Posts in category FINANCE


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Recent tax reforms in America will hurt charities

DESPITE its oft-professed pro-market orthodoxy, America has always had an unusually large non-profit sector. Americans gave $390bn to charity in 2016, with the bulk of contributions coming from individual donors. Historically, revenues at non-profits tend to track GDP growth. The recent tax reforms imply that despite strong economic growth, charitable contributions in America are poised to fall for the first time since the financial crisis.

The most significant threat to charities comes from changes to income tax. American taxpayers can choose either to “itemise” specific expenses, such as charitable gifts or mortgage payments, or take a “standard deduction”. In an effort both to simplify the tax code and to lower overall tax rates, the Republican-led Congress almost doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples. This will make filing taxes a lot easier for many. But it also means that far fewer Americans will have a financial incentive…Continue reading

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The markets still have plenty to fret about

BULL markets always climb a wall of worry, or so the saying goes. For much of 2017, the main concerns were political and the markets seemed to surmount them as easily as a robot dog opens doors (the latest internet sensation).

But February has shown that the market is still vulnerable. The immediate trigger seems to have been the fear that inflationary pressures would cause bond yields to rise and central banks to push up interest rates; this week’s surprisingly high American inflation numbers will only add to the worries. In a narrow sense, that makes bonds look cheaper, compared with equities. In a broader sense, it increases the discount rate investors apply to future profits, lowering the present value of shares. (A caveat is needed: if higher rates reflect stronger growth, then estimates of future profits should rise, offsetting the discount-rate effect.)

The immediate effect has been to create uncertainty for investors about the direction of central-bank policy, after many years in which it could reliably be assumed that rates would stay low. This translates into a more volatile market, as illustrated by the sharp jump in the Vix, or volatility index, in early February.

The danger is that many investors seem to have treated volatility as an asset class, and have organised their portfolios accordingly. Eric Lonergan of M&G, a…Continue reading

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China’s stockmarket plunge: this time it’s different

A CHINESE new-year message from the American embassy in Beijing looked innocuous. It welcomed the Year of the Dog on Weibo, a microblog, with photos of the embassy staff’s pooches and a video greeting from the ambassador and his wife, each with a dog in hand. But it soon attracted 10,000 angry responses. The post had become an unlikely lightning rod for public discontent about the stockmarket.

A plunge on February 9th had left Chinese shares down by 10% on the week, their steepest fall in two years. Some punters found solace in blaming the American embassy for the rout, which started on Wall Street. For others it was a matter of convenience, because their real target, the Chinese securities regulator, knew to disable comments on its Weibo account on such a grim day for stocks.

Even so, their protests seem to have been heard. Before the market reopened this week, Chinese officials urged big shareholders to buy stocks to restore confidence. The Shanghai Stock Exchange warned…Continue reading

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Insider trading has been rife on Wall Street, academics conclude

The joy of knowledge

INSIDER-TRADING prosecutions have netted plenty of small fry. But many grumble that the big fish swim off unharmed. That nagging fear has some new academic backing, from three studies. One argues that well-connected insiders profited even from the financial crisis.* The others go further still, suggesting the entire share-trading system is rigged.**

What is known about insider trading tends to come from prosecutions. But these require fortuitous tip-offs and extensive, expensive investigations, involving the examination of complex evidence from phone calls, e-mails or informants wired with recorders. The resulting haze of numbers may befuddle a jury unless they are leavened with a few spicy details—exotic code words, say, or (even better) suitcases filled with cash.

The papers make imaginative use of pattern analysis from data to find that insider trading is probably pervasive. The approach reflects a new way of analysing conduct in the…Continue reading

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Passive funds tracking an index lose out when its make-up changes

IS THERE hope for fund managers after all? Conventional “active” managers, who try to pick stocks that will beat the market, have been losing ground to “passive” funds, which simply own all assets in a given sector in proportion to their market value. The main advantage of the latter group is that they charge a lot less.

William Sharpe, a Nobel prizewinning economist, argued in 1991 that the “arithmetic of active management” means that the average fund manager is doomed to underperform. To understand why, assume that there are equal numbers of active and passive managers and, between them, they own all the market. The market returns 10%. How much will the passive managers earn? The answer must be 10%, before costs. The active managers own that bit of the market the passive managers don’t. But that proportion of the market must, thanks to simple arithmetic, also return 10%, before costs. Since the costs of active investors are higher, the average active manager must underperform. These…Continue reading

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Bitcoin and its rivals offer no shelter from the storm

THE “biggest bubble in human history comes down crashing,” tweeted Nouriel Roubini, an economist, gleefully. After an exhilarating ride skywards in 2017, investors in crypto-currencies have been rudely reminded that prices can plunge earthwards, too. In mid-December the price of bitcoin was just shy of $20,000; by February 6th, it had fallen to $6,000, before recovering a little (see chart).

