China considers its response to Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

The serried ranks

FOR now, at least, when speaking of the trade dispute with America, China’s government is taking a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone. That helps explain the Chinese public’s surprisingly measured views of Donald Trump, and gives the Chinese government some breathing room to consider its options.

The state media have so far taken the high ground. True, the Global Times, a chest-thumping tabloid, accused the American president of “gambling” that China will be cowed by his “capricious and obstinate attitude”. No country can isolate itself from globalisation, said the Xinhua news agency: “The wise man builds bridges, the fool builds walls.” A new Xinhua web page popped up on June 20th, tracking multilateral deals that Mr Trump has quit, including on trade, climate change and Iranian nuclear arms.

But China has yet to debate, publicly, how to handle an American president who is an avowed populist and won...

A full-blown trade war between America and China looks likely
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

IT IS becoming increasingly likely that the phoney trade war between America and China will develop into the real thing. On June 15th the Trump administration published two lists of Chinese products it plans to hit with tariffs of 25%, worth $50bn in 2018. The first will come into force on July 6th. The Chinese snapped back with their own list, laying out a retaliation of equal size. Then on June 18th President Donald Trump directed Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), to draw up a further list of products worth $200bn that would face tariffs of 10%, and threatened yet another, covering an additional $200bn of goods, if the Chinese retaliated again. At least some of these tough words will probably turn into deeds. Both sides can expect to take casualties.

China regards the first round of American tariffs as a unilateral violation of global trading rules. It has lodged a complaint at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But Mr Trump’s team maintains that China started...

Why countries like Argentina and Turkey fret about exchange rates
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

IMAGINE if Milton Friedman had been put in charge of a central bank, only to lose his job for expanding the money supply too quickly. Or if Robert Shiller, the Nobel-prizewinning author of “Irrational Exuberance”, were given a similar post, only to depart having allowed a stockmarket bubble to inflate. That is the kind of irony that attended the resignation under pressure of Federico Sturzenegger as governor of Argentina’s central bank on June 14th, a casualty of deepening turmoil in emerging markets.

Mr Sturzenegger was a former professor at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. His most-cited paper showed that stated currency policy was often a poor guide to actual policy. Many countries claim to let their currencies float freely but in fact “intervene recurrently to stabilise their exchange rates”. Their deeds often belie their words.

Mr Sturzenegger lost his job for much the same thing. Financial markets struggled to reconcile his statements on the currency with his...

France and Germany finally have a common position on euro-zone reform
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

Roofers’ convention

THE president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, likes to compare the euro zone to a house in need of repair. Fix the roof, he counsels, while the economic weather is favourable. Leaders from across the European Union will have the opportunity to take that advice when the European Council meets in Brussels on June 28th-29th.

In preparation Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, laid out joint proposals for reforms on June 19th. The result of weeks of ministerial negotiation, they reconciled long-standing differences on the future of the currency bloc and set the scene for discussion at the wider summit. In a victory for Mr Macron, the Germans have consented to a euro-zone budget. In other areas, notably banking reform, progress is likely to be halting.

The reforms aspire to mend the institutional weaknesses revealed during the years following the financial crisis. Lacking control...

Giddy property prices are a test for Swedish policymakers
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

ULF DANIELSSON is thinking of buying a holiday home—or even a new house, so that he, his wife and two children can have a garden and more space than in their flat in Uppsala. He can afford either, he says, and as a professor of astrophysics is surely able to work that out. But he is hesitating, lest the giddy rise in Swedish property prices end in an ugly crash. “You risk having a big loan that’s worth more than the house,” he says.

The property market has fallen a little closer to Earth: prices dropped by 9% between September and January, largely because of a surfeit of pricey new flats. They then steadied, and are around 5% below the peak—and 50% higher than at the start of 2013, calculates Valueguard, a data provider. As Swedes have borrowed to buy, their debts have risen. Finansinspektionen (FI), the financial-stability supervisor, estimates that borrowers’ debts rose by 36% between 2012 and 2017, while disposable incomes went up by 13%. Almost a fifth of households with new mortgages owe more than six times net income.

...

