Posts in category FINANCE


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Nordic payments firms have become acquisition targets

THE Vikings were slow to adopt coins. They preferred to pay by cutting pieces off silver bars, at least until contact with the rest of Europe convinced them of the benefits of standardised coins. Today their Nordic descendants are abandoning coins and notes in favour of electronic payments. Two Nordic e-payments firms have recently announced that they will be acquired by foreign companies. The rest of the world, too, is using less cash. And they want the financial backing to enter new markets.

On September 25th Nets, a payments firm based in Denmark, announced that Hellman & Friedman, an American private-equity firm, had offered to acquire it for DKr33.1bn ($5.3bn). Nets is following Bambora, a Swedish-based payments firm, for which Ingenico, a French electronic-payments firm, offered €1.5bn ($1.7bn) in July.

Nets was created in 2010 from the merger of payments companies in Denmark and Norway. It has a strong presence in both countries. Dankort, Denmark’s national…Continue reading

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Marital choices are exacerbating household income inequality

It’s all a matter of degree

“HERE’S what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate,” wrote Susan Patton, a human-resources consultant, in 2013. In an infamous letter to the editor of Princeton’s student newspaper, Ms Patton warned female students at the university that they will “never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of [them]”. Critics responded harshly. Ms Patton recalls that she was branded “a traitor to feminism, a traitor to co-education and an elitist”.

Economists might offer yet another critique of Ms Patton’s letter: it was largely unnecessary. It is clear to academics that people tend to marry spouses with similar levels of education. They also know that “assortative mating”, as the practice is called in the jargon, is exacerbating income inequality. In America, Britain, Denmark, Germany and Norway, they have found that household income would be more evenly spread if…Continue reading

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Huge volumes of data make real-time insurance a possibility

Mind your heads

EVEN at weddings or whale watches, the buzz of a drone is no longer a surprise. Drone photography is booming. Gartner, a consultancy, says some 174,000 drones will be sold for commercial use around the world this year, and 2.8m to consumers. It is easy to imagine a few might fall out of the sky, causing damage the pilot cannot hope to pay for: crushed wedding cakes, injured spectators and so on. Amid scores of near-misses, several incidents have already occurred. In 2014, for example, a drone filming a triathlon in Australia crashed on a competitor’s head.

Clearly, drone-users need insurance. Typically, risks are insured through the payment of an annual premium. Insure4drones, a British specialist, charges £738.86 ($1,000) to cover a DJI Phantom, a bestselling drone, for a year. From October Flock, a London startup, will offer insurance on a flight-by-flight basis, at the push of a button in an app, to any commercial drone-operator in Britain….Continue reading

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Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark

A year earlier than expected, Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund, the world’s largest, surpassed $1trn in assets on September 19th. It had gained over $100bn in the past year, thanks in large measure to the global stockmarket boom in 2017: around two-thirds of its assets are held as equities (over 1% of shares globally). It helps that Norwegians continue to earn fat revenues from pumping North Sea oil and gas, which go to the fund to be invested abroad. The fund is so big it is becoming a tool for 5m-odd Norwegians to shape values abroad. It is an increasingly activist shareholder, speaking out on executive pay, ethical behaviour, companies’ use of water, child labour and more. Both its size and influence are likely to keep on growing.

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America holds the World Trade Organisation hostage

EIGHT months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the rules-based system of global trade remains intact. Threats to impose broad tariffs have come to nothing. Some ominous investigations into whether imports into America are a national-security threat are on hold. Mr Trump looks less a hard man than a boy crying wolf. All the same, supporters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the guardian of that rules-based system, are worried. Other dangers are lurking. There is more than one way to undermine an institution.

The WTO is meant to be a forum for reaching deals and resolving disputes. But all 164 members must agree to new rules, and agreement has largely been elusive. So if members do not like today’s rules, as interpreted by judges, they have little prospect of negotiating better ones. That puts pressure on the WTO’s judicial function, the bit that has been working fairly well.

Trouble is brewing at the WTO’s court of appeals. It is meant to have seven serving judges, but has only five and by the end of the year will have just four. The Americans refuse to start the process of filling the spots, citing systemic concerns. What seemed an arcane procedural row has become what some call a “crisis”.

