Posts in category Finance and economics


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Credit Suisse unveils another change of course

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…Continue reading

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The threat of war can bring much-needed investment

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 of…Continue reading

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Exchange-traded funds become too specialised

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…Continue reading

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Protecting American steel from imports makes no sense

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…Continue reading

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The market in Initial Coin Offerings risks becoming a bubble

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…Continue reading

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Managing financial risk on London’s massive Crossrail project

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 25…Continue reading

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The IMF nudges up its forecast for global growth

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…Continue reading

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How and when to use private money in infrastructure projects

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…Continue reading

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Digitisation shakes up corporate-bond markets

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…Continue reading

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Markets cheer Turkey’s referendum result

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, cliché that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s rule saw rapid economic growth; since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).

An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. When Mussolini took power in Italy in…Continue reading

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Europe is liberalising its sugar regime

IN A rickety warehouse on the banks of London’s Thames, sit mountains of caramel-coloured raw cane-sugar. Following a pattern of trade that is centuries old, they have been shipped across the oceans to Tate & Lyle Sugars’ dockside factory, where they will be refined into the white stuff. Cane reigns supreme worldwide, accounting for four-fifths of sugar production. In Europe, though, it accounts for only a fifth; most sugar is made instead from beet, thanks to a technique developed in the Napoleonic wars, when an English blockade halted French cane-sugar imports.

It is no surprise, then, that the sugar-beet industry was 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 preparation…Continue reading

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Rescuing Myanmar’s farmers from the debt trap

Living on borrowed rice

WHEN Myo Than was a young man, his family had 12 hectares of farmland in Dala, a rural township just across the river from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. His mother sold most of it after his father died. Mr Myo Than grows rice on what’s left, but water shortages mean he reaps just one harvest each year. He borrows money from the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank (MADB)—1.5m kyats ($1,100) this year, at an annual rate of 8%—to cover planting costs. But rice is a low-return crop. To repay the bank he borrows from local moneylenders at a rate of around 4% each month. Mr Myo Than owes them $7,300. He has given his land deeds to a moneylender as security.

Mr Myo Than’s predicament is not unusual: poor crop returns and usurious loan terms have kept Myanmar’s farmers trapped in poverty and debt. Around 60% of Myanmar’s population are engaged in agriculture. Most are poor, and farm small plots of land using age-old manual techniques. Farmers scythe rice fields; water buffaloes pull wooden ploughs; hay-laden bullock-carts trundle down narrow roads.

Many farmers borrow to cover planting costs, buy equipment…Continue reading

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The EFTA countries show how hard Brexit will be for Britain

NORWAY offers much to envy. The food is tasty, public services are great and the people are impossibly good-looking. Its trade policy looks equally desirable. Though it trades heavily with the EU, Norway can also strike trade deals all over the world, either operating in concert with the three other members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) or on its own. Members of EFTA have dozens of deals, including two with China, with which the EU cannot even start negotiations.

After it leaves the EU, Britain will look much like an EFTA country: a rich economy with close links to Europe, but also seeking trade deals elsewhere. It is superficially an attractive prospect. Yet EFTA’s half-in-half-out relationship with the EU hinders its trade as much as it helps.

EFTA’s flexibility in trade stems from its odd relationship with the EU. Switzerland has a series of bilateral agreements, whereas Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the single market through the European Economic Area (though with opt-outs for agriculture and fisheries). Crucially, however, all are outside the EU’s customs union, an agreement which regulates…Continue reading

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The boss of scandal-plagued Barclays gets into trouble himself

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…Continue reading

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East Germany’s shrinking population

WERE it not for the graffiti on abandoned buildings, Bitterfeld-Wolfen, two towns north of Leipzig joined as one in 2007, would seem devoid of young people. Pharmacies, physiotherapy surgeries and shops selling garden gnomes line the sleepy streets. In its heyday the place had a booming chemical industry. Today “the air is much cleaner and we can finally hang out laundry,” says an elderly local out on a morning stroll. “But many jobs were lost and so few children are left.” He points out a building that was once a school; today it is one of many care homes.

Despite an influx of 1.2m refugees over the past two years, Germany’s population faces near-irreversible decline. According to predictions from the UN in 2015, two in five Germans will be over 60 by 2050 and Europe’s oldest country will have shrunk to 75m from 82m. Since the 1970s, more Germans have been dying than are born. Fewer births and longer lives are a problem for most rich countries. But the consequences are more acute for Germany, where birth rates are lower than in Britain and France.

If Germany is a warning for others, its eastern part is a warning for its west. If it were still a country,…Continue reading

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