And bitcoin is not the only digital currency to have fallen. Figures from CoinMarketCap, a website, show that the total market capitalisation of crypto-currencies has fallen by more than half this year, to under $400bn. This slide has taken place amid a flurry of hacks, fraud allegations and a growing regulatory backlash.

Perhaps the most damaging allegations surround Tether, a company that issues a virtual currency of the same name. Tether allows users to move money across exchanges and crypto-currencies without converting it back into “fiat” (central-bank-backed) money first. In theory, each…Continue reading

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Wells Fargo suffers a rare punishment—a cap on assets

ON HER way out, Janet Yellen, who stood down as the Federal Reserve’s chair on February 2nd, paused to add yet another sanction to those already imposed on Wells Fargo for foisting unwanted insurance and banking products on clients. The latest punishment is a highly unusual one. Wells will be blocked from adding assets to the $2trn held on its balance-sheet at the end of 2017. Two other regulators had already imposed fines and penalties soon after the shenanigans began emerging in 2016. The bank has gone through a big reorganisation. The Fed’s belated response presumably took into account not only the errant conduct but also the political fallout. The government, as well as the bank, had been embarrassed.

At first glance, Wells is an odd target for such treatment. During the financial crisis it proved itself the best of the big banks, with relatively high underwriting standards and manageable losses. The scandal was huge—millions of clients were pushed into unwanted products. But the financial costs…Continue reading

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South-to-South investment is rising sharply

AT A meeting in Namibia last month Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, made a pitch to lure African investors to an economy ruined by Robert Mugabe. That he did so first in Windhoek, not London or New York, is telling. Although flows through tax havens muddy the data, 28% of new foreign direct investment (FDI) globally in 2016 was from firms in emerging markets—up from just 8% in 2000.

Chinese FDI, a big chunk of this, shrank in 2017 as Beijing restricted outflows and America and Europe screened acquisitions by foreigners more closely. But the trend of outbound investment is widespread. Almost all developing countries have companies with overseas affiliates. Most of their investment goes to the West. But in two-fifths of developing countries they make up at least half of incoming FDI. In 2015-16 the ten leading foreign investors in Africa, by number of new projects, included China, India, Kenya and South Africa.

A World Bank survey of more than 750 firms with FDI in developing countries found that those from…Continue reading

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The markets deliver a shock to complacent investors

EVERY good horror-film director knows the secret of the “jump scare”. Just when the hero or heroine feels safe, the monster appears from nowhere to startle them. The latest stockmarket shock could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The sharp falls that took place on February 2nd and 5th followed a long period where the only direction for share prices appeared to be upwards.

In fact the American market had risen so far, so fast that the decline only took share prices back to where they were at the start of the year (see chart). And although a 1,175-point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on February 5th was the biggest ever in absolute terms, it was still smallish beer in proportionate terms, at just 4.6%. The 508-point fall in the Dow in October 1987 knocked nearly 23% off the market.

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Bets on low market volatility went spectacularly wrong

THE Cboe Volatility Index, or Vix, known as the “fear gauge”, spikes when markets are most jittery. When Sandy Rattray, now at Man Group, an asset manager, worked on the Vix in the early 2000s, he and his team considered launching an exchange-traded product (ETP) linked to it, but concluded that it would be a “horror show” because of poor returns. Now, however, Vix-linked ETPs are a big industry, with around $8bn in assets. Formerly niche investments, they served vastly to exacerbate this week’s market turmoil, which saw the Vix’s largest ever one-day move, when it more than doubled on February 5th.

The Vix was always intended as a basis for financial products as well as a gauge. Vix futures were launched in 2004 and options in 2006. “Long” Vix products, which Mr Rattray looked into, seek to mirror the index . The problem is that this means buying futures contracts, with buyers having to pay a constant premium over spot prices. So these ETPs tend to lose money over time, punctuated (but not fully made up for) by gains when the Vix spikes. The largest “long” fund, VXX, issued by Barclays, has lost over 99.9% since its launch in 2009.

