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JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, a quotable economist, observed that one of the deeper mysteries is why, in a falling market, there is still a buyer for every seller. It is a conundrum that bond investors must now contemplate. Since January the yield on a ten-year Treasury bond has risen (and thus bond prices have fallen) with scarcely a backward step. It is above 3% for the first time in years.

In part, the fall in bond prices reflects a growing acceptance that the Federal Reserve will raise short-term interest rates to 2.75-3% by the end of 2019, as its median rate-setter expects. In part it reflects worries that tax cuts and rising oil prices will fuel higher inflation. And there is anxiety that the supply of Treasuries is about to increase (in order to pay for tax cuts) just as buyers may become scarcer. The Fed itself is running down its holdings. The higher cost of hedging currency risk in dollars is putting off some foreign buyers.

If sellers outgun buyers, prices will continue to...

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AUDITS get noticed only when things go wrong. Last week British MPs issued a scathing attack on KPMG, an auditor, for failing to avert the collapse of Carillion, a contracting company. South African authorities are looking into Deloitte’s audit of Steinhoff, a retailer. PwC, another auditor, could face a court-damages verdict for hundreds of millions of dollars for not spotting fraud at Colonial Bank, a failed American lender. It is also fighting a $3bn lawsuit in Ukraine and a two-year ban in India.

Investors are also waking up to audits. They almost never vote against management’s choice of auditor. But last month over a third of shareholders at General Electric, an industrial conglomerate, voted against the reappointment of KPMG. Investors in Steinhoff are suing the company and Deloitte for $5bn for their losses.

These actions challenge an industry dominated by four big firms: Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC. Between them they earned $47bn from auditing most of the world’s largest...

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When they are not fretting about the American dollar or Chinese debt, policymakers in emerging economies keep a close eye on the oil market. The price of Brent crude has risen by nearly 50% in the past year to around $80 a barrel. It ranks as the 11th-biggest spike in the past 70 years (adjusted for inflation), according to UBS, a bank. So should emerging markets now worry that oil prices will carry on rising above $100, or that they will tumble below $50? The answer is yes.

Many emerging economies import oil; others export it. As a rule, higher prices hurt the first group and lower ones hurt the second. But it can be more complicated than that. Indonesia, for example, is a net importer of oil, but a net exporter of “energy”, more broadly defined, including coal and palm oil. Since coal, palm and oil prices tend to rise roughly in tandem, Indonesia would benefit overall from $100 oil, according to UBS. Mexico, like America, is also a net importer of crude. But in both countries a higher oil...

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IN THE early 1970s, leftist guerrillas in Argentina discovered a lucrative new way to make money: kidnap millionaires. Panicking firms would agree to huge ransoms, more concerned with freeing their executives than driving down the fee. That was not just bad for businesses. It also became a textbook case of how poor negotiating can send future ransoms rocketing and attract new entrants to the kidnapping trade. In Argentina, this culminated in the payment of an undisclosed ransom in 1975 for the release of Juan Born, followed by a $60m ransom for his brother, Jorge. The latter figure, $275m in today’s money, is the highest ransom known in modern times.

One reason it marked a high point is the spread of kidnapping-and-ransom (K&R) insurance. This is involved in a minority of the $0.5bn-1.5bn thought to be paid out in ransoms each year, but the share is growing. Around three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies pay to cover some employees. Insurers reimburse the ransom and, at least as...

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EVEN as rich countries seek to rid workplaces of subtle gender bias, in many developing ones discrimination remains overt. According to the World Bank, women are barred from certain jobs in 104 countries (see map).

“Gender equality in labour law is associated with more women working and earning more relative to men,” says Sarah Iqbal of the Bank. Yet some countries publish lists of jobs deemed too dangerous for women (Russia’s 456 include driving a train or steering a ship). Others stop women from working in entire sectors, at night or in “morally inappropriate” jobs (in Kazakhstan women cannot bleed or stun cattle, pigs or small ruminants). In four countries women cannot register a business. In 18 a husband can stop his wife working.

The aim is often to protect the “weaker sex”. Some laws put women in the same category as children; they concern jobs seen as physically tough, such as mining, construction and manufacturing. Others relate to broader safety fears. In...

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A RECESSION strikes. Central banks leap into action, cutting interest rates to perk up investment. But what if, as now, there is not much cutting to do, with rates already at or close to zero? In such cases the manual calls for purchases of government bonds with newly printed cash—quantitative easing, or QE—swelling the reserves each bank keeps at the central bank. Imagine instead that people also kept accounts at the central bank. New money could be added to their accounts, providing a direct, equitable boost to spending. That is one of several potential benefits of individual central-bank accounts, which are among the more intriguing of the radical policy ideas in circulation.

Central banks deal in two sorts of currency: cash, which anyone can hold, and digital money, accessible only to financial institutions through their accounts at the central bank. Individuals hoping to spend digital money must use a bank card or transfer (or a service, like Apple Pay, linked to a bank account), or a...

