Posts in category FINANCE


ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A bullish case for copper

DURING the commodity “supercycle”, prices largely marched up and down in unison, fuelled by the strength (or weakness) of demand in China. Since last year commodities have again been on a tear, but for more idiosyncratic reasons. In the case of copper, strikes and supply disruptions in two of the world’s largest mines have helped push prices this week to their highest level in 20 months. This fits into a narrative of longer-term potential supply shortages that has investors licking their lips over prospects for the red metal.

A strike that began on February 9th at Escondida in Chile, the world’s largest copper mine, has been compounded by a dispute between operators of Grasberg, another huge copper mine, located in the Indonesian province of Papua, and the government. That led to a halt in copper-concentrate production there, too, on February 10th. The two account for 9% of mined copper supply.

Robert…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Asia’s exports rebound

IT IS easy to be downcast about the state of global trade. It has faced stiff headwinds in recent years: in 2016, for the first time in 15 years, it grew more slowly than the world economy. Regional and global trade deals are going nowhere, slowly. And America’s new president has promised to protect his country from trade-inflicted “carnage”.

Amid all this gloom, optimism seems foolhardy. But in Asia’s export dynamos, trade is picking up steam. In January, Chinese exports rose year-on-year for the first time in ten months; South Korean shipments have increased for three months in a row. Surveys reveal strong export pipelines in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. Healthy order books for Asia’s manufacturers normally bode well for global trade and indeed the global economy. It is too soon to declare a definitive upturn in global trade, but it looks like more than a blip (see chart).

The simplest explanation for the rebound is that global demand is itself on solid ground. Global growth is still slower than before the financial crisis of 2008, but is heading in the right direction. Both the IMF and the World Bank think it will…Continue reading

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Carbon tariffs and the EU’s steel industry

Fuel for a dirty war

THE European Union wants to slash greenhouse-gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. It is on course to cut just half that amount. To get back on track, on February 15th, the European Parliament voted for a plan to raise the cost for firms to produce carbon. It has prompted growing calls for the bloc to tax the carbon emissions embodied in the EU’s imports. At best, such a levy will barely curb emissions. At worst, it could cause a trade war.

The EU’s latest reforms try to put up the price of carbon by cutting the emissions allowances firms are granted. They include the EU’s first border tax on carbon, levied on cement imports. Steel firms, also heavy users of carbon, say their exclusion from this scheme is unfair. This week Lakshmi Mittal, the CEO of ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, offered his support for the tax. Similar proposals in America are also gaining support. This month a group including two Republican former treasury secretaries, James Baker and George Shultz, proposed a similar carbon tax on all imports at the border.

Boosters say such proposals remove…Continue reading

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A new paper finds China more unequal than France but less so than America

JUST as China’s GDP has converged towards America’s, levels of inequality have also been catching up. That is one of the conclusions of research* from five authors, including Thomas Piketty, a French economist famous for his work on wealth and inequality. Their new paper compares the evolution of inequality in China, America and France over four decades.

Inequality has soared since China opened the door to private enterprise and growth took off. In 1978 the highest-earning tenth in China received just over a quarter of overall income before tax, significantly below the proportion in America and France at the time. By 2015, however, those top 10% of Chinese earners were paid two-fifths of total income—above the share in France, but still just below that in America (47%). Wealth, too, is concentrated in fewer hands: the richest 10% own nearly 70% of private wealth in China, up from 40% in 1995 (and not far below the American level of nearly 80%).

Rises at the top mean that the share of pre-tax income going to the poorest half of the Chinese population has shrunk dramatically and is now, at 15%, not much higher than the…Continue reading

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Sovereign-bond issuers shrug off downgrades

ONCE upon a time, countries jealously guarded their credit ratings. Before the 2010 British election, George Osborne, soon to be the chancellor of the exchequer, emphasised the importance of cutting the budget deficit in order to maintain the country’s top AAA rating.

But despite the spending cuts and the tax increases he imposed, Britain was downgraded in 2013. There are only 11 countries with AAA status, according to Fitch, a rating agency, down from 16 in 2009. By value, only 40% of global sovereign debt has the highest rating, down from 48% a decade ago.

There has been an even more dramatic downward trend in corporate debt ratings. There were 99 AAA-rated American corporations in 1992, according to S&P Global, another ratings group; now there are just two. That trend is linked to the tax deductibility of interest: in terms of tax efficiency, it has made sense to increase the amount of debt, and reduce the equity, on the balance-sheet.

