What Natarajan Chandrasekaran must do next at Tata

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:46

FACED with complexity humans often resort to a heuristic, a rough mental template that gets the job done. That could come in handy at Tata Group, India’s largest business, whose dizzying mix of scale, palace politics and sense of moral purpose defy any categorisation. Tata’s boss, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, known as Chandra, has been in the job for a year. He spent 2017 pepping up morale and extinguishing fires. Now he must squeeze Tata into a new strategic framework that clarifies its structure and purpose.

Is it a 150-year-old national monument, a philanthropic vehicle or a conglomerate? In Schumpeter’s view Tata should instead be positioned as a holding company—like Berkshire Hathaway but minus the personality cult and with Indian characteristics.

Tata is a handful. It has 695,000 staff and is active in 17 industries. Its family of firms has a market value of $155bn. It mixes virtue with profits; Tata’s leaders are expected to exude decency and probity. The group was an...Continue reading

How a brothel owner created the world’s biggest industrial park

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:46

Lance Gilman, tech-titan whisperer

PAST the neon lights of Reno and the cookie-cutter homes of neighbouring Sparks, the I-80 highway winds through a thinly populated expanse of arid hills and lunar valleys in Storey County. On one side of the road flows the Truckee River; on the other bands of wild horses forage for parched grass. Signs of civilisation are restricted to electricity pylons and the odd rundown farmhouse. The Wild Horse Saloon, a dark and smoky room connected to a legal brothel, is the only sit-down restaurant for miles. It is not an area that immediately seems conducive to hosting a business park. Yet Storey County in Nevada is home to the world’s largest by some measures: the Reno Tahoe Industrial Centre (TRI). The park spans 104,000 acres in total—three times the size of San Francisco.

Near its eastern border hulks Tesla’s “gigafactory”, a gargantuan white structure where the company hopes to produce batteries for 500,000 electric cars a year....Continue reading

Airbus executives get swept away by a corruption investigation

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:46


“THE success of Airbus is intimately linked to the success of John,” says Eric Schulz, successor to John Leahy, who has been chief salesman for the planemaker since 1994. Mr Leahy’s aggressive strategy to gain orders expanded Airbus’s market share for civil jets from 18% in 1994 to over 50%. Salesmen at Boeing, Airbus’s rival, say they wish their bosses were as good. But this year’s Singapore Airshow, which began on February 6th, will be Mr Leahy’s last before retirement.

That is in itself a big change for Airbus, but staff turnover does not stop there. In December the firm said Tom Enders, its German-born chief executive, would step down in 2019; his French second-in-command, Fabrice Brégier, will leave this month. These changes follow the news that several countries, including Britain, France and America, are investigating allegations that in the past Airbus bribed officials to win contracts. That created divisions between French and German executives over how to respond.

The recent troubles began in 2014, when an internal review of supplier payments at Airbus exposed irregularities. It ended up reporting itself to Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and to France’s equivalent body for lying to export-credit agencies about bribes given by third-party consultants to secure sales. In October Airbus said it may have violated...Continue reading

Creditors call time on China’s HNA

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:46

THE ascent of HNA, an aviation-to-financing giant, began on six wings and a prayer. It started out as Hainan Airlines, set up on China’s southern palm-fringed island in 1993 with three planes, in a joint venture between a Buddhist businessman, Chen Feng, and the local government of Hainan. In 2000 the firm became HNA Group and, from a Buddha-shaped headquarters, Mr Chen built his enterprise into an empire with more than $150bn in assets. Foreign trophies came next. The firm borrowed heavily to finance deals worth $50bn since 2015 over six continents, including a 25% stake in the Hilton hotel group and 9.92% of Deutsche Bank.

In recent weeks it has become clear that its gorging—which had continued apace even after HNA was among those firms singled out for scrutiny by China’s banking regulator last June for their risky debt-fuelled purchases—is over. In January HNA told creditors that it would face a probable cash shortfall of at least 15bn yuan ($2.4bn) in the first quarter of this year.

HNA has assured investors that this...Continue reading

Insider trading has been rife on Wall Street, academics conclude

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:45

The joy of knowledge

INSIDER-TRADING prosecutions have netted plenty of small fry. But many grumble that the big fish swim off unharmed. That nagging fear has some new academic backing, from three studies. One argues that well-connected insiders profited even from the financial crisis.* The others go further still, suggesting the entire share-trading system is rigged.**

What is known about insider trading tends to come from prosecutions. But these require fortuitous tip-offs and extensive, expensive investigations, involving the examination of complex evidence from phone calls, e-mails or informants wired with recorders. The resulting haze of numbers may befuddle a jury unless they are leavened with a few spicy details—exotic code words, say, or (even better) suitcases filled with cash.

The papers make imaginative use of pattern analysis from data to find that insider trading is probably pervasive. The approach reflects a new way of analysing conduct in the...Continue reading

Bitcoin and its rivals offer no shelter from the storm

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:45

THE “biggest bubble in human history comes down crashing,” tweeted Nouriel Roubini, an economist, gleefully. After an exhilarating ride skywards in 2017, investors in crypto-currencies have been rudely reminded that prices can plunge earthwards, too. In mid-December the price of bitcoin was just shy of $20,000; by February 6th, it had fallen to $6,000, before recovering a little (see chart).

And bitcoin is not the only digital currency to have fallen. Figures from CoinMarketCap, a website, show that the total market capitalisation of crypto-currencies has fallen by more than half this year, to under $400bn. This slide has taken place amid a flurry of hacks, fraud allegations and a growing regulatory backlash.

Perhaps the most damaging allegations surround Tether, a company that issues a virtual currency of the same name. Tether allows users to move money across exchanges and crypto-currencies without converting it back into “fiat” (central-bank-backed) money first. In theory, each...Continue reading

South-to-South investment is rising sharply

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:45

AT A meeting in Namibia last month Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, made a pitch to lure African investors to an economy ruined by Robert Mugabe. That he did so first in Windhoek, not London or New York, is telling. Although flows through tax havens muddy the data, 28% of new foreign direct investment (FDI) globally in 2016 was from firms in emerging markets—up from just 8% in 2000.

Chinese FDI, a big chunk of this, shrank in 2017 as Beijing restricted outflows and America and Europe screened acquisitions by foreigners more closely. But the trend of outbound investment is widespread. Almost all developing countries have companies with overseas affiliates. Most of their investment goes to the West. But in two-fifths of developing countries they make up at least half of incoming FDI. In 2015-16 the ten leading foreign investors in Africa, by number of new projects, included China, India, Kenya and South Africa.

A World Bank survey of more than 750 firms with FDI in developing countries found that those from...Continue reading

Wells Fargo suffers a rare punishment—a cap on assets

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:45

ON HER way out, Janet Yellen, who stood down as the Federal Reserve’s chair on February 2nd, paused to add yet another sanction to those already imposed on Wells Fargo for foisting unwanted insurance and banking products on clients. The latest punishment is a highly unusual one. Wells will be blocked from adding assets to the $2trn held on its balance-sheet at the end of 2017. Two other regulators had already imposed fines and penalties soon after the shenanigans began emerging in 2016. The bank has gone through a big reorganisation. The Fed’s belated response presumably took into account not only the errant conduct but also the political fallout. The government, as well as the bank, had been embarrassed.

At first glance, Wells is an odd target for such treatment. During the financial crisis it proved itself the best of the big banks, with relatively high underwriting standards and manageable losses. The scandal was huge—millions of clients were pushed into unwanted products. But the financial costs...Continue reading

Passive funds tracking an index lose out when its make-up changes

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:45

IS THERE hope for fund managers after all? Conventional “active” managers, who try to pick stocks that will beat the market, have been losing ground to “passive” funds, which simply own all assets in a given sector in proportion to their market value. The main advantage of the latter group is that they charge a lot less.

William Sharpe, a Nobel prizewinning economist, argued in 1991 that the “arithmetic of active management” means that the average fund manager is doomed to underperform. To understand why, assume that there are equal numbers of active and passive managers and, between them, they own all the market. The market returns 10%. How much will the passive managers earn? The answer must be 10%, before costs. The active managers own that bit of the market the passive managers don’t. But that proportion of the market must, thanks to simple arithmetic, also return 10%, before costs. Since the costs of active investors are higher, the average active manager must underperform. These...Continue reading

The release of Samsung’s boss leaves South Koreans exasperated

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 12:03

He backed the wrong horse

“INNOCENT if rich, guilty if poor” is a well-known adage in South Korea. It has been trending anew on social media since February 5th, when Lee Jae-yong, the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, was released from prison. The 49-year-old heir to South Korea’s biggest chaebol, or family-run conglomerate, had been found guilty of bribing a former president, Park Geun-hye, and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. But Mr Lee’s initial five-year prison sentence was cut in half and suspended by an appeals court, allowing him to walk free after 353 days in jail. Other executives were also released on suspended sentences.

