ApprovedBusinessBusiness and finance

American bosses continue to lobby, more quietly

IN CORPORATE America, “Trump” seems to be a dirty word, at least in public. After President Donald Trump seemed to equate the actions of white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville earlier this month, dozens of chief executives abandoned his advisory councils. Several organisations cancelled fundraising galas booked at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Lloyd Blankfein, the boss of Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, compared Mr Trump to the dark shadow cast over parts of America by a solar eclipse: “We got through one, we’ll get through the other.”

Look past the public repudiation, though, and the schism is less stark. As Jason Furman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, who led the White House Council of Economic Advisers during Barack Obama’s presidency, points out, the bosses’ public rejection of Mr Trump has done nothing to sap their appetite to guide policy. Lower-ranking executives from large firms continue to serve on informal…Continue reading

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Does ageing explain America’s disappointing wage growth?

WHEN America’s unemployment was last as low as it has been recently, in early 2007, wages were growing by about 3.5% a year. Today wage growth seems stuck at about 2.5%. This puzzles economists. Some say the labour market is less healthy than the jobless rate suggests; others point to weak productivity growth or low inflation expectations. The latest idea is to blame retiring baby-boomers.

The thinking goes as follows. The average worker gains skills and seniority, and hence higher pay, over time. When he retires, his high-paying job will vanish unless a similarly-seasoned worker is waiting in the wings. A flurry of retirements could therefore put downward pressure on average wages, however well the economy does. The first baby-boomers began to hit retirement age around 2007, just as the financial crisis started. And since 2010, the first full year of the recovery, the number of middle-aged workers has shrunk considerably. They have been replaced partly by lower-earning youngsters (see…Continue reading

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Management turmoil at Infosys is particularly ill-timed

Less than thrilled

THE quickest way to start a Mexican wave in India is to head to the campus of Infosys, an IT outsourcing firm based in Bangalore, and ask all those who think they should be in charge to raise their hands. On August 18th the company’s chief executive, Vishal Sikka (pictured), resigned unexpectedly. But he still serves as executive vice-chairman. Now a chairman, a co-chairman, the interim chief executive who succeeded Mr Sikka, the board of directors and a retired founder all seem to think they should be running the show. The stalemate risks leaving the firm without a leader just as it had started the urgent work of overhauling its business.

The company’s management crisis is surprising. As one of only a few Indian IT firms that multinational companies trust to build and maintain their computer systems, Infosys has long sought to exude an aura of professionalism bordering on the dull. But clashing egos at the top now make it seem anything…Continue reading

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Are men more irrationally exuberant than women?

Tiger investor?

WOULD more women on the trading floor inject a dose of sanity into the world’s financial markets? This question gained prominence after the 2007-08 crisis. As Christine Lagarde, then France’s finance minister and now head of the IMF, quipped, had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, history would have been different. Many studies support this idea, showing that testosterone-laden men are prone to overconfidence in trading. Women are more cautious.

But things may not be so simple. Previous research has mostly used evidence from the West. To test if the conclusions apply universally, Wang Jianxin of China’s Central South University, Daniel Houser of George Mason University and Xu Hui of Beijing Normal University looked at both America and China. And they found that in China’s markets, women can be just as manic as men.

The economists arranged for 342 students to form experimental markets. They were allocated dividend-paying…Continue reading

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Facebook, Twitter and Apple get into the television business

ON AUGUST 27th the season finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, one of the most expensively produced series in television history, will air to an audience of more than 10m Americans. When it ends, viewers can switch to one of the most inexpensively produced shows in the industry, “Talk the Thrones”, in which boffins sit around and discuss HBO’s show. Hundreds of thousands are expected to watch.

Besides the obvious gap in entertainment value (one has dragons, the other has people talking about them), there is another distinction between the series. “Game of Thrones” is available only for a subscription on pay TV. “Talk the Thrones” is free on Twitter, produced by a digital site called The Ringer and sponsored by Verizon, a telecommunications giant. Although the HBO series is more popular, “Talk the Thrones” may be a better sign of how the TV industry might evolve.

A new generation of TV shows is being made for…Continue reading

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Artificial intelligence will create new kinds of work

WHEN the first printed books with illustrations started to appear in the 1470s in the German city of Augsburg, wood engravers rose up in protest. Worried about their jobs, they literally stopped the presses. In fact, their skills turned out to be in higher demand than before: somebody had to illustrate the growing number of books.

Fears about the impact of technology on jobs have resurfaced periodically ever since. The latest bout of anxiety concerns the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI). Once again, however, technology is creating demand for work. To take one example, more and more people are supplying digital services online via what is sometimes dubbed the “human cloud”. Counter-intuitively, many are doing so in response to AI.

According to the World Bank, more than 5m people already offer to work remotely on online marketplaces such as Freelancer.com and UpWork. Jobs range from designing websites to writing legal briefs, and typically bring in at least a few…Continue reading

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Financial-market index-makers are growing in power

IT WAS in 1896 that Charles Dow, co-founder of Dow Jones & Company, created the index that still bears his name. Today, indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 (for shares listed in New York), or the FTSE 100 (for London), are among the best-known brands in financial markets. The role they play has expanded massively in recent years. Index-makers have become finance’s new kingmakers: arbiters of how investors should allocate their money.

