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The Economist

Weekly newspaper focusing on international politics and business news
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UK politicsRead more British election coverageTHERESA MAY, Britain's prime minister, called a surprise election for June 8th arguing that she needed a strong mandate for negotiating Brexit. The pound rallied on the news, in the belief that a large Conservative majority would allow Mrs May the flexibility to do a deal with the EU, and see off the hard-liners among her party.For a while, it looked as if the plan was going well. The Conservatives had a 20-point lead in some polls. But the party's campaign, heavily reliant on the appeal of its leader and the...Continue reading
UBER and Lyft will make their triumphant return to Austin on Monday. Whether the Texas capital will welcome them back is another matter.The ride-hailing giants left in a huff a year ago, after Austinites had the temerity to vote in favour of maintaining the city's requirement that the firms perform fingerprint checks on their drivers, as traditional taxi companies must. The pair have long resisted being held to the same standards as taxis, with an insistence bordering on arrogance. They have also tended to assume that customers had their backs. So it was a rude awakening when, after forcing a city-wide ballot on the issue, and spending close to $9m on their campaign, Uber and Lyft found themselves on the wrong side of the progressive Austin population, which didn't want to be pushed around by big companies from out of town.Even so, the city had become reliant on the ride-hailing firms, due to a combination of hedonistic nightlife,...Continue reading
WHAT is the point of buying shares? Ultimately investors must hope that the cash they receive from the company will offer an attractive long-term return.Over the long run, reinvested dividends rather than capital gains have comprised the vast bulk of returns. But since the 1980s American firms have increasingly used share buy-backs, which have tax advantages for some investors. Buy-backs have been higher than dividend payments in eight of the past ten years.In a buy-back, investors receive cash for a proportion of their holdings. A new paper* in the Financial Analysts Journal argues that adding this to dividend receipts to calculate a total payout yield gives a better estimate of future returns than the dividend yield alone. It also reveals a much better match between stockmarket performance and overall economic growth.Using data going back to 1871, the authors find that the average dividend yield has been 4.5% and the total payout yield 4.89%. Since 1970 the dividend yield has dropped to 3.03%, but the total payout yield has averaged 4.26%. Looked at on that basis, the overall income return from shares has been not that far below historical levels.The return from shares can be broken down into three components: the initial income yield; growth in the income stream; and any change in valuation. (If shares become more...Continue reading
Fans of bitcoin, a crypto-currency, have long called it digital gold. Now this sounds like an insult: continuing its stellar rise, and adding more than 30% to its value in just a week, one bitcoin is worth more than $2,600, over twice as much as an ounce of gold. As The Economist went to press all bitcoins in circulation were worth over $43bn. A sum of $1,000 invested in bitcoins in 2010 would now be worth nearly $36m. Other crypto-currencies are also marching upward: together this week they were worth $87bn. But if the history of gold is any guide, what goes up will come down—and then go up again.
