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A decade after it hit, what was learnt from the Great Recession?

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

TEN years ago this month, America entered the “Great Recession”. A decade on, the recession occupies a strange space in public memory. Its toll was clearly large. America suffered a cumulative loss of output estimated at nearly $4trn, and its labour markets have yet to recover fully. But the recession was far less bad than it might have been, thanks to the successful application of lessons from the Depression. Paradoxically, that success spared governments from enacting bolder reforms of the sort that might make the Great Recession the once-a-century event economists thought such calamities should be.

Good crisis response treats its symptoms; the symptoms of a disease, after all, can kill you. On that score today’s policymakers did far better than those of the 1930s. Government budgets have become a much larger share of the economy, thanks partly to the rise of the modern social safety net. Consequently, public borrowing and spending on benefits did far more to stabilise the economy than they did during the Depression. Policymakers stepped in to prevent the extraordinary collapse in prices and incomes experienced in the 1930s. They also kept banking panics from spreading, which would have amplified the pain of the downturn. Though unpopular, the decision to bail out the financial system prevented the implosion of the global economy.

But the success of...

The markets’ apparent calm over Brexit is deceptive

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

FOR all the sound and fury of the Brexit negotiations, it has seemed at times as if the financial markets have been barely affected. But as with the swans that glide on the Thames, a serene surface conceals some frantic paddling underneath.

The pound is the most reliable indicator of the Brexit mood. A rule of thumb is that, if the headlines point to a “hard” Brexit (creating trade barriers with the EU), sterling will fall; signs of a “soft” Brexit (something that is close to the current relationship) will cause it to rise.

But some feedback processes are at work. The big fall in the pound in the immediate aftermath of the referendum has led to a gradual rise in imported inflation. The annual inflation rate hit 3.1% in November, requiring Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, to write to Philip Hammond, the chancellor, to explain why the target (of 2%) had been missed. The bank has already raised interest rates once. More rises may follow, and expectation of such rises supports the pound.

The need for monetary tightening is not simply a result of higher import costs, which might prove temporary. More worryingly, the Bank thinks that the trend rate of growth of the British economy has fallen (a view it shares with the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s forecasting arm). In part, this is because Britain faces a more...

Will America’s economy overheat in 2018?

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

USUALLY politicians pretend that good economic news on their watch is no surprise. But America’s recent growth figures have been so positive that even the administration of President Donald Trump has allowed itself to marvel. “It’s actually happening faster than we expected,” mused Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget chief, in September, after growth rose to 3.1% in the second quarter. (Mr Trump in fact came to office promising 4% growth, but the goal now seems to be 3%.) Mr Mulvaney warned that hurricanes would soon bring growth back down. Instead, in the third quarter, it rose to 3.3%—a figure celebrated with more conviction. The administration’s initial caution was wise: quarterly growth figures are volatile, and few economists expect growth above 3% to carry on for long. Yet there is no denying that the economy is in rude health.

In part, that reflects the strength of the global economy. But it is also the culmination of a years-long trend. As politics has consumed America’s...

Bitcoin-futures contracts create as many risks as they mitigate

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

OFTEN promoted as a way of mitigating risk, futures contracts are frequently more like new ways of gambling. That was true of a close precursor to the instrument, introduced in the Netherlands in 1636, linked to the hot investment of the day—tulip bulbs. Likewise the world’s first two futures contracts linked to bitcoin. One launched on the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) on December 10th; the other was due to follow a week later on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).

As bitcoin’s price has soared to new highs (see chart), holders may be happy to have a way to hedge their exposure at last. But for many, the contracts are just another way in. Both contracts settle in cash (ie, for the difference between the agreed price and the actual spot price). No exchange of bitcoin is needed; similarly, in the Dutch precedent, no bulbs were involved.

Early trading on the CBOE certainly suggests a speculative market. In the first few hours, prices rose so quickly that trading twice had to be suspended. The contract has so far traded at a significant premium, of up to $2,000, to the spot price. This suggests there are more buyers than sellers—even though selling in the futures market offers a way to bet against bitcoin.

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Cars, jewels, wine and watches have been good investments

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

DIAMONDS, they say, are for ever. They can be pricey, too. On December 5th 173 lots of jewels auctioned by Sotheby’s raised $54m. They included several pieces belonging to Sean Connery, known for playing James Bond. The following day a car favoured by Bond, the Aston Martin DB5, was auctioned for $2.7m. It was among 24 classic vehicles that together fetched $45m. The sales in New York last week by the world’s two biggest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, also involved fine wines, watches and other luxuries. Between them they sold $200m-worth.

