Posts in category Finance and economics


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ABP, a Dutch pension giant, is more admired abroad than at home

EUROPE’S largest pension fund, a scheme for Dutch public-sector workers called ABP, is much feted abroad for its efforts in “sustainable” investing. At home, however, where it provides pensions to one in six families and manages nearly one-third of pension wealth, it is suffering a crisis of confidence.

By international standards, Dutch pensions are extremely generous overall, offering 96% of career-averagesalaries (adjusted for inflation), compared with an OECD mean of 63%. And they are solid. Thanks to mandatory, tax-deductible saving, the Dutch have stored up a collective pension pot of nearly €1.4trn ($1.6trn), roughly double GDP. Mercer, a consultancy, marks the country as second only to Denmark in a global ranking of schemes.

Yet Dutch people’s faith in their pensions has sunk as low as their trust in banks and insurers. In March a political party for older voters, 50+, won four seats in the Dutch parliament, largely thanks to its promise to “stop the pension raid”. ABP’s own members mark it at just…Continue reading

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Timelier provisions may make banks’ profits and lending choppier

IN THE first quarter of 2018 thousands of banks will look a little less profitable. A new international accounting standard, IFRS 9, will oblige lenders in more than 120 countries, including the European Union’s members, to increase provisions for credit losses. In America, which has its own standard-setter, IFRS 9 will not be applied—but by 2019 banks there will also have to follow a slightly different regime.

The new rule has its roots in the financial crisis of 2007-08, in the wake of which the leaders of the G20 countries declared that accounting standards needed an overhaul. Among their other shortcomings, banks had done too little, too late, to recognise losses on wobbly assets. Under existing standards they make provisions only when losses are incurred, even if they see trouble coming. IFRS 9, which comes into force on January 1st, obliges them to provide for expected losses instead.

Under IFRS 9 bank loans are classified in one of three “stages”. When a loan is made—stage one—banks must make a…Continue reading

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What annual reports say, or do not, about competition

What explains the remarkable strength of corporate profits and the sluggish growth of real wages in recent years? One explanation is that industries are getting less competitive. Work by The Economist found that two-thirds of American industries were more concentrated in the hands of a few firms in 2012 than in 1997.

Research by AXA Investment Managers Rosenberg Equities into the language used in American annual reports points in the same direction. Sherlock Holmes famously talked of the significance of the dog that did not bark in the night. It may be similarly important that companies refer to rivals much less than they did; usage of the word “competition” in annual reports has declined by three-quarters since the turn of the century. Business is less cut-throat than it used to be.

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The rich get richer, and millennials miss out

Early contender for the 2047 list

BUOYANT financial markets meant that global wealth rose by 6.4% in the 12 months to June, the fastest pace since 2012. And the ranks of the rich expanded again, with 2.3m new millionaires added to the total, according to the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s global wealth report.

The report underlines the sharp divide between the wealthy and the rest. If the world’s wealth were divided equally, each household would have $56,540. Instead, the top 1% own more than half of all global wealth. The median wealth per household is just $3,582; if you own more than that, you are in the richest 50% of the world’s population.

America continues to dominate the ranks of millionaires with 43% of the global total. Both Japan and Britain had fewer dollar millionaires than they did in June 2016, thanks to declines in the yen and sterling. Emerging economies have been catching up in the millionaire stakes; they now have 8.4%…Continue reading

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Fuelled by Middle East tension, the oil market has got ahead of itself

ONLY one thing spooks the oil market as much as hot-headed despots in the Middle East, and that is hot-headed hedge-fund managers. For the second time this year, record speculative bets on rising oil prices in American and European futures have made the market vulnerable to a sell-off. “You don’t want to be the last man standing,” says Ole Hansen of Saxo Bank.

On November 15th, the widely traded Brent crude futures benchmark, which had hit a two-year high of $64 a barrel on November 7th, fell below $62. America’s West Texas Intermediate also fell. The declines coincided with a sharp drop across global metals markets, owing to concern about slowing demand in China, which has clobbered prices of nickel and other metals that had hit multi-year highs. (In a sign of investor nervousness after a sharp rally this year in global stock and bond markets, high-yield corporate bonds also weakened significantly this week.)

The reversal in the oil markets put a swift end to talk of crude shooting above $70 a barrel, which had gained strength after the detention in Saudi Arabia of dozens of princes and other members of the elite, and increasing tension between the Gulf states and Iran over Yemen and Lebanon. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which forecasts supply and demand, said on November 14th that it doubted $60 a barrel had become a new floor for oil….Continue reading

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Who needs America?