Not dodging but shufflingTHE global war on tax evasion rumbles on. What began as an American onslaught, with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) of 2010, has been joined by more than 100 countries through an initiative called the Common Reporting Standard (CRS). Under this, governments will exchange tax information on their financial firms' clients on a regular, “automatic” basis, without having to be asked for it, starting this year. Holdouts such as Panama, the Bahamas and Lebanon have, one by one, been frogmarched into line.But tax-dodgers and their advisers are enterprising sorts, eager to clamber through the smallest loophole—and gaps in the CRS there are. One involves becoming a pensioner in Hong Kong.The territory, home to a big financial centre, has a type of pension known as an ORS (for Occupational Retirement Scheme). The beauty of ORS from a tax evader's point of view is that anyone can get one and they are not...Continue reading
FINANCIAL-MARKET traders have earned a pretty shocking reputation in recent years. From manipulating LIBOR, a benchmark interest rate, to rigging the daily fix of foreign-exchange (FX) rates, traders have shown themselves ready not just to stretch the rules, but to collude in outright illegality.A global code of conduct for the FX market, unveiled on May 25th, aims to put things on a sounder footing. Drawn up over the past two years by a coalition of central bankers, known as the FX Working Group (FXWG), and supported by a panel of industry participants, the code's 55 principles lay down international standards on a range of practices, from the handling of confidential information to the pricing and settlement of deals.Such standards seem long overdue in the massive FX market. Roughly $5trn is traded every day (see chart). Many companies, pension funds and money managers depend on banks to hedge their exposure to currency fluctuations. Yet in the past traders colluded with one another...Continue reading
Magufuli advises Museveni on how to tilt at colonialismTHE winds that waft along the Swahili coast change direction with the seasons, a boon to traders in times past. Shifts in the political winds are harder to predict. Last July a proposed trade deal between five countries of the East African Community (EAC) and the EU was thrown into disarray when Tanzania backed out at the last minute. An EAC summit, scheduled for months ago, was meant to find a way forward. Held at last on May 20th in Dar es Salaam, after many postponements, only two presidents showed up. The deal is in the doldrums.The pact is one of seven “Economic Partnership Agreements” (EPAs) the EU wants to sign with regional groups in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The first was agreed with the Caribbean in 2008; southern Africa followed suit last year. But progress in west Africa has also stalled, with Nigeria raising objections. The EPAs were promoted as a new breed of trade deal, and...Continue reading
MACHINE-LEARNING is beginning to shake up finance. A subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that excels at finding patterns and making predictions, it used to be the preserve of technology firms. The financial industry has jumped on the bandwagon. To cite just a few examples, “heads of machine-learning” can be found at PwC, a consultancy and auditing firm, at JP Morgan Chase, a large bank, and at Man GLG, a hedge-fund manager. From 2019, anyone seeking to become a “chartered financial analyst”, a sought-after distinction in the industry, will need AI expertise to pass his exams.Despite the scepticism of many, including, surprisingly, some “quant” hedge funds that specialise in algorithm-based trading, machine-learning is poised to have a big impact. Innovative fintech firms and a few nimble incumbents have started applying the technique to everything from fraud protection to finding new trading strategies—promising to up-end not just the humdrum drudgery of the back-office,...Continue reading
AS SPRING arrives, the hills of Languedoc in southern France turn green with the leaves of grapevines. This is helped along by chemicals—lots of them, confides a winemaker based near the town of Thuir in the Pyrenees. In their absence, vineyards would need natural fertilisers and to be weeded by hand, both costly. French farmers use more chemicals than anyone else in Europe: 65,000 tonnes of pesticides alone each year.Even the smallest of vine-growers has an interest in a series of takeovers proposed between their chemicals suppliers. After a decade without any big deals, since 2015 three mega-mergers, collectively worth around $240bn, have been proposed. When they were first announced, many doubted that regulators would allow the mergers because of competition worries. If all three proceed, as now seems likely, four companies will produce 70% of the world's pesticides instead of six today.The first mega-merger, announced in December 2015, was between Dow Chemical and...Continue reading