Hedge funds worry about the legal risks of using “alternative” data
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

“QUANT” (quantitative) hedge funds, which craft elaborate algorithms to make trading decisions, rely on access to information. That used to mean market data, such as prices and trading volume. But some now seek an edge in novel sources. An industry has sprung up to serve them with, and help them analyse, “alternative” data, such as those gleaned from satellite images or by scraping websites. Many of these data firms have been founded by entrepreneurs, but some quant funds themselves are getting involved. Winton, a large London-based fund, is spinning off Hivemind, a data-analysis unit. A full-time management team was announced on June 18th.

For funds making macroeconomic bets by trading in, say, currencies or government bonds, real-time measures of inflation (scraped from e-commerce sites) or trade flows (from shipping data) can be better and more timely than the output of national statistics agencies. Funds trading in individual firms’ shares can infer information on sales from satellite...

Most stockmarket returns come from a tiny fraction of shares
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

IN his book about the use of language, “The King’s English”, Kingsley Amis describes a tug-of-war. On one side are “berks”, careless and coarse, who would destroy the language by polluting it. On the other side are priggish “wankers”, who would destroy it by sterilisation.

The battle lines look similar in investment. The divide is not on points of grammar but on attitudes towards a handful of modish companies, known as FAANG. These stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) have been the motor of the S&P 500 (see chart). All but Apple hit record highs on June 20th. Fill your boots is the attitude of coarse stockmarket berks. FAANG makes more sense than stocks in dying industries. For the prigs, the mania for FAANG stocks is as abhorrent as a split infinitive. The high-minded investor stands apart from the herd.

In matters of grammar, the unsure often follow the sticklers. They at least have rules. But they are often too rigid. Stockmarket sticklers can similarly lead others astray. For most investors, it is often a...

Abraaj, a private-equity firm, files for provisional liquidation
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:37 GMT

UNTIL recently the Abraaj Group, a private-equity firm based in Dubai, was riding high. It was one of just a few such firms focused on emerging markets, and a darling of “impact investors”, who seek social or environmental returns, not just financial ones. Assets under management of $13.6bn made it the largest private-equity firm in the Middle East, and the 42nd-largest globally in 2017. Its Pakistani founder and boss, Arif Naqvi, a regular at Davos and a patron of the arts, had won awards for philanthropy. It is all the more surprising, then, that basic corporate-governance missteps led his firm to file for provisional liquidation on June 14th.

The problems began in late 2017 when four investors in its $1bn health-care fund, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the private-sector arm of the World Bank, grew worried. Nearly $280m of $545m they had been asked for was not promptly spent on acquisitions, as is standard in the industry. Abraaj blamed delays in the...

Sino-American interdependence has been a force for geopolitical stability
Thu, 21 June 2018 14:48:16 GMT

IN THE 1990s America and Europe had a trade dispute over bananas. No one worried that tanks might soon roll as a result. But trade is about more than economics. The European Union, the world’s most ambitious free-trade area, was founded on the idea that trade integration would make war between members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. As the risk of a serious Sino-American trade war grows, attention is mostly focused on the prospect of dearer iPhones and unhappy soyabean farmers. But the stakes are much higher.

China’s economic miracle could not help but provoke geopolitical stress, given its size and illiberality. Relations between America and China are built on mutual suspicion. Geopolitical rivalry has been moderated, however, by economic interdependence: a mutual entanglement some economics wags have dubbed “Chimerica”.

As China opened up, American consumers hoovered up cheap Chinese goods. American firms built China into their supply chains, enjoying low labour costs and gaining a presence in a...

Can refugees help to plug Europe’s skilled-labour gaps?
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:31 GMT

THE canteen of Stockholm University could scarcely be more Swedish. Young blond students sip coffee and tap away on Macs. In room 3.89, an outpost of the campus, is another, newer Sweden. Refugees, all of them teachers, from lands far to the south and east are preparing for the classrooms of their new home. Several keep their coats on as Khadije Obeid takes them through the basics of the curriculum and shows a YouTube clip about education law. “In Syria the teacher has much authority,” says Samer, an English teacher, as he raises his hand above his head. “Here he is equal to the students,” he adds as he lowers it.

The ten women and seven men are on a “fast-track” programme for refugees with experience in occupations where labour is short. As well as learning Swedish, they get 26 weeks of daily classes, teaching practice and mentoring. The hope is that they will then train or, if their previous qualifications are recognised, go straight to the classroom. The government is running some 30 other...

