THE ECONOMIST

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Combustible cigarettes kill millions a year. Can Big Tobacco save them?

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

BESIDE a serene lake in Switzerland sits a modern glass building called the Cube. Wide-leafed tobacco plants grow in the lobby. In one room machines that can “smoke” more than a dozen cigarettes at a time dutifully puff away, measuring the chemicals that consumers would inhale. The research centre is run by Philip Morris International (PMI), which sells Marlboro and other brands around the world. The facility’s purpose is not to assess the risks of smoking, but to determine whether this huge cigarette-maker might get out of selling cigarettes altogether.

André Calantzopoulos, PMI’s chief executive, talks about moving to a “smoke-free future”, with the firm’s business comprised entirely of alternatives to cigarettes. “We are crystal clear where we are going as a company: we want to move out of cigarettes as soon as possible,” he says. Mr Calantzopoulos has the boldest goals in this regard, but he is not the only tobacco executive to tout a new direction. Nicandro Durante, chief...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

A vote on “net neutrality” has intensified a battle over the internet’s future

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

A DAY before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to rescind “net neutrality” regulations designed to ensure that internet-service providers do nothing to favour some types of online content over others, Ajit Pai, its chairman, tweeted a short video reassuring Americans. “You can still post photos of cute animals,” he says in it, posing with a dog. He also wields a light sabre, which prompted Mark Hamill, the actor who portrays Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, to criticise Mr Pai on Twitter for siding with giant corporations. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator, then asserted in Mr Pai’s defence that Darth Vader supported government regulation of the web; further jabs followed.

It made for a silly treatment of an arcane subject. But net neutrality is a serious business. The state of New York’s attorney-general said he would lead a multi-state suit against the FCC; in Congress Democrats and Republicans are expected to propose competing bills on the subject in 2018. Broadband and wireless companies such as AT&T responded to fears about their increased power by questioning whether internet firms like Google have too much. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other platform companies in turn put out statements in support of an open internet. So rather than end the struggle over how the internet is regulated in America, the FCC’s vote has...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Hard lines

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

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Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Have yourself a dismal Christmas

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

ONLY an economist would think to ask whether Christmas is efficient. In 1993 Joel Waldfogel, then a professor at Yale University, turned a lunchtime conversation with colleagues into a paper entitled “The deadweight loss of Christmas”, which argued that, no, it is not. That gift-giving might actually be bad is the kind of opinion which breeds a deep mistrust of economists—loathing is perhaps too strong—among those not schooled in the dismal science. It is also just the sort of analytical insight on which economists pride themselves: counterintuitive, irreverent and interesting. But they should perhaps be less pleased with themselves. The way they think about the most festive time of the year reveals something important about the shortcomings of the field’s approach to human behaviour.

Mr Waldfogel’s notion was a clever one. Massive amounts of money are spent on holiday presents; it makes sense to ask whether such spending leaves the world better off. In buying gifts, people do their best...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Countries rarely default on their debts

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

VENEZUELA is an unusual country. It is home to the world’s largest reserves of oil and its highest rate of inflation. It is known for its unusual number of beauty queens and its frightening rate of murders. Its bitterest foe, America, is also its biggest customer, buying a third of its exports.

In defaulting on its sovereign bonds last month (it failed to pay interest on two dollar-denominated bonds by the end of a grace period on November 13th), Venezuela is also increasingly unusual. The number of governments in default to private creditors fell last year to its lowest level since 1977, according to the Bank of Canada’s database. Of the 131 sovereigns tracked by S&P Global, a rating agency, Mozambique is the only other country in default, having missed payments on its Eurobond (and failed to make good on guaranteed loans to two state-owned enterprises). Walter Wriston, a former chairman of Citibank, earned ridicule for once declaring that “countries don’t go bust”. But they don’t...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Intangible assets are changing investment

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 17:50

WHEN you work as an equity analyst at an investment bank, your task is clear. It is to comb all the statements made by corporate executives, to scour the industry trends and arrive at an accurate forecast of the company’s profits. Achieve this and your clients will be happy and your bonus cheque will have many digits.

But is all this effort worthwhile? Not as much as it used to be, according to Feng Gu and Baruch Lev, writing in a recent issue of Financial Analysts Journal*. The authors imagined that investors could perfectly forecast the next quarter’s earnings for all companies. They then assumed that investors bought all the stocks that they expected to meet or beat the consensus of analysts’ forecasts; and that investors could short (ie, bet on a declining price) the stocks of those that were predicted not to reach their estimates. They made their investment two months before the end of a quarterly reporting period and got out of their positions one month after the...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

Ryanair stops Christmas strikes, but at a cost

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 12:05

AIRLINES respond to greater demand for travel around Christmas by increasing fares. But this year, Ryanair has found that it is not the only one taking advantage of the desire to be home for the holidays. To avert proposed strikes by pilots across Europe, the Dublin-based carrier offered on December 15th to recognise pilot unions for the first time in its history. The offer came just in time to avert a four-hour strike by Italian pilots scheduled that afternoon. Pilots in Ireland and Portugal also called off a strike they had planned for December 18th. Ryanair may have saved Christmas, but its stock price fell by 8% on the day of the announcement.

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, acknowledged that union recognition marked a “significant change” for the company. During a dispute with baggage handlers in 1998, Mr O’Leary said that Ryanair would recognise unions “when a majority of our people wishes to do so.” Nonetheless, Ryanair has strongly resisted attempts by its employees to join independent unions, preferring to...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

The China syndrome

Mon, 12/18/2017 - 11:29

WHAT is in store for economies and markets in 2018? Around this time of year, a large number of analysts and fund managers are giving their views. Among the most interesting and thoughtful approaches can be found at Absolute Strategy Research (ASR), an independent group founded by David Bowers and Ian Harnett.

ASR adds extra depth to its analysis by contrasting its own views with those of the consensus. To do so, the group polled 229 asset allocators, managing around $6trn of assets, for their views on the outlook for economies and markets. They found a groundswell of optimism; the probability of equities being higher by the end of 2018 was 61%, and that shares will beat bonds is 70%. The allocators think there is only a 27% chance of a global recession. And they are not worried about the prospect of the Federal Reserve pushing up interest rates.

There are some disconnects within the consensus view. The first is that investors expect volatility (as measured by the Vix) to rise next year. Usually, equities struggle in such...Continue reading

Categories: FINANCIAL NEWS

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