Category: Business / Finance

Money stolen by Bernie Madoff is still being found

WHEN bankruptcy trustees were appointed over a hectic weekend late in 2008, there seemed no end to the losses caused by the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Cash in the bank was no more than $150m. But the losses have been less, and the assets available for compensation greater, than had been feared.

On February 22nd Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the liquidation of Mr Madoff’s firm, announced that a fund set up to reimburse customers would make its ninth distribution, of $621m, bringing the total handed out so far to $11.4bn. Another $1.8bn in held in reserve for contested claims. This is on top of a separate distribution of $723m last November from a separate fund run by the Department of Justice. Another $3bn remains to be distributed in that fund and the bankruptcy trustees hold out hope that substantially more will be recovered and returned.

Mr Madoff, who will turn 80 in April, is serving a 150-year sentence in a North Carolina prison. At his…

…read more

The rapid rise and fall of the Anbang empire

RARELY in corporate history has a giant come and gone so quickly. Anbang was founded in 2004 as a small Chinese car-insurance company. By the start of last year it ranked among the world’s biggest insurers with some $300bn of assets, including stakes in hotels and financial firms across America, Europe and Asia. Given another ten years, boasted Wu Xiaohui, its swashbuckling founder, Anbang’s scale would “exceed your imagination”. But then, just as vertiginous as its ascent, came its fall. Alarmed at its debt-fuelled expansion, regulators started blocking its overseas deals, reined in its insurance business and detained Mr Wu. On February 23rd its disgrace became complete: the Chinese government announced that it had taken over Anbang and would prosecute Mr Wu for economic crimes.

The insurance regulator said it had intervened because illegal operations could have “seriously endangered” the company’s solvency. It did not spell out the exact nature of Anbang’s alleged…

…read more

Snap, chatter and pop goes the share price

KYLIE Jenner, a model best known for being the, er, second most famous Kylie in the world, managed to cause a stir on Wall Street. With this idiosyncratic tweet

sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat any more? Or is it just me…ugh this is so sad

she knocked back the share price of Snap, the parent compnay of the video- and picture-sharing app. Ms Jenner’s influence in the target market is deemed to be huge; she has 24.5m Twitter followers, and her message has (at thew time of writing) been retweeted 58,000 times and “liked” by 310,000.

Snap’s share price fell 6%, reducing the company’s market value by $1.3bn. The decline was not just down to the influence of Ms Jenner, who recently gave birth to a daughter Stormi, named after the weather/porn star/grime artist. Investors were already worried about the impact of a recent app redesign. More than 1.2m people signed a petition calling for the…

…read more

A pharmaceutical firm bets big on a cancer drug

WHEN Ken Frazier, chief executive of Merck, an American pharmaceutical giant, started his job in 2011, he had a hard decision to make. The firm had promising new drugs—such as Januvia, for diabetes, and Gardasil, a vaccine against cervical cancer. But the pharma industry was struggling with dismal returns on R&D and investors were questioning if companies were overspending on science. Some surrendered and started buying in drugs instead. But Mr Frazier opted to carry on backing his labs and promised publicly to spend on R&D for the long term, not for the stockmarket’s immediate gratification.

An opportunity to implement the pledge soon arrived. Merck’s merger with another pharma firm, Schering-Plough, in 2009, had brought it an obscure new cancer drug. At first Merck’s scientists were unimpressed and relegated the drug to a list of assets to be licensed out. There was widespread scepticism at the time about whether drugs that attacked cancer using the immune system would…

…read more

Chinese cities are competing to woo overseas entrepreneurs

The coffee’s on us

WHEN Maria Veikhman, founder of SCORISTA, a Russian credit-scoring startup, was considering expansion abroad, China immediately came to mind. She believes the scope there is vast, for two-fifths of Chinese have no credit records. Ms Veikhman settled in Tianfu Software Park, a state-owned incubator in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province where city authorities “offer almost everything for free”. Complementary facilities range from office space, basic furniture and logistics services to detailed guidance on entrepreneurial methods.

