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The Catholic church dabbles with impact investing

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

The pontiff makes an impact

“YOU cannot serve both God and money,” admonishes the Bible. But the church has always tried. In the Middle Ages monasteries were what would now be termed social enterprises. They would produce bread, books or other goods. A Franciscan monk is credited with codifying double-entry book-keeping.

These days the Catholic church and related institutions control many billions of dollars. Some is invested to earn income; some is given away for good works. The two activities have been seen as separate. But, in the pontificate of Pope Francis, that divide is blurring. “Impact” investing—intended to make money and do good at the same time—is growing in importance. It is also creating some controversy.

In 2014 the pope, speaking to a conference in the Vatican on impact investing, called on Christians to rediscover “this precious and primordial unity between profit and solidarity”. His church has responded. Some Catholic...

Why Africa’s development model puzzles economists

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

IT IS easy to buy a rolex in Uganda—albeit not one that will tell the time. Sold at ubiquitous roadside stalls, the Ugandan rolex is a greasy snack, made from an omelette wrapped in a chapati (“roll eggs”). Sellers compete side-by-side for the same custom. So do the motorcycle-taxi drivers, hustling for rides; or the countless small shopkeepers, stocking near-identical goods. In Uganda, as in much of Africa, the informal service economy is a crowded place to be. But it is hard to find work anywhere else.

Last year GDP in sub-Saharan Africa grew by just 1.4%. Income per person fell. But growth in itself is not the issue that troubles policymakers and intrigues academics: for most of this century, after all, African economies have been among the fastest-growing in the world. What has flummoxed observers is where that growth comes from. In 1954 Arthur Lewis, a Nobel prize-winning economist, argued that development occurs as labour shifts from an unproductive “...

Hedge funds try to promote sports betting as an asset class

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

Chasing the money

WHEN he was 12, Warwick Bartlett bought “100 Famous Greyhound Systems”, a guide for betting on dog races. After spending a year tracking every stratagem and picking the best two, he went to the races to take his first punts. He lost. Mr Bartlett, now the boss of GBGC, a betting consultancy, says it taught him a good lesson: “A system can win for a period of time. And then it’s had its day.”

Two trading companies are trying to prove him wrong. Melbourne-based Priomha Capital, which claims to be the “world’s premier sports hedge fund”, wagers on European football, cricket and golf. Founded in 2010, the firm manages about $20m. Stratagem, a rival based in Britain that styles itself as a technology business, wants to raise $25m from rich individuals.

Both argue that techniques imported from the investment world can help turn sports betting into an alternative asset class. By crunching data, they analyse the pricing of...

The North American Free-Trade Agreement renegotiation begins

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

THE North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a 23-year-old trade deal between America, Mexico and Canada, is being revamped. On August 16th, after months of threats, taunts and tweets, the first round of talks started in Washington. The negotiators face a daunting challenge, straddling domestic and foreign policy. They must please their political masters while grappling with devilishly detailed policy problems. If they fail, it will not be for lack of experience. The professionals are in the room.

This negotiation will be more tense than most. Participation in trade talks is usually by mutual consent. In this one, President Donald Trump is trying to hold his trade partners hostage, by threatening to withdraw from the original deal if a better one cannot be agreed on. That such an outcome would also hurt America does not make the exercise any easier.

Pressure is added by a desperately tight, if unacknowledged, deadline, set by the presidential-election timetable in...

The Trump administration is investigating Chinese trade practices

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

BEING tough on China was a constant theme of President Donald Trump’s election campaign. On August 14th he had another chance to wield his presidential pen to show that he is making good on his promises—in this case of a “zero-tolerance policy on intellectual-property theft and forced technology transfer”. With the cameras rolling, he formally instructed Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative, to consider launching an investigation into China’s alleged crimes. “This is just the beginning,” was Mr Trump’s final flourish for the news bulletins.

His record of translating signatures into policies is patchy. Two others, launching investigations into whether imports of steel and aluminium threaten America’s national security, seem to have fizzled. But whereas proposals for import restrictions on these commodities met fierce resistance from consumers and America’s allies, China’s trade practices provoke much more agreement. It is one of the few issues about...

