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Tag Archives: FINANCE

The revised Basel bank-capital standards are complete at last

HOWEVER long a storm lasts, clearing up takes longer. On December 7th Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank and head of the committee that approves global bank-capital standards, declared that revisions to Basel 3, the version drawn up after the financial crisis of 2007-08, were complete. The overhaul of the previous rules, which were blown away in the tempest, began eight years ago. The revised set, informally called Basel 4, will not take full effect until 2027.

That lengthy period of adjustment is one way in which Basel 4 is less demanding than banks, notably in Europe, had feared. Several other tweaks mean that the standards banks must eventually meet will be less exacting than first proposed. Already forced to bolster their balance-sheets with lots more equity—of which the crisis showed them to be woefully short—banks may deny that they have got off lightly. But they probably have.

Basel 4 was supposed to be settled a year ago. It wasn’t, because of a...Continue reading

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China’s leading economists are in high demand and short supply

EVERGRANDE, a Chinese property firm, is a big spender. It was until recently the country’s most indebted developer. It also owns a football club with one of the highest payrolls in China. It has extended its largesse to a new field: economics. Having founded an economic-research institute, Evergrande last month poached Ren Zeping, a star analyst with a big brokerage, to serve as its first chief economist. His annual salary of 15m yuan ($2.3m) is, based on available information, the highest ever for an economist in China. Not bad for a country where forecasting the official growth figures accurately has for years required little more research than reading the official growth targets.

Yet Evergrande is not alone in splashing cash in China, whether in property, football or, lately, economics. Competition for the best—or, rather, best-known—economists is fierce. The past half year alone has resembled a frenzied transfer window for their services. Besides Mr Ren, half a dozen...Continue reading

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The WTO remains stuck in its rut

“THERE is life after Buenos Aires,” soothed Susana Malcorra, chair of the 11th ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Multilateralism may not be dead, but it has taken a kicking. Expectations were low as the meeting began in the Argentine capital. They sank even lower as it progressed. Delegates failed to agree on a joint statement, let alone on any new trade deals.

Many arrived with a culprit already in mind. Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative, was the face of an administration that is both questioning the benefits of multilateralism and jamming the WTO’s process of settling disputes. As negotiations progressed, some delegates groused that American leadership was lacking. Some even speculated that the Americans might be happy if multilateral talks foundered. What better proof, after all, that the system is broken?

Ms Malcorra, without mentioning the Americans by name, warned against creating scapegoats out of those...Continue reading

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The markets’ apparent calm over Brexit is deceptive

FOR all the sound and fury of the Brexit negotiations, it has seemed at times as if the financial markets have been barely affected. But as with the swans that glide on the Thames, a serene surface conceals some frantic paddling underneath.

The pound is the most reliable indicator of the Brexit mood. A rule of thumb is that, if the headlines point to a “hard” Brexit (creating trade barriers with the EU), sterling will fall; signs of a “soft” Brexit (something that is close to the current relationship) will cause it to rise.

But some feedback processes are at work. The big fall in the pound in the immediate aftermath of the referendum has led to a gradual rise in imported inflation. The annual inflation rate hit 3.1% in November, requiring Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, to write to Philip Hammond, the chancellor, to explain why the target (of 2%) had been missed. The bank has already raised interest rates once. More rises may follow, and expectation of such rises supports the pound.

The need for monetary tightening is not simply a result of higher import costs, which might prove temporary. More worryingly, the Bank thinks that the trend rate of growth of the British economy has fallen (a view it shares with the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s forecasting arm). In part, this is because Britain faces a more...Continue reading

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Will America’s economy overheat in 2018?

USUALLY politicians pretend that good economic news on their watch is no surprise. But America’s recent growth figures have been so positive that even the administration of President Donald Trump has allowed itself to marvel. “It’s actually happening faster than we expected,” mused Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget chief, in September, after growth rose to 3.1% in the second quarter. (Mr Trump in fact came to office promising 4% growth, but the goal now seems to be 3%.) Mr Mulvaney warned that hurricanes would soon bring growth back down. Instead, in the third quarter, it rose to 3.3%—a figure celebrated with more conviction. The administration’s initial caution was wise: quarterly growth figures are volatile, and few economists expect growth above 3% to carry on for long. Yet there is no denying that the economy is in rude health.

In part, that reflects the strength of the global economy. But it is also the culmination of a years-long trend. As politics has consumed...Continue reading

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A decade after it hit, what was learnt from the Great Recession?

