Britain’s 1970s retread
THE strange 1970s revival in Britain has another twist. The main focus has been on the Labour party which, under Jeremy Corbyn, wants to return to the era marked by nationalisation and higher taxes. But in a sense the Brexiteers want to take Britain back to the 1970s too; to the “golden era” before 1973 when the country was outside the EU.
In fact, the early 1970s were marked by strikes, power cuts and rapid inflation. They were presided over by Edward Heath (pictured left), the prime minister whose main achievement was to take Britain into what was then the European Economic Community. And it is striking how many similarities he had with the current prime minister, Theresa May (pictured right).
Both PMs were/are (Heath died in 2005) loners with few friends in the party and rather “buttoned-up” personalities. Both were uncomfortable on the campaign trail, finding it hard to connect with voters. Both talked of relaunching their party’s political philosophies but struggled to turn their principles into...Continue reading
Criticism of index-tracking funds is ill-directed
INDEX funds were devised in the 1970s as a way of giving investors cheap, diversified portfolios. But they have only become very popular in the past decade. Last year more money flowed into “passive” funds (those tracking a benchmark like the S&P 500) than into “active” funds that try to pick the best stocks.
In any other industry, this would be universally welcomed as a sign that innovation was coming up with cheaper products to the benefit of ordinary citizens. But the rise of index funds has provoked some fierce criticism.
Two stand out. One argues that passive investing is, in the phrase of analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein, “worse than Marxism”. A key role of the financial markets is to allocate capital to the most efficient companies. But index funds do not do this: they simply buy all the stocks that qualify for inclusion in a benchmark. Nor can index funds sell their stocks if they dislike the actions of the management. The long-term result will be bad for capitalism, opponents argue.
Regulators begin to tackle the craze for initial coin offerings
“I’M GONNA make a $hit t$n of money on August 2nd on the Stox.com ICO.” Written in July on Instagram, these words made Floyd Mayweather, a boxer, the first big celebrity to endorse an “initial coin offering”, a form of crowdfunding that issues cryptographic coins, or “tokens”. Stox, an online prediction market, went on to raise more than $30m, some of which seems to have gone directly into Mr Mayweather’s pocket. Other VIPs, including Paris Hilton, a socialite, followed suit and endorsed ICOs. But this source of easy cash may now be drying up: on November 1st America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) warned that such promotions may be unlawful, if celebrities fail to disclose what they receive in return.
The endorsements and the SEC’s attempt to rein them in are the latest episodes of token mania. Virtually unknown a year ago, ICOs are now more celebrated than initial public offerings (IPOs), the conventional way of floating a firm. Over the past 12 months...Continue reading
The Paradise Papers shed new light on offshore finance
THIS week was uncomfortable for a host of well-heeled figures. In the frame were U2’s Bono, America’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, as well as some of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple and Nike. All these, and many more, feature in the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of more than 13m documents, many of them stolen from Appleby, a leading offshore law firm. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 95 press partners, including the BBC and the New York Times, began publishing stories based on the papers on November 5th. Dozens appeared this week, with more to follow after The Economist went to press.
The ICIJ’s last big splash, the Panama Papers in April 2016, shed light on some of the darkest corners of offshore finance. In contrast, many of the activities highlighted by this leak are legal. But they would be widely seen as flouting the spirit of national tax laws by exploiting the gaps that open...Continue reading
America’s Republicans take aim at mortgage subsidies
IN THE 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both proud of their efforts to expand home ownership. In Britain, Thatcher presided over a fire sale of state-owned homes to tenants. In America, Reagan deregulated financial markets and expanded mortgage lending. At the time both countries provided generous mortgage-related tax breaks, making it easier to flog homes to the masses.
Britain’s 1980s housing boom turned to bust; the mortgage subsidies that helped to fuel it were abolished. America still subsidises mortgages to the tune of $64bn a year, by allowing homeowners to deduct interest costs from their tax liabilities. But a tax plan unveiled by Republicans on November 2nd proposes to limit the subsidy.