The ruling largely upheld Mr Lee’s insistence that he had been coerced by Ms Park into handing over the bribe. Prosecutors had charged him with paying 43bn won ($38m), which included buying horses for Ms Choi’s daughter and various donations to her sports foundations. In the end, only use of the horses was recognised as bribery, slashing the sum to 3.6bn won. Although Mr Lee...Continue reading

The markets deliver a shock to complacent investors

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 10:48

EVERY good horror-film director knows the secret of the “jump scare”. Just when the hero or heroine feels safe, the monster appears from nowhere to startle them. The latest stockmarket shock could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The sharp falls that took place on February 2nd and 5th followed a long period where the only direction for share prices appeared to be upwards.

In fact the American market had risen so far, so fast that the decline only took share prices back to where they were at the start of the year (see chart). And although a 1,175-point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on February 5th was the biggest ever in absolute terms, it was still smallish beer in proportionate terms, at just 4.6%. The 508-point fall in the Dow in October 1987 knocked nearly 23% off the market.

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Bets on low market volatility went spectacularly wrong

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 10:48

THE Cboe Volatility Index, or Vix, known as the “fear gauge”, spikes when markets are most jittery. When Sandy Rattray, now at Man Group, an asset manager, worked on the Vix in the early 2000s, he and his team considered launching an exchange-traded product (ETP) linked to it, but concluded that it would be a “horror show” because of poor returns. Now, however, Vix-linked ETPs are a big industry, with around $8bn in assets. Formerly niche investments, they served vastly to exacerbate this week’s market turmoil, which saw the Vix’s largest ever one-day move, when it more than doubled on February 5th.

The Vix was always intended as a basis for financial products as well as a gauge. Vix futures were launched in 2004 and options in 2006. “Long” Vix products, which Mr Rattray looked into, seek to mirror the index . The problem is that this means buying futures contracts, with buyers having to pay a constant premium over spot prices. So these ETPs tend to lose money over time, punctuated (but not fully made up for) by gains when the Vix spikes. The largest “long” fund, VXX, issued by Barclays, has lost over 99.9% since its launch in 2009.

So other ETPs were developed to “short”—ie, bet against—the Vix index. Until this week, they were doing handsomely. Amid a long spell of subdued volatility, investors piled in. In January, assets in...Continue reading

Central banks should gamble on productivity-improving technology

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 10:48

IN 1996 Alan Greenspan began asking why the flashy information technology spreading across America seemed not to be lifting productivity. He was not the first to wonder. A decade earlier Robert Solow, a Nobel prizewinner, famously remarked that computers were everywhere but in the statistics. But Mr Greenspan was uniquely positioned, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to experiment on the American economy. As the unemployment rate dropped to levels that might normally trigger a phalanx of interest-rate rises, Mr Greenspan’s Fed moved cautiously, betting that efficiencies from new IT would keep price pressures in check. The result was the longest period of rapid growth since the early 1960s. Despite his success, few central bankers seem eager to repeat the experiment and many remain blinkered to issues other than inflation and employment. That is unfortunate. A little faith in technology could go a long way.

Central bankers are not known to be a visionary bunch. Turning new ideas into more...Continue reading

How to interpret a market plunge

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 04:02

FOR much of the past two years, market watchers have had little to write about, apart from the passing of one stock-index milestone after another. The events of the past week, however, have shaken the financial world awake. A recent, upward zag in bond yields seemed to signal the arrival of a new theme in market movements. Stock prices confirmed it, and then some. Over the past week, American stocks have dropped about 7%, punctuated by a breathtaking, record-setting plunge on Monday. The Dow Jones stock index recorded its largest ever one-day drop, of more than 1,000 points. In percentage terms the decline, of more than 4%, was the biggest since 2011.

The swoon set tongues to wagging, about its cause and likely effect. There can be no knowing about the former. Markets may have worried that rising wages would crimp profits or trigger a faster pace of growth-squelching interest-rate increases, but a butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia might just as well be to blame. There is little more certainty regarding the latter. Commentators have...Continue reading

Why United Airlines has got into a flap over a peacock

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 18:08

FEDERAL guidelines in America stipulate that airlines must allow passengers with disabilities to bring support animals onto flights. The rules were originally designed with guide dogs for the blind and the like in mind. Yet in recent years the rules have allowed a host of unusual and exotic animals to board planes for their owners’ emotional wellbeing.

Last weekend United Airlines, America’s third-largest carrier, drew the line at a peacock. A woman arrived at Newark International Airport and attempted to board her flight with the large bird, which she claimed was an emotional-support animal. The Jet Set, a travel show, captured images of the bird as it was denied boarding (see picture). The airline told the Washington Post that the peacock “did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size” and that “we explained this to the customer on three separate occasions before they arrived at the airport.”

Service animals, including emotional-support animals, can generally fly for free. As...Continue reading

A report of sexual misconduct allegations against Steve Wynn hurts his casino empire

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

Rien ne va plus

EVEN in a business where the house always wins, Steve Wynn is used to winning more than anyone else. The casinos that the billionaire has built, from The Mirage and Bellagio to Wynn Macau and Wynn Palace, helped transform Las Vegas and Macau from seedy gambling joints into luxury high-roller destinations. His fiercest rivals heaped praise on him as a visionary and perfectionist. His company, Wynn Resorts, enjoyed a “Wynn premium” from analysts and investors.

Now he could lose control of his empire. On January 26th the Wall Street Journal published an investigation detailing numerous allegations that would amount to a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr Wynn. The board of Wynn Resorts has announced an inquiry by a special committee into the reports, the veracity of which Mr Wynn denies.

He has resigned as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. Gaming commissioners in Nevada, Macau and...Continue reading

A new sort of health app can do the job of drugs

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

LUANN STOTTLEMYER has had diabetes for 23 years, but it was only in 2016 that her doctor prescribed a treatment that changed her life. It has allowed her to bring her blood-sugar levels under control and lose weight. Yet this miracle of modern science is not a new pill. It is a smartphone app called BlueStar.

The program is one of a growing number of apps that America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved to treat everything from diabetes to substance abuse. The FDA has encouraged firms to join a scheme that aims to streamline the regulatory process for such treatments. There are many candidates: at least 150 firms globally are developing some form of “digital therapeutic” (“digiceutical” in the lingo), says Mark Sluijs, who advises Merck, a big American drugmaker.

Unlike other sorts of digital health apps, digiceuticals have been tested for efficacy, approved by regulatory agencies such as the FDA and are prescribed by a doctor. Most gather data, either by asking patients for information or by using sensors,...Continue reading

What a $18.7bn takeover of Dr Pepper says about a secretive family’s plans

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

EUROPE is home to some extraordinary wealth creators who often try to hide their success. Ingvar Kamprad, a Swedish farmer’s son, constructed IKEA, a seller of flat-pack furniture that became a global giant with annual revenues of €38bn ($47bn). He died at the age of 91 on January 27th, after a famously frugal life. Amancio Ortega, the Spanish son of a railway worker, founded Inditex, a fast-fashion giant, and shuns any media attention. Then there is the reclusive Reimann family of Germany, members of which reportedly take a vow at the age of 18 not to talk publicly about their business, JAB Holding, a Luxembourg-based investment group.

Yet JAB’s habit of gulping down big, famous firms at a frenetic pace is making it hard for it to stay in the shadows. On January 29th it said it will pay $18.7bn in cash (plus some shares) to buy Dr Pepper Snapple, the world’s fifth-biggest maker of soft drinks, which has roots dating back to 1885. It will be combined with Keurig Green Mountain, an American...Continue reading

Apple and Amazon’s moves in health care signal the start of a transformation

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

THE past decade has seen the smartphone become a portal for managing daily life. Consumers use their pocket computers to bank, buy and befriend. Now this array of activities is expanding into an even more vital sphere. Apple has spent three years preparing its devices and software to process medical data, offering products to researchers and clinical-care teams. On January 24th it announced the result. The next big software update for its iPhone will include a feature, Health Records, to allow users to view, manage and share their medical records. Embedded in Apple’s Health app, the new feature will bring together medical data from participating hospitals and clinics, as well as from the iPhone itself, giving millions of Americans direct digital control of their own health information for the first time.

Apple’s fellow tech giants are also on the march into medical services. On January 30th Amazon announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to create a not-for-profit...Continue reading

Telegram’s initial coin offering is hot but controversial

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

IN A few years, millions of people will use a messaging app to make instant payments to friends across the globe or in a digital marketplace. But instead of state-backed money, they will use a cryptocurrency, the Gram, denoted by a gemstone emoji. They will be able to pay to store data—and perhaps to view content—securely and away from governments’ prying eyes. All of this will take place on a single platform, TON, or “The Open Network”, built by Telegram.

