Posts in category FINANCE


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The internationalisation of China’s currency has stalled

ON OCTOBER 18TH, President Xi Jinping will preside in Beijing over the most important political event in five years. At the Communist Party’s 19th congress much will be made of the triumphs achieved in nearly four decades of reform and opening up. So expect a glossing over of one part of that process where progress has largely stalled: the “internationalisation” of China’s currency, the yuan.

This seems odd. Just a year ago, the yuan became the fifth currency in the basket that forms the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR). This marked, in the words of Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s central-bank governor, in a recent interview with Caijing, a financial magazine, “historic progress”. Symbolically, China’s monetary system had been awarded the IMF’s seal of approval. A further boost to prestige was the announcement in June this year that some Chinese shares would be included in two stockmarket benchmarks from MSCI.

Yet the yuan’s international reach has in fact fallen in the past two years. It has regained its ranking as the world’s fifth most active for international payments, after slipping to sixth in 2016. But its share of this market has slipped from 2.8% in August 2015 to 1.9% now (see chart). Use of the yuan in global bond markets over this period has fallen by half, as companies have instead raised funds within…Continue reading

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In dirt-poor Myanmar, smartphones are transforming finance

For chats and kyats

MYANMAR’S democratic transition sometimes seems marked as much by continuity as by change. Depressingly, the army continues its bloody persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the west, for example (see article). But elsewhere moves to open the country’s markets, started by the preceding military regimes, have gathered pace. New commercial and financial services are springing up.

Take Khin Hlaing, who owns Global Mobile Shop, a small store surrounded by tarpaulin-covered stalls selling fresh fruit in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial area outside Yangon, the biggest city. He is one of almost 12,000 agents for Wave Money, Myanmar’s largest mobile-money transfer platform. Most days about 20 people use his shop to send funds to friends or family elsewhere in the country. One…Continue reading

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BBVA, a Spanish bank, reinvents itself as a digital business

OUTSIDE, a patch of grass affording a spectacular view of the Sierra de Guadarrama is littered with cartridge casings. Inside the Club de Tiro de Madrid (Madrid Shooting Club), on the city’s northern edge, over 400 people are fixing their sights for the next three months. Their business is not shooting but banking. Teams sit at 27 tables working on specific projects—to improve the global mobile platform, say, or to share information about job applicants. At another 12 tables are data specialists, in-house lawyers and others whose expertise the teams will need. The targets are on the walls: white boards that are soon covered in yellow and pink Post-it notes, listing tasks for the weeks ahead.

BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank, began quarterly planning sessions like this three years ago, in its Mexican subsidiary. This is the fourth global gathering. The idea, explains Derek White, head of global customer solutions, is to replicate the nimbleness of financial-technology startups (“fintechs”) at large scale. When a project is conceived, a small group is assembled to work on it within three days. A prototype is created in six weeks. The finished article should be “en las manos de los clientes”—in customers’ hands—within nine months. The quarterly cycle starts with a planning session to thrash out priorities. It ends with a demo…Continue reading

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The finance industry ten years after the crisis

MANY people complain that the finance industry has barely suffered any adverse consequences from the crisis that it created, which began around ten years ago. But a report from New Financial, a think-tank, shows that is not completely true.

The additional capital that regulators demanded banks should take on to their balance-sheets has had an effect. Between 2006 and 2016, the return on capital of the world’s biggest banks has fallen by a third (by more in Britain and Europe). The balance of power has shifted away from the developed world and towards China, which had four of the largest five banks by assets in 2016; that compares with just one of the biggest 20 in 2006.

