Posts in category Finance and economics


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The power of populists

WITH the defeat of Marine Le Pen in her bid for the French presidency, establishment politicians in rich countries breathed a sigh of relief. The fortunes of extremist candidates have faltered since the populist surge that put Donald Trump into the White House. But it is hard to be confident that this was populism’s high-water mark without a better understanding of what caused the swell in the first place. The most convincing explanations suggest that populist upswings are not in the past.

It is tempting to dismiss the rise of radicalism as an inevitable after-effect of the global financial crisis. Studies show that the vote shares of extreme parties, particularly on the right, tend to increase in the years after a crisis. The Depression spawned some of the 20th century’s most dangerous and radical populist movements. But the facts do not fit that story precisely. In Europe, for example, populist parties have steadily won more voters since the 1980s. What is more, populist rage is…Continue reading

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Reform of China’s ailing state-owned firms is emboldening them

ACCORDING to company lore, Yunnan Baiyao, a musty-smelling medical powder, played a vital role during the Long March. As China’s Communist troops fled from attacks in the 1930s, trekking thousands of miles to a new base, they spread its yellow granules on their wounds to stanch bleeding. To this day, instructions on the Yunnan Baiyao bottle recommend application after being shot or stabbed. Many Chinese households keep some in stock to deal with more run-of-the-mill cuts. But the government has recently put its maker into service to treat a different kind of ailment: the financial weakness of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Yunnan Baiyao has emerged as a poster-child of China’s new round of SOE reform. The company, previously owned by the south-western province of Yunnan, sold a 50% stake to a private investor earlier this year. The same firm had tried to buy a slice of Yunnan Baiyao in 2009 but was blocked. Its success this time has been held up in the official press as proof that a…Continue reading

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Could bond funds break the market?

GOOD generals know that the next war will be fought with different weapons and tactics from the last. Similarly, financial regulators are right to worry that the next crisis may not resemble the credit crunch of 2007-08.

The last crisis arose from the interaction between the market for mortgage-backed securities and the banking system. As investors became unsure of the banks’ exposure to bad debts, they cut back on their lending to the sector, causing a liquidity squeeze. Since then, central banks have insisted that commercial banks improve their capital ratios to ensure they are less vulnerable.

Might the next crisis originate not in the banking system, but in the bond market? That is the subject of a new paper* from the Bank of England. The worry centres on the “liquidity mismatch” between mutual funds, which offer instant redemption to their clients, and the corporate-bond market, where many securities may be hard to trade in a crisis. The danger is that forced…Continue reading

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KKR, a private-equity giant, lays out its succession plan

IN MOST four-decade-old firms run by greying co-founders, investors would have long since demanded clarity on succession. But private equity works differently: the industry has been dominated by its pioneers ever since its origins in the 1970s. So an announcement on July 17th about its future leadership by KKR, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, puts it a step ahead of its rivals. Its aim of ensuring that the firm has the right structure in place “for decades to come” is not obviously shared across the industry.

KKR has been run since 1976 by two of its founders, Henry Kravis and George Roberts (both in their early 70s). They are staying on as co-chairmen and co-chief executives but with less of a day-to-day role. Lining up behind them are a pair of 40-somethings, Joe Bae and Scott Nuttall, who will join the board and take the titles of co-president and co-chief operating officer.

Such explicit, public succession planning is unusual. Stephen…Continue reading

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Regulating credit unions in Africa

Striking a co-operative note

THE most recent time Moses Kibet Biegon needed a quick loan was when his roof blew away. He got one from the Imarisha Savings and Credit Co-operative, in Kericho in western Kenya. Imarisha channels the savings of its 57,000 members into loans for school fees, business projects or, in Mr Biegon’s case, roof repairs. It runs a fund to help with medical bills. And it pays dividends to its members from its investments, which include a shopping plaza that it opened last year.

Savings and credit co-operatives (SACCOs) like Imarisha are the African version of credit unions: member-owned co-ops, usually organised around a community or workplace. Some are rural self-help groups with a few dozen members and a safe. Others have branch networks and mobile apps. The largest SACCOs rival banks; Mwalimu National, which serves Kenyan teachers, has even bought one.

