THE ECONOMIST

Spotify opts for an unusual way of going public

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

FOR seasoned bankers and starry-eyed entrepreneurs alike, doing an IPO, or initial public offering, is synonymous with the very idea of taking a firm public. No wonder, then, that the decision by Spotify, a music-streaming service, to opt for an unconventional alternative called a “direct listing” has prompted debate. Instead of paying investment banks hefty fees to arrange an IPO, Spotify plans to have existing shares simply switch one day to being tradable on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

IPOs themselves have become rarer, as startups such as Uber and Airbnb have chosen to raise money through private markets instead. Although there was an uptick in the number of IPOs in America in 2017—108, compared with 74 in 2016—the average number of IPOs has remained at around 100 annually since 2000, compared with over 300 in the course of the two previous decades. But until now no big company had contemplated direct listing as an alternative. The structure has been seldom used: in...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Spectre and Meltdown prompt tech industry soul-searching

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

THE timing could hardly have been worse. Just as the tech industry was preparing for its big annual trade show, CES, held this week in Las Vegas, it was hit by one of the most worrying computer-security scares of recent times. On January 3rd it emerged that most microprocessors, the brains of electronic devices, are vulnerable to hacker attacks aimed at stealing sensitive data, such as passwords or encryption keys. Instead of enthusing over the new gadgets presented at the event (see article), many attending discussed only one question: how great would the damage be?

Once the weaknesses became public earlier this month (researchers had first discovered them in June), some cyber-security experts said the only full protection would be to replace all affected processors. The problem is baked into the chips and enables two separate, but...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

India’s tea industry is going through tepid times

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

Tasseography in progress

BULK tea sales at the offices of J Thomas in Kolkata, which first started auctioning the stuff in 1861, lack the boisterousness of years past. Gone is the noisy trading pit, replaced by a handful of buyers sitting behind their laptops in a silent auditorium. Armed with tasting notes, they bid electronically on hundreds of lots drawn from the city’s hilly hinterlands in Assam and West Bengal. To passing visitors, it appears as if everyone in the room could do with a little caffeination. Yet within only three hours or so, enough tea changes hands to brew 24 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

If Indian tea delights those who get to drink the country’s finest blends, it frustrates all those who plant, pluck and peddle it. Archaic government regulations have in recent years pushed up production costs to around 175 rupees ($2.70) per kilogram, well above average auction prices of 140 rupees, which makes large cultivators grumble. Pickers complain about...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

How China won the battle of the yuan

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

“THE horse may be out of the proverbial barn.” So wrote Ben Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, in early 2016, arguing that capital controls might be powerless to save China from a run on its currency. He was far from alone at the time. As cash rushed out of the country, analysts debated whether the yuan would collapse, and some hedge funds bet that day was coming fast. But two years on, the horse is back in the barn: the government’s defence of the yuan has succeeded, in part through tighter capital controls.

The latest evidence was an 11th consecutive monthly increase in foreign-exchange reserves in December. During that time China’s stockpile of official reserves, the world’s biggest, climbed by $142bn, reaching $3.14trn, roughly double the cushion usually regarded as needed to ensure financial stability. Another sign of China’s success is the yuan itself. At the start of 2017 the consensus of forecasters was that the currency would continue to weaken; it finished the year up by 6% against the dollar.

Investors and analysts were not wrong in viewing Chinese capital controls as porous. Enterprising types had—and have—umpteen ways to sneak money out, from overpaying for imports to smuggling cash across the border in luggage. But there is a wide spectrum between a fully open and fully closed capital account, and China has...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Artificial intelligence dominated the Consumer Electronics Show

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

WHEN the electronics industry meets in Las Vegas at CES, its main trade show, buzzwords abound. But rarely has one been as pervasive as this week. “Artificial intelligence” or variations on the theme (“AI-driven”, “AI-powered” and so on) were slapped across most new products—although often the artificial overcame the intelligence.

Those attending gawped at an interactive bathroom mirror on the stand of Haier, a giant Chinese white-goods maker. Look into it, like the Wicked Queen in Snow White, and instead of being told you are the fairest, your data profile appears on the glass. It displays weight (from an interactive scale), urine-test results (from a sensor on a connected lavatory) and other health-related things.