The Catholic church dabbles with impact investing

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

The pontiff makes an impact

“YOU cannot serve both God and money,” admonishes the Bible. But the church has always tried. In the Middle Ages monasteries were what would now be termed social enterprises. They would produce bread, books or other goods. A Franciscan monk is credited with codifying double-entry book-keeping.

These days the Catholic church and related institutions control many billions of dollars. Some is invested to earn income; some is given away for good works. The two activities have been seen as separate. But, in the pontificate of Pope Francis, that divide is blurring. “Impact” investing—intended to make money and do good at the same time—is growing in importance. It is also creating some controversy.

In 2014 the pope, speaking to a conference in the Vatican on impact investing, called on Christians to rediscover “this precious and primordial unity between profit and solidarity”. His church has responded. Some Catholic...

China modernises its monetary policy

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 14:47

QIN SHIHUANG was the emperor who first unified China, through bloody conquest more than two millennia ago. Known for starting the Great Wall and burying scholars alive, he has a new claim to fame: the central bank has drawn on his construction of a national road system to help explain its new monetary system. In a report on August 11th, the People’s Bank of China seized on an idiom derived from his road-building experience: it had “shaved off mountain peaks and filled valleys” in managing liquidity.

The modernisation of monetary policy is in its own way a monumental project for China. Over the past two decades, the central bank’s conduct of policy had two defining features. It focused on the quantity, not the price, of money. And it relied on inflows of foreign cash to generate new money. Both features are now slowly changing, bringing China closer to the norm in developed markets, an essential transition for an increasingly complex economy.

Start with interest rates. These used to be of secondary importance in China. Regulators instead used quotas to dictate how much banks lent and in effect fixed their deposit and lending rates. This made sense when China was in the early stages of moving away from a planned economy. Crude targets were still needed. But as a bigger, rowdier financial system took shape, these targets became less relevant. With the...

A firm that shares a name with its founder earns higher profits

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:11

A GOOD business name can be pricey. An entrepreneur looking for the perfect one can hire a naming agency to offer ideas, but that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. That may explain why many founders follow the example of the current American president and name their businesses after themselves. A recent article* by academics from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina suggests that doing so not only saves money—it can also boost profits.

The study looked at small businesses in western Europe. It relied on a sample of almost 2m firms, data for which are contained in Amadeus, a commercial database. Firms in the sample tended to be, on average, fairly young, with few shareholders and employees. Checking the surnames of the largest shareholders, the authors found that 19% of firms were named after their founders.

After accounting for other factors, firms that bore their largest shareholder’s name enjoyed a return on assets (ROA...

Research points to a new explanation of “Dutch disease”

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

IN 1959 geologists discovered 2.8trn cubic metres of natural gas—the largest field in Europe—under the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. Cheap gas and free-spending energy firms were thought to be good news for the entire Dutch economy. But higher gas-export prices in the 1970s raised the value of the guilder by a sixth, hitting the competitiveness of Dutch manufacturing and services. In 1977 The Economist dubbed this economic curse “Dutch disease”.

Other resource-rich countries have tried to avoid this trap. Some have adopted fixed exchange rates to prevent their currencies appreciating. Others save capital inflows in sovereign-wealth funds to avoid distorting their economies. Yet many still have underdeveloped non-commodity sectors. And despite having plenty of cash to invest, banks are particularly affected.

Two recent IMF papers point to a new explanation of why commodity exporters have such stunted banks. The problem, they...

Who will be the next chair of the Federal Reserve?

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

LOOK only at unemployment and inflation, says Peter Conti-Brown, a historian of the Federal Reserve, and Janet Yellen is the Fed’s most successful boss of all time. The second indicator may be below target, but that is a blip compared with the recessions most Fed chairmen have endured. So it is perhaps not surprising that President Donald Trump is openly considering retaining Ms Yellen, a Democrat installed by Barack Obama, after her term ends in February 2018. Nor by historical standards is it odd: the Fed’s past three leaders were all reappointed by presidents from the other party. Yet Ms Yellen, whom Mr Trump criticised on the campaign trail, is not the leading candidate. PredictIt, a betting site, gives her a 28% chance of staying put. In front of her, with a 36% chance of appointment, is someone else Mr Trump is publicly weighing up: Gary Cohn (on the left above).