So other ETPs were developed to “short”—ie, bet against—the Vix index. Until this week, they were doing handsomely. Amid a long spell of subdued volatility, investors piled in. In January, assets in…Continue reading

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Central banks should gamble on productivity-improving technology

IN 1996 Alan Greenspan began asking why the flashy information technology spreading across America seemed not to be lifting productivity. He was not the first to wonder. A decade earlier Robert Solow, a Nobel prizewinner, famously remarked that computers were everywhere but in the statistics. But Mr Greenspan was uniquely positioned, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to experiment on the American economy. As the unemployment rate dropped to levels that might normally trigger a phalanx of interest-rate rises, Mr Greenspan’s Fed moved cautiously, betting that efficiencies from new IT would keep price pressures in check. The result was the longest period of rapid growth since the early 1960s. Despite his success, few central bankers seem eager to repeat the experiment and many remain blinkered to issues other than inflation and employment. That is unfortunate. A little faith in technology could go a long way.

Central bankers are not known to be a visionary bunch. Turning new ideas into more…Continue reading

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Why sub-zero interest rates are neither unfair nor unnatural

DENMARK’S Maritime Museum in Elsinore includes one particularly unappetising exhibit: the world’s oldest ship’s biscuit, from a voyage in 1852. Known as hardtack, such biscuits were prized for their long shelf lives, making them a vital source of sustenance for sailors far from shore. They were also appreciated by a great economist, Irving Fisher, as a useful economic metaphor.

Imagine, Fisher wrote in “The Theory of Interest” in 1930, a group of sailors shipwrecked on a barren island with only their stores of hardtack to sustain them. On what terms would sailors borrow and lend biscuits among themselves? In this forlorn economy, what rate of interest would prevail?

One might think the answer depends on the character of the unfortunate sailors. Interest, in many people’s minds, is a reward for deferring gratification. That is one reason why low interest rates are widely perceived as unjust. If an abstemious sailor were prepared to lend a biscuit to his crewmate rather than…Continue reading

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Might higher interest rates spoil America’s economic boom?

AMENDING a famous metaphor, Janet Yellen once said that the Federal Reserve would “keep refilling the punch bowl until the guests have all arrived”. This week investors began to wonder if Jerome Powell, who will shortly succeed Ms Yellen at the top of the Fed, might at last deem the party full. On January 29th the ten-year Treasury yield reached 2.7%, the highest since early 2014. The prospect of tighter money caused stockmarkets to sneeze. On January 30th the S&P 500 fell by 1.1%, its biggest decline since August, before recovering a tiny bit the next day. With unemployment low and tax cuts pending, investors are wondering whether inflation and interest rates might soon surge.

The economy grew by 2.5% in the year to the fourth quarter of 2017. According to Okun’s law, a rule of thumb relating unemployment to GDP, falling joblessness explains almost half of this growth. (The unemployment rate fell from 4.7% to 4.1% over the same period.) Early in the year inflation fell short, suggesting that fast growth could continue unabated. But pressure on prices has begun to build. Quarterly core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was only just below the Fed’s 2% target at the end of 2017. Markets have recently come to believe rate-setters who say that they will tighten policy three times in 2018 (see chart), as happened in 2017.

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Cars block the road to a renegotiated NAFTA

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER, the United States Trade Representative, wants renegotiation of the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to speed up. When the sixth round of talks ended on January 29th with only three chapters agreed, he griped: “We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster.” But given the changes he wants, any more speed risks a crash.

One of the biggest fights is over Mr Lighthizer’s desire to rewrite NAFTA’s rules about cars. Seen one way, the deal has been a boon for the industry. Trade in vehicles and their parts accounts for a quarter of America’s two-way trade with Mexico and Canada. But NAFTA’s critics see it as a big reason for America’s trade deficit with Mexico, and for its falling share of car assembly (see chart). Rules riddled with holes should be rewritten, they think, to yank back American jobs.

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Cancer is a curse, but also a growth market for investors

CANCER is a grim sort of growth market. By 2030 there will be over 22m new cases a year, up from 14m in 2012, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But as the world marks World Cancer Day, on February 4th, scientists are speaking of a revolution in the battle to beat it. Money managers’ ears have pricked up. Oncology investing is “hot”.