The co-operative model brings “a more humane face” to finance,…Continue reading

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The Big Mac index

THIRTY-ONE years ago, The Economist created the Big Mac index as a way of gauging how different currencies stacked up against the dollar. The index is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, the idea that in the long run, exchange rates should adjust so that the price of an identical basket of tradable goods is the same. Our basket contains one item, a Big Mac.

The latest version of the index shows, for example, that a Big Mac costs $5.30 in America, but just ¥380 ($3.36) in Japan. The Japanese yen is thus, by our meaty logic, 37% undervalued against the dollar.

In…Continue reading

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Africa is Islamic banking’s new frontier

IN 2008 Ethiopia’s conservative central bank experimented: it authorised interest-free banking. Interest is prohibited under sharia law, so the move was lauded as a step towards expanding financial services for the country’s large and often poor Muslim minority. But momentum soon stalled. An attempt to launch a fully-fledged Islamic bank foundered. Today most of Ethiopia’s big commercial banks offer a narrow range of Islamic financial products, but to few customers. Islamic finance in Ethiopia was stillborn.

Outside Africa, Islamic finance is in much healthier condition. Between 2007 and 2014, the sector tripled in size (although growth has slowed lately). Total assets are around $1.9trn. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 2% of this, yet it should be especially fertile territory. The continent’s Muslim population is 250m and growing. And according to the World Bank, as many as 350m Africans do not have a bank account.

Several countries are vying to become…Continue reading

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A new approach to financial regulation

An inspector Quarles

DONALD TRUMP promised to unshackle America’s financial firms from mounds of stultifying regulation and the grip of bureaucrats with little practical experience of capitalism. One way to put that pledge into practice is to appoint officials with business backgrounds and deregulatory agendas. This element of the Trump strategy was on show this week, with a presidential nomination for a critical job at the Federal Reserve and the first public address by the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), another financial regulator.

Buried in the voluminous pages of the Dodd-Frank act, an Obama-era law passed in response to the financial crisis, was the creation of a new supervisory job at the Fed. Thus far, this powerful post has been informally delegated to an existing Fed board member, first Daniel Tarullo and, since his departure, Jerome Powell. That is set to change. Randal Quarles was formally nominated for the…Continue reading

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Climate change and inequality

ON JULY 12, the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica disgorged a chunk of ice the size of Delaware, a small state on America’s east coast. America’s government seems unfazed by the possibility that such shifts might one day threaten Delaware itself. Its climate defiance grows not only from the power of its fossil-fuel industry and the scepticism of the Republican party, but also from a sense of insulation from the costs of global warming. This confidence is misplaced. New research indicates not only that climate change will impose heavy costs on the American economy, but also that it will exacerbate inequality.

Calculating the economic effects of climate change is no simple matter. It means working out how a given increase in global temperature affects local weather conditions; how local weather affects things like mortality and crop yields; how those changes add to or subtract from regional GDP; and how thousands of local-level changes in GDP add up nationally or globally. No…Continue reading

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Can the world thrive on 100% renewable energy?

A WIDELY read cover story on the impact of global warming in this week’s New York magazine starts ominously: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” It goes on to predict temperatures in New York hotter than present-day Bahrain, unprecedented droughts wherever today’s food is produced, the release of diseases like bubonic plague hitherto trapped under Siberian ice, and permanent economic collapse. In the face of such apocalyptic predictions, can the world take solace from those who argue that it can move, relatively quickly and painlessly, to 100% renewable energy?

At first glance, the answer to that question looks depressingly obvious. Despite falling costs, wind and solar still produce only 5.5% of the world’s electricity. Hydropower is a much more significant source of renewable energy, but its costs are rising, and investment is falling. Looking more broadly at energy demand, including that for domestic heating, transport and industry, the share of…Continue reading

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How to kill a corporate zombie

WHAT is the best way to kill a zombie? Fans of Daryl Dixon, a character in “The Walking Dead”, a television series, will know the answer: a crossbow bolt to the brain. Getting rid of corporate zombies, however, is a much more complicated process.

Ageing populations mean that the workforces in developed economies are likely to stagnate, or even shrink, in coming decades. That means almost all the burden of economic growth is likely to fall on productivity improvements. There has been a lot of focus on labour-market flexibility as the key to solving this problem, but the flexibility of the corporate sector may be just as important. Indeed, there is a growing belief that the persistence of zombie firms—companies that keep operating despite a poor financial performance—may explain the weak productivity performance of developed economies in recent years.