This is the vision that Telegram’s founders, the brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, are flogging to investors ahead of their initial coin offering (ICO). A “presale” round to institutional investors is under way, with a wider sale of Grams to retail investors expected in a few weeks. Reports suggest the offering could raise as much as $1.2bn, making it by far the largest ICO.

Compared with other firms selling tokens on the back of vague promises, Telegram has lots going for it. Its encrypted messenger app, particularly popular with the global crypto crowd, is...Continue reading

Pakistan’s biggest private-sector firm is betting on a fabled coal mine

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

Engro’s national mission

PAKISTAN’s enormous mineral wealth has long lain untapped. Since a 1992 geological survey spotted one of the world’s largest coal reserves in Thar, a scrubby desert in the southern province of Sindh, prospectors have hardly dug up a lump. Among those to flounder is a national hero. Samar Mubarakmand, feted for his role in Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme, has just shut the coal-gasification company he founded in 2010, when he vowed on live television to crack Thar.

Environmentalists, many from abroad, argue the reserve’s 175bn-ton bounty should remain underground. They point out the coal is lignite—dirty, poor-quality stuff that, in adding to carbon emissions, increases the risk of climate change for Pakistan. Other critics note that by locking itself into coal, Pakistan may miss out on the plummeting price of solar energy.

To such qualms, the government offers three rejoinders. First, severe power shortages have long...Continue reading

Why sub-zero interest rates are neither unfair nor unnatural

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

DENMARK’S Maritime Museum in Elsinore includes one particularly unappetising exhibit: the world’s oldest ship’s biscuit, from a voyage in 1852. Known as hardtack, such biscuits were prized for their long shelf lives, making them a vital source of sustenance for sailors far from shore. They were also appreciated by a great economist, Irving Fisher, as a useful economic metaphor.

Imagine, Fisher wrote in “The Theory of Interest” in 1930, a group of sailors shipwrecked on a barren island with only their stores of hardtack to sustain them. On what terms would sailors borrow and lend biscuits among themselves? In this forlorn economy, what rate of interest would prevail?

One might think the answer depends on the character of the unfortunate sailors. Interest, in many people’s minds, is a reward for deferring gratification. That is one reason why low interest rates are widely perceived as unjust. If an abstemious sailor were prepared to lend a biscuit to his crewmate rather than...Continue reading

Collaborations are becoming more common in popular music

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

DJ Khaled has some wild thoughts

FEW who have given an address at Harvard Business School have a CV like that of Khaled Mohamed Khaled, who spoke there in 2016. The 42-year-old music producer began his career as a record-store clerk and radio host. Today DJ Khaled, as he is known to fans, is one of the world’s most successful hip-hop artists. Although critics may disagree on the merits of Mr Khaled’s music, his selling strategy—bringing together the hottest pop stars of the moment—is worthy of any business-school classroom. America’s music industry is increasingly following his formula.

Collaborations like those assembled by Mr Khaled are nothing new. Ever since the hip-hop group Run-DMC teamed up with Aerosmith, a rock band, to record “Walk This Way” in 1986, record labels have recognised that combining the fan bases of multiple artists can be a boon to record sales. The practice has spread. According to data from the Billboard...Continue reading

Cancer is a curse, but also a growth market for investors

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

CANCER is a grim sort of growth market. By 2030 there will be over 22m new cases a year, up from 14m in 2012, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But as the world marks World Cancer Day, on February 4th, scientists are speaking of a revolution in the battle to beat it. Money managers’ ears have pricked up. Oncology investing is “hot”.

The most straightforward way to invest in treating cancer is through shares in companies that sell blockbuster drugs. Alternatively, biotech indices track a basket of companies, of which typically 40% are oncology-related. Big Pharma now buys rather than builds much of its innovation. So backing oncology startups can be an especially lucrative (if risky) approach. According to CB Insights, a research firm, equity investment in cancer-therapeutics startups has grown from $2bn in 2013 to $4.5bn in 2017. Take Juno Therapeutics, founded in Seattle in 2013 to develop immunotherapy drugs. It was acquired on January 22nd by Celgene, a Biotech giant, for a whopping $9bn.

Eric...Continue reading

Cars block the road to a renegotiated NAFTA

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER, the United States Trade Representative, wants renegotiation of the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to speed up. When the sixth round of talks ended on January 29th with only three chapters agreed, he griped: “We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster.” But given the changes he wants, any more speed risks a crash.

One of the biggest fights is over Mr Lighthizer’s desire to rewrite NAFTA’s rules about cars. Seen one way, the deal has been a boon for the industry. Trade in vehicles and their parts accounts for a quarter of America’s two-way trade with Mexico and Canada. But NAFTA’s critics see it as a big reason for America’s trade deficit with Mexico, and for its falling share of car assembly (see chart). Rules riddled with holes should be rewritten, they think, to yank back American jobs.

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Might higher interest rates spoil America’s economic boom?

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

AMENDING a famous metaphor, Janet Yellen once said that the Federal Reserve would “keep refilling the punch bowl until the guests have all arrived”. This week investors began to wonder if Jerome Powell, who will shortly succeed Ms Yellen at the top of the Fed, might at last deem the party full. On January 29th the ten-year Treasury yield reached 2.7%, the highest since early 2014. The prospect of tighter money caused stockmarkets to sneeze. On January 30th the S&P 500 fell by 1.1%, its biggest decline since August, before recovering a tiny bit the next day. With unemployment low and tax cuts pending, investors are wondering whether inflation and interest rates might soon surge.

The economy grew by 2.5% in the year to the fourth quarter of 2017. According to Okun’s law, a rule of thumb relating unemployment to GDP, falling joblessness explains almost half of this growth. (The unemployment rate fell from 4.7% to 4.1% over the same period.) Early in the year inflation fell short, suggesting that fast growth could continue unabated. But pressure on prices has begun to build. Quarterly core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was only just below the Fed’s 2% target at the end of 2017. Markets have recently come to believe rate-setters who say that they will tighten policy three times in 2018 (see chart), as happened in 2017.

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A big Blackstone deal shows how private equity has changed

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

THE financial crisis a decade ago brought the glory days of private equity to a screeching halt. The debt-fuelled megadeals on which the industry had built its fame (or notoriety) seemed over. But on January 30th a group of investors led by Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm, announced a $17bn deal to carve out Thomson Reuters’ financial and risk business (F&R), a financial-data provider. The deal would be Blackstone’s largest since the crisis. But if the megadeal is making a comeback, it is in a new guise.

In the mid-2000s, huge transactions abounded. Deals from 2006 and 2007 alone account for nine of the ten largest ever. But, looking purely at value, the only true drought in big deals was from 2008-12. Every year since 2013 has seen at least one buy-out of more than $10bn, according to the private-equity database of Thomson Reuters F&R itself.

But in many of these deals private-equity firms have taken the unfamiliar role of companions to corporate acquirers. In a $23.5bn deal in 2013 to acquire Heinz, Berkshire Hathaway, a conglomerate, split ownership equally with 3G Capital, a Brazilian private-equity firm. Even private-equity led acquisitions are today much more likely to involve institutional investors or corporations, rather than other private-equity firms. The consortium that Bain Capital cobbled together last year...Continue reading

A safe asset is devised for the euro zone

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 16:43

THESE are bright days in the euro area. Preliminary figures say that the currency zone’s GDP grew by 2.5% last year, the fastest since 2007. But many of the faultlines in the zone’s financial system, as revealed by the financial crisis, remain. A proposal published on January 29th by a group reporting to the European Systemic Risk Board, a prudential supervisor, may mend one of the more troubling flaws.

Euro-area banks favour their home countries’ debt. A sample of 76 lenders examined by supervisors last year had exposures of €1.7trn ($1.9trn) to euro-area governments, of which €1.1trn was lent to their home states. That exceeded the banks’ common equity tier-1 capital, their cushion against losses, of €1trn. The fortunes of states and banks are thus bound in a “doom loop”. Suppose an economic shock raises the risk of a sovereign default. Banks’ balance-sheets start to crumble. They need propping up by the already wobbly state. And as they cut lending, the real economy weakens,...Continue reading


The dollar keeps weakening. Is that good news for the world?

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 13:33

AT THE start of 2017, just before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, a survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) found they believed that being positive on the dollar was “the most crowded trade”. It turned out they were right to be cautious. On a trade-weighted basis, the currency has fallen by 9% against other major currencies in the past year.

It is not clear what the Trump administration thinks about this. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, said: “Obviously a weak dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities.” Although the rest of his statement was more nuanced, it is unusual for anyone in his position to depart from a “strong dollar” line. The greenback duly fell in price.

