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The Economist

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AMERICANS, and people who travel to America, have good reason to celebrate this month. By the end of April, the four major credit-card networks in the country will all stop requiring retailers to collect signatures from customers when completing transactions. Visa, the world's biggest credit-card issuer, announced in January that signatures would no longer be required from this month for retailers in North America with chip-card readers. For Mastercard, the second-largest, the same change became effective on April 13th, covering purchases in the United States and Canada. American Express, in third place, is dropping the signature requirement this month for retailers around the world. Discover, the fourth, is
DURING the financial crisis, Western governments poured hundreds of billions of dollars into their banks to avert collapse. The search for ways to avoid future bail-outs started before the turmoil ended. One of the niftiest proposals was the “contingent convertible” (coco) bond, which turns into equity when the ratio of a bank's equity to risk-weighted assets falls below a predetermined danger point (since set at a minimum of 5.125% for cocos, although it can be up to around 7%). The ambition was grand. As the Squam Lake Group, composed of mostly American academics, put it in 2009, the automatic conversion of cocos would “transform an undercapitalised or insolvent bank into a well-capitalised bank at no cost to taxpayers”.At first, regulators were keen. In 2010 Mervyn King, then the governor of the Bank of England, said he wanted contingent capital to be a “major part of the liability structure of the banking system”. Swiss regulators, too, pushed for coco issuance. The hybrid nature of cocos seemed a way to satisfy both regulators, who wanted banks to have bigger safety buffers, and bankers, who were reluctant to issue new shares because of the high cost of capital. The hope was that investors, too, might see the appeal of an asset that offered a higher yield than bank bonds but lower risk than bank shares.Nine years after the first cocos...Continue reading
WATCHING financial markets can be like watching a horror film. A character walks into the darkness alone. A floorboard creaks. The latest spooky sign is the spread between the three-month dollar London interbank offered rate (LIBOR) and the overnight index swap (OIS) rate. It usually hovers at around 0.1%, but has recently climbed to 0.6% (see chart). As it widens, bankers are bracing for a jump scare.To see why, consider what each rate represents. LIBOR is the rate that banks charge other banks for unsecured loans. The OIS rate measures expectations for the federal funds rate, which is set by the central bank. As LIBOR rises above the OIS rate, that suggests banks fear it is getting riskier to lend to each other. (The gap was 3.65 percentage points in the depths of the crisis, after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.)Market-watchers were already twitchy. Last November they shuddered as the yield curve, which plots the yields of Treasury bonds of different maturities, abruptly flattened....Continue reading
THE Hong Kong dollar is one of the most and least manipulated monies in the world. For over 34 years the territory's monetary authority, the HKMA, has kept it pegged to America's currency at around HK$7.80 to the dollar, resisting all temptations to let it fall or rise. In 2005 it refined the peg with two promises: to buy dollars at the price of HK$7.75 and to sell them for HK$7.85.The strength of the Hong Kong dollar has obliged the HKMA to keep the first promise many times since. Its purchases of American dollars have even drawn the accusation that it manipulates its currency for competitive advantage.In fact, the HKMA has always been ready to manipulate its currency upwards, too. But since 2005 it has had no occasion to, until last week. On April 12th the Hong Kong dollar weakened to HK$7.85, forcing the authority to buy HK$51bn over the next few days in exchange for American dollars.The Hong Kong dollar's weakness reflects the gap between rising American interest rates and...Continue reading
THE Bralima brewery in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is an island of modernity in a city where chaos is the norm. Inside a building near the docks where barges begin the journey up the Congo river, conveyor belts rattle as thousands of glass bottles are washed and filled with amber liquid. A generator hums to power the new brewing machinery, creating enough booze to fill 28,000 crates every two days.Yet the real achievement of Bralima, which is owned by Heineken, a Dutch brewer, is not making the beer. It is what happens when it leaves the factory. Congo is one of the worst-connected, most dysfunctional countries on Earth. Four times the size of France, it has almost no all-weather roads. In large parts of eastern DRC, the state is a fiction and rebels control the roads. Yet there is scarcely a village where it is impossible to get a beer.Bralima was founded in 1923. Its main competitors, Bracongo and Brasimba, both owned by Castel, a...Continue reading