The Economist has compiled price indices for many of these items—diamonds, classic cars, fine wine, art, watches and other curios—and grouped them in a “passion” index. The index is weighted according to the holdings of high-net-worth individuals (HNWI)—defined as people with more than $1m of investable assets—as reported by Barclays. Our passion index has dropped by 2% a year, on average, for the past three years...

China’s leading economists are in high demand and short supply

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

EVERGRANDE, a Chinese property firm, is a big spender. It was until recently the country’s most indebted developer. It also owns a football club with one of the highest payrolls in China. It has extended its largesse to a new field: economics. Having founded an economic-research institute, Evergrande last month poached Ren Zeping, a star analyst with a big brokerage, to serve as its first chief economist. His annual salary of 15m yuan ($2.3m) is, based on available information, the highest ever for an economist in China. Not bad for a country where forecasting the official growth figures accurately has for years required little more research than reading the official growth targets.

Yet Evergrande is not alone in splashing cash in China, whether in property, football or, lately, economics. Competition for the best—or, rather, best-known—economists is fierce. The past half year alone has resembled a frenzied transfer window for their services. Besides Mr Ren, half a dozen...

The revised Basel bank-capital standards are complete at last

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

HOWEVER long a storm lasts, clearing up takes longer. On December 7th Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank and head of the committee that approves global bank-capital standards, declared that revisions to Basel 3, the version drawn up after the financial crisis of 2007-08, were complete. The overhaul of the previous rules, which were blown away in the tempest, began eight years ago. The revised set, informally called Basel 4, will not take full effect until 2027.

That lengthy period of adjustment is one way in which Basel 4 is less demanding than banks, notably in Europe, had feared. Several other tweaks mean that the standards banks must eventually meet will be less exacting than first proposed. Already forced to bolster their balance-sheets with lots more equity—of which the crisis showed them to be woefully short—banks may deny that they have got off lightly. But they probably have.

Basel 4 was supposed to be settled a year ago. It wasn’t, because...

The WTO remains stuck in its rut

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

“THERE is life after Buenos Aires,” soothed Susana Malcorra, chair of the 11th ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Multilateralism may not be dead, but it has taken a kicking. Expectations were low as the meeting began in the Argentine capital. They sank even lower as it progressed. Delegates failed to agree on a joint statement, let alone on any new trade deals.

Many arrived with a culprit already in mind. Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative, was the face of an administration that is both questioning the benefits of multilateralism and jamming the WTO’s process of settling disputes. As negotiations progressed, some delegates groused that American leadership was lacking. Some even speculated that the Americans might be happy if multilateral talks foundered. What better proof, after all, that the system is broken?

Ms Malcorra, without mentioning the Americans by name, warned against creating scapegoats out of...

Oil and gas supply disruptions ripple around the world

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 15:50

The Baumgarten blast

CALL it the hydrocarbon equivalent of the butterfly effect. As oil and gas supplies tighten during the northern winter, disruptions as remote as a hairline fracture on a piece of Scottish pipeline, and an explosion in an Austrian natural-gas plant, have repercussions felt around the world.

Start with the pipeline. After Ineos, a chemicals company, detected a growing crack on a piece of pipe near Aberdeen, on December 11th it said it would shut the main Forties pipeline carrying North Sea oil and gas to Britain for weeks. The suspension of a pipeline carrying 450,000 barrels a day (b/d) of crude, in a global market of almost 98m b/d, would not normally be disruptive. Yet Brent crude, the benchmark for pricing much of the world’s seaborne crude, is itself partly priced on the flow of crude from 80 fields that feed the Forties pipeline, magnifying the impact.

Futures prices for Brent crude delivered in February...

Hedge funds embrace machine learning—up to a point

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) has already changed some activities, including parts of finance like fraud prevention, but not yet fund management and stock-picking. That seems odd: machine learning, a subset of AI that excels at finding patterns and making predictions using reams of data, looks like an ideal tool for the business. Yet well-established “quant” hedge funds in London or New York are often sniffy about its potential. In San Francisco, however, where machine learning is so much part of the furniture the term features unexplained on roadside billboards, a cluster of upstart hedge funds has sprung up in order to exploit these techniques.

