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...Continue reading
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.
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
Bitcoin is fiat money, too
FINANCIERS with PhDs like to remind each other to “read your Kindleberger". The rare academic who could speak fluently to bureaucrats and normal people, Charles Kindleberger designed the Marshall Plan and wrote vast economic histories worthy of Tolstoy. “Read your Kindleberger” is just a coded way of saying “don’t forget this has all happened before”. So to anyone invested in, mining or building applications for distributed ledger money such as bitcoin or ethereum: read your Kindleberger.
Start with A Financial History of Western Europe, in which Kindleberger documents how many times merchants in different centuries figured out clever ways of doing the exact same thing. They made transactions easier, and in the process created new deposits and bills that increased the supply of money. In most cases, the Bürgermeister or the king left these innovations in place, but decided to control the supply of money and credit themselves. It is good for the king to be in charge of his own creditors. But also, it has...Continue reading
Marital choices are exacerbating household income inequality
“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
Huge volumes of data make real-time insurance a possibility
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
Ethical investment is booming. But what is it?
MAYBE weary of its role as a punchbag for moralists, and certainly in search of products with widespread appeal, Wall Street has taken to selling products linked to virtue. That is not easy: how does an industry focused on financial returns go about gauging goodness?
The approach started years ago with funds that called themselves “socially responsible”. More recently the terminology has evolved, with many claiming to pursue “ESG” investing, standing for “environmental”, “social” and “governance”.
Morningstar, a data-tracking firm, places any fund that uses terms such as sustainable investing, ESG and so on in its prospectus into a category that now has 204 members with $77bn in collective assets. The oldest fund in the Morningstar group dates back to 1971. But nearly half have been launched in the past three years. More quietly, the wealth-management offices of many American investment firms constantly roll out investments touting these sorts of...Continue reading
Ukraine’s return to the debt markets worries economic reformers
MUCH has changed since Ukraine last tapped global debt markets in 2013. The next year the “Maidan revolution” drove out the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych; and Russia annexed Crimea and stoked a war in Ukraine’s east. The economy languished, with GDP contracting by 16% in 2014-15; only an IMF rescue staved off collapse. Unable to pay its debts, Ukraine in 2015 submitted its creditors to a 20% “haircut”, or debt reduction (an offer rejected by just one creditor, Russia, which is pursuing Ukraine in British courts). This week the government returned to the international markets, issuing $3bn in dollar-denominated bonds.
This testifies to the progress Ukraine has made. As Oleksandr Danylyuk, the finance minister, puts it: “We’re back; we transformed the country.” The government has largely stabilised the economy, bringing inflation down from a peak of 61% in April 2015 to a more manageable 13.5%. It has also undertaken structural reforms: overhauling energy...Continue reading
The teaching of economics gets an overdue overhaul
ECONOMISTS can be a haughty bunch. But a decade of trauma has had a chastening effect. They are rethinking old ideas, asking new questions and occasionally welcoming heretics back into the fold. Change, however, has been slow to reach the university economics curriculum. Many institutions still pump students through introductory courses untainted by recent economic history or the market shortcomings it illuminates. A few plucky reformers are working to correct that: a grand and overdue idea. Overhauling the way economics is taught ought to produce students more able to understand the modern world. Even better, it should improve economics itself.
The dismal science it may be, but economics is popular on campus. It accounts for more than 10% of degrees awarded at elite universities each year, by one estimate, and many more students take an introductory class as part of their general-education requirements. Teachers of such courses aim to grab the attention of their glassy-eyed audience, to...Continue reading