SO THIS is how normality feels. Between April 13th and April 18th America's biggest banks reported a strong set of first-quarter earnings, with a helping hand from the taxman. Some are more profitable than they have been for years. They are paying billions to shareholders; regulatory reins are being loosened. Yet the stockmarket shrugged. On April 18th the S&P 500 index of banks' share prices was 4.1% lower than at the start of reporting season.Banks expected three main effects from the corporate-tax cut signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The first was a write-down of deferred tax assets—past losses that could be set against future bills—which clobbered most lenders' bottom lines in the fourth quarter but did no real damage. (Some, including Wells Fargo, carried deferred liabilities and hence recorded a gain.) The second was a permanent reduction in their tax bills. The third was a boost to business from a more lightly taxed America Inc.The direct benefits of lower taxes are plain. Although pre-tax profits at the six biggest banks rose by $4.3bn, compared with the first quarter of 2017, taxes fell at five of them. (At the sixth, Goldman Sachs, the bill was unusually low a year ago because of a change in the treatment of employees' shares and options.) Of a total increase in net profit of $5.4bn at those five, lower...Continue reading
DEUTSCHE BANK is one of the financial industry's hardest problems. It is not a viable business when judged by any sensible yardstick, because it is unable to make enough profits to generate a remotely adequate return. Its existence does not seem to be in the public interest, since it is dominated by an investment bank that has paid its lucky staff a colossal €40bn ($49bn) over the past decade. The bank's governance has misfired for ages. On April 8th Deutsche fired John Cryan, its chief executive, in the third regime change in seven years. If the rules of capitalism apply to banks, Deutsche should be wound down. Is that possible?Deutsche was founded in 1870 to help German companies go abroad. In 1999 it bought Bankers Trust, a Wall Street firm, and went on a long expansion in the investment-banking business. Today it has four elements. A decent asset-management operation called DWS; a profitable payments business that ships money around the world for companies; a mediocre German retail bank...Continue reading
The Economist is looking for a business correspondent to work at its headquarters in London. An ability to write informatively, succinctly and wittily, combined with numeracy and curiosity, matter more than prior experience. Applicants should send a CV and an article which they think would be suitable for publication in the Business section to [email protected] The closing date for applications is May 18th 2018.
ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, a Spanish pop singer, plays an unlikely part in the story of Indian capitalism. His presence at a party to mark Vijay Mallya's 60th birthday, in December 2015, was, literally, a showstopper. A flamboyant booze heir, Mr Mallya was then best known for founding Kingfisher Airlines, which had earlier imploded because of its debts. Given that he had personally guaranteed some of these loans, the self-proclaimed “king of good times” was assumed to have been chastened. Upon hearing of Mr Iglesias's performance, bankers—and politicians—started asking how Mr Mallya had continued to live so large. The party had lasted for three days.Mr Mallya is hardly the only embattled Indian tycoon to have cocked a snook at his bankers. Some “promoters” of companies, as founding shareholders of Indian companies are known, have long made full use of a loophole of local corporate law that thwarted banks' attempts to seize companies in default on their loans. A bunged-up court system made...Continue reading
Hipster Hells Angel“WHEN you enter [the marketplace] with that level of hubris and arrogance, you don't create trust.” So declared a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors this week. He was upset about the sudden appearance of dockless electric scooters, rented via smartphone, all over the city. Several American startups are battling each other and the authorities to promote them. They are clean, cheap and convenient. The snag is that some users ride them wildly or dump them willy-nilly after use. On April 17th the city passed an ordinance requiring a permit to park scooters on its pavements.Similar clashes have taken place elsewhere. Bird, a Californian startup that raised $100m in venture-capital funding last month, launched its rental service for electrified scooters in September at its home base of Santa Monica. Since then, the beach town's hipsters have completed over half a million rides on its scooters. Rather less keen were city officials, who...Continue reading
