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News Feed: Finance and Economics

ONE day, perhaps quite soon, it will happen. Some gale of bad news will blow in: an oil-price spike, a market panic or a generalised formless dread. Governments will spot the danger too late. A new recession will begin. Once, the response would have been clear: central banks should swing into action, cutting interest rates to boost borrowing and investment. But during the financial crisis, and after four decades of falling interest rates and inflation, the inevitable occurred (see chart). The rates so deftly wielded by central banks hit zero, leaving policymakers grasping at untested alternatives. Ten years on, despite exhaustive debate, economists cannot agree on how to handle such a world.

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INEQUALITY is one of the big political issues of the 21st century, with many commentators citing it as a significant factor behind the rise of populism. After all, nothing could be more indicative of the triumph of the common man than the elevation of a property billionaire to the American presidency.

A new IMF report* looks at how fiscal policy can help tackle inequality. In advanced economies, taxation already has an impact. The Gini coefficient (a standard measure of income inequality) is around a third lower after taxes and transfers than it is before them. But whereas such policies offset around 60% of the change in market inequality between 1985 and 1995, they have had barely any impact since.

That is because of a change in policy direction. Across the West, taxes on higher incomes have generally fallen. This could be for a number of reasons, the IMF says. The tax take from high earners could have become more “elastic” (ie, sensitive to rate changes); in a mobile...

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Matjila, survivor

THE rot in South African politics, which has eaten away at state companies, is spreading. This week McKinsey, a consultancy, apologised for the “distress” it had caused the South African people. Political mud had already drowned Bell Pottinger, a British public-relations firm, and forced resignations at KPMG, an auditor. So the shenanigans at the government-owned Public Investment Corporation (PIC), have set off alarm bells. One concern is an apparent attempt to oust Dan Matjila, its boss. A linked worry is whether PIC funds will be used to prop up state businesses.

The PIC is a lucrative prize: it is Africa’s largest money manager, controlling 1.9trn rand ($140bn) of assets, mostly the pensions of state employees, and holding 11% of shares in South Africa’s biggest 25 companies. So anonymous allegations against Mr Matjila, including the claim that he had misdirected funds to his girlfriend’s business, naturally provoked a furore. On...

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EVERYBODY knows—or at least thinks he knows—that a millennial with one job must be after a new one. Today’s youngsters are thought to have little loyalty towards their employers and to be prone to “job-hop”. Millennials (ie, those born after about 1982) are indeed more likely to switch jobs than their older colleagues. But that is more a result of how old they are than of the era they were born in. In America at least, average job tenures have barely changed in recent decades.

Data from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics show workers aged 25 and over now spend a median of 5.1 years with their employers, slightly more than in 1983 (see chart). Job tenure has declined for the lower end of that age group, but only slightly. Men between the ages of 25 and 34 now spend a median of 2.9 years with each employer, down from 3.2 years in 1983.

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THE Communist Party dominates China’s economy and uses state-run companies, which it controls with an iron fist, to enforce its diktats. Or so the theory goes. Reality is messier: the party often struggles to monitor state-owned enterprises (SOEs), let alone to get them to toe its line. As it convenes its five-yearly congress, one of the financial system’s dodgiest corners has served up a reminder of the limits to its power.

In the past two months at least seven online lenders backed by SOEs have collapsed. It was a business none should have been in, far removed from the industries they were supposed to focus on. The money potentially lost is trivial—roughly 1bn yuan ($150m), compared with government assets worth more than 100trn yuan. Still, these cases highlight how hard it is for the party to stamp its authority on the vast state sector.

The troubled SOEs include distant subsidiaries of the national nuclear company, an aviation company and a big energy...

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ON JULY 7th disaster was narrowly averted when an Air Canada passenger plane, trying to land on a full taxiway at San Francisco airport, pulled up just in time. Five seconds longer, and it might have crashed into fully loaded planes and killed over 500 people, in potentially the deadliest aviation disaster ever. Instead, the incident became a non-event—not just in collective memory but also in insurance. With no losses, there was nothing to log. Yet ignoring such near-misses, argues a report published this week by Lloyd’s of London, an insurance market, and RMS, a risk-modeller, is a missed opportunity.

Counterfactual “what if” thinking may be an enjoyable pastime for historians—“What if Hitler had been assassinated?” being one favourite—but is not common among underwriters. They prefer to base estimates of future risk—and hence premiums—on hard data of what happened in the past, eg, the number of aeroplanes that crashed and the total losses incurred. Since actual aviation losses...

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THE World Bank gets a lot of flak. Developing countries clamour for a bigger role in its management. President Donald Trump’s administration lambasts it for lending too much to China. Last year employees openly griped about a crisis of leadership under their boss, Jim Yong Kim. Now the embattled institution faces criticism from a traditionally friendlier quarter: environmentalists. They accuse it and other multilateral development banks (MDBs) of not being upfront about their true carbon footprint.