REVIVING the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal between 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, is technically impossible. To go into force, members making up at least 85% of their combined GDP had to ratify it. Three days into his presidency, Donald Trump announced that America was out. With 60% of members’ GDP gone, that deal was doomed.

But on November 11th, another began to rise in its place, crowned with a tongue-twisting new name: the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Ministers from its 11 members issued a joint statement saying that they had agreed on its core elements, and that it demonstrated their “firm commitment to open markets”. The political symbolism was powerful. As America retreats, others will lead instead.

The CPTPP is still far from finished, however. This inconvenient truth is unsurprising. Resuscitating the deal without its biggest member was always going to be hard. Without America, uncomfortable concessions made in the old TPP…Continue reading

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What five years of Abenomics has and has not achieved

IN TOKYO’S Iidabashi district, north of the Imperial Palace, young salarymen and women gather after work to enjoy grilled chicken and a drink at Torikizoku, a chain of budget restaurants. They tap out their orders on touch-screen terminals, which the company has installed on many tables in an effort to economise on waiters, whose wages are hard to contain. Last month the company was forced to raise its price by over 6%, to ¥298 (about $2.60) plus tax, for two skewers of locally reared chicken yakitori. It was the firm’s first price increase in 28 years.

Chicken skewers are not commonly seen as a macroeconomic indicator. But Torikizoku’s decision exemplifies the underlying logic of “Abenomics”, a campaign to revive Japan’s economy, named after Shinzo Abe, its prime minister. His economic strategy aimed to stimulate spending and investment through vigorous monetary easing. That would create jobs, driving up wages. Higher wages, in turn, would push up prices. Success would be measured by the defeat of deflation, which had…Continue reading

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Criticism of index-tracking funds is ill-directed

INDEX funds were devised in the 1970s as a way of giving investors cheap, diversified portfolios. But they have only become very popular in the past decade. Last year more money flowed into “passive” funds (those tracking a benchmark like the S&P 500) than into “active” funds that try to pick the best stocks.

In any other industry, this would be universally welcomed as a sign that innovation was delivering cheaper products to the benefit of ordinary citizens. But the rise of index funds has provoked some fierce criticism.

Two stand out. One argues that passive investing is, in the phrase of analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein, “worse than Marxism”. A key role of the financial markets is to allocate capital to the most efficient companies. But index funds do not do this: they simply buy all the stocks that qualify for inclusion in a benchmark. Nor can index funds sell their stocks if they dislike the actions of the management. The long-term result will be bad for capitalism, opponents argue.

A second…Continue reading

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America’s Republicans take aim at mortgage subsidies

IN THE 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both proud of their efforts to expand home ownership. In Britain, Thatcher presided over a fire sale of state-owned homes to tenants. In America, Reagan deregulated financial markets and expanded mortgage lending. At the time both countries provided generous mortgage-related tax breaks, making it easier to flog homes to the masses.

Britain’s 1980s housing boom turned to bust; the mortgage subsidies that helped to fuel it were abolished. America still subsidises mortgages to the tune of $64bn a year, by allowing homeowners to deduct interest costs from their tax liabilities. But a tax plan unveiled by Republicans on November 2nd proposes to limit the subsidy.

Twelve European Union countries also include some form of mortgage-interest deduction (MID) in their tax code. The average European subsidy, however, is around a tenth of America’s—about 0.05% of GDP. The Netherlands is much the most generous, at 2% of…Continue reading

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Regulators begin to tackle the craze for initial coin offerings

“I’M GONNA make a $hit t$n of money on August 2nd on the Stox.com ICO.” Written in July on Instagram, these words made Floyd Mayweather, a boxer, the first big celebrity to endorse an “initial coin offering”, a form of crowdfunding that issues cryptographic coins, or “tokens”. Stox, an online prediction market, went on to raise more than $30m, some of which seems to have gone directly into Mr Mayweather’s pocket. Other VIPs, including Paris Hilton, a socialite, followed suit and endorsed ICOs. But this source of easy cash may now be drying up: on November 1st America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) warned that such promotions may be unlawful, if celebrities fail to disclose what they receive in return.

The endorsements and the SEC’s attempt to rein them in are the latest episodes of token mania. Virtually unknown a year ago, ICOs are now more celebrated than initial public offerings (IPOs), the conventional way of floating a firm. Over the past 12 months…Continue reading

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Activist shareholders take on the London Stock Exchange

Rolet: who knows?