THE rise of Netflix has been greeted frostily by some of the old guard at the Cannes film festival, where the American streaming giant's disregard for releasing films in cinemas wins it few friends. It looked a bit more at home on May 21st, as the lights went up at the Louis Lumière theatre. The stars of its own film, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, a comedy drama, accepted a standing ovation from the audience. Ted Sarandos, Netflix's head of content, stood alongside Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and other cast members. Festival-goers jostled for a word with him at a swanky after-party.This is the first year that Netflix has been admitted into the festival's competition, with two films, “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Okja”, directed by Bong Joon-ho of South Korea. Still, cries of protest from French film-industry executives prompted Thierry Frémaux, the festival director, to declare that, in future, only films guaranteed a theatrical release in...Continue reading
DONALD TRUMP made a splash during the American presidential campaign when he called for a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure. But when he actually released his first major budget proposal this week, funds for roads and bridges hardly attracted notice. Though the document does lay out a target of $200bn in direct federal spending, to be augmented by private investments, it provides only $5bn in 2018. “President Trump's campaign promises on infrastructure are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges,” said one senior Democrat.Yet tucked away in the proposal is one short paragraph that ought to intrigue the country's city-dwellers, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, as well as business travellers who often find themselves visiting American cities.In a paragraph titled “Incentivize Innovative Approaches to Congestion Mitigation”, there is a proposal to “provide valuable incentives for localities to think outside of the box in solving long-standing congestion challenges,” modeled after...Continue reading
IT IS heartening that the euro area has a knack for surviving near-fatal crises. Yet confidence in the durability of the single currency might be stronger if it suffered fewer of them. Europe dodged its latest bullet on May 7th in France, when Emmanuel Macron, a liberal-minded (by local standards) upstart centrist, defeated Marine Le Pen for the presidency. Even so, an avowed nationalist and Eurosceptic captured 34% of the vote, leaving Mr Macron with five years to assuage widespread frustration with the economic status quo. An obvious model lies just across the Rhine, where the unemployment rate—below 4%, down from over 11% in 2005—is testimony to the potential for swift, dramatic change. Yet Germany's performance will not be easy to duplicate.It would be unfair to call France the sick man of Europe; half the continent is wheezing or limping. Yet there is certainly room for French improvement. Real output per person has barely risen in the past decade. Government spending stands at 57% of GDP, outstripping the tax take; France's budget deficit, at 3.4% of GDP, is among the largest in the euro area's core. The biggest worry, however, is the labour market. The unemployment rate, now 10.1%, is stubbornly high. Nearly a quarter of French young adults are unemployed. Worklessness, especially among young people, is a source of rising social tension and a...Continue reading
UNTIL recently “Uber envy” afflicted many top executives at Airbnb, a platform for booking overnight stays in other people's homes. So admits a big investor in the firm. The two companies often raised money at the same time, and the ride-hailing giant reliably received more cash and closer attention. Uber is America's most valuable private technology firm, with a valuation of close to $70bn at last count; Airbnb is still in second place with a value of around $30bn. But with Uber facing a series of setbacks, including allegations of intellectual-property theft, departures by senior executives and a consumer boycott, jealousy in Airbnb's hallways has largely evaporated.
Fun comes to the blue ovalTHE abrupt departure of Ford's boss, Mark Fields, which the firm announced on May 22nd, has two explanations. Investors had become restive at its performance, particularly in the past year. But Mr Fields was also perceived to lack the drive of Alan Mulally, the man he succeeded. In replacing him with Jim Hackett (pictured), who ran an office-furniture company before joining Ford's board in 2013 and more recently led the firm's mobility unit, Ford hopes to conquer current problems and shore up its future strategy.Ford's shares have declined by nearly 40% since Mr Fields took over (see chart). Though it made record profits in 2015 and had strong results in 2016, investors reckoned a booming North American market, on which it relies for nearly two-thirds of revenues, would slow. They also disliked the fact that Mr Fields had to invest heavily in new technologies. Ford suffered the ignominy of its market capitalisation being...Continue reading
