Posts in category Finance and economics


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Investors snap up Argentina’s 100-year bonds

ONE hundred years ago, Argentina was not the country it is today. Thanks to a belle époque of lavish foreign investment, rapid inward migration and bountiful agricultural exports, its GDP per person in 1917 was comparable to that of Germany and France. Although the first world war brutally interrupted international trade and investment, the country profited from filling the bellies of soldiers on the front with tinned corned beef.

No one knows how Argentina may change over the next 100 years. But many investors seem willing to bet on one forecast: that its government will in 2117 repay $2.75bn-worth of dollar-denominated, 100-year bonds, sold to enthusiastic investors on June 19th.

Since Argentina has defaulted six times in the past 100 years, that belief seems brave. But instead of looking backwards, investors are looking from side to side, at the miserable yields on offer elsewhere. Argentina’s “century” bonds yield almost 8%. That…Continue reading

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The Federal Reserve risks truncating a recovery with room to run

WHEN it comes to inflation, the Federal Reserve sometimes resembles a child freshly emerged from an age-inappropriate horror film. To its members, runaway price increases seem to lurk in every oddly shaped shadow. On June 14th America’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the third time in six months, even as inflation lingered below its 2% target, as it has for most of the past five years. Some critics reckon the Fed’s 2% inflation target is too constraining. Indeed, in recent comments on a letter from prominent economists calling for a higher target, Janet Yellen, the chairman, signalled openness to the idea. But the Fed’s problem is less its target than an unforgiving pessimism about American productivity. If its bleak view is wrong, the Fed itself is partly to blame for slow growth.

Economists generally treat productivity growth as a “real” factor, outside central-bank control. Thus, it is thought to depend on things such as technological progress, workers’ skill levels and the flexibility of the economy. But productivity growth is cyclical: it varies depending on whether an economy is booming or busting. Central banks might therefore have more influence over it than they are prepared to admit.

Economies have a growth speed limit, determined by changes in population and productivity. When unemployment is high, the economy…Continue reading

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Klarna, a Swedish fintech unicorn, gets a full banking licence

BANKS moan incessantly about over- regulation. Yet their banking licences come with perks: in most places only licensed institutions can accept deposits and offer current accounts; within the EU, “passporting” means a bank licensed in one country may operate across the single market. So some European financial-technology (“fintech”) upstarts have started to seek banking licences. On June 19th, Klarna, a Swedish payments firm valued at $2.25bn, became the latest—and the largest so far—to get one.

European fintech firms have various reasons for seeking approval as a bank. Bunq, a Dutch firm and one of the first to get a licence, started out in payments, like Klarna, but expanded to deposit accounts. Some, like N26 in Germany or Atom Bank in Britain, sought to be full-service, online retail banks from the outset. Others, such as ClearBank, a new British clearing and settlement bank, want to offer services to other firms.

Of those focused on the retail market, Klarna…Continue reading

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Fund managers rarely outperform the market for long

THE big investment shift of recent years is from active to passive. Clients have been buying index funds, which passively track a benchmark like the S&P 500 index, and shunning fund managers who actively try to pick the best shares.

One reason for the shift is that passive managers charge lower fees than active funds. Many clients would be happy to pay more if that translated into better performance. However, it is very difficult for investors to select fund managers who can reliably beat their peers. Performance does not persist, as the latest data from S&P Dow Jones Indices show clearly.

Suppose you had picked one of the best-performing 25% of American equity mutual funds in the 12 months to March 2013. In the subsequent 12 months, to March 2014, only 25.6% of those funds stayed in the top quartile (see chart). That result is no better than chance. In the subsequent 12-month periods, this elite bunch is winnowed down to 4.1%, 0.5% and 0.3%—all figures that are worse than…Continue reading

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Finland tests an unconditional basic income

JUHA JARVINEN, an unemployed young father in a village near Jurva, western Finland, brims with ideas for earning a living. “I’m an artist and entrepreneur. Sometimes I’m too active, I don’t have time to stop,” he says. He just agreed to paint the roofs of two neighbours’ houses. His old business, making decorative window frames, went bust a few years ago. Having paid off debts, he recently registered another, to produce videos for clients.

