BUSINESS

Bitcoin and its rivals offer no shelter from the storm

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THE “biggest bubble in human history comes down crashing,” tweeted Nouriel Roubini, an economist, gleefully. After an exhilarating ride skywards in 2017, investors in crypto-currencies have been rudely reminded that prices can plunge earthwards, too. In mid-December the price of bitcoin was just shy of $20,000; by February 6th, it had fallen to $6,000, before recovering a little (see chart).And bitcoin is not the only digital currency to have fallen. Figures from CoinMarketCap, a website, show that the total market capitalisation of crypto-currencies has fallen by more than half this year, to under $400bn. This slide has taken place amid a flurry of hacks, fraud allegations and a growing regulatory backlash.Perhaps the most damaging allegations surround Tether, a company that issues a virt

Creditors call time on China’s HNA

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THE ascent of HNA, an aviation-to-financing giant, began on six wings and a prayer. It started out as Hainan Airlines, set up on China’s southern palm-fringed island in 1993 with three planes, in a joint venture between a Buddhist businessman, Chen Feng, and the local government of Hainan. In 2000 the firm became HNA Group and, from a Buddha-shaped headquarters, Mr Chen built his enterprise into an empire with more than $150bn in assets. Foreign trophies came next. The firm borrowed heavily to finance deals worth $50bn since 2015 over six continents, including a 25% stake in the Hilton hotel group and 9.92% of Deutsche Bank.In recent weeks it has become clear that its gorging—which had continued apace even after HNA was among those firms singled out for scrutiny by China’s banking regulato

South-to-South investment is rising sharply

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AT A meeting in Namibia last month Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, made a pitch to lure African investors to an economy ruined by Robert Mugabe. That he did so first in Windhoek, not London or New York, is telling. Although flows through tax havens muddy the data, 28% of new foreign direct investment (FDI) globally in 2016 was from firms in emerging markets—up from just 8% in 2000.Chinese FDI, a big chunk of this, shrank in 2017 as Beijing restricted outflows and America and Europe screened acquisitions by foreigners more closely. But the trend of outbound investment is widespread. Almost all developing countries have companies with overseas affiliates. Most of their investment goes to the West. But in two-fifths of developing countries they make up at least half of incomin

Wells Fargo suffers a rare punishment—a cap on assets

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ON HER way out, Janet Yellen, who stood down as the Federal Reserve’s chair on February 2nd, paused to add yet another sanction to those already imposed on Wells Fargo for foisting unwanted insurance and banking products on clients. The latest punishment is a highly unusual one. Wells will be blocked from adding assets to the $2trn held on its balance-sheet at the end of 2017. Two other regulators had already imposed fines and penalties soon after the shenanigans began emerging in 2016. The bank has gone through a big reorganisation. The Fed’s belated response presumably took into account not only the errant conduct but also the political fallout. The government, as well as the bank, had been embarrassed.At first glance, Wells is an odd target for such treatment. During the financial crisi

Passive funds tracking an index lose out when its make-up changes

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IS THERE hope for fund managers after all? Conventional “active” managers, who try to pick stocks that will beat the market, have been losing ground to “passive” funds, which simply own all assets in a given sector in proportion to their market value. The main advantage of the latter group is that they charge a lot less.William Sharpe, a Nobel prizewinning economist, argued in 1991 that the “arithmetic of active management” means that the average fund manager is doomed to underperform. To understand why, assume that there are equal numbers of active and passive managers and, between them, they own all the market. The market returns 10%. How much will the passive managers earn? The answer must be 10%, before costs. The active managers own that bit of the market the passive managers don’t. B

The markets deliver a shock to complacent investors

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EVERY good horror-film director knows the secret of the “jump scare”. Just when the hero or heroine feels safe, the monster appears from nowhere to startle them. The latest stockmarket shock could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The sharp falls that took place on February 2nd and 5th followed a long period where the only direction for share prices appeared to be upwards.In fact the American market had risen so far, so fast that the decline only took share prices back to where they were at the start of the year (see chart). And although a 1,175-point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on February 5th was the biggest ever in absolute terms, it was still smallish beer in proportionate terms, at just 4.6%. The 508-point fall in the Dow in October 1987 knocked nearly 23% off the m

The release of Samsung’s boss leaves South Koreans exasperated

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He backed the wrong horse“INNOCENT if rich, guilty if poor” is a well-known adage in South Korea. It has been trending anew on social media since February 5th, when Lee Jae-yong, the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, was released from prison. The 49-year-old heir to South Korea’s biggest chaebol, or family-run conglomerate, had been found guilty of bribing a former president, Park Geun-hye, and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. But Mr Lee’s initial five-year prison sentence was cut in half and suspended by an appeals court, allowing him to walk free after 353 days in jail. Other executives were also released on suspended sentences.The ruling largely upheld Mr Lee’s insistence that he had been coerced by Ms Park into handing over the bribe. Prosecutors had charged him with paying 43bn won

Bets on low market volatility went spectacularly wrong

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THE Cboe Volatility Index, or Vix, known as the “fear gauge”, spikes when markets are most jittery. When Sandy Rattray, now at Man Group, an asset manager, worked on the Vix in the early 2000s, he and his team considered launching an exchange-traded product (ETP) linked to it, but concluded that it would be a “horror show” because of poor returns. Now, however, Vix-linked ETPs are a big industry, with around $8bn in assets. Formerly niche investments, they served vastly to exacerbate this week’s market turmoil, which saw the Vix’s largest ever one-day move, when it more than doubled on February 5th.The Vix was always intended as a basis for financial products as well as a gauge. Vix futures were launched in 2004 and options in 2006. “Long” Vix products, which Mr Rattray looked into, seek t

Central banks should gamble on productivity-improving technology

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IN 1996 Alan Greenspan began asking why the flashy information technology spreading across America seemed not to be lifting productivity. He was not the first to wonder. A decade earlier Robert Solow, a Nobel prizewinner, famously remarked that computers were everywhere but in the statistics. But Mr Greenspan was uniquely positioned, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to experiment on the American economy. As the unemployment rate dropped to levels that might normally trigger a phalanx of interest-rate rises, Mr Greenspan’s Fed moved cautiously, betting that efficiencies from new IT would keep price pressures in check. The result was the longest period of rapid growth since the early 1960s. Despite his success, few central bankers seem eager to repeat the experiment and many remain bl