Mr Trump then followed up with a statement in favour of a strong dollar in the long term, which caused a rebound. Since it was only last April that he referred to the dollar as being “too...Continue reading


A travel agent is trying to charge fees for sunbeds

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 17:47

IN KEEPING with the trend for charging for things travellers used to get free, it should perhaps come as no surprise that sunbeds are the latest feature of a standard holiday on which travel agents are slapping extra fees. Thomas Cook, a British package-holiday firm, has announced that it will allow holidaymakers to pre-book poolside loungers for £22 ($31) per person. Six days before the start of a trip, travellers will get an email offering them the chance to reserve specific sunbeds. The booking tool will include a map that allows people to see where the sun will shine at various times of day. The experiment will start in late February at three hotels on the Canary Islands and will expand to 30 hotels this summer. 

To some holidaymakers, this will seem like yet another attempt by the travel industry to get money from every source possible. Airlines, for instance, made $82bn in add-on fees last year alone, according to IdeaWorksCompany, a research firm. Over the past few years, both full-service and low-cost airlines have introduced...Continue reading


Why don't foreign investors take fright more often?

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 13:47

BACK in the days of the gold standard, central bankers were very concerned about the views of international investors. They believed that maintaining the value of their currencies would reassure creditors. That is why they were so resistant to the idea of floating currencies. Georges Bonnet, a French finance minister, put it best

Who would be prepared to lend with the fear of being paid in depreciated currencies always before his eyes?

This fear still shows up from time to time. Under the old exchange rate mechanism, countries like Italy would undergo periodic devaluations to restore their competitiveness*. As a result, investors would demand a higher bond yield to compensate for this risk. When the single currency was planned, bond yields slowly converged on the German level as the risk of devaluation disappeared. It popped up again in 2011 and 2012 as investors feared some countries might drop out of the euro and reintroduce domestic currencies; that would have required a partial default. (Of course,...Continue reading


How to board a plane without a boarding pass

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 18:48

EARLIER this month a woman arrived at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago without a ticket, boarding pass, or passport and flew to London. Prosecutors claim she did this by sneaking past officials from the Transportation Security Administration, a government agency responsible for airport security, while they were inspecting other travellers’ boarding passes. She was briefly thwarted when she tried to do the same thing at the boarding gate for a flight to Connecticut. But the gate agent caught her and asked her to sit down. After spending the night in the airport, she took the shuttle to the international terminal—again without the required boarding pass and passport—and got on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, where she was arrested on arrival.

The woman, 66-year-old Marilyn Hartman of Illinois, has done this before. In fact, she has been convicted of criminal trespassing at O’Hare four times over the past few years. Ms Hartman’s lawyers have attributed her behaviour to mental-health issues. She has never appeared to pose...Continue reading


Why drones could pose a greater risk to aircraft than birds

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 16:51

THE “Miracle on the Hudson”—the successful ditching of a US Airways jetliner into New York’s Hudson River in 2009 after it hit a flock of geese—taught frequent flyers two things. First, it really is possible to land an aircraft on water, just as is shown on seat-back safety cards. Second, and more worryingly, the incident showed how dangerous birds can be to aircraft, particularly when they get sucked into engines. The machines are supposed to be designed to withstand an impact by the feathered creatures. Using big guns, chickens have been fired at aircraft engines in safety tests since the 1950s. But what about drones?

New research suggests that small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can actually be much more damaging than birds at the same impact speed, even if they are a similar weight. The study, published by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, a think-tank, used computer simulations to examine the impact of bird and UAV...Continue reading


Some hotels charge visitors for bad reviews

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 18:22

TRAVELLERS have grown accustomed to annoying hidden fees, from the baggage charges that bring airlines tens of billions of dollars a year to the resort fees that account for nearly a fifth of American hotels’ revenue. But a new one that has popped up in recent years might be the most irksome of all due to its sheer perversity: fees for leaving bad reviews.

Last March, a couple arrived at the suite they had booked at the Abbey Inn in Indiana only to find, they claim, a dirty bed, a foul smell, an insect infestation and no hotel employees on the premises to assist them. Upon leaving, they did what so many travellers do these days. They wrote an online review warning others about the hotel’s shortcomings. Sometimes, negative reviews prompt apologies and compensation from their subjects. But in this case, the couple Continue reading


Droughts, storms and global demand tests America’s love affair with avocado

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

Looking for the last avocado

ALTHOUGH New Yorkers are not renowned for their patience, they do not seem to mind waiting their turn for a fresh serving of avocado. At Avocaderia, which claims to be the world’s first avocado bar, in Brooklyn, long queues stretch from the counter outward into a large food hall.

The venue’s popularity is a sign of the times: the avocado is fast becoming America’s favourite fruit. Although domestic production has stayed flat, imports have more than trebled over the past ten years, according to the Department of Agriculture. It estimates that the annual consumption of the average American has increased from about one pound (0.5 kilograms) in 1989 to more than seven pounds in 2016; total consumption that year weighed in at 2.3bn pounds.

America’s enthusiasm for avocados may be dented, however, by soaring prices. The wholesale price for a case of 48 avocados peaked at $83.75 in September, up from $34.45 a year before,...Continue reading


Richemont, the world’s second-biggest luxury firm, bets on digital

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

Clickbait for plutocrats

A YOUTUBE video featuring a woman sporting a gold watch and driving a convertible, which has been viewed online nearly 5m times. A social-media “influencer” with more than 11m followers on Instagram posting photos of herself wearing the same timepiece. A limited flash sale of the watch on Net-a-Porter, a website.

Purveyors of pricey jewellery and watches have been slow to embrace things digital. But last year’s social-media campaign to relaunch Panthère, a watch made by Cartier, a French jeweller, is evidence that they are waking up to the power of the online world. On January 22nd Richemont, a Swiss luxury conglomerate that counts Cartier among its brands, offered to buy the shares it does not already own in Yoox-Net-a-Porter group (YNAP), a leading luxury online retailer, for €2.7bn ($3.3bn). Although the deal still faces hurdles, it is likely to go ahead.

The days of double-digit growth in the luxury industry are gone—it...Continue reading


GE’s flow of financial information has become fantastically muddled

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

IN THEIR documentary “The Vietnam War”, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the directors, dwell on the flawed information that American politicians got from Indo-China. The generals on the ground focused on the “kill ratio”, or the number of enemies killed per American or South Vietnamese soldiers killed. That bore no relationship to victory—North Vietnam quickly replaced its dead soldiers. And it corrupted behaviour, leading American troops to embellish numbers and count dead civilians as “wins”.

The curse of rotten information can strike companies, too. That seems to be the case with General Electric (GE), which has had a vertiginous fall. Its shares, cashflow and forecast profits have dropped by about 50% since 2015. On January 16th it disclosed a huge, $15bn capital shortfall at its financial arm due to a revision in insurance reserves. And on January 24th it revealed a $10bn loss for the fourth quarter. In its core industrial arm, returns on capital have sunk from 20% in 2007 to a puny 5%...Continue reading


Financial regulators too often think “this time is different”

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

FOR a phenomenon with such predictably bad outcomes, a financial boom is strangely seductive. Not a decade after the most serious financial crisis since the Depression, the world watches soaring markets with a mixture of serenity and glee. Natural impulses make finance a neck-snappingly volatile affair. Governments, though, deserve heaps of blame for policies that amplify both boom and bust. As regulators begin picking apart reforms only just enacted, it is worth asking why that is so.

Finance is hopelessly prone to wild cycles. When an economy is purring, profits go up, as do asset values. Rising asset prices flatter borrowers’ creditworthiness. When credit is easier to obtain, spending goes up and the boom intensifies. Eventually perceptions of risk shift, and tales of a “new normal” gain credence: new technologies mean profits can grow for ever, or financial innovation makes credit risk a thing of the past. But when the mood turns, the feedback loop reverses direction. As asset prices fall, banks grow stingier with their loans. Firms feel the pinch from falling sales, get behind on their debts and sack workers, who get behind on theirs. The desperate sell what they can, so asset prices tumble, worsening the crash. Mania turns to panic.

The pattern is an ancient one. In their book “This Time is Different”, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff,...Continue reading


Morgan Stanley’s unexciting model takes the prize on Wall Street

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

MORGAN STANLEY emerged in 1935 out of a global financial disaster, as one of Wall Street’s leading firms. In a rare shred of consistency in America’s turbulent markets, history has repeated itself. But it was a close call. An ill-timed infatuation with debt ahead of the 2007-08 financial crisis threatened to add it to the industry’s towering funeral pyre, which consumed all its big competitors with the exception of Goldman Sachs.

Of the two, Morgan Stanley came out of the crisis the more tarnished, less for what it did than for what it was: less profitable; less connected, through its former employees, to political power; and less respected for having evaded disaster. But after the release of financial results from the fourth quarter of 2017, Morgan Stanley’s valuation has surpassed Goldman Sachs’s. This reflects not only the improvement in its profitability but also investors’ greater confidence in how it is managed.