That must hurt. After all, MDBs pioneered climate-friendly finance. Ten years ago the European Investment Bank issued the world’s first green bond to bolster renewables and energy-efficiency schemes. The World Bank has not backed a coal-fired plant since 2010. In 2011-16 it and the five big regional lenders in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe offered developing countries a total of $158bn to help combat climate change and adapt to its effects. They disclose the amount of...

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THESE are troubling times for Roberto Santana Flores, a Mexican maker of charro shirts, a modern take on the Mexican cowboy aesthetic. He recalls life before the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade deal linking Mexico with America and Canada. He remembers his shirts incurred a whopping 37.5% tariff if exported to America. Now they cross the border duty-free. But his dream of expanding his factory and his American customer base is under threat. He scours the newspapers daily for news of the NAFTA negotiations. They tell of conflict. Some even warn the deal may collapse. Since it covers trade worth more than $1trn a year, that is alarming for many more than Mr Flores.

On October 17th trade representatives of the three countries gathered to mark the end of the fourth round of talks. A collapse does not seem imminent. Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (pictured, centre), denied that abandoning the deal was even being...

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For chats and kyats

MYANMAR’S democratic transition sometimes seems marked as much by continuity as by change. Depressingly, the army continues its bloody persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the west, for example (see article). But elsewhere moves to open the country’s markets, started by the preceding military regimes, have gathered pace. New commercial and financial services are springing up.

Take Khin Hlaing, who owns Global Mobile Shop, a small store surrounded by tarpaulin-covered stalls selling fresh fruit in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial area outside Yangon, the biggest city. He is one of almost 12,000 agents for Wave Money, Myanmar’s largest mobile-money transfer platform. Most days about 20 people use his shop to send funds to friends or family elsewhere in the country. One...

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ON OCTOBER 18TH, President Xi Jinping will preside in Beijing over the most important political event in five years. At the Communist Party’s 19th congress much will be made of the triumphs achieved in nearly four decades of reform and opening up. So expect a glossing over of one part of that process where progress has largely stalled: the “internationalisation” of China’s currency, the yuan.

This seems odd. Just a year ago, the yuan became the fifth currency in the basket that forms the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR). This marked, in the words of Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s central-bank governor, in a recent interview with Caijing, a financial magazine, “historic progress”. Symbolically, China’s monetary system had been awarded the IMF’s seal of approval. A further boost to prestige was the announcement in June this year that some Chinese shares would be included in two stockmarket benchmarks from MSCI.

Yet the yuan’s international...

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IN 2015 Kiddyum, a small company from Manchester that provides frozen ready-meals for children, won a contract from Sainsbury’s, a big British supermarket chain. Jayne Hynes, the founder, was delighted. But sudden success might have choked Kiddyum’s cashflow. Sainsbury’s pays its suppliers in 60 days; Ms Hynes must pay hers in only 30.

In fact Kiddyum gets its cash within a few days. Once approved by Sainsbury’s, its invoices are loaded onto the supermarket’s supply-chain finance platform, run by PrimeRevenue, an American company. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) picks up the bills, paying Kiddyum early. Kiddyum pays a fee which, Ms Hynes says, is a small fraction of the cost of a normal loan. Sainsbury’s pays RBS when the invoice falls due.

Suppliers, of course, have always needed finance for the gap between production and payment. Traditionally, they could borrow on their own account, or sell their receivables—unpaid invoices—at a discount to businesses known as...

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MANY people complain that the finance industry has barely suffered any adverse consequences from the crisis that it created, which began around ten years ago. But a report from New Financial, a think-tank, shows that is not completely true.

The additional capital that regulators demanded banks should take on to their balance-sheets has had an effect. Between 2006 and 2016, the return on capital of the world’s biggest banks has fallen by a third (by more in Britain and Europe). The balance of power has shifted away from the developed world and towards China, which had four of the largest five banks by assets in 2016; that compares with just one of the biggest 20 in 2006.

The swaggering beasts of the investment-banking industry have also been tamed. The industry’s revenues have dropped by 34% in real terms, with profits falling by 46%. Return on equity has declined by two-thirds. Staff are still lavishly remunerated, but pay is down by 52% in real terms. (...

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FOR all the talk of banks deserting London as Britain’s departure from the EU looms, relatively little attention has been paid to the derivatives market. Yet this is a crucial area of business for British-based banks. The City handles a big chunk of the market, including 39% of the market in interest-rate derivatives alone, where global daily turnover averages $3trn. The rest of the EU accounts for just 9%. Brexit seems sure to cause significant disruption. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, recently warned that the very “legal validity” of pre-existing derivatives contracts could be put into question.

Brexit-related discussion of derivatives has tended to focus on the role of clearing-houses, which ensure that a contract can be honoured even if one side goes bust. Since the financial crisis, most countries have made it mandatory to clear derivatives trades. LCH, a clearing-house in London, clears over 50% of interest-rate swaps across all currencies; London houses...

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OUTSIDE, a patch of grass affording a spectacular view of the Sierra de Guadarrama is littered with cartridge casings. Inside the Club de Tiro de Madrid (Madrid Shooting Club), on the city’s northern edge, over 400 people are fixing their sights for the next three months. Their business is not shooting but banking. Teams sit at 27 tables working on specific projects—to improve the global mobile platform, say, or to share information about job applicants. At another 12 tables are data specialists, in-house lawyers and others whose expertise the teams will need. The targets are on the walls: white boards that are soon covered in yellow and pink Post-it notes, listing tasks for the weeks ahead.

BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank, began quarterly planning sessions like this three years ago, in its Mexican subsidiary. This is the fourth global gathering. The idea, explains Derek White, head of global customer solutions, is to replicate the nimbleness of financial-...

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THE credit-card bill arrives. You have enough money in a savings account to pay it off—the sensible thing to do, arithmetically speaking, since the interest rate on the credit-card balance far exceeds that earned on the savings. Yet you leave the savings untouched, and pay only as much of the bill as your current-account balance allows. What looks a daft choice to most economists makes perfect sense to Richard Thaler, who on October 9th was awarded the Nobel prize for economics for his work in behavioural economics. Mr Thaler helped demonstrate how human reasoning diverges from that of the perfectly rational homo economicus used in most economic modelling. The world, and the field of economics, is better for his contributions.

Economists mostly recognise that normal people fall short of perfect rationality in day-to-day decision-making. Economic modelling requires simplification, however, and economists generally suppose that...

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WHEN you are the chief executive of a public company, the temptation to opt for a merger or acquisition is great indeed. Many such bosses may get a call every week or so from an investment banker eager to offer the kind of deal that is sure to boost profits.

Plenty of those calls are proving fruitful. In the first three quarters of 2017, just over $2.5trn-worth of transactions were agreed globally, according to Dealogic, a data provider. The total was virtually unchanged from the same period in 2016, but the number in Europe, the Middle East and Africa was up by 21%.

It is easy to understand why an executive opts for a deal. Buying another business looks like decisive action, and is a lot easier than coming up with a new, best-selling product. Furthermore, being the acquirer is far more appealing than being the prey; better to be the butcher than the cattle. A takeover may keep activist hedge funds off the management’s back for a while longer. And...

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SCHOOLS in Pennsylvania ought to be celebrating. The state gave them a $125m budget increase for 2017-18—enough for plenty of extra books and equipment. But John Callahan of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association says all the increase and more will be eaten up by pension costs, which will rise by $164m this year. The same happened in each of the previous five years; cumulatively the shortfall adds up to $586m. The pupil-teacher ratio is higher than in 2010. Nearly 85% of the state’s school boards said pensions were their biggest source of budget pressure.

A similar squeeze is happening all over America. Sarah Anzia, at the University of California, Berkeley, examined 219 cities between 2005 and 2014 and found that the mean increase in their real pension costs was 69%; higher pension costs in those cities were associated with falls in public-sector employment and capital spending.

The problem is likely to get worse. Moody’s, a rating agency, puts the total...

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“THE retirement-savings crisis is a women’s crisis,” says Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder of Ellevest, a financial-advice firm for women in America. When it comes to retirement income, women are far worse-off than men. The gender pension-gap may be less well-known than the gender pay-gap, but it is in fact far larger.

Among those retired in the EU, women on average receive 39% less in pension income—from state and workplace pensions—than men do (see chart). This puts women at greater risk of old-age poverty. The European Institute for Gender Equality, a think-tank, warned in a study in 2015 that it also makes them more likely to stay with abusive partners. Reforms to European pensions, tying benefits even closer to individual contributions and thus income, mean the gap may widen further.

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IN RICH countries, people’s diets are getting worse and they are getting fatter. Hence the increasing popularity of a “fat tax”, to make unhealthy food cost more. Since Hungary led the charge in 2011 with a “chip tax” on fatty and sugary foods, other countries have followed. Britain is to join a long list next year.

Since the poor both spend a higher proportion of their income on food and tend to eat less healthily, they are the main targets of such taxes. In France, for instance, adult obesity is seen in over 20% of households with monthly incomes under €1,500 ($1,765) compared with less than 10% of those who earn over €3,000.

Punishing consumers, however, is politically painful. So “thin subsidies” have been gaining ground. But data on the impact of such policies are scarce. A recent study on the distributional impacts of fat taxes and thin subsidies from researchers at the universities of Oklahoma and Grenoble suggests policymakers should be wary. It...

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IN APRIL 1956 the world’s first container ship—the Ideal X—set sail from New Jersey. A year later in Seattle the world’s first commercially successful airliner, Boeing’s 707, made its maiden flight. Both developments slashed the cost of moving cargo and people. Boeing still makes half the world’s airliners. But America’s shipping fleet, 17% of the global total in 1960, accounts for just 0.4% today.

Blame a 1920 law known as the Jones Act, which decrees that trade between domestic ports be carried by American-flagged and -built ships, at least 75% owned and crewed by American citizens. After Hurricane Irma, a shortage of Jones-Act ships led President Donald Trump on September 28th to waive the rules for ten days to resupply Puerto Rico. This fuelled calls to repeal the law completely.

Like most forms of protectionism, the Jones Act hits consumers hard. A lack of foreign competition drives up the cost of coastal transport. Building a...

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