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China sets its sights on dominating sunrise industries

IN RECENT days China set the record for the world’s fastest long-distance bullet train, which hurtled between Beijing and Shanghai at 350kph (217mph). This was a triumph of industrial policy as much as of engineering. China’s first high-speed trains started rolling only a decade ago; today the country has 20,000km of high-speed track, more than the rest of the world combined. China could not have built this without a strong government. The state provided funds for research, land for tracks, aid for loss-making railways, subsidies for equipment-makers and, most controversially, incentives for foreign companies to share commercial secrets.

High-speed rail is a prime example of the Chinese government’s prowess at identifying priority industries and deploying money and policy tools to nurture them. It inspires awe of what it can accomplish and fear that other countries stand little chance against such a formidable competitor. Yet there have also been big industrial-policy misses, notably…Continue reading

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The big data breach suffered by Equifax has alarming implications

UNTIL something goes wrong, few people give much thought to the surveillance they undergo by credit-reporting agencies (CRAs). Yet these agencies’ business is deeply intrusive: quantifying character. They assign individuals credit scores based on how they previously managed debt. The scores are then sold to lenders. In America, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” CRAs, have gathered credit histories and identifying information for nearly every adult.

On September 7th Equifax admitted that something had indeed gone very wrong: hackers had gained access to personal information on about 143m people, mostly Americans. It reported that, from mid-May to July, hackers exploited a vulnerability in its website. The data compromised included Social Security numbers (SSNs), dates of birth and driving-licence numbers, and for 209,000 people, possibly their credit-card numbers as well. Equifax also noted that data about some Britons and Canadians may have been stolen.

The…Continue reading

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How to protect yourself against the theft of your identity

AS IDENTITY theft has proliferated, so has the number of businesses hoping to make money selling protection against it. Companies such as LifeLock, Identity Guard and PrivacyGuard sell products similar to Equifax’s TrustedID Premier identity-theft protection. That was the service Equifax offered to every American with a Social Security number in the aftermath of its big data breach.

Those who enroll in TrustedID are promised notification if their information is offered for sale on the internet. Their credit reports with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” credit-reporting agencies (CRAs), are also monitored for suspicious activity, such as the opening of new accounts or failures to pay a bill on time. If such activity is detected, users can “freeze” their Equifax credit reports, ie, make them unavailable to lenders. And TrustedID offers $1m-worth of insurance to compensate users for losses incurred as a result of identity theft. Equifax is offering the service free…Continue reading

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Putting a new face on an American banknote is oddly difficult

IT WOULD be hard to find a better example of long-term gridlock in Washington than its treatment of banknotes, whose appearance has essentially been frozen since 1929. The administration of Barack Obama took a half-hearted step towards a new look, proposing the replacement of Alexander Hamilton’s portrait on the $10 bill with a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became a civil-war hero.

Problems cropped up at once. It seemed ludicrous to scrap the portrait of the one person on a note who helped create America’s financial system. It did not help that he was also the hero of a smash-hit Broadway musical. So the administration decided instead to replace Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, on the $20 bill. But by then it was too close to the election to push the change through.

President Donald Trump has since lent his support to keeping Jackson. In a recent interview, his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, made it clear he had little interest in pursuing…Continue reading

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Goldman Sachs announces a change in strategy

IT IS not easy to feel pity for Goldman Sachs. Its alumni lord it in pivotal government positions around the world; from every prestigious business school, applicants queue in hope of a job; its senior executives earn eye-watering amounts; and it has a presence, it seems, in every corner of the global economy. Yet these are troubling times for the bank. It is facing fundamental questions about its business model.

Its investors are particularly worried by a precipitous decline in the fortunes of its core fixed-income, currencies and commodities unit (FICC). That is the business from which Goldman’s current leadership graduated. The bank’s president, Harvey Schwartz, used a conference on September 12th to give an unusually detailed account of how it is changing. He outlined plans for igniting growth in an apparently stagnant business, and for preserving profitability despite that stagnation.

One factor in Goldman’s problems has been a change in its staff structure. In the hunt…Continue reading

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Governments need to rethink their attitudes to debt

GOVERNMENTS do not always make the best budget managers. Assuming it avoids an accidental debt default, America will run a bigger budget deficit this year than the last, despite a booming economy. Germany runs a surplus—but scrimps on critical investments and annoys its euro-area neighbours in the process. Japan, cowering under a mammoth public-debt pile, is weighing raising its consumption tax, though the last rise strangled a tenuous economic recovery. It is awkward, therefore, that the role of fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool is only growing. The next downturn will be a painful and dangerous learning experience for many politicians.