ACTIVIST hedge funds like Elliott Management, Cevian Capital or The Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) are famed for pushing for change at the companies they buy into. A favoured tactic is to install a new chief executive at a floundering firm. So it is odd to find a fund lobbying for an existing boss to stay on, as TCI has done in a spat with the London Stock Exchange (LSE).

In over eight years at the LSE, Xavier Rolet has transformed it from a share-trading venue to a clearing and data-services powerhouse, through acquisitions such as Russell, an index-maker, and a majority stake in LCH, a clearing-house. His hope of merging with the LSE’s big German rival, Deutsche Börse, fell through, largely because of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. But Mr Rolet remains widely respected. So eyebrows were raised when the LSE’s announcement on October 19th that Mr Rolet would leave in 2018 gave no reason.

In a fiery letter penned on…Continue reading

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The Paradise Papers shed new light on offshore finance

THIS week was uncomfortable for a host of well-heeled figures. In the frame were U2’s Bono, America’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, as well as some of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple and Nike. All these, and many more, feature in the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of more than 13m documents, many of them stolen from Appleby, a leading offshore law firm. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 95 press partners, including the BBC and the New York Times, began publishing stories based on the papers on November 5th. Dozens appeared this week, with more to follow after The Economist went to press.

The ICIJ’s last big splash, the Panama Papers in April 2016, shed light on some of the darkest corners of offshore finance. In contrast, many of the activities highlighted by this leak are legal. But they would be widely seen as flouting the spirit of national tax laws by exploiting the gaps that open…Continue reading

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ING, a Dutch bank, finds a winning digital strategy

GERMANY’S third-biggest retail bank has no branches. It is also Dutch. And it is highly profitable. ING-DiBa, an online bank owned by ING, the Netherlands’ biggest lender, looks after €133bn ($154bn) of deposits for over 8m customers. In a fragmented market—most Germans entrust their savings to small, local banks—that means a share of around 6%. ING-DiBa’s lack of branches keeps costs down, allowing it to resist charging for current accounts and offer savers a tad more than rivals, despite a recent cut; and it has won a name for good service in a country not renowned for it. While other banks struggle after years of ultra-low interest rates, ING-DiBa thrives. Its return on equity exceeds 20%.

ING as a whole is in fair shape, too. On November 2nd it reported net third-quarter earnings of €1.4bn, slightly more than a year earlier. The group’s return on equity was a healthy 11%, nearly two percentage points up. Since 2014 the number of “primary” customers (with an active current account and another product) has…Continue reading

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Venezuela seeks the restructuring of its massive foreign debts

Maduro has a cunning plan. Maybe

INVESTORS have long seen a default on Venezuelan sovereign debt as a question of when, not if. Its bonds have been priced at levels implying imminent bankruptcy, but somehow the cash-strapped oil exporter has stayed afloat. Until now. On November 2nd Nicolás Maduro, the country’s authoritarian president, announced that he would order a “refinancing and restructuring” of foreign debt worth about $105bn. The prices of government bonds fell by up to half. Markets braced themselves for one of history’s most complex sovereign-debt renegotiations.

Mr Maduro’s brief statement was cryptic as to the concrete steps he will take. He invited “everyone involved in foreign debt” to talks in Caracas, the capital, on November 13th. Many creditors want a neutral venue. Moreover, Mr Maduro appears to have pre-emptively dashed any hope of a voluntary agreement by naming his vice-president, Tareck El Aissami, as head of his debt-restructuring committee. America’s Treasury…Continue reading

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The New York Fed’s president announces his retirement

APPLICATIONS sought for leading Wall Street post. Perks: lovely office in Italianate palace; large staff. Duties: important role in setting interest rates (some vaguely defined other responsibilities). Requirements: eligibility for highest-level security clearance; tacit support in Washington, DC. Desirable but optional: broad knowledge of banking.

This week the New York Federal Reserve Bank announced that its president, Bill Dudley, will retire next year. He will leave a mixed legacy. He is thought to have given important help to Janet Yellen, the outgoing chair of the Federal Reserve. But he also presided over a steep decline in his institution’s influence over the banks that used to revere and fear it.

Located in America’s financial centre, the New York Fed has powers not vested in the country’s 11 other reserve banks. Its president has a permanent seat on the Fed committee that sets interest rates. Its trading desk puts board policies into effect. And it is the regulator responsible for many of the world’s largest…Continue reading

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A massive trove of data on offshore transactions is leaked

IN APRIL 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) dropped a bombshell. Its articles about the “Panama Papers”, a leaked trove of documents which had been stolen from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm, sent shock waves round the world—felling the leaders of Pakistan and Iceland, leading to multiple arrests and pushing several countries to tighten laws related to offshore financial dealings. The revelations also caused a further hardening in public attitudes towards offshore finance, which had been souring since the global financial crisis.

