can unleash turmoil in global metals, agricultural and energy markets.

President Donald Trump has slapped sanctions on Russia’s biggest aluminium producer, Rusal, intensified a trade tiff with China and tweeted a gibe against OPEC, the oil-producing cartel. His actions have shaken commodity markets at a time when speculation in futures is near the record heights of 2012, making markets even more volatile (see chart). Aluminium, nickel and palladium prices have soared and then plummeted. Soyabean markets are under threat. Oil prices are at their highest levels for more than three years.

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A market-design economist wins the John Bates Clark medal

6 hours 31 min ago

Parag Pathak penned a pupil-picker paper

BOSTON parents were fed up. To get their children into public schools they had to submit a list of their preferences. Spots were allocated first to those who put a school top. Only then would schools consider pupils who put them second or third. Sounds fair? Hold on. The best schools are popular. Picking them risks rejection. Good schools are sought after, too. If put second they may also fill up, leaving only places at worse schools. Should parents aim for the best and risk mediocrity, or settle for the good?

On April 20th the American Economic Association (AEA) awarded the John Bates Clark medal, given annually to a leading economist under 40, to Parag Pathak of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He researches market design—eg, creating mechanisms to allocate resources without money, such as school places in Boston. Solutions he devised there have been applied widely, from New York to New Orleans. The AEA...

The lapsing of Finland’s universal basic income trial

6 hours 31 min ago

THE concept of a universal basic income (UBI), an unconditional cash payment to all citizens, has in recent years captured the imagination of a wide spectrum of people, from leftist activists to libertarian Silicon Valley techies. Proponents see a neat solution to poverty and the challenges of automation; detractors argue it would remove the incentive to work. Trials of UBI have been launched, or are about to be, in several countries. Most are publicly funded, although Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup accelerator, is starting a privately funded experiment in America.

Finland was one of the first movers. In January 2017 it began a trial for 2,000 people, each receiving €560 ($680) a month. That drew legions of foreign journalists and camera crews. This week, however, international media attention abruptly centred on the ending of the experiment in December 2018. Headlines suggested that it had been “scrapped” or had “failed”. The truth is more nuanced.

The trial...

Crypto money-laundering

11 hours 48 min ago

AS LONG as dirty money has been around, so has money-laundering. Between $800bn and $2trn, or 2-5% of global GDP, is washed annually, estimates the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Criminals have swapped money for precious metals, mis-stated invoices, rinsed cash through casinos or simply strapped it to their bodies and flown to places where banks don’t ask questions. Now they have a new detergent: crypto-currencies.

Such data as there are suggest that crypto-laundering is still a small share of the whole. But crypto-currencies’ attractions—global availability, the speed and irreversibility of transactions and the ability to hide identities—are plain. Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, Europe’s police agency, has estimated that 3-4% of the continent’s annual criminal takings, or £3bn-4bn ($4.2bn-5.6bn), are crypto-laundered. He thinks the problem will get worse. America’s Drug Enforcement Administration believes international gangs are using crypto-currencies more.

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Regulating virtual currencies and ICOs

11 hours 48 min ago

THE pattern is familiar. Computer geeks develop technology that threatens to overturn established markets and habits. Regulators then scramble to understand and tame the beast. This is what is happening in the financial world in the wake of an explosion of crypto-currencies. Over the past year the pool of virtual currencies has both deepened, from $30bn to $400bn, and widened, with the spread of “initial coin offerings” (ICOs, a form of fundraising in which investors in young companies are issued with virtual tokens). Hedge funds, students and pensioners have all been caught up in the crypto craze.

This worries authorities, because the crypto-sphere is far from risk-free. Valuations can leap and plunge: after a giddy rise, between December and February the price of bitcoin dropped from nearly $20,000 to less than $7,000. (It is now around $9,000.) Several ICOs have turned out to be scams. Legitimate tokens are in danger of being stolen. Some crypto-currency exchanges have been hacked.

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Economists still lack a proper understanding of business cycles

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

THE aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis ought to have been a moment of triumph for economics. Lessons learned from the 1930s prevented the collapse of global finance and trade, and resulted in a downturn far shorter and less severe than the Depression. But even as the policy remedies were helpful, the crisis exposed the economic profession’s continued ignorance of the business cycle. That is bad news not just for the discipline, but for everyone.

The aim of those studying the macroeconomy has always been to understand the economy’s wobbles, and to work out when governments should intervene. That is not easy. Downturns come often enough to be a serious irritant, but not often enough to give economists sufficient data for rigorous statistical analysis. It is hard to distinguish between short-run swings and structural economic changes resulting from demography or technology. Most classical economists were sceptical of the idea that the macroeconomy needed much oversight at all.