BUILD a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Find a way to beat the stockmarket and they will construct a high-speed railway. As investors try to achieve this goal, they draw on the work of academics. But in doing so, they are both changing the markets and the way academics understand them.The idea that financial markets are “efficient” became widespread among academics in the 1960s and 1970s. The hypothesis stated that all information relevant to an asset's value would instantly be reflected in the price; little point, therefore, in trading on the basis of such data. What would move the price would be future information (news) which, by definition, could not be known in advance. Share prices would follow a “random walk”. Indeed, a book called “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” became a bestseller.The idea helped inspire the creation of index-trackers—funds that simply buy all the shares in a benchmark like the S&P...Continue reading
Bin there, done thatWALK along Sugar Road in Aubervilliers, north-east of Paris, and it is obvious how a formerly scruffy area is gentrifying. New office blocks, a shopping mall and bistros have appeared in recent years, filling spaces left after wrecking balls flattened warehouses. Along a canal previously used by barges, commuter ferries deliver workers from richer parts of the city. A district long known for slums, cheap housing and support for the Communist Party is becoming a business hub—Chanel, a fashion firm, as well as several film producers and studios, have moved in and big banks are expected next.The district's centrepiece is a U-shaped glass block, the headquarters of Veolia, the world's largest water-and-waste group. The building opened in January, after the firm moved out of central Paris to save costs and concentrate 2,000 of its 163,000 staff in one spot. Moving to a rehabilitated area carries symbolism for Veolia, which is experiencing...Continue reading
FEW companies are as defined by a single product as Coca-Cola. The firm has sold the sweet dark soda since 1886. At its headquarters in Atlanta, archives house the advertisements that sowed Coke in the world's consciousness: posters urging consumers to “Have a Coke and a Smile”; Norman Rockwell's 1935 painting of a boy fishing, Coke bottle in hand; a Coca-Cola record with tunes sung by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and The Who; advertisements with a red-coated, bearded Santa Claus—it was Coca-Cola that popularised the image of Santa in the 20th century.Today Coca-Cola has $42bn in revenue and is available “within an arm's reach of desire”, as the firm puts it, in every country but Cuba and North Korea. Its distribution is so broad, its marketing so expert that the Gates Foundation has urged vaccine campaigns to mimic its strategy. The question for James Quincey, an insider who took over as CEO this month, is whether Coca-Cola can move beyond Coke.The company...Continue reading
Well under 45FOR young hipsters and middle-aged sentimentalists alike, the resurgence of vinyl is cause for celebration. Since 2010 sales of vinyl records in America have tripled. Britain's vinyl industry saw its biggest gains for 25 years in 2016. Big supermarkets are extending the amount of space that they allocate to the discs and even the turntables that twirl them have found a place on Amazon's best-seller lists.Meeting this demand has been tricky. Vinyl accounted for 76% of total album sales in 1973; by 1994 this had dropped to 1.5% as compact discs (CDs) took over. By then the bulk of the world's vinyl-pressing plants had closed and most of their cumbersome machines had gone to the scrapyard. Only a very few plants that could diversify into new areas of printing and production stayed open. But they did so without any further investment in vinyl, so the few machines that kept on producing often date back to the 1960s.GZ Media, a Czech...Continue reading
IT IS hard to predict when bubbles will pop, in particular when they are nested within each other. It helps to keep this image in mind when considering one of the biggest surges in asset values of recent years: the market value of all the world's crypto-currencies has trebled since the beginning of the year, and is now worth more than $60bn (see chart).Bitcoin is the best known of these currencies, especially after hackers this month instructed victims to pay ransoms in the anonymous digital cash in order to get their computer files decrypted. Not that many bitcoins exist: there are about 16.3m of them, with only 1,800 new ones minted every day. But growing demand has pushed bitcoin's price to a record recent high of about $1,830, up from $450 a year ago.Problems abide. Earlier this year some of the biggest exchanges, such as Bitfinex, experienced problems with their correspondent banks and were unable to pay out real-world currencies to account-holders. To get their money...Continue reading