Mr Jarvinen says that for six years he had wanted to start a new business but it had proved impossible. The family got by on his wife’s wages as a nurse, plus unemployment and child benefits. Mr Jarvinen had a few job offers in the main local industries—forestry, furniture-making and metalwork. But taking on anything short of a permanent, well-paid post made no sense, since it would jeopardise his (generous) welfare payments. To re-enroll for benefits later, if needed, would be painfully slow. “It is crazy, so no one will…Continue reading

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Inflation has not yet followed lower unemployment in America

THAT central banks cannot endlessly reduce unemployment without sparking inflation is economic gospel. It follows from “a substantial body of theory, informed by considerable historical evidence”, according to Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve. Her conviction explains why, on June 14th, the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, to a range of 1-1.25%.

Excluding food and energy, prices are only 1.5% higher than a year ago; the Fed’s inflation target is 2%. But Ms Yellen thinks unemployment is below its so-called “natural” rate, so inflation should soon rise. Is she right? Or has the relationship between unemployment and inflation, dubbed the Phillips curve, gone missing?

It is not the first time the theory has failed. After the financial crisis unemployment soared to 10%. This surfeit of workers should have sent inflation tumbling. But prices held up well; in October 2009, when unemployment peaked, underlying inflation was 1.3%, only a little…Continue reading

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Death pools can bring financial security for the long-lived

Thinking inside the box

WHEN members of a private club in Manhattan suddenly start dropping dead at an alarming rate, Matt Scudder, a private detective, suspects more might be at play than bad luck to explain the bizarre series of suicides and violent accidents. If this sounds like the back-flap of a murder mystery, your deduction skills are as sharp as Mr Scudder’s. In Lawrence Block’s “A Long Line of Dead Men,” the cunning detective eventually uncovers the motive for the killing spree: the club of 31 men were all part of a tontine.

These ancient financial instruments are built on members paying money into a pool, which is invested and then pays out dividends once they reach a pre-agreed age. Those who live longest will see their income increase as others die; the last one standing receives the most. They are essentially a form of insurance against an unexpectedly long life.

Although most people will know them from the works of Agatha…Continue reading

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The perils of nationalisation

WHEN Jeremy Corbyn unveiled his Labour manifesto ahead of the recent British election, opponents gawked at pledges to renationalise the postal and rail systems. Such enthusiasm for state ownership smacks of a philosophy long since abandoned by leaders on both left and right. Despite Labour’s decent electoral performance, nationalisation is not everywhere on the march; on June 5th Donald Trump made public his desire to privatise air-traffic control. But the rise of Mr Corbyn and Bernie Sanders hints at a weakening of the rich-world consensus that the less of the economy owned by government, the better. That is a pity. Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments.

For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. Maurice Allais, an (admittedly French) economist who won the Nobel prize in 1988, recommended that the government run a few firms in each industry, the better to observe the relative merits of public and private…Continue reading

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Banco Popular fails and is bought by Santander

EVEN a bank failure can be presented as a triumph. This week Banco Popular, a big Spanish lender, endured a run. Depositors were said to be withdrawing €2bn ($2.2bn) a day. The bank lost half its stockmarket value in four days, as a self-imposed deadline to find a saviour loomed. On June 6th, it was declared by the Single Resolution Board (SRB), an independent agency of the European Central Bank formed in 2015 and charged with winding down banks, to be “failing or likely to fail”. The next morning, Santander, Spain’s biggest bank, announced its purchase for the symbolic sum of €1 ($1.10). It is to raise €7bn in capital to help absorb Popular’s property-related losses.