The swaggering beasts of the investment-banking industry have also been tamed. The industry’s revenues have dropped by 34% in real terms, with profits falling by 46%. Return on equity has declined by two-thirds. Staff are still lavishly remunerated, but pay is down by 52% in real terms. (Perhaps…Continue reading

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How protectionism sank America’s entire merchant fleet

IN APRIL 1956 the world’s first container ship—the Ideal X—set sail from New Jersey. A year later in Seattle the world’s first commercially successful airliner, Boeing’s 707, made its maiden flight. Both developments slashed the cost of moving cargo and people. Boeing still makes half the world’s airliners. But America’s shipping fleet, 17% of the global total in 1960, accounts for just 0.4% today.

Blame a 1920 law known as the Jones Act, which decrees that trade between domestic ports be carried by American-flagged and -built ships, at least 75% owned and crewed by American citizens. After Hurricane Irma, a shortage of Jones-Act ships led President Donald Trump on September 28th to waive the rules for ten days to resupply Puerto Rico. This fuelled calls to repeal the law completely.

Like most forms of protectionism, the Jones Act hits consumers hard. A lack of foreign competition drives up the cost of coastal transport….Continue reading

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Mergers and acquisitions often disappoint

WHEN you are the chief executive of a public company, the temptation to opt for a merger or acquisition is great indeed. Many such bosses may get a call every week or so from an investment banker eager to offer the kind of deal that is sure to boost profits.

Plenty of those calls are proving fruitful. In the first three quarters of 2017, just over $2.5trn-worth of transactions were agreed globally, according to Dealogic, a data provider. The total was virtually unchanged from the same period in 2016, but the number in Europe, the Middle East and Africa was up by 21%.

It is easy to understand why an executive opts for a deal. Buying another business looks like decisive action, and is a lot easier than coming up with a new, best-selling product. Furthermore, being the acquirer is far more appealing than being the prey; better to be the butcher than the cattle. A takeover may keep activist hedge funds off the management’s back for a while longer. And being in charge of a much bigger company is a more demanding task that will surely justify (ahem) a larger salary for the executives in charge.

But these temptations, good and bad, should generally be resisted. S&P Global Market Intelligence, a research arm of the ratings agency, has updated a study on the impact of deals on the acquiring company’s share price. The study looked at M&A deals done…Continue reading

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A Chinese carmaker agrees to buy a Danish investment bank

A COMPANY that moves up the value chain from refrigerator parts to cars is impressive but not that surprising. A car company that buys an investment bank is audacious. But Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a conglomerate based in Hangzhou, China, did not become big by paring its ambitions. Having successfully made the fridge-parts-to-cars transition at home, it went global in 2010. It acquired Volvo, a Swedish carmaker, from Ford of America. Now Geely is back in Scandinavia for another acquisition. This time it is buying one of Denmark’s biggest banks.

Saxo Bank announced on October 2nd that Geely would acquire 51.5% of its shares. It will spend over $800m on the deal, which still requires regulatory approval. Sampo Group, a Finnish insurance company, will acquire 19.9% of Saxo shares for €265m ($311m), and Kim Fournais, Saxo’s co-founder and chief executive, will retain 25.7%. The sellers are Sinar Mas, an Indonesian conglomerate, and TPG, an American private-equity firm.

Saxo was an early adopter of online securities trading and still invests heavily in financial technology. It makes a substantial portion of its profits from selling trading platforms to other firms. Daniel Donghui Li, Geely’s chief financial officer, says Geely hopes to expand Saxo’s technologies into Asia. Besides facilitating this expansion, Geely does not intend to change how…Continue reading

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Unequal at work, men and women are even more so in retirement

“THE retirement-savings crisis is a women’s crisis,” says Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder of Ellevest, a financial-advice firm for women in America. When it comes to retirement income, women are far worse-off than men. The gender pension-gap may be less well-known than the gender pay-gap, but it is in fact far larger.

Among those retired in the EU, women on average receive 39% less in pension income—from state and workplace pensions—than men do (see chart). This puts women at greater risk of old-age poverty. The European Institute for Gender Equality, a think-tank, warned in a study in 2015 that it also makes them more likely to stay with abusive partners. Reforms to European pensions, tying benefits even closer to individual contributions and thus income, mean the gap may widen further.