ONCE an electronics and nuclear-power empire that was the pride of corporate Japan, Toshiba is threatened with a stockmarket delisting. It missed a deadline to file its annual results, on May 15th, for the third time this year. In earnings estimates (auditors are refusing to sign off on its results), it warned of a loss close to ¥1trn ($9bn) for the financial year that ended in March. That is the steepest loss on record for a Japanese manufacturer.To make things worse, Western Digital, an American joint-venture partner in its semiconductor unit, last week took legal action to block Toshiba's plan to shed their flash-memory business. The case could drag on, but Toshiba needs a sale. That would help cover a write-down of billions of dollars from Westinghouse Electric, its bankrupt American nuclear-power unit.The group's chip business accounted for almost one-fifth of revenue in the nine months to December 2016; together, Toshiba and SanDisk, a subsidiary of Western Digital,...Continue reading
A penny for your dreamsBEHIND the heavily fortified door of Stack's Bowers, a gallery of rare coins in New York, smiling salesmen show off their precious wares neatly displayed in pristine glass cabinets. To the untutored eye, it looks like pocket change. Numismatists, who study the history and art of old money, see well-preserved coins as aesthetic masterpieces worth many times their face value. At an auction organised by Stack's Bowers on March 31st, an American cent from 1793 (pictured) sold for $940,000, becoming the costliest penny ever.An index of tangible alternative asset classes compiled by Knight Frank, a consultancy, shows that returns on rare coins over ten years to the end of 2016 were 195%, easily beating art (139%), stamps (133%), furniture (-31%) and the S&P 500 index (58%). Coins are more portable than paintings or furniture, and boast a higher value-to-volume ratio. Stamps may be lighter, but, come doomsday, cannot be melted...Continue reading
LISTED firms in over 120 countries, including all large economies bar America, issue financial statements according to international financial reporting standards (IFRS) set by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). One industry, however, has been in practice free to keep using divergent national standards: insurance. That, too, is about to change. IFRS 17, issued on May 18th and coming into force in 2021, is the first standard for insurers to require consistent accounting across all countries using IASB rules (ie, again excluding America).It has a wide gulf to bridge. In one example, looking at identical financial results reported under two countries' standards, revenue differed by a quarter and net income by nearly two-fifths. Some places, such as the EU, require insurers to use updated discount rates to value future cashflows. Others, including America and many parts of Asia, allow the use of historical discount rates and assumptions valid at the time the policy was...Continue reading
BE CAREFUL what you wish for. Traders were bored last week and now they have got some excitement. The US equity market suffered its worst trading day in eight months, falling 1.8%, with banks dropping 4%. The Volatility index, or Vix, which recently dipped below 10, jumped above 15. The dollar has lost most of its gains since Donald Trump was elected in November (see chart).The catalyst for the sell-off seems to be the latest set of...Continue reading
IN OCTOBER 2008, amid post-Lehman pandemonium, Britain's Treasury said it would pump £37bn (then $64.4bn) into three big banks: £20bn into the stricken Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS); the rest into Lloyds TSB and HBOS, a sickly rival that ministers had cajoled Lloyds into buying. After rights issues in 2009, in all the state paid £20.3bn for 43.4% of the merged Lloyds Banking Group. On May 17th Lloyds said the last state shares had been sold.The government has recouped £21.2bn, including £400m-plus in dividends, since it started to unload its stake in 2013. The return may sound slim, but had big lenders imploded the costs of the financial crisis would surely have been far greater even than they were. (Not surprisingly, anyone holding Lloyds TSB or HBOS shares since before the crisis has made a heavy loss.)The group is Britain's biggest retail bank. Its brands—Lloyds Bank, with its “black horse” logo, Halifax and Bank of Scotland—boast around...Continue reading
HAN SOLO, a hero from the Star Wars movies, has a habit of saying, at tense moments, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Many commentators are echoing this sentiment after a recent fall in the Volatility Index, or Vix, below ten. Their fears deepened on May 17th, when the Vix lurched above 15 and American stockmarkets had their worst day in eight months. Incessant turmoil in the White House at last seemed to take its toll.A low Vix reading is usually seen as a sign of investor complacency. The previous two occasions on which the index fell below ten were in 1993 and early 2007 (see chart). One preceded the bond market sell-off of 1994 and the other occurred just before the first stages of the credit crisis.The value of the Vix relates to the cost of insuring against asset-price movements via the options market. An option gives the purchaser the right, but not the obligation, to buy (a call) or sell (a put) an asset at a given price before a given date. In return, like...Continue reading
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