An inability to kill off failing companies seems to have two main effects. First, the existence of the…Continue reading

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Markets worry about central banks

IN JANE AUSTEN’S novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, Henry Dashwood’s death plunges his wife and two daughters, Elinor and Marianne, into financial distress, because his heir grants them only a meagre allowance. Bond-market investors have started to worry that something similar is about to happen to them.

Since 2009 central banks have been incredibly supportive of the financial markets—keeping short-term interest rates at historic lows and buying trillions of dollars worth of bonds. But in recent weeks, several of them have been hinting at reducing their largesse.

The Federal Reserve has been slowly pushing up interest rates and has talked about reducing the size of its balance-sheet, by not reinvesting the proceeds of bonds when they mature. There have been suggestions that the Bank of Canada might push up rates when it meets on July 12th. Both Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and Andrew Haldane, its chief economist, have hinted that a rate rise may be on…Continue reading

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An American payments firm goes online and buys British

Purchasing power

A BIDDING war was briefly but eagerly anticipated. In the end, not a shot was fired. On July 4th the share price of Worldpay, a British payments processor, leapt by 28% after the company said it had received preliminary approaches from JPMorgan Chase, America’s biggest bank, and Vantiv, an American payments firm. The next day Worldpay said it had accepted a cash-and-shares bid from Vantiv, worth £7.7bn ($10bn), giving its shareholders 41% of the combined group. JPMorgan Chase, sniffily explaining that it had considered a bid after an “invitation” from Worldpay, which is a client, declined to proceed. Under Britain’s takeover code that refusal rules out a counter bid for six months. The shares slipped back by nearly 9%.

Vantiv and Worldpay are “merchant acquirers”: companies that have contracts with sellers of goods and services, and licences from credit- and debit-card companies, to accept and process card payments. They also provide…Continue reading

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A new trade deal between the EU and Japan

FREE-TRADE agreements have seemed out of fashion as President Donald Trump has set about scotching some of America’s. But on July 5th Cecilia Malmström, the EU trade commissioner, and Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, announced they had achieved consensus on a Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA). In front of the cameras, they swapped Japanese Daruma dolls, talismans of perseverance and good luck, and, they hope, of a win-win agreement.

The timing of JEEPA was just as carefully co-ordinated. When negotiations started in 2013, it was neither side’s main priority. But now both want to show that they can fill the vacuum left by America’s withdrawal under Mr Trump from its role as the world’s trade leader. To highlight its political importance, they note that this is the first trade agreement to mention the Paris climate accord, another deal Mr Trump has spurned. Haste is handy: the EU wanted success before Brexit negotiations and…Continue reading

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BNP Paribas faces accusations over the Rwandan genocide

BNP PARIBAS, France’s biggest bank, pleaded guilty in America three years ago to assisting a monstrous regime in east Africa. In 2006, it had helped to finance Sudan’s government, which in turn supported militias that massacred tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur. The firm thereby abetted in genocide and circumvented American sanctions on Sudan. It agreed to pay a fine of $9bn for breaking that embargo, as well as ones on Cuba and Iran.

The bank, naturally, hopes to put that grim episode behind it. These days it makes much of its social-responsibility efforts. Its 2015 annual report, for example, trumpeted the financing of a big supermarket in Côte d’Ivoire as typical of its contribution to African development. On July 3rd it named a new head of compliance plus a new “company engagement department”, responsible, among other things, for setting strategy on human rights.

Yet the past is hard to banish. The bank now faces scrutiny over an even uglier…Continue reading

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Pakistan’s old economic vulnerabilities persist

THE IMF, claims Pakistan’s government, is surplus to requirements. Ministers in its business-minded ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), boast of a record that means the country can pay its own bills. “We will not go back to the IMF programme,” declared Ishaq Dar, the finance minister, in May, almost a year after the completion of Pakistan’s most recent, $6.6bn bail-out. In a country that mistrusts Western assistance and where protesters portray the IMF as a bloodthirsty crocodile, such words have a heady appeal. But they ring hollow.