TEN years ago this month, America entered the “Great Recession”. A decade on, the recession occupies a strange space in public memory. Its toll was clearly large. America suffered a cumulative loss of output estimated at nearly $4trn, and its labour markets have yet to recover fully. But the recession was far less bad than it might have been, thanks to the successful application of lessons from the Depression. Paradoxically, that success spared governments from enacting bolder reforms of the sort that might make the Great Recession the once-a-century event economists thought such calamities should be.

Good crisis response treats its symptoms; the symptoms of a disease, after all, can kill you. On that score today’s policymakers did far better than those of the 1930s. Government budgets have become a much larger share of the economy, thanks partly to the rise of the modern social safety net. Consequently, public borrowing and spending on benefits did far more to stabilise the economy than they did during the Depression. Policymakers stepped in to prevent the extraordinary collapse in prices and incomes experienced in the 1930s. They also kept banking panics from spreading, which would have amplified the pain of the downturn. Though unpopular, the decision to bail out the financial system prevented the implosion of the global economy.

But the success...Continue reading

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Cars, jewels, wine and watches have been good investments

DIAMONDS, they say, are for ever. They can be pricey, too. On December 5th 173 lots of jewels auctioned by Sotheby’s raised $54m. They included several pieces belonging to Sean Connery, known for playing James Bond. The following day a car favoured by Bond, the Aston Martin DB5, was auctioned for $2.7m. It was among 24 classic vehicles that together fetched $45m. The sales in New York last week by the world’s two biggest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, also involved fine wines, watches and other luxuries. Between them they sold $200m-worth.

The Economist has compiled price indices for many of these items—diamonds, classic cars, fine wine, art, watches and other curios—and grouped them in a “passion” index. The index is weighted according to the holdings of high-net-worth individuals (HNWI)—defined as people with more than $1m of investable assets—as reported by Barclays. Our passion index has dropped by 2% a year, on average, for the past...Continue reading

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Oil and gas supply disruptions ripple around the world

The Baumgarten blast

CALL it the hydrocarbon equivalent of the butterfly effect. As oil and gas supplies tighten during the northern winter, disruptions as remote as a hairline fracture on a piece of Scottish pipeline, and an explosion in an Austrian natural-gas plant, have repercussions felt around the world.

Start with the pipeline. After Ineos, a chemicals company, detected a growing crack on a piece of pipe near Aberdeen, on December 11th it said it would shut the main Forties pipeline carrying North Sea oil and gas to Britain for weeks. The suspension of a pipeline carrying 450,000 barrels a day (b/d) of crude, in a global market of almost 98m b/d, would not normally be disruptive. Yet Brent crude, the benchmark for pricing much of the world’s seaborne crude, is itself partly priced on the flow of crude from 80 fields that feed the Forties pipeline, magnifying the impact.

Futures prices for Brent crude delivered in February and...Continue reading

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Bitcoin-futures contracts create as many risks as they mitigate

OFTEN promoted as a way of mitigating risk, futures contracts are frequently more like new ways of gambling. That was true of a close precursor to the instrument, introduced in the Netherlands in 1636, linked to the hot investment of the day—tulip bulbs. Likewise the world’s first two futures contracts linked to bitcoin. One launched on the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) on December 10th; the other was due to follow a week later on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).

As bitcoin’s price has soared to new highs (see chart), holders may be happy to have a way to hedge their exposure at last. But for many, the contracts are just another way in. Both contracts settle in cash (ie, for the difference between the agreed price and the actual spot price). No exchange of bitcoin is needed; similarly, in the Dutch precedent, no bulbs were involved.

Early trading on the CBOE certainly suggests a speculative market. In the first few hours, prices rose so quickly that trading twice had to be suspended. The contract has so far traded at a significant premium, of up to $2,000, to the spot price. This suggests there are more buyers than sellers—even though selling in the futures market offers a way to bet against bitcoin.

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African countries are building a giant free-trade area

“AFRICA must unite,” wrote Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, in 1963, lamenting that African countries sold raw materials to their former colonisers rather than trading among themselves. His pan-African dream never became reality. Even today, African countries still trade twice as much with Europe as they do with each other (see chart). But that spirit of unity now animates a push for a Continental Free-Trade Area (CFTA), involving all 55 countries in the region. Negotiations began in 2015, aimed at forming the CFTA by the end of this year. In contrast to the WTO, African trade talks are making progress.

At a meeting on December 1st and 2nd in Niamey, the capital of Niger, African trade ministers agreed on final tweaks to the text. Heads of state will probably sign it in March, once an accompanying protocol on goods has been concluded (agreement on services has already been reached). But trade barriers will not tumble overnight. The CFTA will come into force only when 15 countries...Continue reading

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