The most straightforward way to invest in treating cancer is through shares in companies that sell blockbuster drugs. Alternatively, biotech indices track a basket of companies, of which typically 40% are oncology-related. Big Pharma now buys rather than builds much of its innovation. So backing oncology startups can be an especially lucrative (if risky) approach. According to CB Insights, a research firm, equity investment in cancer-therapeutics startups has grown from $2bn in 2013 to $4.5bn in 2017. Take Juno Therapeutics, founded in Seattle in 2013 to develop immunotherapy drugs. It was acquired on January 22nd by Celgene, a Biotech giant, for a whopping $9bn.

Eric…Continue reading

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A big Blackstone deal shows how private equity has changed

THE financial crisis a decade ago brought the glory days of private equity to a screeching halt. The debt-fuelled megadeals on which the industry had built its fame (or notoriety) seemed over. But on January 30th a group of investors led by Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm, announced a $17bn deal to carve out Thomson Reuters’ financial and risk business (F&R), a financial-data provider. The deal would be Blackstone’s largest since the crisis. But if the megadeal is making a comeback, it is in a new guise.

In the mid-2000s, huge transactions abounded. Deals from 2006 and 2007 alone account for nine of the ten largest ever. But, looking purely at value, the only true drought in big deals was from 2008-12. Every year since 2013 has seen at least one buy-out of more than $10bn, according to the private-equity database of Thomson Reuters F&R itself.

But in many of these deals private-equity firms have taken the unfamiliar role of companions to corporate acquirers. In a $23.5bn deal in 2013 to acquire Heinz, Berkshire Hathaway, a conglomerate, split ownership equally with 3G Capital, a Brazilian private-equity firm. Even private-equity led acquisitions are today much more likely to involve institutional investors or corporations, rather than other private-equity firms. The consortium that Bain Capital cobbled together last year…Continue reading

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How microcredit can help poor countries after natural disasters

Small pots of liquidity

BOTH, in different ways, worry about liquidity. And global warming may, indeed, be bringing meteorologists and financiers together. On January 18th, VisionFund, a microlending charity, and Global Parametrics, a venture that crunches climate and seismic data, launched what they billed as the “world’s largest non-governmental climate-insurance programme”. The scheme will offer microfinance to about 4m people across six countries in Asia and Africa affected by climate-change-related calamities.

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. They disproportionately affect poor countries, where many eke livings from vulnerable agricultural land. Yet it is often in the aftermath of disaster that credit is hardest to obtain. As non-performing loans rise and the perception of risk increases, microfinance institutions (MFIs) rein in lending; they receive little support from donors and relief programmes, which tend to favour humanitarian aid….Continue reading

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Morgan Stanley’s unexciting model takes the prize on Wall Street

MORGAN STANLEY emerged in 1935 out of a global financial disaster, as one of Wall Street’s leading firms. In a rare shred of consistency in America’s turbulent markets, history has repeated itself. But it was a close call. An ill-timed infatuation with debt ahead of the 2007-08 financial crisis threatened to add it to the industry’s towering funeral pyre, which consumed all its big competitors with the exception of Goldman Sachs.

Of the two, Morgan Stanley came out of the crisis the more tarnished, less for what it did than for what it was: less profitable; less connected, through its former employees, to political power; and less respected for having evaded disaster. But after the release of financial results from the fourth quarter of 2017, Morgan Stanley’s valuation has surpassed Goldman Sachs’s. This reflects not only the improvement in its profitability but also investors’ greater confidence in how it is managed.

Goldman, with some justice, finds the comparison unfair….Continue reading

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Direct-lending funds in Europe

WHEN Caronte & Tourist, a Sicilian ferry company, needs a new ship, it is cheap and easy to borrow from a bank. But in 2016, when Caronte’s controlling families wanted to buy back the minority stake held by a private-equity firm, banks balked at the loan’s unusual purpose. Edoardo Bonanno, the chief financial officer, also worried that the €30m ($33m) in extra bank debt might make shipping loans harder to obtain from them in future. So he turned instead to a direct-lending fund run by Muzinich & Co, an asset manager.

Such funds are only about a decade old in Europe (and not much older in America, where they started). Assets under management at Europe-focused funds increased from a mere $330m at the end of 2006 to $73.3bn by mid-2017, which includes $27.9bn of “dry powder”, or funds yet to be lent out (see chart). In 2017 alone 24 direct-lending funds raised a record $22.2bn. Such funds do what they say on the tin: lend directly to firms, usually in the form of big, multi-year loans. The borrowers are often either companies that are too small to raise equity or debt on capital markets, or private-equity funds buying such firms.