For those attentive visitors who could see past the AI assault, another theme could be identified: firms innovating around how they innovate. Haier’s stand also had a new device that is the result of combining its product development with that of...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Donald Trump’s difficult decision on steel imports

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

EVERY Tuesday, senior members of the administration gather in the White House to discuss trade. They are divided between hawks, who argue that America needs to be tougher in its defence against what they see as economic warfare waged by China, and doves, who worry about the costs of conflict. So far, against all expectations when President Donald Trump entered the White House, the doves have prevailed. The first of a series of legal deadlines could soon unleash the hawks.

Last April Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, initiated a probe into whether steel imports were a threat to America’s national security. His department pointed to a “dramatic” increase in steel imports over the previous year and to the idling of nearly 30% of America’s steel-production capacity, as imports feed a quarter of its consumption. If the report, due by January 15th, finds imports are a threat, Mr Trump, under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, will have 90 days to respond.

The...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Natural disasters made 2017 a year of record insurance losses

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

THAT 2017 suffered from more than its fair share of natural catastrophes was known at the time. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the streets of Houston, Texas, were submerged under brown floodwater; Hurricane Irma razed buildings to the ground on some Caribbean islands. That the destruction was great enough for insurance losses to reach record levels has only just been confirmed. According to figures released on January 4th by Munich Re, a reinsurer, global, inflation-adjusted insured catastrophe losses reached an all-time high of $135bn in 2017 (see chart). Total losses (including uninsured ones) reached $330bn, second only to losses of $354bn in 2011.

A large portion of the losses in 2011 was caused by one catastrophe: the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Losses in 2017 were largely traceable to extreme weather. Fully 97% were weather-related, well above the average since 1980 of 85%. If climate change brings more frequent extreme weather, as Munich Re and others expect, last year’s loss levels may...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Accountancy takes root in the inhospitable soil of Afghanistan

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

Waiting for the auditor

WHEN Afghan lawmakers were debating rules of conduct for accountants, some were confounded by their strictness. Why should those found guilty of murder, asked one member of parliament, be struck off? That is a sign of the challenges facing the professional body for bean-counters, Certified Professional Accountants (CPA) Afghanistan, which was launched last month.

Attempts to establish a home-grown profession start from a low base. Back in 2009 Kabul, a city of around 4m, had fewer than 20 qualified accountants. Neither standards nor oversight for the profession were in place. Most local outfits were branches of firms from elsewhere in South Asia or farther afield.

Boring old accountancy might not seem a priority for a war-torn country. But in business it can foster trust and transparency—scarce commodities in a country where corruption is systemic. Because of the difficulty of verifying borrowers’ financial positions and valuing...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

BlackRock v Blackstone

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

THE two most successful entrepreneurs on Wall Street of the past two decades work on opposite sides of Park Avenue. Larry Fink, 65, is a Democrat whose hand is glued to a Starbucks cup and who runs BlackRock from 52nd Street. Stephen Schwarzman, 70, is a Republican who wears striped shirts with plain collars and runs Blackstone from between 51st and 52nd. The two are ex-colleagues, but have sharply opposing views on investment and management. Their trajectories illustrate how finance is changing. Mr Fink, once the underdog, is on top.

His firm, BlackRock, is the world’s largest asset manager, with $6trn of assets. It stands for computing power, low fees and scale, and is booming. Mr Schwarzman’s firm, Blackstone, is the largest “alternative” manager, focused on private equity and property, with $387bn of assets. It stands for a time-honoured formula of brain power, high fees and specialisation. Lately, it has trod water.

When Mr Fink was a securities trader in his 30s he joined...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

As gyms hit peak season, the market does the splits

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

EVERY year, like clockwork, swathes of humanity go through the same routine. On December 26th and January 1st, as the fog of cheese, chocolate oranges and champagne lifts, remorse creeps in. Online searches for “get fit” and “lose weight” surge (see chart). Health clubs of all shapes and sizes stand ready to respond. “Intent typically takes seven to 14 days to turn into reality,” notes Humphrey Cobbold, chief executive of Pure Gym, Britain’s largest gym chain. So this week will be one of the busiest for the gym industry globally.

There will be other ripple effects, too. According to recent data from Cardlytics, which monitors spending in Britain, people spend 18% more in sports shops the week before joining a gym (compared with the week prior), and 16% more in speciality health shops. Spending on fashion items also increases around the time of joining a gym.