The hounding of Greece’s former statistics chief is disturbing
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

IMAGINE the tale of Sisyphus, the mythical king doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, retold by Kafka. The result would be very like the tortuous story of Andreas Georgiou, Greece’s former statistics chief.

Since 2011 Mr Georgiou has faced several criminal charges. One is that he inflated budget-deficit figures, forcing Greece to seek a bail-out and resulting in alleged damages of €171bn ($190bn). Another is that he violated his duty by failing to seek approval from the statistical agency’s board before sending the figures to the European authorities.

Although Mr Georgiou was acquitted several times on both charges, the acquittals were annulled and he was retried. In 2017 he was found guilty of a violation of duty. He has now learnt that the Supreme Court had rejected his appeal, rendering the conviction final. It carries a two-year suspended sentence. In May prosecutors said they were refiling the charges that he inflated...

As Western lenders retreat, African banks see an opportunity
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

ADE AYEYEMI’S office in Lomé, the capital of Togo, is a good place to think about crossing borders. Ghana is ten minutes’ drive away. From his window the boss of Ecobank can watch trucks rumble along the seafront, some bound for Burkina Faso, a day’s journey, or Mali, perhaps another day on. At night, cargo ships twinkle offshore. From here Ecobank’s vision—“to integrate the continent”, Mr Ayeyemi says—is clear. Whether it will be profitable is less obvious.

Ecobank was founded in 1985 by business leaders with backing from the Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc. It has branches in 33 countries, more than any other African bank (see chart). It is not alone in its ambitions. Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa (UBA) wants to make half its profits elsewhere in the continent by 2022. South Africa’s Standard Bank recently opened in Ivory Coast, its 20th African country. Moroccan banks are trekking across the Sahara.

African bankers have long preached some version...

Rate rises affect global markets—and may feed back to America
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

ON JUNE 13th the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, the seventh such increase since it began shouldering rates away from zero in December 2015. Markets shrugged—a rather different reaction from the one that followed a policy adjustment made five years ago this month. The chairman then, Ben Bernanke, dared advise investors that the Fed might soon start winding down its stimulative bond-purchases. Traders fell to their fainting couches, but not before pausing to sell. Yields on ten-year Treasury bonds leapt. Currencies around the world flopped. This “taper tantrum”, as it became known, raised concerns that Fed tightening might so perturb global markets that America itself could suffer. Having survived both tapering and rate increases, Fed officials now seem inclined to dismiss such worries. They should not. The danger of a nasty Fed feedback loop remains.

Wise central bankers are prepared for ill winds blowing from abroad. Thanks to...

Other American banks may have misbehaved as Wells Fargo did. Which ones?
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

Role model

IF THERE is a single example of how dramatically the regulatory environment has changed for American banks in the past 18 months, it may be the trickle of information that has recently emerged about an inquiry into their sales practices. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a banking watchdog, began it in 2016 after widespread malpractice was uncovered at Wells Fargo, one of the country’s biggest banks. It ended the inquiry quietly by writing to several banks on June 4th; it sent the letters to Congress on June 11th. The public learned of the probe only because of diligent reporting by American Banker, a trade publication which appears to have gleaned its information mainly from banking consultants.

The OCC responded to American Banker’s report by releasing enough information to suggest that some banks were guilty of at least minor jiggery-pokery. It confirmed as much in testy exchanges...

China’s tighter regulation of shadow banks begins to bite
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

THE teller at ICBC, China’s (and the world’s) biggest bank, ushers a new, well-heeled customer into a private room. It is not for VIP treatment but a stern warning. The customer wants to invest in products offering higher returns than a basic savings account. The teller fixes a camera on her and reels off a series of questions. Are you aware that prices can go down as well as up? Do you understand that the bank does not guarantee this product? Only when the customer has been recorded saying “yes” does she get her wish.

Some complain that these videotaped agreements, now mandatory at Chinese banks selling similar investment products, feel like interrogations. But for the financial system, they are a step away from the precipice. Banks have used such transactions to channel cash into off-balance-sheet loans, serving riskier corners of the economy. Firms with little lending expertise have also muscled into the same space.

The catch-all phrase to describe this is shadow banking. It...