Now the ICIJ and its 95 media partners around the world—including the BBC and the New York Times—are back with another cache of pilfered files, this time dubbed the “Paradise Papers”. This latest batch of revelations, the organisation’s sixth substantial leak investigation, began on November 6th and will be rolled out over a week. It shines light on offshore transactions linked to hundreds of wealthy clients of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law…Continue reading

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Asian households binge on debt

ONE of the more persistent beliefs about the global economy is that Asians are more frugal than others. Explanations have drawn on culture (the self-discipline of Confucianism), history (memories of privation) and public policy (flimsy social safety-nets forcing people to save). For Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, and other theorists of “Asian values”, thrift was one of them. Whatever the true reason, data long supported the basic claim that Asian households were indeed careful with their cash. But over the past few years consumers across the region have done their best to prove that prudence was perhaps just a passing phase.

Household debt in advanced economies has generally declined as a percentage of GDP since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the Bank for International Settlements. In a number of Asian countries, however, it has been going in the opposite direction (see chart). The biggest increase has been in China, where households have borrowed about $4.5trn over the past decade. But Chinese…Continue reading

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As the global economy picks up, inflation is oddly quiescent

A FEW years ago, the news about the euro-zone economy was uniformly bad to the point of tedium. These days, it is the humdrum diet of benign data that prompts a yawn. Figures this week show that GDP rose by 0.6% in the three months to the end of September (an annualised rate of 2.4%). The European Commission’s economic-sentiment index rose to its highest level in almost 17 years. Yet when the European Central Bank’s governing council gathered on October 26th, it decided to keep interest rates unchanged, at close to zero, and to extend its bond-buying programme (known as quantitative easing, or QE) for a further nine months.

The central bank said it would slow down the pace of bond purchases each month, to €30bn ($35bn) from January. But Mario Draghi, the bank’s boss, declined to set an end-date for QE. A hefty dose of easy money will be necessary, he argued, until inflation durably converges on the ECB’s target of just below 2%. It shows few signs of doing so, despite the…Continue reading

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Investors call the end of the government-bond bull market (again)

FOR the umpteenth time in the past decade, a great turning-point has been declared in the government-bond market. Bond yields have risen across the world, including in China, where the yield on the ten-year bond has come close to 4% for the first time since 2014. The ten-year Treasury-bond yield, the most important benchmark, has risen from 2.05% in early September to 2.37%, though that is still below its level of early March (see chart).

Investors have been expecting bond yields to rise for a while. A survey by JPMorgan Chase found that a record 70% of its clients with speculative accounts had “short” positions in Treasury bonds—ie, betting that prices would fall and that yields would rise. Meanwhile a poll of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) in October found that a net 85% thought bonds overvalued. In addition, 82% of the managers expected short-term interest rates to rise over the next 12 months—something that tends to push bond yields…Continue reading

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Catalonia and the perils of fiscal redistribution

POPULISM is the weapon not just of the downtrodden. As the crisis in Catalonia demonstrates, the rich have economic anxieties of their own. Catalonia has an identity distinct, in important ways, from that of the rest of Spain. But the recent drive for independence has been energised by anger over the flow of fiscal redistribution from rich Catalans to their countrymen: people seen, in parts of the restless north-east, as thankless and lazy as well as alien. Paradoxically, globalisation has inflamed separatism around the world by raising the question Catalans now confront: to whom, exactly, do we owe a sense of social responsibility?

Every country or restive region has its own idiosyncratic history. Yet over the long run national borders are surprisingly malleable. Some circumstances offer better prospects for the small and newly independent than others. The smaller the country, the more easily its government can satisfy its people’s political preferences. A broadly satisfying compromise…Continue reading

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October 30th marked the 70th birthday of the WTO’s precursor

Britain signs up

SUPERLATIVES surrounded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) when it was signed on October 30th 1947. A press release heralded it as “the most far-reaching negotiation[s] ever undertaken in the history of world trade.” The Economist grumbled it was “one of the longest and most complicated public documents ever issued—and one of the hardest to comprehend.” The Daily Express, a British newspaper, growled: “The big bad bargain is sealed.”