Many gym recruits will wear their new togs for an ordeal known as high-intensity interval training. In the basement of...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Bitcoin is no long the only game in crypto-currency town

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

IT STARTED as a joke. Dogecoin was launched in 2013 as a bitcoin parody, using as its mascot a Japanese shiba inu dog, a popular internet meme. The crypto-currency was never really used, except for tipping online, and one of its founders has called it quits. But recently its price has soared: on January 7th the dollar value of all Dogecoins in circulation reached $2bn, a sign of how crazy crypto-currency markets have become. It is also a reminder that, for all the focus on bitcoin, it is no longer the only game in town. Its market capitalisation now amounts to only about one-third of the crypto-market (see chart).

A new crypto-currency is born almost daily, often through an “initial coin offering” (ICO), a form of online crowdfunding. CoinMarketCap, a website, lists about 1,400 digital coins or tokens, including UFO Coin, PutinCoin, Sexcoin and InsaneCoin (worth $7m). Most are no more than curiosities, but by January 10th, around 40 had a market capitalisation of more than...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Predicting doom for the bond market

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 12:50

INVESTORS are dragging their attention away from the stockmarket for a moment to figure out what is going on in the other main part of their portfolios: government bonds. Yields have been rising so far this year and Bill Gross, one of the sector's gurus, has said the long bull market (which dates back to the early 1980s) is finally over.

This certainly seems to be the month for big calls; the noted equity bear Jeremy Grantham has already pointed to the potential for a "melt-up" in the stockmarket. Mr Gross, who runs money for Janus but made his name at Pimco, said that the 25-year trend lines had been broken  for both the five- and ten-year bonds. 

The end of the bond bull market has been called many times, dating back at least to September 2011. There...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Investment banks’ cull of company analysts brings dangers

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 18:35

THEY are not extinct, nor even on the endangered-species list. But company analysts, once among the most prestigious professionals in the stockmarket, are being culled. New European rules, with the catchy name of MiFID2, have just dealt analysts another blow. A study by Greenwich Associates estimates that the research budget may drop by 20% this year.

In their heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, analysts could make and break corporate reputations. A “buy” or “sell” recommendation from the leading two or three analysts in an industry could move a share price substantially. Fund managers, and many financial journalists, relied on analysts to spot those companies that were on a rising trajectory, and those where the accounts revealed signs of imminent trouble. And the best analysts were very well paid.

But that golden age was built on some rusty foundations. Analysts were well paid because they worked for the big investment banks. But those big banks made money...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Supersonic jets may be about to make a comeback

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 13:38

IN OCTOBER 2003, the age of supersonic passenger travel came to an inauspicious end. That month British Airways withdrew from service its last Concorde jet, a Franco-British aircraft from the 1970s that could fly at twice the speed of sound. Since the 1940s executives in the aerospace industry had predicted that the future of passenger travel would be supersonic. But since the retirement of Concorde there have been no passenger jets that can fly that fast in service. Worse still, even conventional sub-sonic jetliners these days fly slower than their equivalents from the 1960s.

In 2017 the race to break the sound barrier gained new momentum. In December Aerion, an aerospace start-up from Nevada, Lockheed Martin, a defence giant, and GE Aviation, an enginemaker, announced a joint venture to develop what they are calling the world’s first supersonic business jet, the AS2. Aerion’s executive chairman, Brian Barents, has said that he hopes the jet will be able to carry up to 12 passengers at 1.4 times the speed of sound—about 60 percent faster...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Where did the inflation go?

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 15:38

THE strength of the global economy is one reason why the stockmarket has started 2018 in buoyant mood (with the Dow passing 25,000). At some point, in any expansion, businesses find it harder to recruit workers or get the materials they need; these bottlenecks cause wages and prices to rise. Central banks then start to tighten monetary policy, a process that can eventually turn the market (and the economy) down.

After many years of ultra-low interest rates, the Federal Reserve has started to tighten monetary policy. There were three rate rises in 2017, and three are expected this year. The idea is to tighten gradually and (keep ahead of the curve) so that inflation does not accelerate so fast that a very sharp monetary tightening is needed.