When that comes, at some point in the next few years, the initial policy response is easily foreseeable. Central banks, nimbler than parliaments, will again move first. But markets reckon that two years from now the Fed’s benchmark rate will remain below 2%, the Bank of England’s below 1% and the European Central Bank’s close to zero. Rates can only go so negative before people abandon the banking system for cash. So cuts to interest rates will be limited. By contrast, in the relatively mild recession of 2001 the Fed cut rates by more than six percentage points. Central-bank asset purchases will follow, assuming they are not already happening, as they might well still be in Europe and Japan. Their effects will be less…Continue reading

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Exchange-rate shifts have helped the global economy

STICKLERS for value have plenty of reasons to frown at financial markets. Much feels out of whack, from squashed bond yields to pricey stockmarkets. Yet currency markets, at least, seem to have shifted in line with fundamentals this year. Take the euro, for instance. Since the start of 2017 it has risen by almost 15% against the dollar, to $1.19 (see chart). That has taken it much closer to fair value by benchmarks such as purchasing-power parity (PPP), the exchange rate at which a basket of goods is worth the same in different countries. The OECD puts the euro’s PPP at $1.33. That is quite a stretch from $1.04 in January. “The elastic had to snap back,” says Kit Juckes of Société Générale, a French bank.

Of course, the euro’s revival is a result of more than its being cheap. The anxiety that elections in Europe might bring to power anti-euro populists, such as Marine Le Pen in France, has dissipated. The euro-zone economy has further strengthened, raising the prospect that monetary…Continue reading

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Hurricane Harvey has exposed the inadequacy of flood insurance

THOSE who live on America’s coasts know to prepare for wrathful hurricanes in late summer—nailing plywood to their windows as the storm approaches. America’s property insurers and reinsurers are ready, too, using sophisticated models to track storms and estimate potential losses. But wind is not the only danger from hurricanes. Ask Houstonians who saw their homes inundated by Hurricane Harvey’s 52 inches (132cm) of rain in the six days to August 30th. Or those in tthe path of Hurricane Irma, which, as The Economist went to press, was wreaking havoc across the Caribbean. But whereas wind damage is covered under most standard insurance policies in America, flood insurance is a government-run add-on that far from all homeowners buy. As a result, of over $30bn in property losses in Texas, only 40% may be insured.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was set up in 1968, after a series of large losses led private insurers to pull back. Those living within a…Continue reading

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A year on, Wells Fargo cannot shake off its mis-selling scandal

ON SEPTEMBER 8th 2016, Wells Fargo’s reputation plummeted abruptly from that of America’s finest bank to that of yet another dodgy company. It was revealed to have opened an enormous number of potentially unauthorised retail deposit, current (checking) and credit-card accounts. A year on, two questions have yet to be put to rest. How much harm did Wells do to its customers? And how much did the scandal hurt the bank itself?

Wells has not been passive in its response. It has produced report after report on its misdeeds and submitted to investigations by two federal regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It has purged its chief executive and the head of its retail bank, clawed back executive bonuses, transformed its board and simplified its formerly decentralised structure. It has created a comprehensive process for restitution and settled a class-action suit.

Yet it cannot put the scandal behind it. In July it…Continue reading

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Of Indian banknotes cancelled last year, 99% are accounted for

ON NOVEMBER 8th 2016, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stunned its 1.3bn people by announcing that most banknotes would soon become worthless. Indians then queued for weeks on end to exchange or deposit their banned money at banks. The comfort for the poor was that the greedy, tax-dodging rich would suffer more, as they struggled to launder their suitcases full of cash by year-end.

Not so. A report from the central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), on August 30th suggests that of the 15.4trn rupees ($241bn) withdrawn—roughly 86% of all banknotes by value—15.3trn rupees, or 99% of them, have been accounted for. Either the “black money” never existed or, more likely, the hoarders found a way of making it legitimate.