Spain’s government, the European Commission and Santander all cheered the outcome as a model European response to a bank crisis. Shareholders and junior bondholders in Popular have been wiped out. Spanish ministers pointed out that taxpayers would not have to pay for a rescue of the sort arranged for Bankia, a giant savings bank nearing collapse, when…Continue reading

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A state bail-out of Monte dei Paschi draws near

Not the world’s oldest customer

HELP is at hand for the world’s oldest bank. On June 1st the European Commission said it had agreed in principle to a bail-out by the Italian government of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472. For years Monte dei Paschi, Italy’s fourth-biggest bank by assets, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Last July it flunked a test by European supervisors of its capital strength. In December a private-sector restructuring scheme came to naught and the state decided to step in.

The details, including the size of the bail-out, have yet to be hammered out. In December the European Central Bank (ECB) estimated that Monte dei Paschi would need €8.8bn ($9.2bn) in capital to withstand the “adverse scenario” in last summer’s test. The Bank of Italy reckoned that the state’s share would be €6.6bn.

That included €2bn to compensate retail investors in the bank’s junior bonds, many of them ordinary customers….Continue reading

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To err is human; so is the failure to admit it

A NEWSPAPER cannot publish for 174 years without some mistakes. This one has made its share. We thought Britain was safe in the European exchange-rate mechanism just weeks before it crashed out; we opined, in 1997, that Indonesia was well placed to avoid financial crisis; we noted in 1999 that oil, at $10 per barrel, might well reach $5, almost perfectly timing the bottom of the market; and in 2003 we supported the invasion of Iraq. For individuals, like publications, errors are painful—particularly now, when the digital evidence of failure is both accessible and indelible. But they are also inevitable. The trick, then, is to err well: to recognise mistakes and learn from them. Worryingly, humanity may be getting worse at owning up to its goofs.

Few enjoy the feeling of being caught out in an error. But real trouble starts when the desire to avoid a reckoning leads to a refusal to grapple with contrary evidence. Economists often assume that people are rational. Faced with a new fact,…Continue reading

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Why government-bond yields have been falling again

EVERY year it seems that analysts and investors play a ritual game. They begin by asserting that government bonds are terrible value and that, accordingly, this must be the year when yields will rise (and prices fall). And then they get mugged by reality.

The same pattern seems to be playing out in 2017. Back in December, a poll of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) found that pessimists on global bonds outnumbered optimists by 58 percentage points. Investors believed in a “reflation trade”, with tax cuts from Donald Trump’s administration leading to faster American growth, to which the Federal Reserve would respond with higher interest rates.

For a while, such forecasts seemed to be on the money. The yield on the ten-year Treasury bond picked up to 2.63% by March 13th (see chart). But since then the trend has changed. The Treasury-bond yield recorded a low for the year of 2.13% on June 6th. In Britain the yield on the ten-year gilt dipped below 1% on June 6th…Continue reading

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Sweden’s economy is thriving, so why is monetary policy so loose?

ON A recent balmy day, people thronged the parks and promenades of central Stockholm. Swedes have much to feel sunny about. Real economic growth, at a heady 3.2% in 2016, has averaged 2.8% annually since 2009, compared with the euro area’s 1.1% per year. In April, Swedish inflation was close to the target of 2% aimed at by the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank. Yet it decided not only to maintain the main policy rate at -0.50%, where it has been since February 2016, but to increase the amount of asset purchases under quantitative easing (QE) by a further SKr15bn ($1.7bn) during the second half of 2017.

One explanation for keeping policy so loose is that the inflation figure is deceptive. Johan Javeus of SEB, a bank, points out that some of the increase was driven by one-off factors, such as rises in air fares and energy prices. After raising rates prematurely in 2010 and 2011, the Riksbank is loth to do so again.

But also, it is hemmed in by the European Central Bank (ECB). The…Continue reading

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Will President Trump rescue failing pension funds?

TO THE exasperation of budget hawks, Donald Trump has long made clear that he will not reform Social Security (public pensions). But maintaining these entitlements does not fully protect workers’ retirement income. For many, pension promises from their employers are more important. These can shrink or vanish when firms fail. And, like Social Security, the programme that protects retirees against such losses—the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation—is going bust.