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Monetary policy suffers a shortage of central bankers

IN THEIR quest to stabilise the job market, central banks are setting a bad example. Jerome Powell, whom senators this week confirmed as the next chairman of America’s Federal Reserve, will lead an institution with three existing vacancies on its seven-member board, and a fourth that will open up imminently. Not since July 2013 has its rate-setting committee boasted the full complement of 12 voting members.

This monetary undermanning is, however, much worse in Nigeria. Its monetary-policy committee was unable to meet as scheduled on January 22nd-23rd because it lacked the six members necessary for a quorum. Five recent nominees still await confirmation by the country’s Senate. The chamber is holding up all but a few executive appointments in retaliation for President Muhammadu Buhari’s failure to remove an official (the acting anti-corruption tsar) whom the Senate twice rejected. In the absence of a monetary-policy meeting (and the lengthy communiqué that eventually follows it), the central bank…Continue reading

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Financial regulators too often think “this time is different”

FOR a phenomenon with such predictably bad outcomes, a financial boom is strangely seductive. Not a decade after the most serious financial crisis since the Depression, the world watches soaring markets with a mixture of serenity and glee. Natural impulses make finance a neck-snappingly volatile affair. Governments, though, deserve heaps of blame for policies that amplify both boom and bust. As regulators begin picking apart reforms only just enacted, it is worth asking why that is so.

Finance is hopelessly prone to wild cycles. When an economy is purring, profits go up, as do asset values. Rising asset prices flatter borrowers’ creditworthiness. When credit is easier to obtain, spending goes up and the boom intensifies. Eventually perceptions of risk shift, and tales of a “new normal” gain credence: new technologies mean profits can grow for ever, or financial innovation makes credit risk a thing of the past. But when the mood turns, the feedback loop reverses direction. As asset prices fall, banks grow stingier with their loans. Firms feel the pinch from falling sales, get behind on their debts and sack workers, who get behind on theirs. The desperate sell what they can, so asset prices tumble, worsening the crash. Mania turns to panic.

The pattern is an ancient one. In their book “This Time is Different”, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff,…Continue reading

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The French government experiments with venture capitalism

Don’t be coy, carp about the food

AS A boy, Antoine Hubert used to catch butterflies. These days, the agro-engineer has eyes only for meal worms. In a demonstration factory near Dole in eastern France, he shows how trayfuls of plump, half-grown worms are fed, left to grow in a darkened dormitory, and then—after two months—slaughtered and cleaned with a blast of steam. A machine divides the resulting mush into oil and protein powder.

Around 70% of a worm is protein, making it ideal for animal feed. Demand is soaring, notably at fish and shrimp farms. Mr Hubert predicts aquaculture businesses will need 70m tons of feed annually in ten years’ time, up from 40m now. The global market for animal feed, he reckons, is already worth €500bn ($610bn).

Ynsect, his firm, thus expects to grow once it opens a new factory this year. He dreams of annual output exceeding 1m tonnes, hinting at a hunger for scale often left unsatisfied in a French entrepreneur: local…Continue reading

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The World Bank’s “ease of doing business” report faces tricky questions

HOW many days does it take to correct a misleading newspaper interview? Four, in the case of Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist. On January 12th a surprising article in the Wall Street Journal alleged that one of the bank’s signature reports—on the ease of doing business around the world—may have been tainted by the political motivations of bank staff. The story was based on an interview with Mr Romer, who pointed out that Chile’s ranking in the yearly report had dropped sharply during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning politician who took office for the second time in 2014. Chile sank so heavily not because doing business had become harder, but because the bank had repeatedly changed its method of assessment.

That method mostly entails answering measurable questions, such as how many days does it take to start a business, register a property or file taxes. The answers determine a country’s score (known as its “distance to…Continue reading

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Why driverless cars may mean jams tomorrow

THE most distractingly unrealistic feature of most science fiction—by some margin—is how the great soaring cities of the future never seem to struggle with traffic. Whatever dystopias lie ahead, futurists seem confident we can sort out congestion. If hope that technology will fix traffic springs eternal, history suggests something different. Transport innovation, from railways to cars, reshaped cities and drove economic advance. But it also brought crowded commutes. Now, as tech firms and carmakers aim to roll out fleets of driverless cars, it is worth asking: might this time be different? Alas, artificial intelligence (AI) is unlikely to succeed where steel rails and internal-combustion engines failed.