Mr Cohn was until January the chief operating officer and president of Goldman Sachs. He left that role to become...

Investors are not great at predicting politics

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

FINANCIAL markets are supposed to be the font of all wisdom, weighing up the information available and condensing it into a set of prices. Investors are presumed to have an insight into the future—falling bond yields are seen as a sign that the economy is slowing, for example.

But are investors that clever when it comes to politics? Gambling markets show how they assess political risk. They expected the Remain campaign to win the Brexit referendum and Hillary Clinton to become America’s president, and were proved wrong. Indeed, on Brexit, the mass of gamblers (the general public, in other words) backed Leave, but the odds were skewed by some wealthy punters who favoured Remain. Those rich gamblers were probably people who trade in financial markets; the plunge in the pound after the result suggests that most investors were caught on the hop.

Before the presidential election, most people on Wall Street to whom Buttonwood spoke thought that a victory for Donald Trump...

Australia’s CommBank is accused of abetting money-laundering

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

WHEN the Commonwealth Bank of Australia on August 9th reported its profit for the year to June—above forecasts and just shy of A$10bn ($7.9bn)—it faced questions about cashflows of another sort. Six days earlier the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), a regulator charged with gathering financial intelligence to combat money-laundering and terrorism, had launched proceedings against it for “serious and systemic non-compliance”. Citing “collective responsibility” for the bank’s reputation, Catherine Livingstone, its chairwoman, has announced cuts to bonuses for Ian Narev, the chief executive, and others.

Founded 106 years ago, CommBank, as it is known, is one of Australia’s biggest banks. AUSTRAC traces its case to 2012, when the bank started installing “intelligent deposit machines”. They accept cash, let depositors stay anonymous and allow money to be switched to other accounts in Australia and overseas straight away. CommBank sets a ceiling of...

Investment in American infrastructure is falling

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

IT IS not a number to tweet about. President Donald Trump plans to plough $1trn of spending into America’s crumbling infrastructure. And a dearth of capital is not a problem: investors are keen on such assets. But investment seems to be falling.

Government infrastructure spending in the second quarter fell to 1.4% of GDP, the lowest share on record (see chart). According to Thomson Reuters, investment by American municipalities in the first seven months of this year, at $50.7bn, was nearly 20% below the same period in 2016. Private-sector infrastructure funds show a similar trend, according to Preqin, another data provider: deal volume in the first half of 2017 fell by 7.5%, year on year, to $36.6bn; the number of deals fell by a quarter.

Not long ago optimists were expecting an infrastructure-spending boom. In May Blackstone, a private-equity firm, announced with much fanfare a new $40bn fund for American infrastructure, with a $20bn investment from one of Saudi Arabia...

Why the world’s best footballers are cheaper than they seem

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

A head for figures

FOR football clubs, August is often the costliest month, when they make vast bids for each other’s players. This year has been particularly lavish. On August 3rd Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), a French team, signed Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, a Brazilian forward, from Barcelona for €222m ($264m), more than double the previous record price for a footballer.

With three weeks of the transfer “window” left, teams in Europe’s “big five” leagues—the top divisions in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France—have paid €3.2bn, just short of the record of €3.4bn set last year. The €179m splurged by Manchester City, an English club, on defenders outstrips 47 countries’ defence budgets. Arsène Wenger, a veteran manager of Arsenal, a London team, and an economics graduate, describes the modern transfer market as “beyond calculation and beyond rationality”.

...

Chasing higher yields, investors pile into risky countries

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:41

WHERE can you find a 7% interest rate on a sovereign dollar-bond? You would have to take a time-machine to the mid-1990s to find such a yield on a ten-year American Treasury. Alternatively, you could slip back a few days to August 2nd and bid for the $1bn of five-year bonds sold by the government of Iraq. The yield was expected to be 7%, but it was trimmed to 6.75% once orders rose above $6bn.

Such eagerness for hard-currency debt from a country still reeling from a civil war shows just how far bond investors will now go to get a decent yield. Oversubscribed issues for risky sovereign bonds have become almost normal. The Iraqi sale came just a week after Greece (whose privately held debt was partly written off in 2012) raised €3bn ($3.5bn) in its first bond sale for three years. In June Argentina was inundated with bids for its 100-year eurobond, as dollar-denominated bonds are known. Sceptics noted that Argentina had defaulted on its debts six times in the previous century, with the most...