The PBGC levies premiums on defined-benefit pension plans in order to bail out those that fail (up to a maximum payout per worker). On current trends, one of its insurance schemes will probably run dry by 2025. The problem is so-called “multi-employer” funds (see chart). These involve multiple firms, usually under an agreement with an industry-wide union. They cover about 10m Americans, roughly 1m of whom are in a plan that admits it is probably broke. The biggest struggler is the Central States fund, which covers about 400,000…Continue reading

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The race to become Islamic banking’s fintech hub

FOR all the sophistication of some of its financial centres, and despite the ubiquity of smartphones, the Middle East has been a late adopter of financial technology, or fintech. Of more than $50bn in fintech investment globally since 2010, according to Accenture, a consultancy, only 1% has gone to the Middle East and north Africa.

Khalid Al Rumaihi, head of Bahrain’s Economic Development Board, blames institutional foot-dragging and a lack of infrastructure and venture capital. Yet he insists innovation is inherent to Islamic financial tradition. The modern cheque derives from an Arabic instrument, a written vow to pay for goods on delivery, to avoid carrying money on dangerous journeys. “In the 9th century”, he says, “a Muslim businessman could cash a cheque in China drawn on his bank in Baghdad.”

Several cities are now jockeying to establish themselves as fintech hubs. Last year Cairo launched two “accelerators”—schools to nurture startups. Abu…Continue reading

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The super-rich are different: they pay less tax

OF LIFE’s two certainties, death cannot be dodged even by the well-to-do. Taxes are another matter. Quantifying quite how much they manage to keep from the taxman, however, has always been tricky. One common approach governments take is to conduct randomised audits of tax returns. This methodology can give regulators a rough sense of overall tax revenues lost. But it is far from ideal. For instance, studies based on randomised tax audits are usually both too small and too crude to reflect accurately the financial shenanigans of the most egregious tax-dodgers: the super-rich.

A new study by Annette Alstadsæter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman, three economists, tackles this problem by investigating two recent financial-data hoards: the “Swiss leaks”, a record of bank accounts held at HSBC in Switzerland; and the “Panama papers”, files that document the use of offshore accounts and shell companies by clients of Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama. By matching the leaked information with wealth data from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the authors are able to construct the most detailed estimate to date of the extent of tax evasion.

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America’s community banks hope for lighter regulation

A FEW weeks ago Standard Financial, a bank with assets of just $488m and a mere nine branches, merged with Allegheny Valley Bancorp, a slightly smaller neighbour in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The main reason for the deal, says Tim Zimmerman, Standard’s chief executive, was the rising cost of regulation—though competition from PNC, a $371bn colossus based in the city, also played a part. “Without the regulatory overreach…since the crisis,” Mr Zimmerman says, “we’d probably both have gone along on our own, I think.”

Standard is one of America’s 5,400 community banks: local lenders, funded chiefly by deposits, who pride themselves on knowing their turf by the inch and their customers by name. Their size can range up to $10bn in assets, but most are much smaller: over 5,000 banks and savings institutions have less than $1bn and more than 1,500 under $100m. They account for 92% of federally insured banks. Though they make only 16% of all loans, they provide 43% of…Continue reading

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Eastern Bank: a 199-year-old lender becomes a tech pioneer

LIKE other local bankers, Bob Rivers is counting the cost of red tape. At the end of 2015 and 2016 Eastern Bank, a Boston lender of which he is the chief executive, held its balance-sheet below $10bn by briefly parking some deposits elsewhere. Now Eastern—America’s oldest and largest mutual bank, founded in 1818—has crossed the threshold. It will thus become subject to a limit on the debit-card fees retailers pay to bigger banks, and lose $9m of revenue, Mr Rivers says. Other rules will also kick in, costing $6m. The $15m total is one-sixth of Eastern’s pre-tax earnings.

At least, unlike America’s many much smaller lenders, Eastern has the wherewithal to tackle another costly burden: information technology. It is just small enough to be called a “community bank”, but also just big enough to invest in IT. Being a mutual is essential too, Mr Rivers says: he does not have to answer to shareholders about quarterly profits.