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Indicators that signal financial-market trouble are flashing

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

WATCHING financial markets can be like watching a horror film. A character walks into the darkness alone. A floorboard creaks. The latest spooky sign is the spread between the three-month dollar London interbank offered rate (LIBOR) and the overnight index swap (OIS) rate. It usually hovers at around 0.1%, but has recently climbed to 0.6% (see chart). As it widens, bankers are bracing for a jump scare.

To see why, consider what each rate represents. LIBOR is the rate that banks charge other banks for unsecured loans. The OIS rate measures expectations for the federal funds rate, which is set by the central bank. As LIBOR rises above the OIS rate, that suggests banks fear it is getting riskier to lend to each other. (The gap was 3.65 percentage points in the depths of the crisis, after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.)

Market-watchers were already twitchy. Last November they shuddered as the yield curve, which plots the yields of Treasury bonds of different maturities, abruptly...

Hong Kong defends its dollar peg in both directions

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

THE Hong Kong dollar is one of the most and least manipulated monies in the world. For over 34 years the territory’s monetary authority, the HKMA, has kept it pegged to America’s currency at around HK$7.80 to the dollar, resisting all temptations to let it fall or rise. In 2005 it refined the peg with two promises: to buy dollars at the price of HK$7.75 and to sell them for HK$7.85.

The strength of the Hong Kong dollar has obliged the HKMA to keep the first promise many times since. Its purchases of American dollars have even drawn the accusation that it manipulates its currency for competitive advantage.

In fact, the HKMA has always been ready to manipulate its currency upwards, too. But since 2005 it has had no occasion to, until last week. On April 12th the Hong Kong dollar weakened to HK$7.85, forcing the authority to buy HK$51bn over the next few days in exchange for American dollars.

The Hong Kong dollar’s weakness reflects the gap between rising American interest rates...

Coco bonds have not lived up to their promise

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

DURING the financial crisis, Western governments poured hundreds of billions of dollars into their banks to avert collapse. The search for ways to avoid future bail-outs started before the turmoil ended. One of the niftiest proposals was the “contingent convertible” (coco) bond, which turns into equity when the ratio of a bank’s equity to risk-weighted assets falls below a predetermined danger point (since set at a minimum of 5.125% for cocos, although it can be up to around 7%). The ambition was grand. As the Squam Lake Group, composed of mostly American academics, put it in 2009, the automatic conversion of cocos would “transform an undercapitalised or insolvent bank into a well-capitalised bank at no cost to taxpayers”.

At first, regulators were keen. In 2010 Mervyn King, then the governor of the Bank of England, said he wanted contingent capital to be a “major part of the liability structure of the banking system”. Swiss regulators, too, pushed for coco issuance. The hybrid nature of cocos seemed a way to satisfy both regulators, who wanted banks to have bigger safety buffers, and bankers, who were reluctant to issue new shares because of the high cost of capital. The hope was that investors, too, might see the appeal of an asset that offered a higher yield than bank bonds but lower risk than bank shares.

Nine years after the first cocos were...

America’s Treasury refrains from naming any currency manipulators

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

MOST governments are happy when foreigners want their bonds, especially when those foreigners are long-term holders, like central banks. But America is different. It worries that some foreign governments buy its debt to keep the dollar pricey and their own currencies cheap. This “currency manipulation” gives other countries a competitive edge, raising their own trade surpluses and America’s deficit.

Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, sees an “arc of intervention” across Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea that has slowed the dollar’s decline over the past nine months. America has reportedly persuaded South Korea to forswear currency manipulation in a “side-agreement” to their revised trade deal. And on April 16th President Donald Trump tweeted that “Russia and China are playing the Currency Devaluation game...Not acceptable!”

Mr Trump’s tweet was at odds with his Treasury Department’s assessment. Every six months it must tell Congress if any...

Tax cuts and higher interest rates help boost banks’ earnings

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:48

SO THIS is how normality feels. Between April 13th and April 18th America’s biggest banks reported a strong set of first-quarter earnings, with a helping hand from the taxman. Some are more profitable than they have been for years. They are paying billions to shareholders; regulatory reins are being loosened. Yet the stockmarket shrugged. On April 18th the S&P 500 index of banks’ share prices was 4.1% lower than at the start of reporting season.

Banks expected three main effects from the corporate-tax cut signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The first was a write-down of deferred tax assets—past losses that could be set against future bills—which clobbered most lenders’ bottom lines in the fourth quarter but did no real damage. (Some, including Wells Fargo, carried deferred liabilities and hence recorded a gain.) The second was a permanent reduction in their tax bills. The third was a boost to business from a more lightly taxed America Inc.