THE first week for ESPN+, a sports streaming service that Disney, owner of ESPN, launched in America on April 12th, had none of the razzmatazz associated with a firm known for blockbuster openings. Forget marquee matchups from the National Basketball Association. The games come from lesser-known football (ie, soccer) leagues, minor college sports and international fixtures with limited American audiences, like rugby and cricket.This was tactical, says Kevin Mayer, the boss of Disney's first shot at streaming in America. At $5 a month, the aim is to create a sort of mini-Netflix for sports. But Disney is loth to take customers away from the company's lucrative ESPN networks on pay-TV. It wants to avoid the own goal of disrupting itself.The delicate positioning of ESPN+ reflects an industry in flux. Cable networks are losing millions of subscribers to “cord-cutting”, whereby customers drop expensive pay-TV packages in favour of much cheaper internet services like Netflix. In response to this threat Disney decided to pull its films from Netflix and to develop its own internet-only entertainment service, which is scheduled to debut next year. In December the company agreed a $66bn deal to buy much of the entertainment business of 21st Century Fox, in order to gain the heft to compete with Netflix. Disney is betting that streaming is the...Continue reading
WHEN flag carriers such as British Airways (BA) ruled the skies, only the rich could afford to fly across the Atlantic. That was until Freddie Laker, a British entrepreneur, came along. His dream was to open long-haul travel to the masses. In 1977 he launched Skytrain, the first low-cost long-haul flights between London and New York. “Thanks to Freddie Laker you can cross the Atlantic for so much less,” declared Margaret Thatcher in 1981. “Competition works.” But within a year of her speech Laker Airways had gone bust, amid accusations of predatory pricing.Since 2013 Norwegian, another low-cost carrier, has been trying to make Laker's dream a reality. Last year it painted his face onto one of its jets to show it is serious about disrupting transatlantic air travel. But just like Laker Airways, it has run into financial headwinds. And BA is once again a potential beneficiary. On April 12th IAG, a group of flag carriers including BA, said that it had bought 4.6% of its budget rival as a precursor...Continue reading
The Pony Express, British styleIT MAY be hard to imagine a world without cheap postal services, but 200 years ago sending mail was a luxury. Posting a letter from London to Edinburgh cost an average daily wage. In 1840, after a proposal by Rowland Hill, an inventor, Britain launched the Penny Post, the world's first universal mail service. The state-run post office was given a mail monopoly in return for delivering letters to any address in the country at the same rate. Cheaper postage proved wildly popular and the flows of information it enabled boosted economic growth. But the scheme's finances proved controversial. The low cost of the service hit profits and the government introduced income tax to fill the fiscal hole.That did not stop the idea of a “universal service obligation” for post spreading across the entire rich world over the next century. At the industry's peak, post offices worldwide delivered nearly 350bn items of mail in 2007. But over the past...Continue reading
AMERICANS, and people who travel to America, have good reason to celebrate this month. By the end of April, the four major credit-card networks in the country will all stop requiring retailers to collect signatures from customers when completing transactions. Visa, the world's biggest credit-card issuer announced in January that signatures would no longer be required from month for retailers in North America with chip card readers. For Mastercard, the world's second largest, the same change became effective on April 13th, covering purchases in the United States and Canada. American Express, in third place globally, is dropping the signature requirement this month for retailers around the world. Discover, the fourth, is
DURING his spectacular rise from London beancounter to the globe-trotting boss of WPP, the advertising powerhouse he created out of a backstreet wire-basket and trolley company, Sir Martin Sorrell was rarely sentimental. The man who helped turn a ramshackle but chic industry into a global force poached accounts mercilessly and often pitted his own firms against each other in the quest for clients.Not for nothing did the late David Ogilvy, one of the industry's founding patriarchs, reputedly describe him as an “odious little shit” when WPP came after the Ogilvy Group in the late 1980s at the dawn of its decades-long acquisition spree (see chart). But Ogilvy later became WPP's non-executive chairman, and the company turned into the world's largest marketing conglomerate with more than $20bn in annual revenues. In business, Sir Martin charmed as well as cajoled.
