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The Economist

  1. America’s public markets are perking up. Can it last?

    FOR years, discussions of America’s public markets have usually featured a lament for their dwindling appeal. According to Jay Ritter of the University of Florida, the number of publicly listed companies peaked in 1997 at 8,491 (see chart). By 2017 it had slumped to 4,496. True, many of the companies that went public in the internet’s early days should never have done so. But the decline worries anyone who sees public markets as the best way for ordinary investors to benefit from the successes of corporate America.

    The mood right now is more buoyant. Bankers and lawyers who usually chat with journalists in their offices are on the...Continue reading

  2. A startling amount of land in Japan has no official owner

    Property, period

    THE tsunami of 2011 left gaping holes reminiscent of war zones in the landscape along the coast of Tohuku, in the north-east of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Car navigation systems gave directions to landmarks that had vanished into the sea. The subsequent reconstruction effort hit an unexpected roadblock: missing landowners. Officials were stunned to find that hundreds of plots were held in the names of people who were dead or unknown.

    The deluge threw the problem into particularly sharp relief in Tohuku, but it is widespread elsewhere too. A report last year for the government by a panel of experts estimated that about 41,000 sq km of land, or 11% of Japan’s surface, was unclaimed, most of it in rural regions. By 2040, it warned, the area could more than double. The cumulative cost in lost productivity could be as high as ¥6trn ($56bn).

    The countryside is littered with vacant plots and empty houses. Some date from Japan’s great post-war...Continue reading

  3. Do credit booms foretell emerging-market crises?

    ON THE morning of December 7th 1941, George Elliott Junior noticed “the largest blip” he had ever seen on a radar near America’s naval base at Pearl Harbour. His discovery was dismissed by his superiors, who were thus unprepared for the Japanese bombers that arrived shortly after. The mistake prompted urgent research into “receiver operating characteristics”, the ability of radar operators to distinguish between true and false alarms.

    A similar concern motivates research at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland. Its equivalent to the radar is a set of economic indicators that can potentially detect the approach of financial crises. A prominent example is the “credit gap”, which measures the divergence between the level of credit to households and non-financial firms, expressed as a percentage of GDP, and its long-term trend. A big gap may reflect the kind of unsustainable credit boom that often precedes a crisis. Anything above 9% of GDP is reason to worry, according to Iñaki Aldasoro, Claudio Borio and Mathias Drehmann of the BIS.

    The biggest blips on the oscilloscope include Canada (9.6%), Singapore (11.1%) and Switzerland (16.3%), according to the latest readings, released on March 11th. But the one that has kept everyone’s eyes peeled is China, with a gap of 16.7% in the third quarter of 2017 (the latest...Continue reading

  4. A lose-lose trade war looms between America and China

    PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP has not yet started a global trade war. But he has started a frenzy of special pleading and spluttered threats. In the week since he announced tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, countries have scrambled to win reprieves. Australia, the European Union and Japan, among others, have argued that, since they are America’s allies, their products pose no risk to America’s security. If these appeals fail, the EU has been most vocal in vowing to retaliate, in turn prompting Mr Trump to threaten levies on European cars.

    In China, ostensibly the focus of Mr Trump’s actions, the public response has been more restrained. Officials have said the two countries should strive for a “win-win outcome”, a favourite bromide in their lexicon. As a rival to America, China knows that an exemption from the tariffs is not on offer. It also knows that it needs to conserve firepower. If this is the first shot in a trade war, it is, for China, small bore. Its steel and aluminium exports to America amount to roughly 0.03% of its GDP, not...Continue reading

  5. A primer on blockchain-based versions of central-bank money

    BITCOIN, Ethereum, XRP, Stellar, Cardano: the infant world of cryptocurrencies is already mind-bogglingly crowded. Amid the cacophony of blockchain-based would-be substitutes for official currencies, central banks from Singapore to Sweden have been pondering whether they should issue digital versions of their own money, too. None is about to do so, but a report prepared by central-bank officials from around the world, published by the Bank for International Settlements on March 12th—a week before finance ministers and central-bank heads from G20 countries meet in Buenos Aires—offers a guide to how to approach the task.