On June 16th the IMF warned of re-emerging “vulnerabilities” in Pakistan’s economy. It praised GDP growth of above 5% a year, but noted missed fiscal targets and a ballooning current-account deficit. The fund’s own projections a year ago for the fiscal year ending this June underestimated this deficit by about half the final total of $9bn. And based on trends in early April it overestimated the fiscal-year-end foreign-exchange reserves by $3bn.

Independent economists point out that, many times before, collapse has come on the heels of an IMF programme’s conclusion. Sakib Sherani, a former government economist, says that to avoid “egg on its face” for cheerleading Pakistan’s economic recovery just months ago, the IMF is slowly changing its story. By the end of 2018, many predict,…Continue reading

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Developing countries rebel against the credit-rating agencies

EARLIER this year, a crowd of patriotic Indian students bristled when Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser, showed them a slide with two charts. One showed India’s steady economic growth and flat debt-GDP ratio; the other China’s slowing growth and fast-rising debt. Yet India’s credit rating from S&P Global Ratings (formerly Standard and Poor’s), has been stuck at BBB-. China, on the other hand, was upgraded from A+ to AA- in 2010 even as its debt shot up. The slide was pithily titled “Poor Standards”.

Rating government debt is always controversial. And India v China is often a grudge match. But many emerging-market governments agree with Mr Subramanian, who has contrasted the rating agencies’ treatment of India with that of the rich world in the 2008 crisis, when they “closed the stable doors after the horses bolted”.

In frustration, the BRICS grouping—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—plans to set up an…Continue reading

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What Asia learned from its financial crisis 20 years ago

MUSEUM SIAM in Bangkok is dedicated to exploring all things Thai. Until July 2nd, that includes an exhibition on the Asian financial crisis, which began on that date 20 years ago, when the Thai baht lost its peg with the dollar. The exhibition features two seesaws, showing how many baht were required to balance one dollar, both before the crisis (25) and after (over 50 at one point). Visitors can also read the testimony of some of the victims, including a high-flying stockbroker who was reduced to selling sandwiches, and a businesswoman whose boss told her to “take care of the work for me” before hanging himself. (In Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, 10,400 people killed themselves as a result of the crisis, according to subsequent research.) In Thailand the financial calamity became known as the tom yum kung crisis, after the local hot-and-sour soup, presumably because it was such a bitter and searing experience.

The exhibition’s subtitle, “Lessons (Un)learned”, seems unfair. The victims of the crisis (Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong) took many lessons to heart. With the exception of Hong Kong, they no longer rely on a hard peg to the dollar to anchor inflation, giving their currencies more room to move. (The sandwich vendor’s chosen logo for his new business…Continue reading

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Alarm grows about over-exuberance in corporate lending

WHEN the financial crisis was at its height in 2008, being a debtor was a dreadful experience. Banks and companies scrambled desperately to get the financing they needed.

But the balance of power in the financial markets can easily shift. In 2005 and 2006, credit had been easy to get on generous terms. Not only were loans cheap and plentiful; they also suffered from fewer restrictions. Until then, corporate loans had many covenants offering safeguards for lenders if the debtor’s financial position were to deteriorate. But 2005-06 saw the emergence of “covenant-lite” loans in which such restrictions were virtually non-existent.

The cycle has turned again. Analysis by Moody’s, a ratings agency, shows that the proportion of the loan market that is “covenant-lite” has risen from 27% in 2015 to more than two-thirds in the first quarter of this year (see chart). Some loans even contain restrictions on the lender, not just the borrower. Private-equity firms demand a veto over…Continue reading

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The complicated failure of two Italian lenders

BANKS sicken slowly but die fast. For years Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, in the prosperous Veneto, in north-east Italy, had been plagued by mismanagement. Even criminal investigations are under way. For months the Italian government had been wrangling with European authorities over the terms of a bail-out. For weeks it had seemed improbable that private investors would put in money alongside the state, as the European Commission insisted.

On June 23rd the European Central Bank (ECB) declared that the banks were “failing or likely to fail”. Two days later, after a frantic weekend, the Italian government pronounced them dead: their good assets were sold to Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s second-biggest lender, for a token €1 ($1.14), and their dud ones put into a “bad bank”. The operation may cost Italian taxpayers €17bn. This is the second call on Italy’s public purse this month. On June 1st the commission approved, in principle, the rescue of long-troubled Monte dei…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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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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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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