In 2014 Eastern set up an…Continue reading

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Goldman Sachs is criticised for buying Venezuelan bonds

BONDS are bought and sold every second of every day without attracting attention. But it is not often that the seller is the central bank of a brutal, cash-strapped regime faced with protests; the buyer, a bulge-bracket American investment bank; and the size of the deal in the billions of dollars. A report in the Wall Street Journal on May 28th that Goldman Sachs had bought bonds with a face value of $2.8bn issued by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, for 31 cents on the dollar (ie, for $865m) caused a stink.

Julio Borges, an opposition politician and president of the National Assembly, lambasted Goldman on May 29th in an open letter to its chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, for its decision to “aid and abet Venezuela’s dictatorial regime”. For all its sins, that regime has met its obligations to bondholders. Mr Borges vowed to advise future Venezuelan governments not to repay the bonds in question. Protesters gathered outside Goldman’s…Continue reading

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Machine-learning promises to shake up large swathes of finance

MACHINE-LEARNING is beginning to shake up finance. A subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that excels at finding patterns and making predictions, it used to be the preserve of technology firms. The financial industry has jumped on the bandwagon. To cite just a few examples, “heads of machine-learning” can be found at PwC, a consultancy and auditing firm, at JP Morgan Chase, a large bank, and at Man GLG, a hedge-fund manager. From 2019, anyone seeking to become a “chartered financial analyst”, a sought-after distinction in the industry, will need AI expertise to pass his exams.

Despite the scepticism of many, including, surprisingly, some “quant” hedge funds that specialise in algorithm-based trading, machine-learning is poised to have a big impact. Innovative fintech firms and a few nimble incumbents have started applying the technique to everything from fraud protection to finding new trading strategies—promising to up-end not just the humdrum drudgery of the back-office,…Continue reading

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One bitcoin is worth twice as much as an ounce of gold

Fans of bitcoin, a crypto-currency, have long called it digital gold. Now this sounds like an insult: continuing its stellar rise, and adding more than 30% to its value in just a week, one bitcoin is worth more than $2,600, over twice as much as an ounce of gold. As The Economist went to press all bitcoins in circulation were worth over $43bn. A sum of $1,000 invested in bitcoins in 2010 would now be worth nearly $36m. Other crypto-currencies are also marching upward: together this week they were worth $87bn. But if the history of gold is any guide, what goes up will come down—and then go up again.

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How becoming a Hong Kong pensioner can save you tax

Not dodging but shuffling

THE global war on tax evasion rumbles on. What began as an American onslaught, with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) of 2010, has been joined by more than 100 countries through an initiative called the Common Reporting Standard (CRS). Under this, governments will exchange tax information on their financial firms’ clients on a regular, “automatic” basis, without having to be asked for it, starting this year. Holdouts such as Panama, the Bahamas and Lebanon have, one by one, been frogmarched into line.

But tax-dodgers and their advisers are enterprising sorts, eager to clamber through the smallest loophole—and gaps in the CRS there are. One involves becoming a pensioner in Hong Kong.

The territory, home to a big financial centre, has a type of pension known as an ORS (for Occupational Retirement Scheme). The beauty of ORS from a tax evader’s point of view is that anyone can get one and they are not…Continue reading

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A trade deal between the EU and east Africa is in trouble

Magufuli advises Museveni on how to tilt at colonialism

THE winds that waft along the Swahili coast change direction with the seasons, a boon to traders in times past. Shifts in the political winds are harder to predict. Last July a proposed trade deal between five countries of the East African Community (EAC) and the EU was thrown into disarray when Tanzania backed out at the last minute. An EAC summit, scheduled for months ago, was meant to find a way forward. Held at last on May 20th in Dar es Salaam, after many postponements, only two presidents showed up. The deal is in the doldrums.

The pact is one of seven “Economic Partnership Agreements” (EPAs) the EU wants to sign with regional groups in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The first was agreed with the Caribbean in 2008; southern Africa followed suit last year. But progress in west Africa has also stalled, with Nigeria raising objections. The EPAs were promoted as a new breed of trade deal, and…Continue reading

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