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2018-04-24T10:56:00.987Z
0
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THE aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis ought to have been a moment of triumph for economics. Lessons learned from the 1930s prevented the collapse of global finance and trade, and resulted in a downturn far shorter and less severe than the Depression. But even as the policy remedies were helpful, the crisis exposed the economic profession’s continued ignorance of the business cycle. That is bad news not just for the discipline, but for everyone.

The aim of those studying the macroeconomy has always been to understand the economy’s wobbles, and to work out when governments should intervene. That is not easy. Downturns come often enough to be a serious irritant, but not often enough to give economists sufficient data for rigorous statistical analysis. It is hard to distinguish between short-run swings and structural economic changes resulting from demography or technology. Most classical economists were sceptical of the idea that the macroeconomy needed much oversight at all.

...

WATCHING financial markets can be like watching a horror film. A character walks into the darkness alone. A floorboard creaks. The latest spooky sign is the spread between the three-month dollar London interbank offered rate (LIBOR) and the overnight index swap (OIS) rate. It usually hovers at around 0.1%, but has recently climbed to 0.6% (see chart). As it widens, bankers are bracing for a jump scare.

To see why, consider what each rate represents. LIBOR is the rate that banks charge other banks for unsecured loans. The OIS rate measures expectations for the federal funds rate, which is set by the central bank. As LIBOR rises above the OIS rate, that suggests banks fear it is getting riskier to lend to each other. (The gap was 3.65 percentage points in the depths of the crisis, after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.)

Market-watchers were already twitchy. Last November they shuddered as the yield curve, which plots the yields of Treasury bonds of different maturities, abruptly...

THE Hong Kong dollar is one of the most and least manipulated monies in the world. For over 34 years the territory’s monetary authority, the HKMA, has kept it pegged to America’s currency at around HK$7.80 to the dollar, resisting all temptations to let it fall or rise. In 2005 it refined the peg with two promises: to buy dollars at the price of HK$7.75 and to sell them for HK$7.85.

The strength of the Hong Kong dollar has obliged the HKMA to keep the first promise many times since. Its purchases of American dollars have even drawn the accusation that it manipulates its currency for competitive advantage.

In fact, the HKMA has always been ready to manipulate its currency upwards, too. But since 2005 it has had no occasion to, until last week. On April 12th the Hong Kong dollar weakened to HK$7.85, forcing the authority to buy HK$51bn over the next few days in exchange for American dollars.

The Hong Kong dollar’s weakness reflects the gap between rising American interest rates...

DURING the financial crisis, Western governments poured hundreds of billions of dollars into their banks to avert collapse. The search for ways to avoid future bail-outs started before the turmoil ended. One of the niftiest proposals was the “contingent convertible” (coco) bond, which turns into equity when the ratio of a bank’s equity to risk-weighted assets falls below a predetermined danger point (since set at a minimum of 5.125% for cocos, although it can be up to around 7%). The ambition was grand. As the Squam Lake Group, composed of mostly American academics, put it in 2009, the automatic conversion of cocos would “transform an undercapitalised or insolvent bank into a well-capitalised bank at no cost to taxpayers”.

At first, regulators were keen. In 2010 Mervyn King, then the governor of the Bank of England, said he wanted contingent capital to be a “major part of the liability structure of the banking system”. Swiss regulators, too, pushed for coco issuance. The hybrid nature of cocos seemed a way to satisfy both regulators, who wanted banks to have bigger safety buffers, and bankers, who were reluctant to issue new shares because of the high cost of capital. The hope was that investors, too, might see the appeal of an asset that offered a higher yield than bank bonds but lower risk than bank shares.

Nine years after the first cocos were...

MOST governments are happy when foreigners want their bonds, especially when those foreigners are long-term holders, like central banks. But America is different. It worries that some foreign governments buy its debt to keep the dollar pricey and their own currencies cheap. This “currency manipulation” gives other countries a competitive edge, raising their own trade surpluses and America’s deficit.

Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, sees an “arc of intervention” across Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea that has slowed the dollar’s decline over the past nine months. America has reportedly persuaded South Korea to forswear currency manipulation in a “side-agreement” to their revised trade deal. And on April 16th President Donald Trump tweeted that “Russia and China are playing the Currency Devaluation game...Not acceptable!”

Mr Trump’s tweet was at odds with his Treasury Department’s assessment. Every six months it must tell Congress if any...

SO THIS is how normality feels. Between April 13th and April 18th America’s biggest banks reported a strong set of first-quarter earnings, with a helping hand from the taxman. Some are more profitable than they have been for years. They are paying billions to shareholders; regulatory reins are being loosened. Yet the stockmarket shrugged. On April 18th the S&P 500 index of banks’ share prices was 4.1% lower than at the start of reporting season.

Banks expected three main effects from the corporate-tax cut signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The first was a write-down of deferred tax assets—past losses that could be set against future bills—which clobbered most lenders’ bottom lines in the fourth quarter but did no real damage. (Some, including Wells Fargo, carried deferred liabilities and hence recorded a gain.) The second was a permanent reduction in their tax bills. The third was a boost to business from a more lightly taxed America Inc.

The direct benefits of lower taxes are plain. Although pre-tax profits at the six biggest banks rose by $4.3bn, compared with the first quarter of 2017, taxes fell at five of them. (At the sixth, Goldman Sachs, the bill was unusually low a year ago because of a change in the treatment of employees’ shares and options.) Of a total increase in net profit of $5.4bn at those five, lower taxes...

WHEN the Foreign & Colonial Government Trust was launched in 1868, The Economist had its doubts. “The shape is very peculiar,” we worried, adding that “the exact idea upon which it starts has never been used before.” Some of the trust’s promises were “far too sanguine to ever be performed”. Nevertheless, we concluded that: “In our judgment, the idea is very good.”

That turned out to be one of this newspaper’s more successful forecasts. One hundred and fifty years later, the trust is still going strong, having delivered a compound annual return of 8.1%. It now looks after a portfolio of £4bn ($5.7bn), rather than the £588,300 it raised at launch.

In its own way, the trust is an example of how much the financial sector has changed—and how much it has stayed the same. The idea of a pooled portfolio seems commonplace now, but at the time it was revolutionary.

This was the 19th century, when Britain was confident of its...

JUST a few years ago Wuhan, a sprawling metropolis in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, exemplified China’s economic woes. Municipal debt had soared. The most senior local official was known as “Mr Dig Up The City”, a reference to his zeal for grandiose construction projects. A movie theme park, intended as a landmark, closed after failing to draw crowds. It would take nearly a decade, it was estimated, to sell all of Wuhan’s vacant homes.

These days, the city of 11m stands as a monument to China’s resilience. Its economy has accelerated even as the government has controlled debt more strictly. Five subway lines were opened or extended in the past two years alone; they are jammed in rush hour. Investment is pouring into semiconductor production, biotech research and internet-security companies. The glut of unsold homes is almost cleared.

...

OVER the past decade economists have been intensely scrutinised for their intellectual failings in the run-up to the 2007-08 financial crisis. Yet had the recession that followed been more severe—wiping a quarter off the GDP of every advanced economy, say—those countries would still have ended up four times as rich per person, in purchasing-power terms, as developing countries are now, and more than ten times as rich as sub-Saharan ones. Robert Lucas, a Nobel prizewinning economist, once wrote that after you have started to think about the gap between poor and rich countries it is hard to think about anything else. Economists understand even less about economic growth than about business cycles. But the profession has done too little to address this failure or to understand its implications.

Economists have precious few hard facts about growth. They know that sustained growth in GDP per person only started in the 18th century. They know that countries can become rich only by growing steadily...

JING ZHAO’S main occupation is translating Latin classics into Chinese. He runs a small think-tank, the US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute. He lives off rents from property bought cheaply after the financial crisis. But this quiet, intellectual California resident has a surprising sideline: submitting proposals to be voted on by the shareholders of companies in which he owns small stakes. That makes him part of a movement that is forcing management at some of the world’s biggest firms to consider not just profitability but broad shifts in social attitudes.