Stockmarket indices were devised as a measure of the overall market, against which those trading in shares could compare their performance. At first they were concocted by the press or by exchanges themselves. For bonds, indices were compiled by the banks that traded them. Except for a few of the very earliest indices, such as the Dow, which is weighted by share price, nearly all are weighted by market capitalisation or, in the case of bond indices, by the volume of debt outstanding.

Three large firms—FTSE…Continue reading

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How the shape of global banking has turned upside down

IN THE 1980s, when Citicorp was America’s largest bank and pursuing every avenue for international expansion, John Reed, the bank’s boss, would muse about moving its headquarters to a neutral location, notably the moon. Such sentiments are inconceivable today. Jamie Dimon, boss of JPMorgan Chase, Citi’s successor atop the league tables, recently said he is an American “patriot” first, head of a bank second. His strategy, though hardly shunning international markets, reflects this.

Mr Dimon turned down several big foreign acquisitions before and during the financial crisis. His stellar reputation may rest as much on those undone deals as on those completed. Citi, meanwhile, has been lopping off foreign affiliates. It has retail operations in just 19 countries, down from 50 in 2007. Further contraction may be in the offing. Bank of America has long chosen to live down to its name, as an almost entirely domestic bank.

The same process is under way in western Europe. Visible…Continue reading

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Investor activism is surging in continental Europe

LEAVE it to the Americans to besiege European companies in August, when the entire continent is on holiday. It emerged this month that Corvex Management, an American hedge fund, had built up a $400m position in Danone, a French food giant. AkzoNobel, a Dutch paints-and-chemicals firm which has been under heavy fire from Elliott Advisors, a subsidiary of another American activist fund, agreed to appoint three new directors to its board. An even bigger skirmish is under way in Switzerland, where Third Point, an American fund run by Daniel Loeb, is seeking to shake up Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company. Ulf Mark Schneider, Nestlé’s new boss, is under pressure to present bold plans to investors in September.

Such tussles used to be relatively rare in Europe. But shareholder activism is on the rise, with restive investors demanding corporate overhauls. Armand Grumberg, a mergers lawyer in Paris, last year counted 70 such campaigns in continental Europe. He expects this year to be…Continue reading

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Private-equity returns can be replicated with public shares

IT IS hard for individual investors to match the returns achieved by private-equity funds. But what if their success in outperforming the public markets could be tracked and replicated? A few pioneering firms claim to have done just that. DSC Quantitative Group, a Chicago-based fund, and State Street, an asset manager, both offer “investable” indices, launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, that allow investors to mimic the performance of American private equity.

Both firms needed a measure of the industry’s returns. DSC teamed up with Thomson Reuters, a data firm, to compile an index; State Street had been making one since 2004, using data it gleans as a custodian of private-equity assets.

They then match the private-equity risk-and-return profile with a basket of public assets. DSC’s index first matches the sector weights of the private portfolio with equivalent public companies, and adds a modest amount of debt (around 25%) unevenly across the sectors—all using…Continue reading

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Islamic banking grows in Bangladesh, no thanks to the authorities

Cash is still king

IN MOTIJHEEL, the main business district in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, an iron fence and terrible traffic divide two branches of the country’s oldest private bank—a “conventional” one and an Islamic one. Abdus Sattar, manager of the Islamic one, says that when he joined AB Bank, in 2005, his was “a loser branch”. Today, like most Islamic banks in the country, it is more profitable and better run than its conventional peers. Islamic banking’s future in the country, however, remains murky.

Bangladesh has eight full-fledged Islamic banks; a handful of orthodox banks, like AB, also offer Islamic-banking services alongside others. Islami Bank Bangladesh, founded in 1983 by Saudi and Kuwaiti investors, commands 90% of Islamic-banking assets and deposits. It is also the biggest private lender overall, with 14,000 staff, 12m depositors and a balance-sheet of $10bn. Its success was built on the “two Rs”: remittances…Continue reading

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The “free” economy comes at a cost

FACEBOOK, whose users visit for an average of 50 minutes a day, promises members: “It’s free and always will be.” It certainly sounds like a steal. But it is only one of the bargains that apparently litter the internet: YouTube watchers devour 1bn hours of videos every day, for instance. These free lunches do come at a cost; the problem is calculating how much it is. Because consumers do not pay for many digital services in cash, beyond the cost of an internet connection, economists cannot treat these exchanges like normal transactions. The economics of free are different.

Unlike conventional merchants, companies like Facebook and Google have their users themselves produce value. Information and pictures uploaded to social networks draw others to the site. Online searches, selections and “likes” teach algorithms what people want. (Now you’ve bought “The Communist Manifesto”, how about a copy of “Das Kapital”?)

The prevalence of free services is partly a…Continue reading

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