More’s the pity. In America alone, traffic congestion brings economic losses estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Such costs will rise unless existing transport systems receive badly needed investment. For example, fixing New York’s beleaguered, overcrowded subway will…Continue reading

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Our Big Mac index shows fundamentals now matter more in currency markets

IT IS usually considered quaint to predict foreign-exchange movements by reference to whether currencies are dear or cheap. Metrics such as The Economist’s Big Mac index, a lighthearted guide to exchange rates, hint at how far currency values are out of whack. But they are often driven further out of kilter by capital flows, by fear and greed, by the interventions of policymakers, and so on.

Since our last look at the index in July, cheap currencies have narrowed the valuation gap against the dollar—almost completely in case of the Canadian dollar (see chart). Fundamentals, such as fair value, seem (at last) to have greater sway in the foreign-exchange market.

The index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity, which says exchange rates should move towards the level that would make the price of a basket of goods the same in different countries. Our basket contains only one item, but it is found in around 120 countries: a Big Mac hamburger. If the local cost of…Continue reading

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Why the oil price is so high

PERHAPS the most vexing thing for those watching the oil industry is not the whipsawing price of a barrel. It is the constant updating of theories to explain what lies behind it. In March 2014, when the price of a barrel of Brent crude was in three figures, the then boss of Chevron, an oil giant, observed that the scarcity of cheap oil meant “$100 per barrel is becoming the new $20”. Two years later, when the oil price slumped below $28, the talk was of a global oil glut caused by the furious efforts of the OPEC cartel to regain market share. Now that oil prices have tested $70, analysts are again scratching their heads.

In “1984”, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”, the ability to believe two contradictory things. Oil analysis seems to require similar cognitive gymnastics. Three big questions arise. First, why has the oil price more than doubled in the space of two years, against all expectation? Second, why has this surge been met with cheers from global stockmarkets and not…Continue reading

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The threat of tough regulation in Asia sends crypto-currencies into a tailspin

IT HAS been another week of vertiginous swings in the prices of bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. This time, the moves have mostly been downwards, with some days seeing falls of over 20%. Views on this were as divided as they were during the giddy climb: did it mark the definitive bursting of a bubble as rapidly inflated as any in history (see chart)?

Asia provides both an explanation of this week’s sell-off and a glimpse of crypto-currencies’ future. The threat of a ban in bitcoin-trading in South Korea was the proximate cause of the plunge. As to the future, the question is which Asia? At one end of the spectrum…Continue reading

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The hedge-fund delusion that grips pension-fund managers

HEDGE-FUND managers may be feeling quietly smug about their performance in 2017. They returned 6.5% on average, according to Hedge Fund Research, a data provider, their best year since 2013.

But those returns do not really suggest that they are masters of the investing universe. The S&P 500 index, America’s main equity benchmark, returned 21.8%, including dividends, last year. More tellingly, a portfolio split 60-40 between the S&P 500 and a mixture of government and corporate bonds (an oft-used benchmark for institutional portfolios) would have returned 14.8%. Last year was the fifth in a row when hedge funds underperformed the 60/40 split (see chart).

That ought to be a salutary lesson for those institutions who think that backing hedge funds is the answer to their prayers. Despite the highs recorded by stockmarkets, many employers are struggling to fund their final-salary pension promises. In 2016 the average American public-sector plan was just 68%-funded, according to the Centre for…Continue reading

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How China won the battle of the yuan

“THE horse may be out of the proverbial barn.” So wrote Ben Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, in early 2016, arguing that capital controls might be powerless to save China from a run on its currency. He was far from alone at the time. As cash rushed out of the country, analysts debated whether the yuan would collapse, and some hedge funds bet that day was coming fast. But two years on, the horse is back in the barn: the government’s defence of the yuan has succeeded, in part through tighter capital controls.

The latest evidence was an 11th consecutive monthly increase in foreign-exchange reserves in December. During that time China’s stockpile of official reserves, the world’s biggest, climbed by $142bn, reaching $3.14trn, roughly double the cushion usually regarded as needed to ensure financial stability. Another sign of China’s success is the yuan itself. At the start of 2017 the consensus of forecasters was that the currency would continue to weaken; it finished the year up by 6% against the dollar.