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Taxing fat and subsidising healthy eating widens inequality

IN RICH countries, people’s diets are getting worse and they are getting fatter. Hence the increasing popularity of a “fat tax”, to make unhealthy food cost more. Since Hungary led the charge in 2011 with a “chip tax” on fatty and sugary foods, other countries have followed. Britain is to join a long list next year.

Since the poor both spend a higher proportion of their income on food and tend to eat less healthily, they are the main targets of such taxes. In France, for instance, adult obesity is seen in over 20% of households with monthly incomes under €1,500 ($1,765) compared with less than 10% of those who earn over €3,000.

Punishing consumers, however, is politically painful. So “thin subsidies” have been gaining ground. But data on the impact of such policies are scarce. A recent study on the distributional impacts of fat taxes and thin subsidies from researchers at the universities of Oklahoma and Grenoble suggests policymakers should be…Continue reading

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Manias, panics and Initial Coin Offerings

EVERY market mania reaches a point when pitches to would-be investors enter the realm of the surreal. So it goes for “initial coin offerings”, or ICOs. A new one by a firm called POW invites Facebook users to claim tokens for nothing; when they later become convertible into other tokens, the first to take advantage of the offer could “become worth $124bn…making them the richest person on Earth”, the blurb says. Not a bad return for no money invested and no risk borne. However bizarre, bubbles are hard to resist: no one wants to be the only one of their friends left out. They can also be financially ruinous. But gambling on a craze, even a highly dubious one, can be about more than blind greed.

The ICO boom is an outgrowth of the emerging, occasionally inscrutable world of cryptocurrencies. These are a form of money (bitcoin and ether are examples) used in transactions which are recorded on a distributed public ledger called a blockchain. An ICO is a scheme to raise funds for an…Continue reading

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Venture capitalists with daughters are more successful

RICHARD NESBITT, a former chief operating officer at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, has long been an evangelist for women in business. In “Results at the Top”, a book he wrote with Barbara Annis, he describes his efforts to convince men to promote women. When speaking to bosses, he stresses data showing that companies with more senior women are more successful. But he has noticed that men with daughters tend to be more receptive to his message. At least for venture-capital (VC) firms, recent research confirms this observation, as well as the assertion that gender diversity boosts performance.

Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang at Harvard University wanted to determine whether VC firms with more women managers do better. Answering this question is tricky—firms that hire more women may have other characteristics that lead to success. VC-investing remains a predominantly male activity. In the authors’ sample of 988 VC funds in 301 firms, around 8% of new hires were women. Very few firms…Continue reading

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The Bank of Japan sticks to its guns

SEVENTH time lucky? Minutes of the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) policy meeting in July, published on September 26th, showed that the central bank had, for the sixth time since 2013, pushed back the date at which it expected prices to meet its 2% inflation target—to the fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Four-and-a-half years since Haruhiko Kuroda took office as governor and embarked on an unprecedented experiment in quantitative easing (QE), the bank is still far from its goal. It has swept up 40% of Japanese government bonds and a whopping 71% of exchange-traded funds. The bank’s balance-sheet has tripled. It is now roughly the size of the American Federal Reserve’s.

Yet, despite his apparent failure, and despite a snap general election, Mr Kuroda may yet stay for another five years when his term runs out next April. If not, most of his likely successors are signed up to the same reflationary policy. At least one member of the bank’s board gave warning at its…Continue reading

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Three trade cases facing the Trump administration spell trouble

Ruinously competitive

IN 1845 Frédéric Bastiat, a French economist, wrote an open letter to his national parliament, pleading for help on behalf of makers of candles and other forms of lighting. The French market was being flooded with cheap light, he complained. Action was necessary: a law closing all windows, shutters and curtains. Only that would offer protection against the source of this “ruinous competition”, the sun.