The agreement’s complexity matched the tangle of global trade affairs. In the preceding decades a thicket of protectionism had strangled commerce and slowed recovery from the Depression of the 1930s. The GATT’s length matched its scope. It included both tariff cuts and promises to forswear new duties. Covering 23 countries responsible for 70% of world trade, it came to embody the rules-based multilateral system.

After 48…Continue reading

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Jerome Powell is poised to be named chairman of the Fed

Heir to the chair?

YOU could forgive Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, for feeling peeved. With unemployment at just 4.2%, and inflation at 1.6%, she is close to achieving the Fed’s two goals of curbing joblessness and pinning price rises at 2%. Ms Yellen is a Democrat appointed by Barack Obama in 2014. The tenures of past three Fed chairs were all extended by presidents from the other party. Yet as we went to press, President Donald Trump was expected to nominate Jerome Powell, a Republican on the Fed’s board, to replace Ms Yellen.

If picked, Mr Powell—also an Obama appointee—would stand out from recent incumbents. He would be the first Fed chairman since William Miller, who left office in 1979, with no formal economics training; and, according to the Washington Post, the richest since the 1940s.

Mr Powell, who is 64, is a lawyer-turned-banker. His first role in Washington was at the Treasury during the…Continue reading

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Will corporate tax cuts boost workers’ wages?

THE president’s tax promise has always been clear: he will reduce the amount middle-earners, but not rich Americans, must pay. Yet every time Donald Trump releases a plan, analysts say it does almost the opposite. The Tax Policy Centre, a think-tank, recently filled in the blanks in the latest Republican tax proposals and concluded that more than half of its giveaways would go to the top 1% of earners. Their incomes would rise by an average of $130,000; middle-earners would get just $660. The White House maintains that tax reform will deliver a much heftier boost to workers’ pay packets. Who is right?

The disagreement boils down to who benefits when taxes on corporations fall. The Tax Policy Centre says it is mainly rich investors. But in a report released on October 16th, Mr Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) claimed that cutting the corporate-tax rate from 35% to 20%, as Republicans propose, would eventually boost annual wages by a staggering $4,000-9,000 for the average household.

The claim has sparked a debate among economists that is as ill-tempered as it is geeky. Left-leaning economists are incredulous. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Furman, who led the CEA under Barack Obama, pointed out that if the report is right, wage increases would total about three to six times the cost of the tax cut. Larry…Continue reading

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Silicon speculators

Nail-biting decisions

EXCHANGE-TRADED funds (ETFs) were supposed to make investing easy. Instead of spending hours researching individual stocks and bonds or paying an expert fund manager, investors could simply buy a few ETFs. But now there are too many to choose from. BlackRock offers 346 in America alone. Some investors need help allocating their money between different funds. Many companies now offer “automated wealth managers” (AWMs) that perform this service.

AWMs have been around for less than ten years, but they have proliferated, offering different services in different countries. Often, they are called “robo-advisers”, but this term can be misleading. Some offer clients detailed advice about how to save. For example, Wealthfront, an American AWM, predicts the cost of sending a student to a given college, taking into account increases in tuition fees and likely financial aid. It then suggests how parents can save in a tax-efficient way. Other…Continue reading

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Italy’s fourth-biggest bank returns to the stockmarket

A TELEVISION advertisement for Monte dei Paschi di Siena begins with a toddler tumbling and a gymnast stumbling. “Falling is the first thing we learn,” declares the voice-over. “The second is getting up again.” Italy’s fourth-biggest bank and the world’s oldest, which was bailed out by the Italian government in July, has had several bruising falls over the years. On October 25th it returned to the stockmarket after a ten-month hiatus—the latest stage of its plan to get back on its feet. The shares closed higher on the day, at €4.55 ($5.37), but still far below the €6.49 the government paid.

Trading was suspended last December, after a failed private-sector attempt to save the bank through a share issue. The government said it would get involved. In July the European Commission approved a €8.1bn “precautionary recapitalisation”. European rules say banks receiving such aid must be solvent, the capital injection must not distort competition and the capital…Continue reading

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Firms should make more information about salaries public

SWEDES discuss their incomes with a frankness that would horrify Britons or Americans. They have little reason to be coy; in Sweden you can learn a stranger’s salary simply by ringing the tax authorities and asking. Pay transparency can be a potent weapon against persistent inequities. When hackers published e-mails from executives at Sony Pictures, a film studio, the world learned that some of Hollywood’s most bankable female stars earned less than their male co-stars. The revelation has since helped women in the industry drive harder bargains. Yet outside Nordic countries transparency faces fierce resistance. Donald Trump recently cancelled a rule set by Barack Obama requiring large firms to provide more pay data to anti-discrimination regulators. Even those less temperamentally averse to sunlight than Mr Trump balk at what can seem an intrusion into a private matter. That is a shame. Despite the discomfort that transparency can cause, it would be better to publish more…Continue reading