The direct benefits of lower taxes are plain. Although pre-tax profits at the six biggest banks rose by $4.3bn, compared with the first quarter of 2017, taxes fell at five of them. (At the sixth, Goldman Sachs, the bill was unusually low a year ago because of a change in the treatment of employees’ shares and options.) Of a total increase in net profit of $5.4bn at those five, lower taxes...

A Victorian survivor

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 15:15

WHEN the Foreign & Colonial Government Trust was launched in 1868, The Economist had its doubts. “The shape is very peculiar,” we worried, adding that “the exact idea upon which it starts has never been used before.” Some of the trust’s promises were “far too sanguine to ever be performed”. Nevertheless, we concluded that: “In our judgment, the idea is very good.”

That turned out to be one of this newspaper’s more successful forecasts. One hundred and fifty years later, the trust is still going strong, having delivered a compound annual return of 8.1%. It now looks after a portfolio of £4bn ($5.7bn), rather than the £588,300 it raised at launch.

In its own way, the trust is an example of how much the financial sector has changed—and how much it has stayed the same. The idea of a pooled portfolio seems commonplace now, but at the time it was revolutionary.

This was the 19th century, when Britain was confident of its...

After a good run of growth, China’s economy braces for bumps

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 15:49

JUST a few years ago Wuhan, a sprawling metropolis in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, exemplified China’s economic woes. Municipal debt had soared. The most senior local official was known as “Mr Dig Up The City”, a reference to his zeal for grandiose construction projects. A movie theme park, intended as a landmark, closed after failing to draw crowds. It would take nearly a decade, it was estimated, to sell all of Wuhan’s vacant homes.

These days, the city of 11m stands as a monument to China’s resilience. Its economy has accelerated even as the government has controlled debt more strictly. Five subway lines were opened or extended in the past two years alone; they are jammed in rush hour. Investment is pouring into semiconductor production, biotech research and internet-security companies. The glut of unsold homes is almost cleared.

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Economists understand little about the causes of growth

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 14:54

OVER the past decade economists have been intensely scrutinised for their intellectual failings in the run-up to the 2007-08 financial crisis. Yet had the recession that followed been more severe—wiping a quarter off the GDP of every advanced economy, say—those countries would still have ended up four times as rich per person, in purchasing-power terms, as developing countries are now, and more than ten times as rich as sub-Saharan ones. Robert Lucas, a Nobel prizewinning economist, once wrote that after you have started to think about the gap between poor and rich countries it is hard to think about anything else. Economists understand even less about economic growth than about business cycles. But the profession has done too little to address this failure or to understand its implications.

Economists have precious few hard facts about growth. They know that sustained growth in GDP per person only started in the 18th century. They know that countries can become rich only by growing steadily...

The proxy-voting season kicks off on Wall Street

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 14:54

JING ZHAO’S main occupation is translating Latin classics into Chinese. He runs a small think-tank, the US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute. He lives off rents from property bought cheaply after the financial crisis. But this quiet, intellectual California resident has a surprising sideline: submitting proposals to be voted on by the shareholders of companies in which he owns small stakes. That makes him part of a movement that is forcing management at some of the world’s biggest firms to consider not just profitability but broad shifts in social attitudes.

The annual meetings of America’s listed companies, usually held between February and June, have come to constitute “proxy season”—so-called because shareholders need not cast their votes in person. This year proposals from Mr Zhao will be on the ballot at four giant firms. He wants Apple to create a human-rights committee, citing its decision last year to bow to Chinese censorship by removing hundreds of “virtual private...

The outlook for US government debt

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 14:54

THE bond market used to be the prime exhibit for those predicting low long-term economic growth. In the summer of 2016 the ten-year Treasury yield briefly dipped below 1.5%, as expectations for growth and inflation sagged. Things have changed. Earlier this year the ten-year yield briefly went higher than 2.9%. Even after recent share-price gyrations, it remains around 2.8%, well up since the start of 2018. The rebounding interest rate partly reflects higher confidence in global growth. Inevitably, a new set of pessimists now voice a fresh worry: that bond yields might go on rising for less welcome reasons.

They point to three threats. The first is monetary policy. The Federal Reserve has raised short-term interest rates by 1.5 percentage points since December 2015. At their March meeting, rate-setters slightly upgraded forecasts of how far rates should eventually rise. Last October the Fed began shrinking its $4.5trn portfolio of assets, mostly government debt, amassed since the start of the...

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