Defenders of the scheme say it is merely one plank of a wider fight against informal economic activity and corruption. Banks have enjoyed an influx of cash. Digital payments are up (from a low base), as issuance of replacement notes has not caught…Continue reading

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Foreign jurisdictions try to lure legal business from London

National treasures

LOFTILY as they may disdain the profit motive, Britain’s judges are, on a national level, money-spinners. English law is often specified as the one under which commercial contracts are to be interpreted and enforced. And disputes often end up being heard in British courts. But, like any business, the law is competitive, and other jurisdictions want to snatch a share of this market. London is mounting its defences.

It has several hard-to-beat advantages: the use of English; a reputation for fairness; the centuries of precedent that lend predictability. Richard Caird, a partner at Dentons, a global law firm, notes that a foreign company can expect an impartial decision in an English court, even if it is pitted against a British firm. Over 70% of cases in the English commercial courts involve a foreign party. In 2015, Britain had a £3.4bn ($5.2bn) positive balance of payments on legal services.

One way for other financial centres,…Continue reading

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Russia’s largest private bank is rescued by the central bank

VADIM BELYAEV’S start in business in the mid-1980s was to sell foreign watches on the black market in the Soviet Union. He became a financier, and by 2015 had transformed his bank, Otkritie, into post-Soviet Russia’s largest private lender. Named “Businessman of the Year” by a Russian magazine, he used an English term to describe himself: “Risk-taker”. The risks have caught up with Otkritie. A run on its deposits led this week to its takeover by the central bank (CBR). The rescue is likely to be the largest in modern Russian history.

Russian banking has been plagued by lenders with bad loans and inadequate capital, and “pocket” banks that function as money-laundering hubs for influential businessmen. The CBR has embarked on a campaign to clean up the sector, taking on formerly untouchable banks with powerful shareholders and clients. Since 2013 it has shut down more than 300 banks.

Otkritie rose rapidly, out of a small predecessor bank acquired in 2006. It has…Continue reading

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On NAFTA, Donald Trump’s most dangerous opponents are at home

EVER game for a fight, President Donald Trump is picking one again with Canada and Mexico, America’s partners in the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On August 27th he tweeted that both were being “very difficult”, adding: “May have to terminate?” His strategy, of getting a better deal by threatening to pull out altogether, is odd. It worsens relations with America’s negotiating partners, at a time when Mr Trump’s plans face just as much opposition at home.

Before April American business was quietly hoping that a Trump presidency would lead to more tax cuts than trade tensions. That changed when news leaked that Mr Trump was poised to withdraw from NAFTA. Suddenly the deal had louder champions in American business, including the energy and technology industries.

Knowing this, Canada and Mexico seem unruffled by Mr Trump’s latest threats as they go into the second round of NAFTA renegotiations on September 1st. Earlier ones prompted panicky phone…Continue reading

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Analysts struggle to make accurate long-term market forecasts

WHAT is the right way to invest for the long term? Too many people rely on past performance, picking fund managers with a “hot” reputation or backing those asset classes that have recently done well. Just as fund managers cannot be relied on to be consistent, returns from asset classes are highly variable. The higher the initial valuation of the asset, the lower the future returns are likely to be.

That is pretty clear with government bonds. Anyone buying a bond with a yield of 2% and holding it until maturity can expect, at best, that level of return (before inflation) and no more. (There is a small chance the government might default.) With equities, the calculations are not quite so hard-and-fast. Nevertheless, it is a good rule-of-thumb that buying shares with a low dividend yield, or on a high multiple of profits, is likely to lead to lower-than-normal returns.

So a sensible approach to long-term investing would assess the potential returns from asset classes, given their…Continue reading

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Market concentration can benefit consumers, but needs scrutiny

WHEN Amazon announced in June that it would buy Whole Foods, an upmarket grocer, for $13.7bn, other firms shuddered. The spread of Amazonian tentacles is worrying to those wary of concentrated corporate power. But shoppers entering their local Whole Foods these days find oddly low prices alongside the new stacks of Echoes, Amazon’s voice-activated digital helpmate. This raises a question. Is Amazon hellbent on building a world-straddling monopoly, or merely injecting innovation and competition into yet another new market? For antitrust regulators, the welfare of the consumer is the priority. Yet working out how to protect it is harder than ever.