Clearly, at the sovereign level, the deterioration has been driven by the global financial crisis, which dented both economic growth and tax revenue. But with bond yields very…Continue reading

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European financial centres after Brexit

“WHEN the vote took place,” says Valérie Pécresse, “it was an opportunity for us to promote Île de France”, the region around Paris of which she is the elected head. Two advertising campaigns were prepared, depending on the result of Britain’s referendum last June on leaving the European Union. The unused copy ran: “You made one good decision. Make another. Choose Paris region.”

Brexit has made Paris bolder. Once Britain leaves Europe’s single market, the many international banks and other firms that have made London their EU home will lose the “passports” that allow them to serve clients in the other 27 states. Possibly, mutual recognition by Britain and the EU of each other’s regulatory regimes will persist. But no one can rely on the transition to Brexit being smooth, rather than a feared “cliff edge”. Best to assume the worst.

Britain is expected to start the two-year process of withdrawal next month. Given the time needed to get approval from regulators, find offices and move (or hire) staff, financial firms have long been weighing their options. London will remain Europe’s leading centre, but other cities…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

Remaking American financial regulation

AT FIRST blush, there is little to be excited about. The eighth executive order of Donald Trump’s infant presidency, signed on February 3rd, lists seven “core principles” for regulating America’s financial system. These include the prevention of bail-outs by taxpayers; advancing the American interest in international negotiations; and tidying the unruly thatch of federal regulation. The treasury secretary and regulators must report by early June on how well existing laws fit the bill. “There is little in the actual executive order that the Obama administration would have disagreed with,” says Doug Elliott of Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm. 

And yet. Although the edict does not mention the Dodd-Frank act of 2010, which redefined financial regulation after the crisis of 2008, it is chiefly aimed at that law. (Another presidential memorandum paves the way to aborting a rule tightening financial advisers’ obligations to Americans saving for retirement.) Many banks, especially smaller ones, loathe the 848-page act and its reams of ensuing rules. According to Davis Polk, a law firm, 111 of its 390 “rule-making requirements” have not yet…Continue reading

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Explaining euro-zone market jitters

IT was not an ideal way to mark a silver jubilee. The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht treaty, which gave life to the idea of a single European currency, fell on February 7th, the same day that the IMF published its annual health-check on the Greek economy. It said most (but not all) of its board favoured more debt relief to get Greece’s public finances in order—an idea quickly trashed by euro-zone officials.

A day earlier the spread between ten-year government bonds in France and Germany had reached its widest level in four years. The proximate cause seemed to be a growing concern about political risks to the euro. François Fillon, once the front-runner in the race for the French presidency, is embroiled in a scandal and losing ground. A fear is that his fall from grace might boost support for Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, who wants France to leave the euro and the EU.

Shorter odds on a Le Pen victory would certainly justify a higher risk premium on French bonds. Yet there is more to the latest bout of euro-area bond jitters than a sharper focus on politics. After all, bond markets…Continue reading

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China tightens monetary policy (discreetly)

IF ASKED before the start of 2017 to bet on which important central bank would be the first to raise interest rates this year, the safe choice would have been the Federal Reserve. Some gamblers, relishing the long odds, might have gone for the Bank of England or even taken a flutter on the European Central Bank. All these guesses would have been wrong. The first to budge this year? The People’s Bank of China.

On February 3rd the Chinese central bank raised a series of short-term rates. The decision received scant attention. The increases were, after all, small: one-tenth of a percentage point for the main rates. It also seemed quite technical, primarily affecting liquidity tools that lenders can tap if short of cash. And there was no fanfare: the central bank did not publish an explanation.

But China’s move is important for two reasons. First, it highlights the government’s dilemma in managing the economy. Growth is expected to slow from last year’s pace of 6.7%, and recent surveys suggest that momentum is already ebbing. Sentiment is fragile: investment by private companies last year increased at its slowest pace in more than a…Continue reading

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Brexit: the New Zealand precedent

THE future of British trade after Brexit is shrouded in uncertainty. It is an unprecedented process, so it is hard to know where to look for clues as to how it may work out. One possibility is a country whose trading patterns were perhaps more disrupted than any other’s by Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973: New Zealand.

Just as Brexit is likely to mean the end of British access to the single market, so “Brentry” ended New Zealand’s preferential access to the “mother country”. In 1961, when Britain first announced its intention to join the EEC, it took about half of New Zealand’s exports—a similar proportion to the EU’s share of British exports today.