Goldman, with some justice, finds the comparison unfair....Continue reading


WhatsApp: Mark Zuckerberg’s other headache

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

“THERE’S too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarisation in the world today,” lamented Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, recently. To improve things, the world’s largest social network will cut the amount of news in users’ feeds by a fifth and attempt to make the remainder more reliable by prioritising information from sources which users think are trustworthy.

Many publishers are complaining: they worry that their content will show up less in users’ newsfeeds, reducing clicks and advertising revenues. But the bigger problem with Facebook’s latest moves may be that they are unlikely to achieve much—at least if the flourishing of fake news on WhatsApp, the messaging app which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19bn, is any guide.

In more ways than one, WhatsApp is the opposite of Facebook. Whereas posts on Facebook can be seen by all of a user’s friends, WhatsApp’s messages are encrypted. Whereas Facebook’s newsfeeds are curated by algorithms that try to maximise the time users spend on the service, WhatsApp’s stream of messages is solely generated by users. And whereas Facebook requires a fast connection, WhatsApp is not very data-hungry.

Continue reading


Direct-lending funds in Europe

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

WHEN Caronte & Tourist, a Sicilian ferry company, needs a new ship, it is cheap and easy to borrow from a bank. But in 2016, when Caronte’s controlling families wanted to buy back the minority stake held by a private-equity firm, banks balked at the loan’s unusual purpose. Edoardo Bonanno, the chief financial officer, also worried that the €30m ($33m) in extra bank debt might make shipping loans harder to obtain from them in future. So he turned instead to a direct-lending fund run by Muzinich & Co, an asset manager.

Such funds are only about a decade old in Europe (and not much older in America, where they started). Assets under management at Europe-focused funds increased from a mere $330m at the end of 2006 to $73.3bn by mid-2017, which includes $27.9bn of “dry powder”, or funds yet to be lent out (see chart). In 2017 alone 24 direct-lending funds raised a record $22.2bn. Such funds do what they say on the tin: lend directly to firms, usually in the form of big, multi-year loans. The borrowers are often either companies that are too small to raise equity or debt on capital markets, or private-equity funds buying such firms.

Continue reading


How microcredit can help poor countries after natural disasters

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

Small pots of liquidity

BOTH, in different ways, worry about liquidity. And global warming may, indeed, be bringing meteorologists and financiers together. On January 18th, VisionFund, a microlending charity, and Global Parametrics, a venture that crunches climate and seismic data, launched what they billed as the “world’s largest non-governmental climate-insurance programme”. The scheme will offer microfinance to about 4m people across six countries in Asia and Africa affected by climate-change-related calamities.

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. They disproportionately affect poor countries, where many eke livings from vulnerable agricultural land. Yet it is often in the aftermath of disaster that credit is hardest to obtain. As non-performing loans rise and the perception of risk increases, microfinance institutions (MFIs) rein in lending; they receive little support from donors and relief programmes, which tend to favour humanitarian aid....Continue reading


Monetary policy suffers a shortage of central bankers

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

IN THEIR quest to stabilise the job market, central banks are setting a bad example. Jerome Powell, whom senators this week confirmed as the next chairman of America’s Federal Reserve, will lead an institution with three existing vacancies on its seven-member board, and a fourth that will open up imminently. Not since July 2013 has its rate-setting committee boasted the full complement of 12 voting members.

This monetary undermanning is, however, much worse in Nigeria. Its monetary-policy committee was unable to meet as scheduled on January 22nd-23rd because it lacked the six members necessary for a quorum. Five recent nominees still await confirmation by the country’s Senate. The chamber is holding up all but a few executive appointments in retaliation for President Muhammadu Buhari’s failure to remove an official (the acting anti-corruption tsar) whom the Senate twice rejected. In the absence of a monetary-policy meeting (and the lengthy communiqué that eventually follows it), the central bank...Continue reading


When you cannot sue your employer

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

IMAGINE wanting to sue your employer, because you have been harassed or discriminated against, only to find that your access to the courts is blocked. It turns out you signed away your right to use the judicial system when you started the job: somewhere, hidden in the documents that came with your employment contract, was a clause obliging you to resolve future disputes through private arbitration, rather than in court.

An increasing number of American employees find themselves in this situation. Over half of non-unionised employees are covered by arbitration requirements, estimates Alexander Colvin of Cornell University, based on a survey in 2017 of 627 private-sector workplaces. Such agreements have come under greater scrutiny after the wave of workplace sexual-harassment revelations last year. Gretchen Carlson, a former news anchor for Fox, a broadcaster, has called arbitration “the harasser’s best friend”. Prevented by an arbitration clause from suing the network, Ms Carlson sued her boss...Continue reading


GM takes an unexpected lead in the race to develop autonomous vehicles

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

GENERAL MOTORS reveals barn-sized truck at Detroit motor show. What else is new, you might now ask. But the launch on January 20th of the Chevrolet Silverado, a pickup that will go on sale at the end of the year, highlights a surprising turnaround for America’s largest carmaker.

The good news is not just the Silverado’s outsized margins, which are important for a firm that relies heavily on trucks—after Mary Barra, GM’s boss, gave an ebullient performance at an investors’ conference that coincided with the motor show, the release of GM’s quarterly results on February 6th are likely to include record profits. It is also that the money thrown off by vehicles such as the Silverado will help the firm navigate the tricky terrain that lies ahead of all the world’s big carmakers.

One task is to ensure that their current business of selling vehicles with internal-combustion engines stays healthy. At the same time, they must prepare for a future of electric and autonomous cars (EVs...Continue reading


Qualcomm is fined for anti-competitive practices—again

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

THE tech industry hardly needs another reminder that trustbusters are on its case. But the European Commission is always happy to oblige. On January 24th Europe’s executive body slapped a penalty of €1bn ($1.2bn) on Qualcomm, one of the world’s largest chip-designers, for abusing its dominance in baseband processors, a critical component in mobile phones.

Large fines are becoming something of a habit for Qualcomm, which will have paid out nearly $1bn a year, on average, to trustbusters the world over since 2015. This week’s penalty, which amounts to nearly 5% of the company’s global annual revenue, is a reflection of what Margrethe Vestager, the European competition commissioner, described as its “very illegal behaviour” between 2011 and 2016. During that time, according to Ms Vestager, the company attempted to shore up its dominant position—it is estimated to supply up to four-fifths of essential types of baseband chips—by paying Apple, its biggest customer, billions of dollars in...Continue reading


Bangladesh experiments with a new approach to poverty alleviation

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:58

BESIDES shoes and shrimp, Bangladesh exports poverty cures. Microfinance was developed there in the late 1970s before spreading. In 2002 BRAC, a charity, started giving assets such as cows (and training in how to manage them) to desperately poor women. That approach has spread, too. The latest poverty remedy to emerge from Bangladesh is different: it targets men, and rather than trying to make people more productive in their villages, it encourages them to move.

In Rangpur, a northern district, agricultural labourers endure an annual hunger in the autumn, known as monga. The rice crop has been planted but is not ready to harvest, so work is scarce. Jobs abound in the cities, but poor farmers are loth to use their dwindling savings on a bus ticket. It is a good example of a poverty trap.

So, for the past ten years, researchers led by Mushfiq Mobarak, an economist at Yale University, have tried offering cash to poor households so long as somebody moves to a city to...Continue reading


The buck drops here

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:25

THERE may have been a "Trump bump" in the stockmarket but the opposite has been true in currency markets. The dollar has steadily weakened and the administration does not seem too concerned about it. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said this week that

Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities

He qualified his remarks by saying a strong dollar reflects a strong US economy. Leaving aside his clear confusion (so does the dollar's weakness mean the US economy is weak?), it is rare for any Treasury secretary to welcome a fall in the greenback.

Paul O'Neill, who held the position under George W Bush, declared that

I believe in a strong dollar, and if I decide to to shift that stance I will hire out the Yankee Stadium and some rousing brass bands, and announce that change in policy to the whole world.

There are many reasons why politicians like to speak about a strong dollar. A decline in the currency tends to push up import...Continue reading


Legacy airlines are facing new competitors on transatlantic routes

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 20:13

EVEN for a global industry like aviation, Primera Air’s business model seems remarkably cosmopolitan. The Icelandic-owned budget airline is headquartered in Latvia, but mainly operates low-cost flights from Denmark and Sweden to sunny places in the Mediterranean. This summer, it will begin long-haul flights from Britain and France to America. The company bears more than a passing resemblance to Norwegian Air Shuttle, another nominally Scandinavian airline with global aspirations. More than two-thirds of Norwegian’s capacity by passenger-km now bypasses its home country, and the rapid growth of its long-haul operations are proving to be a serious challenge for legacy carriers such as British Airways. And its tentacles are spreading around the world. This autumn, the carrier will begin operating domestic Argentinian flights, 12,000km away from its home base.