Chengdu aims to catch up with Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, which at present are in a different entrepreneurial league—together they have over a hundred unicorns, or private startups worth over $1bn. The south-western city allocated 200m yuan ($30m) in 2016 to an innovation-and-startup fund for overseas founders, and hands out up to 1m yuan in cash to well-capitalised foreign startups and joint ventures. If the…

…read more

OPEC mulls a long-term alliance with Russia to keep oil prices stable

OIL bears beware. On February 20thSuhail al-Mazrouei, OPEC’s rotating president and energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the 14-member producers’ group is working on a plan for a formal alliance with ten other petrostates, including Russia, aimed at propping up oil prices for the foreseeable future. If it comes to anything, it could be OPEC’s most ambitious venture in decades.

The result will not be, he insists, a “supergroup”. The notion of Saudi Arabia and Russia joining forces as the Traveling Wilburys of the oil world may be a bit jarring. It remains an idea in “draft” form. But whatever its chances, it attempts to shift a belief widely held by participants in oil markets: that non-American oil producers are helpless against the shale revolution.

That belief has strengthened because of a renewed flood of American shale production in the latter part of 2017 after prices of West Texas Intermediate climbed above $50 a barrel. The International Energy Agency…

…read more

The long-term returns from collectibles

BONDS, shares and Treasury bills are all very well, but in the end they are just pieces of paper. They are not assets you can hang on the wall or display to admiring neighbours. Many rich people like to invest their wealth in more tangible form; property, of course, but also collectibles such as art, fine wine and classic cars.

Is that wise? Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) have run the numbers for their annual analysis of the financial markets in the Credit Suisse global investment-returns yearbook. Some of these assets have done rather better than others (see chart). Fine wine delivered the best returns; surprising to cynics who might assume that, in the long run, the value of wine vanishes as it turns into vinegar. Really old wine often has historical resonance. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1787 was sold for $156,450 in 1985 because it was thought to belong to Thomas Jefferson.

Estimating the returns from these assets, after…

…read more

Donald Trump mulls restrictions on steel and aluminium imports

TEN months ago the Trump administration took aim at steel and aluminium imports, giving itself a year to decide whether they threatened national security and, if so, what to do about it. On February 16th it concluded that America is indeed under threat. The president has until mid-April to choose whether to respond.

The reports handed to Donald Trump by the Department of Commerce, which led the investigations, describe America as effectively under siege. Its steel industry might struggle to respond to a crisis similar to the second world war, they fret, as foreigners are filling a third of American demand for steel, even as 28% of national capacity lies idle. The share of primary aluminium (the kind smelted from ore, rather than recycled metal) that is imported is 91%, and 61% of local smelting capacity lies cold. Doubters can point out that the Department of Defence requires a tiny slice of American steel supply, and that America’s largest supplier for both metals, Canada, is an ally (see…

…read more

Why low returns are inevitable

WHEN the stockmarket is close to a record high, the chances are that recent returns will have been very strong. The terrible tendency among investors is to assume that those returns will contiue. But the higher you go, the harder it is to keep rising at the same pace.

When I visited America for a story on pensions last autumn, I was struck by how few people failed to grasp this point. Public pensions have return targets of 7-8% for their portfolios. When challenged they tend to cite their 30-year record of achieving those numbers. But that record makes it less likely, not more that they will hit their targets.

The easiest way to think of this is via the bond market. In 1987, the yield on the ten-year Treasury bond was just under 9%. Since then it has fallen to its current level of just under 3%. So not only did bond investors get a high yield in their early years,…

…read more

Latvia’s top banking official has been accused of taking a bribe

ILMARS RIMSEVICS, governor of Latvia’s central bank for the past 17 years, had been due to retire next year. Instead, he is facing calls to resign. On February 17th he was detained by Latvia’s anti-corruption authority on suspicion of taking a bribe of at least €100,000 ($123,000). The prime minister, Maris Kucinskis, says the allegations are so serious that Mr Rimsevics cannot possibly return to work. Mr Rimsevics, for his part, is staying put. Released on bail on February 19th, he denies the allegations, saying he was set up and is facing death threats.

Just a few days earlier, in an unrelated case, the US Treasury had proposed sanctions on ABLV, one of Latvia’s largest banks. It claimed ABLV had “institutionalised money laundering” and facilitated transactions with North Korea, which is under sanctions. In the days that followed €600m was withdrawn by the bank’s customers. On February 19th, seeking to stabilise the institution, the ECB froze payments by ABLV….

…read more