Posts in category Finance and economics


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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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