Low-cost airlines are not new. Ryanair, founded in the 1980s, has grown to become...Continue reading


The World Bank’s “ease of doing business” report faces tricky questions

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

HOW many days does it take to correct a misleading newspaper interview? Four, in the case of Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist. On January 12th a surprising article in the Wall Street Journal alleged that one of the bank’s signature reports—on the ease of doing business around the world—may have been tainted by the political motivations of bank staff. The story was based on an interview with Mr Romer, who pointed out that Chile’s ranking in the yearly report had dropped sharply during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning politician who took office for the second time in 2014. Chile sank so heavily not because doing business had become harder, but because the bank had repeatedly changed its method of assessment.

That method mostly entails answering measurable questions, such as how many days does it take to start a business, register a property or file taxes. The answers determine a country’s score (known as its “distance to...Continue reading


The French government experiments with venture capitalism

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

Don’t be coy, carp about the food

AS A boy, Antoine Hubert used to catch butterflies. These days, the agro-engineer has eyes only for meal worms. In a demonstration factory near Dole in eastern France, he shows how trayfuls of plump, half-grown worms are fed, left to grow in a darkened dormitory, and then—after two months—slaughtered and cleaned with a blast of steam. A machine divides the resulting mush into oil and protein powder.

Around 70% of a worm is protein, making it ideal for animal feed. Demand is soaring, notably at fish and shrimp farms. Mr Hubert predicts aquaculture businesses will need 70m tons of feed annually in ten years’ time, up from 40m now. The global market for animal feed, he reckons, is already worth €500bn ($610bn).

Ynsect, his firm, thus expects to grow once it opens a new factory this year. He dreams of annual output exceeding 1m tonnes, hinting at a hunger for scale often left unsatisfied in a French entrepreneur: local...Continue reading


Why driverless cars may mean jams tomorrow

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

THE most distractingly unrealistic feature of most science fiction—by some margin—is how the great soaring cities of the future never seem to struggle with traffic. Whatever dystopias lie ahead, futurists seem confident we can sort out congestion. If hope that technology will fix traffic springs eternal, history suggests something different. Transport innovation, from railways to cars, reshaped cities and drove economic advance. But it also brought crowded commutes. Now, as tech firms and carmakers aim to roll out fleets of driverless cars, it is worth asking: might this time be different? Alas, artificial intelligence (AI) is unlikely to succeed where steel rails and internal-combustion engines failed.

More’s the pity. In America alone, traffic congestion brings economic losses estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Such costs will rise unless existing transport systems receive badly needed investment. For example, fixing New York’s beleaguered, overcrowded subway will...Continue reading


Our Big Mac index shows fundamentals now matter more in currency markets

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

IT IS usually considered quaint to predict foreign-exchange movements by reference to whether currencies are dear or cheap. Metrics such as The Economist’s Big Mac index, a lighthearted guide to exchange rates, hint at how far currency values are out of whack. But they are often driven further out of kilter by capital flows, by fear and greed, by the interventions of policymakers, and so on.

Since our last look at the index in July, cheap currencies have narrowed the valuation gap against the dollar—almost completely in case of the Canadian dollar (see chart). Fundamentals, such as fair value, seem (at last) to have greater sway in the foreign-exchange market.

The index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity, which says exchange rates should move towards the level that would make the price of a basket of goods the same in different countries. Our basket contains only one item, but it is found in around 120 countries: a Big Mac hamburger. If the local cost of...Continue reading


Why the oil price is so high

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

PERHAPS the most vexing thing for those watching the oil industry is not the whipsawing price of a barrel. It is the constant updating of theories to explain what lies behind it. In March 2014, when the price of a barrel of Brent crude was in three figures, the then boss of Chevron, an oil giant, observed that the scarcity of cheap oil meant “$100 per barrel is becoming the new $20”. Two years later, when the oil price slumped below $28, the talk was of a global oil glut caused by the furious efforts of the OPEC cartel to regain market share. Now that oil prices have tested $70, analysts are again scratching their heads.

In “1984”, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”, the ability to believe two contradictory things. Oil analysis seems to require similar cognitive gymnastics. Three big questions arise. First, why has the oil price more than doubled in the space of two years, against all expectation? Second, why has this surge been met with cheers from global stockmarkets and not...Continue reading


The threat of tough regulation in Asia sends crypto-currencies into a tailspin

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

IT HAS been another week of vertiginous swings in the prices of bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. This time, the moves have mostly been downwards, with some days seeing falls of over 20%. Views on this were as divided as they were during the giddy climb: did it mark the definitive bursting of a bubble as rapidly inflated as any in history (see chart)?

Asia provides both an explanation of this week’s sell-off and a glimpse of crypto-currencies’ future. The threat of a ban in bitcoin-trading in South Korea was the proximate cause of the plunge. As to the future, the question is which Asia? At one end of the spectrum...Continue reading


A weak market for football rights suggests a lower value for sport

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

Might Paul’s wages fall?

FOR years the cost of rights to broadcast major sports in America and Europe has trended in one direction—up. This gravity-defying law shapes the economics of modern sport: as television operators bid ever more substantial sums, teams take in more revenue and star-player salaries (and transfer fees) climb higher. In 2017 that trajectory continued as broadcasters splurged on rights for Champions League football matches for 2018-21.

This year gravity is reasserting itself. Top-flight football rights are out for tender in two major European leagues—England and Italy—and are expected to be put up for sale this year in France and Spain, too. Analysts expect relatively small increases in pay-outs (though Spain’s La Liga boss predicts a 30% rise)—and possibly a decline in Italy. “The happy days are over,” says Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, a research firm.

The chief problem is fundamental weakness at the bidding...Continue reading


Masayoshi Son may raise yet more cash to pump into tech

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

AT AN investor briefing in 2015, Masayoshi Son, chief executive of SoftBank, flashed up a picture of a goose. The company is like the bird of legend that produces golden eggs, he explained. In his quest to encourage more laying, Mr Son has taken SoftBank well beyond its telecoms business. The firm also manages the world’s largest tech-investment fund, the $100bn Vision Fund, which has a slew of wealthy backers, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and Apple.

Using both the firm and the fund, Mr Son has acquired stakes in tech companies at a frenetic pace, by one count opening his chequebook once every four days on average in 2017. Such shopping sprees do not come cheap. SoftBank is one of Japan’s most highly leveraged companies, with debt exceeding ¥15trn ($139bn), not least because of its purchase in 2013 of a controlling stake in Sprint, an American mobilenetwork operator.

News reports this week suggest SoftBank is now hatching a plan to raise ¥2trn by...Continue reading


Innovative materials from bamboo are helping a new industry to sprout

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

A bamboo spider rides high

FANNING out from the sodden delta of the Yangtze, and southward to the flanks of the Nanling mountains, over 6m hectares of emerald bamboo groves—one-fifth of the world’s reserves—flourish in China. Giant pandas nibble the softest shoots. Around 40bn pairs of disposable chopsticks are made from bamboo twigs annually in China, for use with everyday meals. Steel scaffolding is still often shunned for bamboo on skyscrapers under construction in even the ritziest parts of Hong Kong. The history of the grass is colourful, too. Before paper, Chinese wrote on bamboo slips; they used bamboo tubes for irrigation, and later stuffed them with gunpowder to ignite muskets.

Yet for all its importance and abundance bamboo is “China’s forgotten plant”, says Martin Tam, an expert in Hong Kong. To demonstrate its potential, he greets visitors with a can of bamboo juice, proffers a bamboo business card, and gestures to a bamboo armchair near his desk....Continue reading


Chinese tech companies plan to steal American cloud firms’ thunder

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

WHICH of the world’s tech giants boasts the fastest-growing computing cloud? Many would guess either Amazon or Google, which operate the world’s largest networks of data centres, but the correct answer is Alibaba. In 2016 the cloud-computing business of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth grew by 126%, to $675m. Growth is unlikely to slow soon. Simon Hu, president of Alibaba Cloud, wants it to “match or surpass” Amazon Web Services (AWS) by 2019.

That is a stretch: AWS is estimated to have generated revenues of about $17bn in 2017. But Alibaba’s cloud (known locally as Aliyun) is one of a thriving group: China’s cloud-computing industry as a whole is growing rapidly. Even more intriguing than its speedy expansion is the fact that China’s cloud is different to that of Western firms in important ways.