The annual meetings of America’s listed companies, usually held between February and June, have come to constitute “proxy season”—so-called because shareholders need not cast their votes in person. This year proposals from Mr Zhao will be on the ballot at four giant firms. He wants Apple to create a human-rights committee, citing its decision last year to bow to Chinese censorship by removing hundreds of “virtual private...

THE bond market used to be the prime exhibit for those predicting low long-term economic growth. In the summer of 2016 the ten-year Treasury yield briefly dipped below 1.5%, as expectations for growth and inflation sagged. Things have changed. Earlier this year the ten-year yield briefly went higher than 2.9%. Even after recent share-price gyrations, it remains around 2.8%, well up since the start of 2018. The rebounding interest rate partly reflects higher confidence in global growth. Inevitably, a new set of pessimists now voice a fresh worry: that bond yields might go on rising for less welcome reasons.

They point to three threats. The first is monetary policy. The Federal Reserve has raised short-term interest rates by 1.5 percentage points since December 2015. At their March meeting, rate-setters slightly upgraded forecasts of how far rates should eventually rise. Last October the Fed began shrinking its $4.5trn portfolio of assets, mostly government debt, amassed since the start of the...

SINCE the heady days of late 2017 and January of this year, crypto-currencies have gone into retreat. Bitcoin, the best-known example, is now worth just a third of its value at its peak (see chart).

But there remain plenty of true believers in digital currencies. They point out that prices are still well above where they were in 2016. And interest from institutional investors is still strong enough for analysts to want to make sense of the crypto-phenomenon.

The latest bank to take a shot is Barclays, which devotes a lot more of its “Equity Gilt Study 2018” to the impact of technological change on finance and the economy than it does to either equities or gilts. Its report describes crypto-technology as “a solution still seeking a problem”.

It identifies four challenges in particular. The first is trust. In most countries, consumers and businesses have faith in the currencies issued by the government. The second is sovereignty: the potential for tax avoidance and loss of...

Trade warriors at work

AFTER weeks spent threatening tariffs on an ever-greater share of Chinese imports, President Donald Trump seems to be in a more conciliatory mood. On April 10th a speech by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, prompted him to tweet a prediction: “We will make great progress together!”

Many besides Mr Trump share that hope. If China offers him a deal that he is willing to sign, a trade war may still be averted. Or sense may prevail, as it did last month, when American allies such as Canada and Mexico were exempted from tariffs on steel and aluminium. But such optimism shades into naivety. China hawks in the American administration have long seethed over aspects of the relationship with China that rarely feature on Mr Trump’s Twitter feed. Those problems predate his presidency. And they do not look easy to resolve.

The rules-based system of international trade works best for problems that are clearly defined, and when it is easy to...

THE population of Uttar Pradesh is over 220m, enough to make the northern Indian state the world’s fifth-most populous country. But statistics still used by bureaucrats in New Delhi put it at less than 85m. Antiquated census data are used to split everything from federal funding to seats in the national parliament. A proposal to use up-to-date figures has created a political storm.

In the mid-1970s India’s southern states were doing better than northern ones at controlling population growth. That meant losing federal power and money, both doled out in proportion to population. The inelegant solution was to keep using census figures from 1971, an arrangement that became indefinite.

But buried in a recent government memo is a proposal to use figures from the most recent count, in 2011, for federal funding. Southern states are fuming. Their populations have risen since 1971, but nothing like as much as those of Uttar Pradesh and its neighbours (see map). They have also become much richer...

SOUP kitchens serve the needy for free; restaurants serve the hungry for money. In parts of South Asia, eateries near mosques sometimes fall into a third category. They feed the poor sitting patiently outside, whenever a pious or charitable passer-by pays them to do so. Alms-giving of this kind provides one traditional safety net for the destitute in developing countries. But it is, thankfully, not the only one.