The problem is that inflation remains hard to spot. Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

China’s Ant Financial is obliged to abandon an American acquisition

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

It didn’t mean jack

“THE geopolitical environment has changed considerably since…a year ago.” That was the explanation given this week by Alex Holmes, chief executive of MoneyGram International, a Dallas-based American money-transfer firm, for Ant Financial abandoning its $1.2bn deal to buy his firm. Ant, the online-payments affiliate of Alibaba Group, a Chinese e-commerce giant, had outbid Euronet, an American rival, in 2017 and secured the approval of MoneyGram’s board for the acquisition. In normal times, Ant would have secured the prize.

But it is up against a rising tide of anti-China sentiment in Washington, DC. Donald Trump has often argued that China does not play fair in global commerce. The sense that China and its companies are not to be trusted is spreading on Capitol Hill, too. Ant’s bid was blocked by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a government body reporting to the Treasury. It reviews such deals for...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Masterful salesmanship has pushed Salesforce to ever-greater heights

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

Benioff’s guide to upselling

VISIBLE from nearly every corner of San Francisco and from up to 30 miles away, the new skyscraper that will be the headquarters of Salesforce, a software giant, stands 1,100 feet (326 metres) tall, making it the highest building in America west of Chicago. On January 8th, after four years of building, workers will start moving in.

Those who know Salesforce’s founder, Marc Benioff, find his firm’s new digs fitting. As creator of a firm that caters to salespeople, he is himself a fiercely ambitious salesman. In its 2018 fiscal year, which ends on January 31st, Salesforce is expected to reach $10bn in annual revenue for the first time. It plans to more than double that figure over the next four years. Even that is not enough. In 20 years Mr Benioff’s “dream” is $100bn of revenue, he muses.

Can his towering expectations be met? Founded in 1999, Salesforce claims a combination of longevity and size that few tech companies...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

South Korea’s antitrust tsar has a good shot at taming the chaebol

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

AS KIM SANG-JO was preparing last May to make the switch from snappy shareholder activist to a regulatory role as South Korea’s fair-trade commissioner, he had a simple message for the country’s big conglomerates: “Please do not break the law.” Not one to make bosses quake in their brogues, exactly. And yet the chaebol, as the country’s family-controlled empires are known, are responding to his call for reform. Addressing complaints about governance, a few have brought far-flung businesses into a simpler holding-company structure. Others have set up funds to provide support to suppliers, which have long accused the giants of treating them badly. Another group is paying out record dividends to once-disregarded shareholders.

Mr Kim was preaching, if not yet to the converted, then to the disconcerted. The chaebol have had a bruising couple of years. Nine of South Korea’s most powerful bosses, some rarely seen in public, were grilled on...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Canada frets about anonymously owned firms

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

WHEN reports surfaced in 2016 of foreign students with no known income buying homes worth millions of dollars in Vancouver, locals said it was yet more evidence that foreigners were inflating prices in Canada’s dearest property market. It was also evidence of a home-grown problem. The students turned out to be figureheads for anonymous firms whose ultimate owners cannot be identified because the information is not legally required by the land registry. Canadian authorities are concerned about the abuses caused by such opacity. The property market may well be attracting foreign criminals and corrupt officials seeking to launder dirty money, notes David Eby, the attorney-general of British Columbia.

Other countries have taken steps to make sure that anonymous ownership of firms does not help criminals. In 2014 G20 leaders agreed to make the ultimate ownership of legal entities more transparent. Britain, for example, set up a searchable, public database of beneficial or ultimate owners of all firms,...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Europe’s sprawling new financial law enters into force

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

AFTER years of rule-drafting, industry lobbying and plenty of last-minute wrangling, Europe’s massive new financial regulation, MiFID 2, was rolled out on January 3rd. Firms had spent months dreading (in some cases) or eagerly awaiting (in others) the “day of the MiFID” when the law’s new reporting requirements would enter into force. One electronic-trading platform, Tradeweb, even gave its clients a “MiFID clock” to count down to it.

Apprehension was understandable. The new EU law, the second iteration of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (its full, unwieldy name), affects markets in everything from shares to bonds to derivatives. It seeks to open up opaque markets by forcing brokers and trading venues to report prices publicly, in close to real time for those assets deemed liquid. It also requires them to report to regulators up to 65 separate data points on every trade, with the aim of avoiding market abuse.

The changes are greatest for markets, like those in...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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