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  1. Donald Trump, trade and the new world order

    TWO months into the Trump administration and we have had more sound and fury than concrete proposals about its economic agenda. The most alarming sign so far is that America forced the G20 to drop a pledge about resisting “all forms of protectionism” from a joint statement but this may be purely symbolic.

    Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s determination to shake up the status quo may yet have global consequences. In a research note, Chris Watling of Longview Economics suggests that

    Trump’s policies might inadvertently bring about a new international monetary order as the administration struggles to fulfil campaign promises in the light of the original misdiagnosis of the ‘trade deficit’ problem.

    The current monetary system emerged from the downfall of Bretton Woods in the 1970s. Under the Bretton Woods system, devised in part by John Maynard Keynes (pictured, left), currencies were fixed to the dollar (with scope for occasional devaluations or revaluations) and the dollar was fixed against gold. But this required America to act as the anchor of the system; other central banks were...Continue reading

  2. Podcast: A most unusual company

    The one-time bookseller Amazon accounts for more than half of every new dollar spent online in the US. But how did it get to be the fifth most valuable company in the world? Also: why it costs the American government more to borrow money on the bonds market than European ones. And the big brands used to account for two-thirds of the tyre market. Now China has massively deflated their share. Simon Long hosts.

    Continue reading
  3. Do smart-beta investment funds work?

    IN THE world of investing, everyone is always looking for a better mousetrap—a way to beat the market. One approach that is increasingly popular is to select shares based on specific “factors”—for example, the size of companies or their dividend yield. The trend has been given the ugly name of “smart beta”.

    A recent survey of institutional investors showed three-quarters were either using or evaluating the approach. By the end of January some $534bn was invested in smart-beta exchange-traded funds, according to ETFGI, a research firm. Compound annual growth in assets under management in the sector has been 30% over the past five years.

    The best argument for smart-beta funds is that they simply replicate, at lower cost, what fund managers are doing already. For example, many fund managers follow the “value” approach, seeking out shares that look cheap. A computer program can pick these stocks more methodically than an erratic human. A smart-beta fund does what it says on the tin.

    But does it work? The danger here is “data mining”. Carry out enough statistical tests, and you will always find some strategy that worked in the...Continue reading

  4. The progressive case for immigration

    “WE CAN’T restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.” Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa, could hardly have been clearer in his meaning in a tweet this week supporting Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician with anti-immigrant views. Across the rich world, those of a similar mind have been emboldened by a nativist turn in politics. Some do push back: plenty of Americans rallied against Donald Trump’s plans to block refugees and migrants. Yet few rich-world politicians are willing to make the case for immigration that it deserves: it is a good thing and there should be much more of it.

    Defenders of immigration often fight on nativist turf, citing data to respond to claims about migrants’ damaging effects on wages or public services. Those data are indeed on migrants’ side. Though some research suggests that native workers with skill levels similar to those of arriving migrants take a hit to their wages because of increased migration, most analyses find that they are not harmed, and that many eventually earn more as competition nudges them to specialise in more demanding occupations. But as a slogan, “The data say you’re wrong” lacks...Continue reading

  5. Is the Federal Reserve giving banks a $12bn subsidy?

    EVERY time the Federal Reserve has raised rates since the financial crisis, as it did on March 15th, it has done so in part by increasing “Interest On Excess Reserves” (IOER). This obscure policy rate is surprisingly controversial. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chair of the congressional committee that oversees the Fed, has called it a “subsidy” to some of the largest banks in America.

    To understand the argument, consider the Fed’s year-end financial statement. In 2016 it earned $111.1bn in interest income on its vast portfolio of securities. But it also paid JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and other mostly big banks $12bn in interest on excess cash deposited at regional Federal Reserve banks. Such IOER payments are both woefully unpopular and critical to the Fed’s monetary policy.