The technology that China’s cloud-computing providers use is not so dissimilar. Indeed, the fact that Western tech firms have released much of the necessary code as open-source...Continue reading


After a huge loss on old reinsurance contracts, GE contemplates a break-up

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

Flannery kitchen-sinks it

DECISIONS made long ago, and often long since forgotten, can come back to haunt. General Electric (GE), an American industrial conglomerate, has discovered that to its chagrin. On January 16th the company said it would have to take a $9.5bn charge (before tax) on old reinsurance contracts in its financial arm, GE Capital—despite exiting the insurance business in the mid-2000s. The firm also said it would have to set aside up to $15bn of additional reserves for GE Capital over seven years. The conglomerate had already been struggling, with its share price down by over 40% in the past year. News of the latest hit, which the company’s chief executive, John Flannery, called “deeply disappointing”, sent its shares plunging by a further 3% on January 16th alone.

The issue at hand concerns reinsurance contracts in GE Capital’s American life- and health-insurance portfolio. Jack Welch, an idolised former GE boss, had massively expanded the...Continue reading


The hedge-fund delusion that grips pension-fund managers

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

HEDGE-FUND managers may be feeling quietly smug about their performance in 2017. They returned 6.5% on average, according to Hedge Fund Research, a data provider, their best year since 2013.

But those returns do not really suggest that they are masters of the investing universe. The S&P 500 index, America’s main equity benchmark, returned 21.8%, including dividends, last year. More tellingly, a portfolio split 60-40 between the S&P 500 and a mixture of government and corporate bonds (an oft-used benchmark for institutional portfolios) would have returned 14.8%. Last year was the fifth in a row when hedge funds underperformed the 60/40 split (see chart).

That ought to be a salutary lesson for those institutions who think that backing hedge funds is the answer to their prayers. Despite the highs recorded by stockmarkets, many employers are struggling to fund their final-salary pension promises. In 2016 the average American public-sector plan was just 68%-funded, according to the Centre for...Continue reading


Something doesn’t ad up about America’s advertising market

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:48

IMAGINE a world in which you are manipulated by intelligent advertisements from dusk until dawn. Your phone and TV screens flash constantly with commercials that know your desires before you imagine them. Driverless cars bombard you with personalised ads once their doors lock and if you try to escape by putting on a virtual-reality headset, all you see are synthetic billboards. Your digital assistant chirps away non-stop, systematically distorting the information it gives you in order to direct you towards products that advertisers have paid it to promote.

Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley thinker who was an adviser on “Minority Report”, a bleak sci-fi film, worries that this could be the future. He calls it a world of ubiquitous “digital spying”. A few platform firms, he fears, will control what consumers see and hear and other companies will have to bid away their profits (by buying ads) to gain access to them. Advertising will be a tax that strangles the rest of the economy, like medieval...Continue reading


The rise and fall of Bitcoin

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 11:57

THE great Sir Isaac Newton may have revolutionised our knowledge of the world but he still had his blind spots. He was sucked into the great mania of his day, the South Sea Bubble (pictured) and lost a lot of money. "I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people" he ruefully reflected. In retrospect, he should have pondered the popular saying that was used to define his law of gravity: "What goes up, must come down".

Investors in Bitcoin are learning this old truth. The price of the cryptocurrency peaked last month at somewhere over $19,000 (there is a very wide spread, a problem in itself) but, at the time of writing (around 11am GMT), some exchanges now show a price below $10,000. 

Perhaps the best way of understanding bitcoin is through a model of how bubbles operate. The classic model, developed by Hyman Minsky and elaborated by Charles Kindleberger, a historian who studied bubbles, has five stages:...Continue reading


The days of the A380 look numbered

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 19:41

ASK frequent flyers which is their favourite aircraft and most come up with the same answer: the A380 superjumbo made by Airbus, a giant European planemaker. Able to carry 525 passengers in a typical three-class layout, on two full-length decks, the aircraft still feels spacious, with wide aisles and plenty of headroom. Frequent flyers also admire the freshness of the cabin air, the lighting systems that are designed to reduce jet lag and the quietness of the cabin. “You can hardly hear it take off,” one fan recently told Gulliver. “And I can actually go to sleep on the plane unlike any other I’ve been on before.”

But less than a decade after it carried its first paying passengers, the age of the superjumbo looks like coming to an end. When Airbus announced its plans to build the plane in 2000, it hoped to sell up to 1,200 of them over two decades. Eighteen years later it has sold just a quarter of that figure, and has...Continue reading


Turkish Airlines bounces back to growth

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 18:33

A LITTLE over a year ago, Gulliver gave a downbeat assessment of the prospects for Turkey's aviation sector. Having enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted growth of more than 10% a year, Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag-carrier, was grounding aircraft and closing routes amid growing unrest at home and violence across its border with Syria. Concerns about regional security were also making life difficult in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, two other countries that have built aviation empires by connecting far-flung parts of the globe through their hub airports. Yet whereas the Gulf carriers remain in the doldrums, Turkish is gaining altitude again.

There had been just cause for concern about Turkey at the end of 2016. The year unleashed a failed military coup, a resultant purge of dissenters, and a wave of attacks mounted by Islamic State terrorists. When Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport was struck by bombers in June, even transit passengers started to...Continue reading


Having rescued recorded music, Spotify may upend the industry again

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

IN JUST a few short years Spotify has evolved from bête noir of some of the world’s most prominent recording artists to perhaps their greatest benefactor. The Swedish company transformed the way people listen to music, and got them used to paying for it again after digital piracy had crippled sales. Global revenues from music streaming, which Spotify dominates with 70m subscribers, more than tripled in three years, to an estimated $10.8bn last year, for the first time surpassing digital and physical sales of songs and albums.

But if it is earning billions for others, Spotify is losing money for itself—with an operating loss of nearly $400m in 2016—because it pays out at least 70% of its revenues to the industry, mostly in royalties. As it prepares for a “direct” listing on the New York Stock Exchange (see article) it must convince...Continue reading


Companies are moving faster than many governments on carbon pricing

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

Disney offsets its air miles

ECONOMISTS have long argued that the most efficient way to curb global warming is to put a price on the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it. A total of 41 OECD and G20 governments have announced either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, or both. Add state and local schemes, and they cover 15% of the world’s emissions, up from 4% in 2010. Voters concerned about climate change are egging them on. So, too, are corporate bosses. More firms are imposing such pricing on themselves, even in places where policymakers are dragging their feet.

Of the 6,100-odd firms which report climate-related data to CDP, a British watchdog, 607 now claim to use “internal carbon prices”. The number has quadrupled since CDP first began posing the query in its annual questionnaire three years ago. Another 782 companies say they will introduce similar measures within two years. Total annual revenues of these 1,389 carbon-price champions amount to a hefty...Continue reading


Taiwanese bosses are the Chinese-speaking world’s oldest

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:50

DESPITE her father’s pleas, Cherry Liu refused to work for the family business, a small electronic-components company founded in 1979 on the outskirts of Taipei. A 34-year-old diamond dealer based in Sydney, Ms Liu says she is simply not passionate about gadgets such as circuit-breakers. Nor are her siblings. Her 64-year-old father cannot find a successor, but he will not even consider recruiting someone outside the family, she says. He fears that a newcomer might leave and take the family’s precious list of customers and suppliers with him.  

Taiwan’s economic boom was fuelled by people like Ms Liu’s father, entrepreneurs who started from nothing to build successful family-run companies, many of which are now huge. These firms still dominate Taiwan’s export-reliant economy, which specialises in high tech. Of all listed firms, 70% are family-run, compared with 33% for Chinese firms and 40% for Hong Kong-based ones. Almost three-quarters of family concerns are operated...Continue reading


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


America’s bank profits take a hit from tax reform

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

WHEN Donald Trump won America’s presidential election 14 months ago, banks’ share prices leapt. One reason for that was the prospect of lower corporate taxes, which would both benefit banks directly and (investors hoped) ginger up the economy. Like Mr Trump’s legislative agenda, their shares were becalmed for much of 2017, but they perked up late in the year when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act looked likely to become law—as it duly did when the president signed it on December 22nd.

Yet several banks expect the act to make deep dents in fourth-quarter profits. On December 28th Goldman Sachs said it was braced for a $5bn hit. A week before, Bank of America (BofA) announced a $3bn write-down. Early in the month, on fairly accurate assumptions about the law’s final form, Citigroup put the cost at a whopping $20bn. Foreign banks are also assessing the damage: £1bn ($1.4bn), says Barclays; SFr2.3bn ($2.4bn), reckons Credit Suisse.

These one-off hits have two main causes....Continue reading


Many happy returns: new data reveal long-term investment trends

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

DATA-GATHERING is the least sexy part of economics, which is saying something. Yet it is also among the most important. The discipline is rife with elaborate theories built on assumptions that turned out to be false once someone took the time to pull together the relevant data. Accordingly, one of the most valuable papers produced in 2017 is an epic example of data-retrieval: a piece of research that spells out the rates of return on important asset classes, for 16 advanced economies, from 1870 to 2015. It is fascinating work, a rich seam for other economists to mine, and a source of insight into some of today’s great economic debates.