How to play Argentina
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

THERE is a type of footballer who inspires the affection of fans and the ire of coaches. He is talented, usually extravagantly so. But he is also wayward to the same lavish degree. Discipline seems beyond him, on or off the pitch. It was said of one of this kind, Stan Bowles of Queens Park Rangers and England, that if he could pass a betting shop as well as he passed a ball he’d be a rich man.

Which brings us, naturally, to Argentina—not to its footballers, who have mostly fulfilled their potential, but to its economy, which has not. A century ago, it was the country of the future. It betrayed that promise without ever quite extinguishing hopes that it might eventually live up to it. Like a talented but troublesome sportsman, it keeps being given another chance. The board of the IMF will soon approve a $50bn support package for Argentina. It has had countless such programmes in the past without much changing. The fund is betting that this time is different. Should investors make a similar wager...

How open is America?
Thu, 14 June 2018 15:09:30 GMT

“JUSTIN has agreed to cut all tariffs and all trade barriers between Canada and the United States,” claimed President Donald Trump to laughter on June 8th, at the G7 summit in Quebec. The next day, in apparent seriousness, Mr Trump—who has slapped tariffs and quotas on imports of aluminium and steel from all the G7 countries, and others—called for unfettered trade within the group: “No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be.”

Over the next two days a more familiar Mr Trump reappeared. After Mr Trudeau said, at a post-summit press conference, that Canada would not be pushed around, he fired off a barrage of tweets calling him “very dishonest & weak”. He blasted Europe too. And he tweeted: “Sorry, we cannot let our friends, or enemies, take advantage of us on Trade anymore.”

Suspend disbelief and suppose that Mr Trump’s offer of a barrier-free world is serious. He may want to tear down tariffs and quotas out of a yearning for open markets and lower prices for...

Two Asian stock exchanges tussle over market data
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

BUYING and selling shares in India is not for the faint of heart. Its own central-bank governor reckons equity capital is taxed up to five times. Never fear. There is a well-established alternative. Investors can just as easily buy financial instruments that track share prices but are not themselves shares. Such “derivatives” are used across the world to mirror markets in everything from platinum to pork bellies. But they also raise awkward questions: can the exchange that generates prices by matching buyers and sellers stop a rival using the data to create its own derivatives?

A quarrel between the Singapore Exchange (SGX) and the National Stock Exchange (NSE) in Mumbai touches that very issue. Since 2000 global investors wanting exposure to Indian shares but not Indian red tape and tax have gone via SGX. Under a licence from NSE, punters could trade a derivative linked to the Nifty 50, an index which is to India what the FTSE 100 is to Britain or the S&P 500 is to America.

...

A case for owning euro-zone shares
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

IN AN episode of “Seinfeld”, a 1990s television comedy, George Costanza, a serial failure played by Jason Alexander, decides that every instinct he has is wrong. So he resolves to do the opposite. He is soon squiring a new girlfriend and is up for a dream job. “It’s all happening because I’m completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment I’ve ever had,” he says.

Success in investing often means going against the grain—and your own feelings. To do otherwise is to be swept along by the general greed and fear. Still, fear is a useful emotion. It would be unwise, for instance, to ignore the recent turmoil in Italy, where bond yields spiked in response to concerns that the country might be on the road to leaving the euro. Though the worst fears have subsided, the coalition that was eventually given the president’s blessing to form a government looks capable of causing trouble.

A natural inclination in the circumstances is to turn away from euro-zone assets—not...

A referendum on the way money is created
Thu, 07 June 2018 14:45:31 GMT

TO ITS opponents, the Vollgeld initiative is “suicidal” and a “dangerous experiment”. To its supporters, it is the ticket to a “fairer and more stable banking system”. Swiss voters will decide for themselves on June 10th, when the proposal for sovereign money, which would rewire the country’s banking system, are put to a referendum that, in theory, would be binding.

The heart of the argument is whether private-sector banks should be able to create money. In modern economies, most money takes the form of deposits in commercial banks, rather than the cash in circulation and the reserves determined by the central bank. And bank deposits are mainly created through bank lending. Lenders can thus lend far more than they hold in central-bank reserves.

Vollgeld supporters want to take such money-creating powers away from banks. Bank deposits are not as safe as sovereign money, they say. If a bank collapses, depositors lose...


rssfeedwidget.com