Three similar pleas are facing the administration of President Donald Trump. But these are not parodies. On September 22nd the United States International Trade Commission paved the way for import restrictions on solar panels, ruling that imports had injured American cell manufacturers. On September 26th the Department of Commerce pencilled in tariffs of 220% on airliners made by Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer. A third decision on washing machines is due by October 5th.

This cluster of cases represents around $15bn of…Continue reading

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Once a leader in virtual currencies, China turns against them

BITCOIN and China always made odd bedfellows. Devotees of bitcoin love its independence from central authorities; in China the central authorities love their power. That they would accept a cryptocurrency that weakened their control over something as fundamental as the management of money seemed unlikely. Yet China had become the world’s biggest bitcoin market, dominating both its trading and computer-powered “mining”.

It was not meant to be. Bitcoin’s surprising success in China appears to be nearing its end. A series of bans announced over the past month have made clear that bitcoin and all fellow travellers, from ethereum to litecoin, have little place within its borders. Some hope that the bans are temporary. The government has, after all, declared an ambition to make China a leader in the blockchain technology that is integral to bitcoin. But its seems more likely that officials will tighten their grip on China’s remaining crypto-coin bastions.

Bitcoin had been in trouble in China since February, when the central bank, aiming to stem illicit capital flows, ordered exchanges to halt virtual-currency withdrawals until they could identify their customers. China’s share of global bitcoin-trading went from more than 90% to just about 10% (see chart).

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Nordic payments firms have become acquisition targets

THE Vikings were slow to adopt coins. They preferred to pay by cutting pieces off silver bars, at least until contact with the rest of Europe convinced them of the benefits of standardised coins. Today their Nordic descendants are abandoning coins and notes in favour of electronic payments. Two Nordic e-payments firms have recently announced that they will be acquired by foreign companies. The rest of the world, too, is using less cash. And they want the financial backing to enter new markets.

On September 25th Nets, a payments firm based in Denmark, announced that Hellman & Friedman, an American private-equity firm, had offered to acquire it for DKr33.1bn ($5.3bn). Nets is following Bambora, a Swedish-based payments firm, for which Ingenico, a French electronic-payments firm, offered €1.5bn ($1.7bn) in July.

Nets was created in 2010 from the merger of payments companies in Denmark and Norway. It has a strong presence in both countries. Dankort, Denmark’s national…Continue reading

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Marital choices are exacerbating household income inequality

It’s all a matter of degree

“HERE’S what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate,” wrote Susan Patton, a human-resources consultant, in 2013. In an infamous letter to the editor of Princeton’s student newspaper, Ms Patton warned female students at the university that they will “never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of [them]”. Critics responded harshly. Ms Patton recalls that she was branded “a traitor to feminism, a traitor to co-education and an elitist”.

Economists might offer yet another critique of Ms Patton’s letter: it was largely unnecessary. It is clear to academics that people tend to marry spouses with similar levels of education. They also know that “assortative mating”, as the practice is called in the jargon, is exacerbating income inequality. In America, Britain, Denmark, Germany and Norway, they have found that household income would be more evenly spread if…Continue reading

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Huge volumes of data make real-time insurance a possibility

Mind your heads

EVEN at weddings or whale watches, the buzz of a drone is no longer a surprise. Drone photography is booming. Gartner, a consultancy, says some 174,000 drones will be sold for commercial use around the world this year, and 2.8m to consumers. It is easy to imagine a few might fall out of the sky, causing damage the pilot cannot hope to pay for: crushed wedding cakes, injured spectators and so on. Amid scores of near-misses, several incidents have already occurred. In 2014, for example, a drone filming a triathlon in Australia crashed on a competitor’s head.