TALK of restricting the use of Chinese telecoms equipment in the West is growing. This week the curbs went the other way, when America banned its companies from selling hardware and software for seven years to one of China's state-owned tech champions, ZTE. On April 16th America's Department of Commerce said that China's second-largest telecoms firm had trampled on a settlement reached in March 2017 over ZTE's illegal shipments since 2010 of American-made technology—telecommunications equipment to Iran, and routers, servers and microprocessors to North Korea—in known violation of trade sanctions.The one at risk of being crippled by an embargo is now ZTE. In 2016 UBS, a bank, estimated that 80-90% of its products relied on American parts. Jean Baptiste Su of Atherton Research, an American technology-research outfit, described the ban as “devastating” for ZTE, especially the loss of chips made by America's Qualcomm used in about 70% of ZTE's smartphones. Although ZTE...Continue reading
WHEN bankruptcy trustees were appointed over a hectic weekend late in 2008, there seemed no end to the losses caused by the collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Cash in the bank was no more than $150m. But the losses have been less, and the assets available for compensation greater, than had been feared.On February 22nd Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the liquidation of Mr Madoff's firm, announced that a fund set up to reimburse customers would make its ninth distribution, of $621m, bringing the total handed out so far to $11.4bn. Another $1.8bn in held in reserve for contested claims. This is on top of a separate distribution of $723m last November from a separate fund run by the Department of Justice. Another $3bn remains to be distributed in that fund and the bankruptcy trustees hold out hope that substantially more will be recovered and returned.Mr Madoff, who will turn 80 in April, is serving a 150-year sentence in a North Carolina prison. At his...Continue reading
RARELY in corporate history has a giant come and gone so quickly. Anbang was founded in 2004 as a small Chinese car-insurance company. By the start of last year it ranked among the world's biggest insurers with some $300bn of assets, including stakes in hotels and financial firms across America, Europe and Asia. Given another ten years, boasted Wu Xiaohui, its swashbuckling founder, Anbang's scale would “exceed your imagination”. But then, just as vertiginous as its ascent, came its fall. Alarmed at its debt-fuelled expansion, regulators started blocking its overseas deals, reined in its insurance business and detained Mr Wu. On February 23rd its disgrace became complete: the Chinese government announced that it had taken over Anbang and would prosecute Mr Wu for economic crimes.The insurance regulator said it had intervened because illegal operations could have “seriously endangered” the company's solvency. It did not spell out the exact nature of Anbang's alleged...Continue reading
KYLIE JENNER, a model and reality TV star best known for being the, er, second most famous Kylie in the world, managed to cause a stir on Wall Street. With this idiosyncratic tweetsooo does anyone else not open Snapchat any more? Or is it just me...ugh this is so sadshe knocked back the share price of Snap, the parent company of the video- and picture-sharing app. Ms Jenner's influence in the target market is deemed to be huge; she has 24.5m Twitter followers, and her message has (at the time of writing) been retweeted 58,000 times and “liked” by 310,000. Snap's share price fell 6%, reducing the company's market value by $1.3bn. The decline was not just down to the influence of Ms Jenner, who recently gave birth to a daughter Stormi, named after the weather/porn star/grime artist. Investors were already worried about the impact of a recent app redesign. More than 1.2m people signed a...Continue reading
ON A clear day, sunset over Lake Zug is magnificent. Snow-dusted mountains cut through the orange glow above and are mirrored in the lake below. “Zug is our spiritual home,” says Jeremy Epstein, from Washington, DC, who has just taken 40 foreigners to tour the small Swiss town south of Zurich. They came not for sunsets, though, but to find out how Zug has become known as “crypto-valley”—meaning the home of many firms dealing in crypto-currencies and related activities.Switzerland's famous banking secrecy is falling to a global assault on money-laundering and tax evasion. But financial security remains in demand. The country should seek to become the “crypto-nation”, said the economy minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, last month. Zug aims to be the capital of that nation.To that end, Switzerland is maintaining loose rules for crypto-businesses, even as other countries are tightening theirs. An industry is developing to store tangible crypto-assets, such as the hard...Continue reading