Rates of return both influence and are influenced by the way firms and households expect the future to unfold. They therefore find their way into all sorts of economic models. Yet data on asset returns are incomplete. The new research, published as an NBER working paper in December 2017, fills in quite a few gaps. It is the work of five economists: Òscar Jordà of the...Continue reading


A bond dispute threatens the future of Islamic finance

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

STOCKMARKETS in the Gulf do not observe Christian holidays, but still had a generally quiet day on December 25th. Shares in Dana Gas, an exploration business listed in Abu Dhabi, however, did make some noise, leaping by 13.2% on Christmas Day, to complete a buoyant six months for the stock (see chart). The surge may owe something to the company’s recent arbitration victory against the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, over $2bn it and its consortium partners are owed in overdue payments. But it also hints at shareholders’ belief that Dana will not be forced soon to satisfy its own creditors. They have been up in arms since the firm refused to honour a $700m Islamic bond, or sukuk, that matured in October.

Dana says it has received legal advice that the security no longer complies with sharia, the body of Koranic law, and so the bond is “unlawful” in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In July, facing liquidity difficulties, it stopped redeeming...Continue reading


After a bumper 2017, will 2018 be kind to the financial markets?

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

AFTER a bumper year for financial markets in 2017, can 2018 be anything like as good? Much will depend on the global economy. The rally in stockmarkets stretches back almost two years, to the point when worries about an era of “secular stagnation” started to diminish.

The first pieces of economic data to be published in January—the purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) for the manufacturing sector—were pretty upbeat. In the euro zone the index recorded its highest level since the survey began in 1997. China’s PMI was stronger than expected, and America’s index showed new orders at their highest level in nearly 14 years.

The obvious question is whether the markets have anticipated the good news about growth, and pushed share prices to a level from which returns can only be disappointing. The cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio of the American market, which uses a ten-year average of profits, is 32.4; it has been higher only in September 1929 (just before the Wall Street crash)...Continue reading


As China gets tough on pollution, will its economy suffer?

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 16:55

LEO YAO thought he had nothing to fear from the environment ministry. Before, when its inspectors visited his cutlery factory, he says, they generated “loud thunder, little rain”. After warning him to clean up, they would, at worst, impose a negligible fine. Not so this time. In August dozens of inspectors swarmed over his workshop in Tianjin, just east of Beijing, and ordered production to be halted. His doors remain shut today. If he wants to go on making knives and forks, he has been told that he must move to more modern facilities in a less populated area.

Mr Yao’s company, which at its peak employed 80 people, is just one minor casualty in China’s sweeping campaign to reduce pollution. For years the government has vowed to go green, yet made little progress. It has flinched at reining in dirty industries, wary of the mass job losses that seemed likely to ensue. But in the past few months it has taken a harder line and pressed on with pollution controls, hitting coalminers,...Continue reading


Are America’s airports the worst in the world?

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 11:58

SOME airports are known for being the antithesis of elegance. The reputation of Luton Airport in Britain was famously trashed by a television advert for Campari, a posh drink, in the 1980s. In the clip, a well-dressed man offered a drink of the stuff to a fashion model on holiday and asked, “Were you truly wafted here from paradise?” She replied in her full cockney accent, “Nah, Lu’on Airport!” Its reputation as a place to fly from has never quite recovered since. In August it was named Britain’s worst airport by Which?, a consumer group.

But at least Luton’s terminals are modern and safe—and that cannot be said of others around the world. Continue reading


Is the bubble only starting?

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 11:34

READY for a melt-up? Investors are generally upbeat about the prospects for equity markets this year but one intrepid fund manager thinks it is likely that American share prices could rise 50% in the next six months to two years. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the identity of that pundit: Jeremy Grantham.

Mr Grantham, one of the founders of the fund managment group GMO, is best known for a cautious approach to valuations; he was one of those who got out of the dotcom boom well before the top. His firm's most recent prediction for seven-year returns are for an annual loss of 2% from US largecap equities; indeed among all the asset categories, only cash and emerging market equities and bonds and cash are expected to produce a positive real return over the seven-year period. 

So how can Mr Grantham justify his views? He does not resile from...Continue reading


2018 will be the year that large, incumbent companies take on big tech

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 17:14

ACCORDING to Ginni Rometty, IBM’s boss, the digital revolution has two phases. In the first, Silicon Valley firms make all the running as they create new markets and eviscerate weak firms in sleepy industries. This has been the story until now. Tech firms have captured 42% of the rise in the value of America’s stockmarket since 2014 as investors forecast they will win an ever-bigger share of corporate profits. A new, terrifying phrase has entered the lexicon of business jargon: being “Amazoned”.

The second phase favours the incumbents, Ms Rometty believes, and is starting about now. They summon the will to adapt, innovate to create new, digital, products and increase efficiency. The schema is plainly self-serving. IBM is itself fighting for survival against cloud-based tech rivals and most of its clients are conventional firms. Yet she is correct that incumbents in many industries are at last getting their acts together on technology.

Enough time has elapsed for even...Continue reading


New research reveals simmering misunderstanding under the tree

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 14:47

IS THERE any other time of year when good intentions and materialism converge so tightly? The caring, the artistic and the diligent spend their days before Christmas wrapping gifts. Whatever lies inside, their love for the recipients will also be expressed through paper, tape, bows and ribbon.

Then it all goes horribly wrong. New research* into the unwrapping of presents by two professors at the Yale School of Management and one at the University of Miami bravely applies rigour where sentimentality has long ruled. Their paper draws on a half-century of studies by scores of economists and psychologists as well as fresh field trials using hundreds of people from three universities.

The result is, for wrappers, a distressing discovery. Americans spend $3.2bn a year on wrapping paper. Yet their work not only fails to enhance joy, it creates unrealistic expectations that lead to discontent. Gift wrappers may think they are transforming the mundane into the magnificent; recipients seem...Continue reading


America’s Department of Commerce imposes a tariff of 292% on Bombardier’s C-Series jets

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 22:37

A YEAR ago Dennis Muilenburg, the chief executive of Boeing, the American aerospace giant, had a big problem. Tweets written by Donald Trump, America’s newly elected president, were hitting Boeing’s share price. Their value was initially lifted by the new president’s promise of extra spending on defence. But in December last year Boeing’s shares fell after a tweet from Mr Trump suggested that an order for new presidential planes worth $4bn should be cancelled. The newly-elected president then picked a fight with its rival Lockheed Martin over its new fighter jet; Boeing’s executives were left in fear of being the next target in his gunsight.

And so, it seemed, Mr Muilenburg came up with a plan: snuggle up to Mr Trump’s “America First” agenda to avoid the flack. Boeing started to stress in its press releases how many American jobs it was creating; it asked to president to unveil the first 787-10 jet produced in February and in April it filed a trade case against Bombardier, alleging that its Canadian rival has received unfair...Continue reading


Russia’s dysfunctional funeral business gets a makeover

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

Stiffer competition is coming

THE calls began shortly after Yulia’s grandmother died. The undertaker offered help arranging the funeral, for 47,000 roubles ($800) in cash. She then travelled to Moscow’s Khovanskoe Cemetery, where she was offered a discount on a gravesite—150,000 roubles off—if she could bring cash within three hours and sign a receipt saying she had paid half that amount. Yulia (whose name has been changed) and her family gave in. “We knew we were paying a bribe, but what else could we do?”

To bury a loved one in Russia often means entering an underworld of corruption and red tape. The myriad goods and services needed, from preparing the body for burial to funeral arrangements to carving a headstone, all represent opportunities for extortion in a largely informal market. “Instead of a funeral as a commercial service, the consumer is offered a strange sort of quest,” writes Sergei Mokhov, editor of The Archaeology of...Continue reading


An experiment with in-home deliveries is under way

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

AFTER staying at home one afternoon for a delivery of discounted toilet disinfectant that never came, Valentin Romanov, a Stockholm IT manager, installed a special lock on his flat’s entrance. When no one is in, deliverymen unlock the door and slip packages inside. Four months on, Mr Romanov has doubled his spending online and says he cannot imagine life without in-home deliveries. These are sweet words for delivery firms and online retailers, Amazon included, that are setting up partnerships with lock manufacturers to overcome a big hurdle for e-commerce.

Conventional deliveries fail so often that a parcel is driven to a home an average of 1.5 times in the Nordic region, says Kenneth Verlage, head of business development at PostNord, a logistics giant operating in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It is an expensive inefficiency made worse, he says, by the fact that recipients have still often had to wait for a failed delivery. Some couriers leave packages on doorsteps, but this invites theft....Continue reading