Clearly, drone-users need insurance. Typically, risks are insured through the payment of an annual premium. Insure4drones, a British specialist, charges £738.86 ($1,000) to cover a DJI Phantom, a bestselling drone, for a year. From October Flock, a London startup, will offer insurance on a flight-by-flight basis, at the push of a button in an app, to any commercial drone-operator in Britain….Continue reading

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Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund passes the $1trn mark

A year earlier than expected, Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund, the world’s largest, surpassed $1trn in assets on September 19th. It had gained over $100bn in the past year, thanks in large measure to the global stockmarket boom in 2017: around two-thirds of its assets are held as equities (over 1% of shares globally). It helps that Norwegians continue to earn fat revenues from pumping North Sea oil and gas, which go to the fund to be invested abroad. The fund is so big it is becoming a tool for 5m-odd Norwegians to shape values abroad. It is an increasingly activist shareholder, speaking out on executive pay, ethical behaviour, companies’ use of water, child labour and more. Both its size and influence are likely to keep on growing.

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America holds the World Trade Organisation hostage

EIGHT months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the rules-based system of global trade remains intact. Threats to impose broad tariffs have come to nothing. Some ominous investigations into whether imports into America are a national-security threat are on hold. Mr Trump looks less a hard man than a boy crying wolf. All the same, supporters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the guardian of that rules-based system, are worried. Other dangers are lurking. There is more than one way to undermine an institution.

The WTO is meant to be a forum for reaching deals and resolving disputes. But all 164 members must agree to new rules, and agreement has largely been elusive. So if members do not like today’s rules, as interpreted by judges, they have little prospect of negotiating better ones. That puts pressure on the WTO’s judicial function, the bit that has been working fairly well.

Trouble is brewing at the WTO’s court of appeals. It is meant to have seven serving judges, but has only five and by the end of the year will have just four. The Americans refuse to start the process of filling the spots, citing systemic concerns. What seemed an arcane procedural row has become what some call a “crisis”.

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China sets its sights on dominating sunrise industries

IN RECENT days China set the record for the world’s fastest long-distance bullet train, which hurtled between Beijing and Shanghai at 350kph (217mph). This was a triumph of industrial policy as much as of engineering. China’s first high-speed trains started rolling only a decade ago; today the country has 20,000km of high-speed track, more than the rest of the world combined. China could not have built this without a strong government. The state provided funds for research, land for tracks, aid for loss-making railways, subsidies for equipment-makers and, most controversially, incentives for foreign companies to share commercial secrets.

High-speed rail is a prime example of the Chinese government’s prowess at identifying priority industries and deploying money and policy tools to nurture them. It inspires awe of what it can accomplish and fear that other countries stand little chance against such a formidable competitor. Yet there have also been big industrial-policy misses, notably…Continue reading

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Goldman Sachs announces a change in strategy

IT IS not easy to feel pity for Goldman Sachs. Its alumni lord it in pivotal government positions around the world; from every prestigious business school, applicants queue in hope of a job; its senior executives earn eye-watering amounts; and it has a presence, it seems, in every corner of the global economy. Yet these are troubling times for the bank. It is facing fundamental questions about its business model.

Its investors are particularly worried by a precipitous decline in the fortunes of its core fixed-income, currencies and commodities unit (FICC). That is the business from which Goldman’s current leadership graduated. The bank’s president, Harvey Schwartz, used a conference on September 12th to give an unusually detailed account of how it is changing. He outlined plans for igniting growth in an apparently stagnant business, and for preserving profitability despite that stagnation.

One factor in Goldman’s problems has been a change in its staff structure. In the hunt…Continue reading

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The big data breach suffered by Equifax has alarming implications

UNTIL something goes wrong, few people give much thought to the surveillance they undergo by credit-reporting agencies (CRAs). Yet these agencies’ business is deeply intrusive: quantifying character. They assign individuals credit scores based on how they previously managed debt. The scores are then sold to lenders. In America, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” CRAs, have gathered credit histories and identifying information for nearly every adult.