These new hedgies are modest enough to concede some of their competitors’ points. Babak Hodjat, co-founder of Sentient Technologies, an AI startup with a hedge-fund arm, says that, left to their own devices, machine-learning techniques are prone to “overfit”, ie, to finding peculiar patterns in the specific data they are trained on that do...

A full-scale Venezuelan default could push up oil prices

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

Who believes in Nicolás?

ON NOVEMBER 30th, as oil tsars from the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia met in Vienna, Venezuela’s former oil minister, Eulogio del Pino, once one of their number, was seized by armed guards at dawn in Caracas, and taken to jail. His arrest was not publicly acknowledged in Vienna. His replacement, Manuel Quevedo, a general in the national guard, attended OPEC and was received with the usual deference.

Also unmentioned was how Venezuela, embroiled in a massive, messy debt default, is doing plenty of OPEC’s dirty work. Since November 2016, when OPEC first agreed with Russia to cut output to push up oil prices, Venezuela’s has fallen by 203,000 barrels a day (b/d), to 1.86m b/d in October. That is more than twice the cut it agreed with OPEC of 95,000 b/d.

If its production continues to fall—some analysts say it could be down to 1.6m b/d in 2018—it could either drive up...

Europe is seeing more collective lawsuits from shareholders

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

LIKE the ghosts that haunted Ebenezer Scrooge, the scandals of years past—summoned up by angry shareholders—will not let companies rest. In Britain this year, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) paid £900m ($1.2bn) to settle a long-running investor lawsuit related to the bank’s behaviour at the time of the financial crisis of 2007-08. Also in Britain, Lloyds Banking Group faces litigation. And it is not just banks. Investors in Britain sued Tesco, a supermarket chain, for losses caused by an accounting scandal in 2014. In Germany and the Netherlands investors are seeking compensation from Volkswagen (VW), a carmaker, for failing to disclose its manipulation of diesel-emissions tests.

Securities litigation is on the rise in Europe for two main reasons. The first is that America is less hospitable than it was to such cases. Until 2010 harm suffered by foreign investors could be included in American lawsuits. That changed with a Supreme Court ruling on Morrison v...

The markets believe in Goldilocks

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

ANOTHER week, another record. The repeated surge of share prices on Wall Street is getting monotonous. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has passed another milestone—24,000—and the more statistically robust S&P 500 index is up by 17% so far this year. Emerging markets have performed even better, as have European shares in dollar terms (see chart).

Political worries about trade disputes, the potential for war with North Korea and the repeated upheavals in President Donald Trump’s White House: all have caused only temporary setbacks to investors’ confidence. No wonder the latest quarterly report of the Bank for International Settlements asked whether markets are complacent, noting that “according to traditional valuation gauges that take a long-term view, some stockmarkets did look frothy”, and pointing out that “some froth was also present in corporate-credit markets”.

The authors of the BIS report are not the only ones to worry that markets look expensive. The most...

African countries are building a giant free-trade area

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

“AFRICA must unite,” wrote Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, in 1963, lamenting that African countries sold raw materials to their former colonisers rather than trading among themselves. His pan-African dream never became reality. Even today, African countries still trade twice as much with Europe as they do with each other (see chart). But that spirit of unity now animates a push for a Continental Free-Trade Area (CFTA), involving all 55 countries in the region. Negotiations began in 2015, aimed at forming the CFTA by the end of this year. In contrast to the WTO, African trade talks are making progress.

At a meeting on December 1st and 2nd in Niamey, the capital of Niger, African trade ministers agreed on final tweaks to the text. Heads of state will probably sign it in March, once an accompanying protocol on goods has been concluded (agreement on services has already been reached). But trade barriers will not tumble overnight. The CFTA will come into force only when 15 countries...

China takes on the EU at the WTO

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

NOT all trade tension is made in America. China is suing the European Union at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Hearings began this week. China thinks it deserves treatment as a “market economy”. The EU, supported by America, disagrees. As they lock horns, each side sees the other as breaking a promise.

China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 was part of a grand bargain. In return for market access, it promised economic reform. The deal laid out unusually strict terms. Any members’ exports can face anti-dumping duties if sold too cheap. But China’s accession agreement allowed others to erect stronger defences, and assume that it was a non-market economy when calculating the “fair” duty—using third-country prices for comparison. In practice this meant higher tariffs.

China expected this treatment to be temporary and expire after 15 years. But as the deadline loomed and the share of imports covered by anti-dumping duties rose (see chart), the EU and America balked at the idea of giving up their trade defences. On December 4th the EU approved new rules to drop the label of “non-market economy”. But it will still apply third-country pricing on a case-by-case basis. Mei Xinyu of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation, an official body, calls this “a trick that avoids calling China a non-market economy”.