According to a new report by the World Bank, developing countries spend an average of 1.5% of GDP on social safety nets designed to stop people hitting rock-bottom. (The rich countries in the OECD spend on average 2.7%.) Among these are workfare schemes, pensions, free school meals and cash handouts, sometimes conditional on recipients sending their children to school, getting them vaccinated and the like. This spending has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) by 36% on average in the countries examined by the World Bank.

South Asia’s...

THE supervisory board at Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest lender, has been sounding out replacements for its chief executive for weeks. On April 8th it made its choice: Christian Sewing, an experienced insider. He starts with immediate effect, replacing John Cryan, who became joint chief executive in 2015 and sole boss a year later. It is the latest in a series of quick changes for the bank.

Mr Sewing is the first German in 16 years to serve as Deutsche’s sole boss. He is also the first in many years without a career in investment banking. In his 25 years at the bank he has worked in commercial banking, auditing and risk management, most recently as joint head of the retail division, which he successfully slimmed down. The appointment is seen by many as heralding a shift in favour of retail banking, especially since Marcus Schenck, joint head of investment banking, is also leaving after being rebuffed in his efforts to expand his division.

Yet the circumstances...

ON APRIL 6th America imposed harsh new sanctions on Russia in response to its “malign activity” abroad. Rattled investors sent stocks tumbling when the Moscow exchange reopened on April 9th. The principal stockmarket index fell by 8.3% that day. The rouble sank sharply. Oleg Tinkov, a banker, lost $250m, but brushed it off with reference to a previous daily loss of $1bn. “Being on the Russian stockmarket is like living on a volcano,” he said.

Geopolitics drove markets through the week. Tensions over Syria (see article) and talk of potential sanctions on Russian government bonds weakened the rouble further. A fiery morning tweet from Donald Trump threatening Russia sent stocks tumbling again on April 11th. But when the treasury secretary came out against sanctions on bonds later that day, the rouble and the stockmarket perked...

TALK of tariffs is in danger of developing into cries of trade war. On April 3rd America published a list of some 1,300 Chinese products it proposes to hit with tariffs of 25%. Just a day later China produced its own list, covering 106 categories. “As the Chinese saying goes, it is only polite to reciprocate,” said the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC.

According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank, America’s list covers Chinese products worth $46bn in 2017 (9% of that year’s total goods exports to America; see graphic). China’s covers American goods worth around $50bn in 2017 (38% of exports). The sums were enough to move markets on April 4th, though the S&P 500 index soon made up lost ground.

...

TWENTY years ago Thailand was the most torrid of emerging markets. After a spell of overheated growth and wide current-account deficits, it had exhausted its foreign-exchange reserves and lost its currency’s peg to the dollar. In the aftermath, inflation approached 10% and the Bank of Thailand (BoT) struggled to restore confidence in the baht. In a widely cited paper by Romain Rancière of the University of Southern California and two co-authors, Thailand was used as a stark illustration that dynamism and danger, fast growth and occasional crises, went hand in hand.

A few of today’s emerging markets can still set the pulse racing—Turkey, for example, has combined breakneck growth with double-digit inflation and a worrying slide in the lira. But Thailand is not one of them. Private investment expanded by only 1.7% last year. Thailand’s sovereign bonds yield less than America’s. Inflation is once again a worry, not because it is too high, but because it is so stubbornly low. Consumer prices rose by only...

ECONOMISTS do not much like their discipline being dubbed the dismal science. Some American universities are paying more attention to the noun than to the adjective. The reason is not philosophical, but pragmatic. Foreign STEM graduates (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can get visa extensions for three years of practical training (ie, work). Those from other disciplines are allowed only a year.

Two more years working in America means more earnings. It also means a better chance of finding an employer willing to sponsor an application for an H-1B visa, the main starting-point for skilled foreign workers who hope to settle permanently. In 2012 the Department of Homeland Security expanded the list of STEM courses. Now any reasonably crunchy economics degree can count as STEM with a tweak to its federal classification code, from economics (45.0601) to econometrics and quantitative economics (45.0603).

Economics departments appear to be...