On September 7th Equifax admitted that something had indeed gone very wrong: hackers had gained access to personal information on about 143m people, mostly Americans. It reported that, from mid-May to July, hackers exploited a vulnerability in its website. The data compromised included Social Security numbers (SSNs), dates of birth and driving-licence numbers, and for 209,000 people, possibly their credit-card numbers as well. Equifax also noted that data about some Britons and Canadians may have been stolen.

The…Continue reading

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How to protect yourself against the theft of your identity

AS IDENTITY theft has proliferated, so has the number of businesses hoping to make money selling protection against it. Companies such as LifeLock, Identity Guard and PrivacyGuard sell products similar to Equifax’s TrustedID Premier identity-theft protection. That was the service Equifax offered to every American with a Social Security number in the aftermath of its big data breach.

Those who enroll in TrustedID are promised notification if their information is offered for sale on the internet. Their credit reports with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the “Big Three” credit-reporting agencies (CRAs), are also monitored for suspicious activity, such as the opening of new accounts or failures to pay a bill on time. If such activity is detected, users can “freeze” their Equifax credit reports, ie, make them unavailable to lenders. And TrustedID offers $1m-worth of insurance to compensate users for losses incurred as a result of identity theft. Equifax is offering the service free…Continue reading

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Putting a new face on an American banknote is oddly difficult

IT WOULD be hard to find a better example of long-term gridlock in Washington than its treatment of banknotes, whose appearance has essentially been frozen since 1929. The administration of Barack Obama took a half-hearted step towards a new look, proposing the replacement of Alexander Hamilton’s portrait on the $10 bill with a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became a civil-war hero.

Problems cropped up at once. It seemed ludicrous to scrap the portrait of the one person on a note who helped create America’s financial system. It did not help that he was also the hero of a smash-hit Broadway musical. So the administration decided instead to replace Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, on the $20 bill. But by then it was too close to the election to push the change through.

President Donald Trump has since lent his support to keeping Jackson. In a recent interview, his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, made it clear he had little interest in pursuing…Continue reading

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A year on, Wells Fargo cannot shake off its mis-selling scandal

ON SEPTEMBER 8th 2016, Wells Fargo’s reputation plummeted abruptly from that of America’s finest bank to that of yet another dodgy company. It was revealed to have opened an enormous number of potentially unauthorised retail deposit, current (checking) and credit-card accounts. A year on, two questions have yet to be put to rest. How much harm did Wells do to its customers? And how much did the scandal hurt the bank itself?

Wells has not been passive in its response. It has produced report after report on its misdeeds and submitted to investigations by two federal regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It has purged its chief executive and the head of its retail bank, clawed back executive bonuses, transformed its board and simplified its formerly decentralised structure. It has created a comprehensive process for restitution and settled a class-action suit.

Yet it cannot put the scandal behind it. In July it…Continue reading

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Governments need to rethink their attitudes to debt

GOVERNMENTS do not always make the best budget managers. Assuming it avoids an accidental debt default, America will run a bigger budget deficit this year than the last, despite a booming economy. Germany runs a surplus—but scrimps on critical investments and annoys its euro-area neighbours in the process. Japan, cowering under a mammoth public-debt pile, is weighing raising its consumption tax, though the last rise strangled a tenuous economic recovery. It is awkward, therefore, that the role of fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool is only growing. The next downturn will be a painful and dangerous learning experience for many politicians.

When that comes, at some point in the next few years, the initial policy response is easily foreseeable. Central banks, nimbler than parliaments, will again move first. But markets reckon that two years from now the Fed’s benchmark rate will remain below 2%, the Bank of England’s below 1% and the European Central Bank’s close to zero. Rates can only go so negative before people abandon the banking system for cash. So cuts to interest rates will be limited. By contrast, in the relatively mild recession of 2001 the Fed cut rates by more than six percentage points. Central-bank asset purchases will follow, assuming they are not already happening, as they might well still be in Europe and Japan. Their effects will be less…Continue reading

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