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Contraception does even more good in poor countries than thought

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

Happier families

FEW tasks in developing countries are as tricky—or as important—as convincing parents to keep their daughters in school longer. One way of doing so is to make contraceptives available, concludes a new working paper by Kimberly Singer Babiarz at Stanford University and four other researchers.

Conducted in Malaysia, the study used a happy coincidence of surveys going back decades and family-planning programmes rolled out in a way that made it possible to measure their effect. Starting in the 1960s, these programmes were introduced in some areas a few years earlier than in others. So researchers could compare what happened to girls in areas where contraceptives became available when they were very young with girls from the same cohorts in areas with no contraceptives.

The girls in places with contraceptives stayed in school six months longer, or about a year longer if they were born after the programmes began. Similar effects...

Are digital distractions harming labour productivity?

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

FOR many it is a reflex as unconscious as breathing. Hit a stumbling-block during an important task (like, say, writing a column)? The hand reaches for the phone and opens the social network of choice. A blur of time passes, and half an hour or more of what ought to have been productive effort is gone. A feeling of regret is quickly displaced by the urge to see what has happened on Twitter in the past 15 seconds. Some time after the deadline, the editor asks when exactly to expect the promised copy. Distraction is a constant these days; supplying it is the business model of some of the world’s most powerful firms. As economists search for explanations for sagging productivity, some are asking whether the inability to focus for longer than a minute is to blame.

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As WTO members meet in Argentina, the organisation is in trouble

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 15:57

“EVERYBODY meets in Buenos Aires,” said Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union’s trade commissioner, days before heading there for the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) biennial gathering of ministers, which opens on December 10th. Some non-governmental organisations have been blocked by the protest-averse Argentine authorities, but a meeting of people will indeed take place. One of minds is another matter.

Most participants can agree on one thing. The WTO, which codifies the multilateral rules-based trading system, needs help. President Donald Trump has railed against it and threatened to pull America out. Without American leadership, there is little hope of reaching new deals. And even as the WTO’s dealmaking arm is paralysed, the Trump administration is weakening its judicial one by starving it of judges.

Despite Mr Trump’s threats, America does not seem on the verge of crashing out of a system it helped to construct, to rely entirely on bilateral trade deals and...

Marijuana businesses, excluded from finance, are forced to use cash

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 20:17

MANY marijuana growers in northern California, America’s biggest source of the stuff, had expected this autumn’s harvest to be the largest ever. After all, recreational marijuana becomes legal in the state in January. Instead, wildfires in October—spreading so fast they killed 43 people—burned up half the marijuana growing in the area’s tri-county “Emerald Triangle” alone and new fires now raging will claim more. Some reckon the fires set a record not just for burnt pot, but also for the value of banknotes turned to ash.

Although 29 American states allow sales of marijuana for medical use (or medical and recreational use), federal law still classifies it as a “schedule 1” drug like heroin. Firms handling marijuana proceeds can be prosecuted for moneylaundering. Ned Fussell of CannaCraft, a maker of marijuana products, says that a few firms open a bank account under an alternative identity. But banks almost always find out. So cannabis businesses operate almost exclusively in...

The euro zone’s boom masks problems that will return to haunt it

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 15:56

“WHAT does not kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Nietzsche in “Götzen-Dämmerung”, or “Twilight of the Idols”. Alternatively, it leaves the body dangerously weakened, as did the illnesses that plagued the German philosopher all his life. The euro area survived a hellish decade, and is now enjoying an unlikely boom. The OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, reckons that the euro zone will have grown faster in 2017 than America, Britain or Japan. But, sadly, although the currency bloc has undoubtedly proven more resilient than many economists expected, it is only a little better equipped to survive its next recession than it was the previous one.

Europe’s crisis was brutal. Euro-area GDP is roughly €1.4trn ($1.7trn)—an Italy, give or take—below the level it would have reached had it grown at 2% per year since 2007. Parts of the periphery have yet to regain the output levels they enjoyed a decade ago (see chart). The damage was exacerbated by deep flaws within Europe’s monetary union. Three shortcomings loomed particularly large. First, the union centralised money-creation but left national governments responsible for their own fiscal solvency. So markets came to understand that governments could no longer bail themselves out by printing money to pay off creditors. The risk of default made markets panic in response to bad news, pushing up government borrowing costs and...

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