Competitiveness in most industries is a matter of degree. In the idealised marketplace of economics textbooks, the price people pay for goods equals the cost of producing an additional unit. Any higher, the theory goes, a competitor could cut the price a smidgen, sell another unit and profit. Yet outside commodity markets, most firms can charge…Continue reading

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Does ageing explain America’s disappointing wage growth?

WHEN America’s unemployment was last as low as it has been recently, in early 2007, wages were growing by about 3.5% a year. Today wage growth seems stuck at about 2.5%. This puzzles economists. Some say the labour market is less healthy than the jobless rate suggests; others point to weak productivity growth or low inflation expectations. The latest idea is to blame retiring baby-boomers.

The thinking goes as follows. The average worker gains skills and seniority, and hence higher pay, over time. When he retires, his high-paying job will vanish unless a similarly-seasoned worker is waiting in the wings. A flurry of retirements could therefore put downward pressure on average wages, however well the economy does. The first baby-boomers began to hit retirement age around 2007, just as the financial crisis started. And since 2010, the first full year of the recovery, the number of middle-aged workers has shrunk considerably. They have been replaced partly by lower-earning youngsters (see…Continue reading

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Financial-market index-makers are growing in power

IT WAS in 1896 that Charles Dow, co-founder of Dow Jones & Company, created the index that still bears his name. Today, indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 (for shares listed in New York), or the FTSE 100 (for London), are among the best-known brands in financial markets. The role they play has expanded massively in recent years. Index-makers have become finance’s new kingmakers: arbiters of how investors should allocate their money.

Stockmarket indices were devised as a measure of the overall market, against which those trading in shares could compare their performance. At first they were concocted by the press or by exchanges themselves. For bonds, indices were compiled by the banks that traded them. Except for a few of the very earliest indices, such as the Dow, which is weighted by share price, nearly all are weighted by market capitalisation or, in the case of bond indices, by the volume of debt outstanding.

Three large firms—FTSE…Continue reading

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Are men more irrationally exuberant than women?

Tiger investor?

WOULD more women on the trading floor inject a dose of sanity into the world’s financial markets? This question gained prominence after the 2007-08 crisis. As Christine Lagarde, then France’s finance minister and now head of the IMF, quipped, had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, history would have been different. Many studies support this idea, showing that testosterone-laden men are prone to overconfidence in trading. Women are more cautious.

But things may not be so simple. Previous research has mostly used evidence from the West. To test if the conclusions apply universally, Wang Jianxin of China’s Central South University, Daniel Houser of George Mason University and Xu Hui of Beijing Normal University looked at both America and China. And they found that in China’s markets, women can be just as manic as men.

The economists arranged for 342 students to form experimental markets. They were allocated dividend-paying…Continue reading

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How the shape of global banking has turned upside down

IN THE 1980s, when Citicorp was America’s largest bank and pursuing every avenue for international expansion, John Reed, the bank’s boss, would muse about moving its headquarters to a neutral location, notably the moon. Such sentiments are inconceivable today. Jamie Dimon, boss of JPMorgan Chase, Citi’s successor atop the league tables, recently said he is an American “patriot” first, head of a bank second. His strategy, though hardly shunning international markets, reflects this.

Mr Dimon turned down several big foreign acquisitions before and during the financial crisis. His stellar reputation may rest as much on those undone deals as on those completed. Citi, meanwhile, has been lopping off foreign affiliates. It has retail operations in just 19 countries, down from 50 in 2007. Further contraction may be in the offing. Bank of America has long chosen to live down to its name, as an almost entirely domestic bank.

The same process is under way in western Europe. Visible…Continue reading

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Private-equity returns can be replicated with public shares

IT IS hard for individual investors to match the returns achieved by private-equity funds. But what if their success in outperforming the public markets could be tracked and replicated? A few pioneering firms claim to have done just that. DSC Quantitative Group, a Chicago-based fund, and State Street, an asset manager, both offer “investable” indices, launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, that allow investors to mimic the performance of American private equity.

Both firms needed a measure of the industry’s returns. DSC teamed up with Thomson Reuters, a data firm, to compile an index; State Street had been making one since 2004, using data it gleans as a custodian of private-equity assets.

They then match the private-equity risk-and-return profile with a basket of public assets. DSC’s index first matches the sector weights of the private portfolio with equivalent public companies, and adds a modest amount of debt (around 25%) unevenly across the sectors—all using…Continue reading

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