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IN 2005 and 2006, in northern Pakistan, some 900 pregnant women took part in an unusual experiment. All were in their third trimester and suffering from depression. Most families in the area rely on subsistence farming. Almost none of the women worked outside the home. This kind of life is hard. Perinatal depression (depression around the time of giving birth) is more common in poor countries than in rich ones.

As part of one of the largest psychotherapy trials ever run, the women were split randomly into two groups. Those in one received weekly visits from a health worker for the month before the birth, and less frequent visits during the ten months after. The rest received the same number of visits, but from health workers who had been trained to deliver cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) during the visits, too.

CBT is a talking therapy that aims to break the cycle of self-reinforcing negative thoughts. It focuses on the present, rather than trying to uncover the...

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ITALY’S next government, a coalition between the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right Northern League, is giving investors plenty to worry about. Leaked plans, hastily abandoned, suggested it might want to leave the euro or ask the European Central Bank to forgive €250bn ($292bn) of Italian debt. But less attention has been paid to what it might mean for Italian banks, and in particular for their biggest burden: non-performing loans (NPLs). Over €185bn of NPLs were outstanding at the end of 2017, the most for any country in the European Union (see chart).

By comparison with Greece, where NPLs are 45% of loans, Italy looks manageable, with just 11.1%. And it has made progress: in late 2015 NPLs were 16.8% of loans. But any wild policy lurches would put that progress in question. The clean-up of banks’ books has relied on openness to foreign investors. Huge volumes of NPLs (€37bn in 2016 and over €47bn in 2017, according to Deloitte, a consultancy) have been sold by banks, often to specialist...

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REPUBLICANS in the House of Representatives had hoped to cut a swathe through the Dodd-Frank act, a titanic set of financial regulations passed in 2010 in the wake of the 2007-09 crisis. The “Financial Choice Act”, drafted last year, would have lessened bureaucratic oversight and relied more on stiff capital requirements. Responsibilities and penalties would have been made clearer and regulators’ discretionary powers would have been reined in. President Donald Trump, who had promised on the campaign trail to “do a number on Dodd-Frank”, was effusive when the House endorsed the Choice Act last year.

But the bill approved by the House on May 22nd, and expected soon to be signed into law by Mr Trump, is a distinctly tamer affair. It moves the line between big, systemically risky banks and the rest, set in Dodd-Frank at $50bn in assets, to $250bn. That cuts the number of institutions subjected to stress tests and stricter supervision from 38 to 12. It also eases some restrictions on...

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AS A citizen, Dave Jones worries that climate change may imperil his two children, and theirs in turn. What exercises him, as California’s insurance commissioner, is the way in which a transition to a low-carbon economy might affect the financial health of the state’s 1,300-odd insurers. On May 8th he unveiled an examination of how well the portfolios of the 672 insurers with $100m or more in annual premiums align with the Paris climate agreement of 2015, in which world leaders vowed to keep global warming below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times.

The answer is, not very. In the next five years carbon-intensive firms in those portfolios plan to produce more internal-combustion engines and coal-fired power than the maximum the International Energy Agency (IEA) reckons is compatible with meeting the 2°C goal (see chart). Meanwhile, investment plans in renewable energy and electric vehicles lag behind the IEA’s projections of what is needed.

The results echo those of a study last year by Swiss authorities of the portfolios of...

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On May 16th Callum Williams, our Britain economics correspondent, was named joint winner of the Young Financial Journalist of the Year at the Wincott Awards, an annual set of prizes for British journalists.   

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LIFE insurance is among the oldest financial products. The Amicable Society, founded in London in 1706, charged members a set contribution and paid out annually to widows and children of those who had died in the previous 12 months. Today it is a vast industry: life and health insurers employ over 800,000 people in America alone. It protects hundreds of millions against the risk of dying early, through death benefits, or the risk of living longer than expected, for example through annuities. According to Allianz, a German insurer, total life-insurance premiums are above 5% of GDP in many rich countries, including Britain, France, Italy and Japan. In America, the world’s biggest market, annual premiums total more than $550bn.

But life insurers are struggling as never before. Those parts of the industry that have not evolved fast enough, says Clive Bannister, the head of Phoenix Group, a “closed” life insurer that buys and manages old policies but issues no new ones, have experienced a “...

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IN 2011 Kathleen started work at an insurance-and-benefits consultancy in Boston. A couple of years later the firm gave her an ultimatum: sign a “non-compete” agreement within 30 days or wave goodbye. She signed, which meant that, if she left, she would be barred for three years from working for a rival or any firm that had been contacted as a potential client, and from starting a competing business. In 2015, when she accepted a new job in a different industry at an unrelated company, her former bosses threatened to sue. The job offer was withdrawn, and reinstated only when she offered to pay any legal costs that resulted. The matter never came to court, but the fear of legal action has kept her out of her old industry ever since.

Non-compete agreements are widely used to stop ex-employees walking out of the door with valuable know-how, or poaching suppliers and customers when they move jobs. Sometimes a great deal of money and intellectual property is at stake. When Paul English, an...