How crisis-hit economies become investment darlings

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 14:49

NAWAZ SHARIF is the ex-prime minister of Pakistan again. His third stint in the job ended on July 28th after the Supreme Court disqualified him from office. Yet he could justifiably claim that he left Pakistan’s economy in a better state than he found it. When Pakistan last went to the polls, GDP had been growing at around 3%, a dismal rate for a poor country with a burgeoning population. Inflation was above 10%. The budget deficit had ballooned. A crisis loomed. Four years on, inflation is in the low single digits. The budget deficit has shrunk to a little above 4% of GDP. The GDP growth rate is closing in on 6%. Investors too have taken notice. Since 2012, Pakistan’s stockmarket capitalisation has doubled in dollar terms (see chart).

...

The private-equity business learns to be more flexible

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 14:49

THE private-equity business presents a paradox. Its barons like to boast of revamping the companies they buy. But they themselves have been steadfast to their own business model, centred on funds with a ten-year life. Within this time span, fund managers, known as “general partners” (GPs), commit to buy, manage and sell a clutch of companies; investors commit to lock up their money for the duration. Sometimes GPs or investors chafe at the time constraint. A new segment of the secondary market, “GP-led” deals, has sprung up to help them.

Investors wanting to exit a fund early need to find a buyer for their stake in the secondary market. But sometimes none will offer an attractive price. Sometimes also, a fund nearing its expiry date may find itself still holding a large number of its investments. GP-led deals place the onus on fund managers to find buyers.

Such transactions have quickly grown from just 10% of the secondary market in 2012 to over one-third this year,...

Why national accounts might be like corporate balance-sheets

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 14:49

THE easiest way to get an economist to laugh sardonically is to compare a country’s finances to those of a family. It is both simplistic and wrong, they will argue, for politicians to say that a country “must live within its means”.

But in a new working paper* from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Patrick Bolton and Haizhou Huang make a different comparison; between the finances of a government and those of a company. A business can finance itself in three ways: through internal funds (its revenues); through borrowing; and through equity (the issuance of new shares). In the first two cases, it is easy to see the analogy with a nation state; governments can raise money from taxes or borrow in the form of government bonds.

But the paper’s most striking idea is that the national equivalent of equity is fiat money. Governments are able to issue money that can be used to settle debts and pay taxes—the term “fiat” comes from the Latin for “let it be done”. Equity...

Genetic testing threatens the insurance industry

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 14:49

The knowledge premium

IF A genetic test could tell whether you are at increased risk of getting cancer or Alzheimer’s, would you take it? As such tests become more accessible, more and more people are saying “yes”. The insurance industry faces a few headaches as a result.

Once used only for medical reasons, basic predictive genetic tests can now be ordered online for a few hundred dollars. One company, 23andMe, in California, has collected some 4,000 litres of sputum since 2007, enlightening 2m people on their ancestry, health risks and what they may pass on to offspring. In April it received regulatory approval to screen for risk factors connected to ten diseases and genetic conditions, including late-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The ruling could open the floodgates for others to sell direct to consumers.

“Information is power”, argue many who take such tests. But insurers fear that without equal access to such information, they will...

A crucial interest-rate benchmark faces a murky future

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 14:49

EVERY working day, shortly before noon, British time, the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, is published. For five currencies and seven maturities, from overnight to 12 months, it is the average, trimmed of outliers, of up to 20 banks’ estimates of the interest rate at which they can borrow from other banks. It is also the benchmark for financial contracts reckoned to be worth $350trn. Derivatives depend on it most. But plenty of asset-management products, as well as corporate loans and mortgages, are based on LIBOR and similar rates, notably EURIBOR, an interbank rate for euros.

Yet LIBOR’s days may be numbered. Regulators are promoting other benchmarks. On July 27th Andrew Bailey, the head of Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, said that the FCA had spoken to banks about sustaining LIBOR until the end of 2021, but no longer. In April a working group set up by the Bank of England concluded that SONIA (the Sterling Overnight Interbank Average Rate), which the central bank...

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