New Zealand’s prime minister at the time, Keith Holyoake, warned his British counterpart, Harold Macmillan, that, without safeguards for its exports, New Zealand would be “ruined”. After years of negotiations, a transitional deal in 1971 agreed quotas for New Zealand butter, cheese and lamb over a five-year period, which helped to ease the shift away from Britain. Similarly—if in a much shorter time-span—Britain’s prime…Continue reading

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The custodian-bank business

NO ACTOR has ever sat nude in a bathtub to explain the intricacies of the bank-custody business, as Margot Robbie did for mortgage-backed securities in “The Big Short”, a successful film. The blame lies with the custody business’s virtues, not its flaws.

Instead of the 2% fees Ms Robbie mentions for offloading rubbishy securities onto suckers, bank-custody fees are tallied in hundredths of a percentage point. Custody bankers are generally neither glamorous nor crooked. They are accountants and software engineers catering to well-informed clients: the owners and managers of huge amounts of financial assets. The services they offer include: holding, valuing and transferring securities; receiving interest and dividends; and providing notice of corporate actions. The business grows with the financial markets, but more slowly. Years of almost seamless and scandal-free performance have made the business well-nigh invisible. But not quite.

Custody has habitually been “sticky”: the loss of a large account is unusual. But on January 25th BlackRock, a gargantuan asset manager, announced that it was moving custody assets worth $1trn from State…Continue reading

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Emerging markets’ Trump tantrum abates, except in Turkey

THE Syrian consulate in Istanbul’s elegant Nisantasi quarter is a busy spot. Men huddle outside in the cold, waiting for their turn to slip through the building’s ornate doors. The rest of the neighbourhood is, however, unusually subdued. A string of terrorist attacks in the city and an attempted coup in July, followed by a purge of suspected sympathisers, has dampened spirits. “After a bomb goes off, no one goes out. A week is lost,” says one shopkeeper.

Besides war next door and terror at home, Turkey’s economy has been rocked by political upheaval farther afield: the lira has plummeted by over 15% against the dollar since America’s election on November 8th. Many tenants cannot now afford Nisantasi’s rents, often priced in foreign currency. Even the childhood home of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s best-known novelist (pictured), has a “for rent” sign on the door. 

Back in November, Turkey had a lot of company in its economic misery. Other emerging markets also reacted badly to America’s election result, prompting talk of a “Trump tantrum” to match the “taper tantrum” after May 2013, when America’s Federal Reserve…Continue reading

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India floats the idea of a universal basic income

Basic needs

NOVEMBER 8th was not just the day of Donald Trump’s election. It was also when Indians found out most banknotes would lose all value unless promptly exchanged. Ever since, many have expected their patience in enduring the ensuing chaos to be rewarded in some way. Might scrapped cash unredeemed by presumed tax-dodgers be recycled into a lump-sum payment to each and every citizen? Or would the annual budget, presented on February 1st, be full of giveaways ahead of a string of state elections? In the event, the budget was restrained to the point of dullness. But the government’s closely-watched “economic survey”, released the previous day, hinted at a much bigger giveaway in the works: a universal basic income (UBI) payable to every single Indian.

The idea of a cash payment made to citizens irrespective of their wealth is centuries old. It has become newly fashionable in some rich countries, among both left-wing thinkers (who like its redistributive aspects) and their right-wing foes (who think it results in a less meddlesome state). The idea has had its fans in India: a small UBI scheme was launched as a pilot…Continue reading

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A big Chinese province admits faking its economic data

AT THE start of 2014 a senior official in the statistics bureau of Liaoning, an industrial province in north-eastern China, told his army of boffins to cultivate a spirit of innovation in their work. “Liberate your minds,” he exhorted an annual planning meeting. They took him at his word. In one of the biggest scandals to rock the murky world of Chinese economic data, the government admitted this month that Liaoning had faked its fiscal data from 2011 to 2014, inflating revenues by about 20%.

For those inclined to distrust all Chinese numbers, the announcement was simple vindication. But a closer look paints a different picture: of central authorities wanting to get a better read on the economy but being impeded at the local level—and by one of the usual suspects at that.

In manipulating statistics, Liaoning has form. When Li Keqiang, now prime minister, was Communist Party chief of the province in the 2000s, he confided to America’s ambassador to China that its GDP figures were “man-made” and unreliable. Mr Li’s comments have often been cited by critics of Chinese data, though his concerns focused just on…Continue reading

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