    The answer? With care. For a start, it matters who will be using these central-bank digital currencies (CBDCs). Existing central-bank money comes in two flavours: notes and coins available to anyone; and reserve and settlement accounts open only to commercial banks, already in electronic form (though not based on blockchain) and used for interbank payments. Similarly, CBDCs could be either widely available or tightly...Continue reading

  6. Why Japanese houses have such limited lifespans

    EVERY 20 years in the eastern coastal Japanese city of Ise, the shrine, one of the country’s most venerated, is knocked down and rebuilt. The ritual is believed to refresh spiritual bonds between the people and the gods. Demolishing houses has no such lofty objective. Yet in Japan they have a similarly short life expectancy.

    According to Nomura, a brokerage, the value of the average Japanese house depreciates to zero in 22 years. (It is calculated separately from the land, which is more likely to hold its value.) Most are knocked down and rebuilt. Sales of new homes far outstrip those of used ones, which usually change hands in the expectation that they will be demolished and replaced. In America and Europe second-hand houses accounted for 90% of sales and new-builds for 10% in 2017. In Japan the proportions are the other way around.

    The reasons for Japanese houses’ rapid loss of value lie partly in tradition. In many countries people buy when they pair off, when they move to a bigger...Continue reading

  7. In America, a political coalition in favour of protectionism may be emerging

    THE post-war system of global trade has been close to expiring, seemingly, for most of the post-war period. It tottered in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan muscled trading partners into curbing their exports to America. It wobbled with the end of the fruitless Doha round of trade talks. The system now faces the antediluvian economics of President Donald Trump, who seems bent on its destruction.

    Mr Trump’s mercantilism is gaining steam. Straight after saying he would slap hefty tariffs on aluminium and steel imports, he is setting his sights on China, a favourite stump-speech bogeyman. This week he blocked the takeover of an American chipmaker by a Singaporean rival, because of fears of Chinese technological leadership. He is poised to act against China over its theft of intellectual property and its trade surplus.

    And yet global trade has proven itself to be remarkably resilient. An optimist could argue that, historically, it is big political realignments that overturn trade-policy...Continue reading

  8. Active fund managers hold fewer and fewer stocks

    THE past decade has been tough for conventional “active” fund managers, who try to pick stocks that beat the market. They have been losing business to “passive” funds—those that try to replicate a benchmark, like the S&P500 index. Passive funds have much lower fees.

    Figures from Inalytics, a company that analyses fund managers’ portfolios, suggest that active managers are changing strategy in response. The average number of stocks in global equity portfolios has halved, from 121 to 61 (see chart). In a sense, active managers have become more active, making bigger bets on individual stocks. This makes their portfolios less like the index, meaning they can beat the market by a larger margin. But they can also do a lot worse. The portfolios examined by Inalytics have outperformed, but in the long term the average manager is unlikely to do so, since the index reflects average performance.

    Moreover, managers incur costs and the index does not. The result of more active management...Continue reading

  9. Markets fret about America’s turn toward protectionism

    IN THE run-up to the presidential election of 2016, investors were nervous about Donald Trump. They liked his tax-cutting, anti-regulation promises, but fretted about his foreign and trade policies. Some dubbed the two agendas “Trump lite” and “Donnie Darko”.

    Almost as soon as it became clear that Mr Trump would become president, the markets decided to believe in the optimistic version. His tweeting and decision-making may have been erratic, but investors seemed to forgive the president his peccadilloes as a wife might her errant husband: “He may not be faithful but he’s a good provider.”

    Fears about trade conflict almost disappeared. In last month’s survey of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, just 5% regarded a trade war between America and China as the biggest risk facing the markets, compared with 45% who worried about a return of inflation or a crash in the bond markets.

    The announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminium on March 1st thus...Continue reading

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