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NOT long ago China was a leading culprit in global economic imbalances. Whether blame was ascribed to its undervalued yuan or its frugal people, the problem seemed clear. China was selling a lot abroad and buying too little back. One data-point summed this up: its currentaccount surplus reached 10% of GDP in 2007, well above the level that is generally seen as reasonable. Far less attention has been paid to its steady decline since then. In the first quarter of 2018 China ran a current-account deficit, its first since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Just as its massive surpluses of yore had big consequences for the global economy, so does this swing in the opposite direction.

China still exports many more goods than it imports, to the tune of nearly $500bn annually. But its share of global exports appears to have peaked. At the same time its trade deficit in services is getting bigger, largely thanks to all its tourists venturing abroad (see chart).

At bottom, a current-...

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THE manufacture of airliners may be the world’s most globalised industry. Only two firms make big civil jets: Boeing of America and Airbus of Europe. Most of their revenues—55% for Boeing and 70% for Airbus—are earned outside their home territory. Both source parts from dozens of countries. But a ruling by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on subsidies in the industry could deal another blow to the beleaguered international trading system.

On May 15th the WTO’s final appeals body upheld parts of a previous ruling, finding that the European Union wrongly provided subsidies to Airbus to develop new aircraft. That, it concluded, had hit sales of Boeing’s jets. As soon as the WTO gives the go-ahead America will have the right to impose retaliatory tariffs on EU imports. Trade experts warn they could be the highest in the WTO’s history.

Boeing crowed that the ruling showed that the EU had given $22bn in “illegal subsidies” to Airbus. But Tom Enders, Airbus’s chief executive,...

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AS FAR back as the campaign trail, President Donald Trump had promised to renegotiate or rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has said that if this Congress is to have time to approve a new version, it needs word that a deal is going ahead by May 17th. As The Economist went to press, that deadline seemed unlikely to be met.

Negotiations seemed to stall on May 11th over rules relating to carmaking. After a brief meeting between ministers, and despite reports that momentum has been building in recent weeks, wide differences remained. Representatives of the Mexican car industry had planned to return to Washington on May 14th to resume talks, but were told by their government not to bother.

The impasse is over “rules of origin”, which must be satisfied if a car is to qualify for tariff-free export within the trade bloc. Such rules normally set minimum requirements for...

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MANY of the most famous hedge-fund trades have been bets that things were about to go wrong. Think of Enron’s bankruptcy or the souring of subprime mortgage bonds in America. The best trade made by “the Professor” was very different. It was a bet that something was starting to go right.

A visit almost 20 years ago convinced him that Turkey was serious about fixing its economy. The yield on its one-year Treasury bills was then above 100%. “It was a serious mispricing,” he tells Steven Drobny in “The Invisible Hands”, a book of interviews with pseudonymous hedge-fund managers. The IMF gave its approval to Turkey’s reforms soon afterwards. The price of T-bills surged. The one-year interest rate fell to 40%.

The wheel has since turned almost full circle for Turkey, which now seems to attract more sellers than buyers. The lira is sinking. S&P has cut the country’s credit rating from junk to junkier, partly because of concerns about its reliance on foreign capital. The deficit on...

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IN 2017 the global economy broke out of a rut. It grew by 3.8%, the fastest pace since 2011. Surging animal spirits accompanied a rebound in business investment across the rich world. Global trade growth rose to 4.9%, also the fastest rate since 2011. Emerging-market currencies appreciated against the dollar, keeping inflation low and debts affordable. Financial markets wobbled in February, but only after reaching all-time highs. In April the IMF said that the global economic upswing had become “broader and stronger”.

Since then that healthy glow has begun to fade. First, economic surveys in Europe took a turn for the worse (...

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WHEN people stop working, they need a retirement income. Some are lucky enough to have an employer-provided pension linked to their salary. Everyone else faces a difficult choice.

Some keep their pension pot in cash and watch as it is eroded by inflation. Others use savings products with high fees and risk being hurt by a stockmarket downturn. A third option is an annuity, which guarantees a lifelong income but vanishes at death, even if that is a week after retirement.

Lionel Martellini of EDHEC, a French business school, and Robert Merton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (a Nobel laureate in economics) have come up with an alternative. Workers would buy government-issued bonds while in employment; these would pay no interest until retirement. Over the next 20 years (the typical life expectancy on retirement) bondholders would receive payments comprising interest plus the return of the capital. These would be linked to inflation, or another measure such...

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FEW banks can match the quaint serenity of Banco Delta Asia’s headquarters in Macau. Housed in a pastel-yellow colonial building opposite a 16th-century church, its entrance is flanked by tall vases, depicting sampan gliding between karst hills. In the tiled square outside, men laze under a banyan tree and an elderly woman peels a boiled egg for lunch.

But in 2005 this backwater bank incurred the wrath and might of the world’s financial hegemon. America’s Treasury accused it of laundering money for North Korea, prompting depositors to panic, other banks to keep their distance and the Macau government to step in. The Treasury subsequently barred American financial institutions from holding a correspondent account for the bank, excluding it from the American financial system.

Macau is over 8,000 miles from Washington, DC. But it is hard to escape the long arm of the dollar. Its dominance reflects what economists call network externalities: the more people use it, the more useful it...

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