    Over a decade ago, to give the Fed better control of short-term interest rates, Congress authorised it to pay interest on funds in excess of those banks need to meet reserve requirements. The policy was first used during the financial crisis in 2008. But today, IOER is the Fed’s primary monetary-policy tool, essential to its setting of the Federal Funds...Continue reading

  6. As the Fed raises rates, Janet Yellen’s legacy is pondered

    THIRD time lucky. In each of the past two years, the Federal Reserve has predicted multiple interest-rate rises, only to be thrown off-course by events. On March 15th the central bank raised its benchmark Federal Funds rate for the third time since the financial crisis, to a range of 0.75-1%. This was, if anything, ahead of its forecast, which it reaffirmed, that rates would rise three times in 2017. “Lift-off” is at last an apt metaphor for monetary policy. But as Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairwoman, picks up speed in terms of policy, she must navigate a cloudy political outlook. The next year will define her legacy.

    Ms Yellen took office in February 2014 after dithering by the Obama administration over a choice between her and Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary. Left-wingers preferred Ms Yellen, in part because she seemed more likely to give jobs priority over stable prices. Indeed, Republicans in Congress worried that she would be too soft on inflation. The Economist called her the “first acknowledged dove” to lead the central bank.

    Today Ms Yellen looks more hawkish—certainly than Mr Summers, who...Continue reading

  7. The South Korea-US trade agreement turns five

    IT SHOULD have been a happy anniversary. On March 15th 2012, KORUS, a trade deal between America and South Korea, came into effect. It slashed tariffs, tightened intellectual-property rights and opened up South Korea’s services market. When it was signed, the head of an American manufacturing lobby hailed it as meaning “jobs, jobs and jobs”. Wendy Cutler, its American negotiator, calls it “the highest standard deal we have in force”.

    Five years on, jubilation has given way to anxiety. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump referred to the deal as a “job-killer”. On March 1st his administration’s official trade-strategy document singled it out for criticism. America’s trade deficit in goods with South Korea has more than doubled since 2011. “This is not the outcome the American people expected,” it lamented.

    Trade between America and South Korea has indeed fallen short of expectations. When the deal was signed, the United States International Trade Commission predicted that it would boost American goods exports to South Korea by around $10bn. In fact they fell by $3bn between 2011 and 2016. The deal suffered teething problems. As...Continue reading

  8. Sovereign-wealth funds catch on in Africa

    SCRATCHING around for money to pay for free secondary schools, a government minister in Ghana last month floated an idea: raid the Heritage Fund. At least 9% of the country’s annual oil revenues are stashed there for future generations. The minister was rebuffed. But the row highlighted a trade-off: saving for tomorrow’s children makes it harder to help today’s.

    Such dilemmas are acute in sub-Saharan Africa. The region has about a dozen sovereign-wealth funds, most of them established in the past decade. They have few models to emulate. A Norwegian approach—build a fund, invest abroad, and spend only the annual returns—works in places that are small, ageing and rich. Most African countries, unfortunately, are none of those things.

    The oldest and largest African fund, Botswana’s $5.3bn Pula Fund, was created in 1994 from diamond revenues. Angola and Nigeria, the biggest oil exporters, have both established funds in the past few years; governments from Kenya to Zambia are talking of doing the same. Even Rwanda, with no great commodity riches, is soliciting patriotic donations to build its own (civil servants coughed up $2.5m last year).

    Many funds have...Continue reading

  9. Iceland lifts capital controls

    Hope springs eternal

    IT WAS one of the worst-hit casualties of the financial crisis 0f 2007-08, but Iceland this week took steps that symbolised its recovery. The last remaining controls on capital outflows were lifted, allowing pension and investment funds to invest their money abroad. And the central bank struck another deal with offshore holders of frozen krona-denominated assets—buying more of them back at a discount.

    The country’s crisis experience was a cautionary tale of an over-exuberant financial sector. Three of its banks, with assets worth 14 times GDP, keeled over within a week; the krona fell by 70% on a trade-weighted basis in a year; Iceland was the first rich country since Britain in 1976 to need an IMF rescue.

    To stem capital outflows and further falls in the krona, the government in 2008 slapped restrictions on money leaving the country. The measures also froze offshore holdings of krona-denominated assets, which at the time amounted to 40% of GDP. Even the IMF, usually in favour of more orthodox free-market policies, supported the move. The country nonetheless experienced a severe recession, with GDP falling by more...Continue reading

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