Twelve European Union countries also include some form of mortgage-interest deduction (MID) in their tax code. The average European subsidy, however, is around a tenth of America’s—about 0.05% of GDP. The Netherlands is much the most generous, at 2% of...Continue reading
ING, a Dutch bank, finds a winning digital strategy
GERMANY’S third-biggest retail bank has no branches. It is also Dutch. And it is highly profitable. ING-DiBa, an online bank owned by ING, the Netherlands’ biggest lender, looks after €133bn ($154bn) of deposits for over 8m customers. In a fragmented market—most Germans entrust their savings to small, local banks—that means a share of around 6%. ING-DiBa’s lack of branches keeps costs down, allowing it to resist charging for current accounts and offer savers a tad more than rivals, despite a recent cut; and it has won a name for good service in a country not renowned for it. While other banks struggle after years of ultra-low interest rates, ING-DiBa thrives. Its return on equity exceeds 20%.
ING as a whole is in fair shape, too. On November 2nd it reported net third-quarter earnings of €1.4bn, slightly more than a year earlier. The group’s return on equity was a healthy 11%, nearly two percentage points up. Since 2014 the number of “primary” customers (with an active current account and another product) has...Continue reading
Activist shareholders take on the London Stock Exchange
ACTIVIST hedge funds like Elliott Management, Cevian Capital or The Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) are famed for pushing for change at the companies they buy into. A favoured tactic is to install a new chief executive at a floundering firm. So it is odd to find a fund lobbying for an existing boss to stay on, as TCI has done in a spat with the London Stock Exchange (LSE).
In over eight years at the LSE, Xavier Rolet has transformed it from a share-trading venue to a clearing and data-services powerhouse, through acquisitions such as Russell, an index-maker, and a majority stake in LCH, a clearing-house. His hope of merging with the LSE’s big German rival, Deutsche Börse, fell through, largely because of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. But Mr Rolet remains widely respected. So eyebrows were raised when the LSE’s announcement on October 19th that Mr Rolet would leave in 2018 gave no reason.
In a fiery letter penned on...Continue reading
Venezuela seeks the restructuring of its massive foreign debts
INVESTORS have long seen a default on Venezuelan sovereign debt as a question of when, not if. Its bonds have been priced at levels implying imminent bankruptcy, but somehow the cash-strapped oil exporter has stayed afloat. Until now. On November 2nd Nicolás Maduro, the country’s authoritarian president, announced that he would order a “refinancing and restructuring” of foreign debt worth about $105bn. The prices of government bonds fell by up to half. Markets braced themselves for one of history’s most complex sovereign-debt renegotiations.
Mr Maduro’s brief statement was cryptic as to the concrete steps he will take. He invited “everyone involved in foreign debt” to talks in Caracas, the capital, on November 13th. Many creditors want a neutral venue. Moreover, Mr Maduro appears to have pre-emptively dashed any hope of a voluntary agreement by naming his vice-president, Tareck El Aissami, as head of his debt-restructuring committee. America’s Treasury...Continue reading
Equity valuations are high. But other options look even worse
EVERY investor would like to find the perfect measurement tool to tell them when to get into, and out of, the stockmarket. The cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), as calculated by Robert Shiller of Yale University, averages profits over ten years and is used by many as an important valuation indicator. Currently it shows that American shares have hitherto been more highly valued only in 1929 and the late 1990s, periods that were followed by big crashes.
That seems ominous. But as a paper by Dylan Grice and Gregor Obrecht of Calibrium, a Zurich-based private-investment office, makes clear, it is far from conclusive. The CAPE is not much use as a short-term indicator; it has been well above its long-term average for several years now, as it was in the late 1990s.
The main argument for the CAPE is a long-term one. If you divide all past CAPE values into quintiles, the annual returns earned over the subsequent decade by investing in equities when the CAPE was in its...Continue reading