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India recapitalises its state-owned banks

Pillars to be reinforced

ONE of the perks of owning a bank is the ability to tap it when you need money. The Indian government, which has majority stakes in 21 lenders, is no exception. As it happens, it needs to finance a bail-out of the banks it owns, most of which are in trouble. So under a cunning plan unveiled on October 24th, the ailing banks will lend the government 1.35trn rupees ($21bn), about a third of their combined market value. The government will reinvest this money in bank shares, thus ensuring they no longer need a bail-out.

Steadying a tottering financial system is never a graceful exercise, as American and European authorities discovered after the financial crisis. India’s lenders withstood the meltdown of 2007-08 well, but then embarked on an ill-advised lending spree, backing lots of infrastructure projects that got snarled in bureaucracy. Bad loans piled up. State-owned lenders, which account for around two-thirds of the sector, now have…Continue reading

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Millennials are doing better than the baby-boomers did at their age

ALL men are created equal, but they do not stay that way for long. That is one message of a report this month by the OECD, a club of 35 mostly rich democracies. Many studies show how income gaps have evolved over time or between countries. The OECD’s report looks instead at how inequality evolves with age.

As people build their careers, or don’t, their incomes tend to diverge. This inequality peaks when a generation reaches its late 50s. But it tends to fall thereafter, as people draw redistributive public pensions and quit the rat race, a contest that tends to give more unto every one that hath. Old age, the OECD notes, is a “leveller”.

Will it remain so? Retirement, after all, flattens incomes not by redistributing from rich seniors to poor, but by transferring money to old people from younger, working taxpayers. There will be fewer of them around in the future for every retired person, reducing the role of redistributive public pensions.

One logical response to the diminishing number of workers per pensioner is to raise the retirement age. But that will exacerbate old-age inequality, if mildly. Longer careers will give richer workers more time to compound their advantages. And when retirement eventually arrives, the poor, who die earlier, will have less time to enjoy their pensions.

Today’s youngsters may resent having to provide…Continue reading

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Sauce for a Brussels goose

DIVORCES are rarely easy. In the 16 months since Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum, the negotiations have made little progress. One of the trickiest aspects is the amount that Britain should pay to meet its existing spending commitments for EU programmes.

This is not analogous to dividing up the bill in a restaurant, and deciding who had the lobster and who stuck to the mixed green salad. Take the cost of EU officials’ pensions. The tricky bit in calculating it is that pensions are long-term commitments; a bureaucrat who starts work in Brussels today might still be collecting a pension 70 years from now. Working out the cost is fiendishly complicated, requiring estimates of how much wages will rise (if the pension is linked to salary) and how long employees will live. Then the sum of future benefits has to be discounted at some rate to work out the current cost; the higher the discount rate, the lower the presumed expense.

The EU doesn’t pre-fund pensions for…Continue reading

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For American Express, competition will only intensify

HE IS leaving with the share price rising and the announcement, on October 18th, of earnings that were largely well received. Better still, Kenneth Chenault, American Express’s chief executive for 16 years, accomplished a feat rare in the upper reaches of American finance: to stand down without an obvious helping shove. No grandstanding senators hounded him out (see Wells Fargo). No boardroom coup hastened the end (Citigroup). The financial crisis left him untouched (take your pick). His successor, Stephen Squeri, promoted from within and apparently groomed for the job, takes over in February.

For all that, Mr Chenault’s long tenure has not been an unequivocal triumph. Though generating strong returns on assets and equity, American Express has continued its slide within the fast-changing and competitive payments industry. According to Nilson, an industry bible, in 1974 the amount of money for purchases channelled through American Express was equivalent to 50% of what went through…Continue reading

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Multilateral lenders vow openness about their carbon footprints

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. Employees are in open rebellion against 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 carbon dioxide emitted by their day-to-day…Continue reading

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Workers are not switching jobs more often

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.

It is middle-aged men whose relationship with their employers has changed most dramatically. Partly because of a collapse in the…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A rash of bankruptcies hits Chinese lenders backed by state firms

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 company in…Continue reading

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A Lloyd’s report urges insurers to ask “what if?”

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…Continue reading

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low?

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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