AMID the name-calling and bluster that mar many fights between economists are a few common tactics. Belligerents may attack the theory used to support a claim, or the data analysis used to quantify an effect. During the debate over President Donald Trump's tax bill, to take a recent example, economists bickered over which side had more credibly calculated the economic effect. They did not, for the most part, argue about whether it was morally acceptable to pass a regressive tax reform after years of wage stagnation and rising inequality. To do so would strike many economists as entirely un-economist-like. Yet economics has not always been so shy about moral philosophy. As well as “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith wrote a “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Great 20th-century economists like Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow also took questions of values very seriously. Their successors would do well to take several pages from their books.Modern economists have attempted...Continue reading
BONDS, shares and Treasury bills are all very well, but in the end they are just pieces of paper. They are not assets you can hang on the wall or display to admiring neighbours. Many rich people like to invest their wealth in more tangible form; property, of course, but also collectibles such as art, fine wine and classic cars.Is that wise? Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) have run the numbers for their annual analysis of the financial markets in the Credit Suisse global investment-returns yearbook. Some of these assets have done rather better than others (see chart). Fine wine delivered the best returns; surprising to cynics who might assume that, in the long run, the value of wine vanishes as it turns into vinegar. Really old wine often has historical resonance. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1787 was sold for $156,450 in 1985 because it was thought to belong to Thomas Jefferson.Estimating the returns from these assets, after...Continue reading
OIL bears beware. On February 20thSuhail al-Mazrouei, OPEC's rotating president and energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the 14-member producers' group is working on a plan for a formal alliance with ten other petrostates, including Russia, aimed at propping up oil prices for the foreseeable future. If it comes to anything, it could be OPEC's most ambitious venture in decades.The result will not be, he insists, a “supergroup”. The notion of Saudi Arabia and Russia joining forces as the Traveling Wilburys of the oil world may be a bit jarring. It remains an idea in “draft” form. But whatever its chances, it attempts to shift a belief widely held by participants in oil markets: that non-American oil producers are helpless against the shale revolution.That belief has strengthened because of a renewed flood of American shale production in the latter part of 2017 after prices of West Texas Intermediate climbed above $50 a barrel. The International Energy Agency...Continue reading
GOVERNORS of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) tend not to linger long in their post. Twenty-two people have headed the institution since 1914, compared with 16 at the Federal Reserve and 12 at the Bank of England. The last time a BoJ governor won a second term was 1961, when Japan's economy was growing by over 11% and inflation was over 5%. As Richard Werner, the author of “Princes of the Yen”, a history of the central bank's failures, points out, by tradition the job alternates every five years between a candidate backed by the finance ministry and a “true-born” BoJ insider.This tradition will be broken by the reappointment of Haruhiko Kuroda, who was nominated for a second term on February 16th. If he completes it, he will become the longest-serving governor in the BoJ's history.With luck that might be long enough for him to reach the central bank's elusive inflation target of 2%, a goal set five years ago which he had hoped to meet by 2015. Although the BoJ has...Continue reading
YOU spend 38 years at a mighty global bank, the last seven as chief executive. As boss you clean up a stinking mess, the legacy of ill-conceived acquisitions and shoddy practice. You shell out billions in fines and legal costs. You shed businesses and cut jobs by a quarter. You build a solid capital base. You maintain dividends. On your last day, you announce decent results, with revenue growing after five years of shrinkage and profits up nicely. The market's parting gift to you? The share price falls by 3%.Analysts had expected better from Stuart Gulliver's final report as boss of Britain's HSBC, the world's seventh-biggest bank by assets, on February 20th. They were surprised by charges for impaired loans to two companies, thought to be Carillion, a failed British contractor, and Steinhoff, a troubled South African retailer, and miffed that HSBC put off buying back more shares. That, the bank said, must wait until it has raised $5bn-7bn of “additional tier-1” capital...Continue reading
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