Investors and analysts were not wrong in viewing Chinese capital controls as porous. Enterprising types had—and have—umpteen ways to sneak money out, from overpaying for imports to smuggling cash across the border in luggage. But there is a wide spectrum between a fully open and fully closed capital account, and China has…Continue reading

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Donald Trump’s difficult decision on steel imports

EVERY Tuesday, senior members of the administration gather in the White House to discuss trade. They are divided between hawks, who argue that America needs to be tougher in its defence against what they see as economic warfare waged by China, and doves, who worry about the costs of conflict. So far, against all expectations when President Donald Trump entered the White House, the doves have prevailed. The first of a series of legal deadlines could soon unleash the hawks.

Last April Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, initiated a probe into whether steel imports were a threat to America’s national security. His department pointed to a “dramatic” increase in steel imports over the previous year and to the idling of nearly 30% of America’s steel-production capacity, as imports feed a quarter of its consumption. If the report, due by January 15th, finds imports are a threat, Mr Trump, under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, will have 90 days to respond.

The…Continue reading

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Natural disasters made 2017 a year of record insurance losses

THAT 2017 suffered from more than its fair share of natural catastrophes was known at the time. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the streets of Houston, Texas, were submerged under brown floodwater; Hurricane Irma razed buildings to the ground on some Caribbean islands. That the destruction was great enough for insurance losses to reach record levels has only just been confirmed. According to figures released on January 4th by Munich Re, a reinsurer, global, inflation-adjusted insured catastrophe losses reached an all-time high of $135bn in 2017 (see chart). Total losses (including uninsured ones) reached $330bn, second only to losses of $354bn in 2011.

A large portion of the losses in 2011 was caused by one catastrophe: the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Losses in 2017 were largely traceable to extreme weather. Fully 97% were weather-related, well above the average since 1980 of 85%. If climate change brings more frequent extreme weather, as Munich Re and others expect, last year’s loss levels may…Continue reading

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Accountancy takes root in the inhospitable soil of Afghanistan

Waiting for the auditor

WHEN Afghan lawmakers were debating rules of conduct for accountants, some were confounded by their strictness. Why should those found guilty of murder, asked one member of parliament, be struck off? That is a sign of the challenges facing the professional body for bean-counters, Certified Professional Accountants (CPA) Afghanistan, which was launched last month.

Attempts to establish a home-grown profession start from a low base. Back in 2009 Kabul, a city of around 4m, had fewer than 20 qualified accountants. Neither standards nor oversight for the profession were in place. Most local outfits were branches of firms from elsewhere in South Asia or farther afield.

Boring old accountancy might not seem a priority for a war-torn country. But in business it can foster trust and transparency—scarce commodities in a country where corruption is systemic. Because of the difficulty of verifying borrowers’ financial positions and valuing…Continue reading

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Bitcoin is no long the only game in crypto-currency town

IT STARTED as a joke. Dogecoin was launched in 2013 as a bitcoin parody, using as its mascot a Japanese shiba inu dog, a popular internet meme. The crypto-currency was never really used, except for tipping online, and one of its founders has called it quits. But recently its price has soared: on January 7th the dollar value of all Dogecoins in circulation reached $2bn, a sign of how crazy crypto-currency markets have become. It is also a reminder that, for all the focus on bitcoin, it is no longer the only game in town. Its market capitalisation now amounts to only about one-third of the crypto-market (see chart).

A new crypto-currency is born almost daily, often through an “initial coin offering” (ICO), a form of online crowdfunding. CoinMarketCap, a website, lists about 1,400 digital coins or tokens, including UFO Coin, PutinCoin, Sexcoin and InsaneCoin (worth $7m). Most are no more than curiosities, but by January 10th, around 40 had a market capitalisation of more than…Continue reading

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A bond dispute threatens the future of Islamic finance

STOCKMARKETS in the Gulf do not observe Christian holidays, but still had a generally quiet day on December 25th. Shares in Dana Gas, an exploration business listed in Abu Dhabi, however, did make some noise, leaping by 13.2% on Christmas Day, to complete a buoyant six months for the stock (see chart). The surge may owe something to the company’s recent arbitration victory against the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, over $2bn it and its consortium partners are owed in overdue payments. But it also hints at shareholders’ belief that Dana will not be forced soon to satisfy its own creditors. They have been up in arms since the firm refused to honour a $700m Islamic bond, or sukuk, that matured in October.

Dana says it has received legal advice that the security no longer complies with sharia, the body of Koranic law, and so the bond is “unlawful” in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In July, facing liquidity difficulties, it stopped redeeming…Continue reading

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