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Plymouth council makes first dive into swaps market 30 years after scandal

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Plymouth City Council has bought an interest rate swap to try to protect its finances against a rise in borrowing costs, almost 30 years after a scandal that ended with local government barred from the market in these derivatives. 

The agreement with Santander is designed to hedge Plymouth’s exposure to a potential rise in interest rates as the local authority refinances £468m worth of short-term debts. The deal, which has a notional value of £75m, aims to lock in relatively low borrowing costs for 20 years and reduce the risk that the council will have to cut services or investment.

It makes Plymouth the first council to take the plunge since the market was reopened to local government bodies by a law change in 2011, and reflects a hunt by UK councils for new forms of financing after a decade-long funding squeeze was exacerbated during the coronavirus crisis.

In the early 1990s, London council Hammersmith and Fulham faced millions of pounds of losses on derivatives trades before the House of Lords ruled that the contracts were null and void, and legally unenforceable. The case triggered a wave of litigation from other councils, resulting in an estimated £600m loss for banks on the other side of the trades.

Paul Looby, Plymouth’s head of financial planning and reporting, said other local authorities might have considered similar deals, but had been “scared off” by memories of the Hammersmith and Fulham saga. “At a time of adversity, you look for new innovative ideas,” he said, pointing to the pressure on the council’s finances.

An interest rate swap is a common derivative contract which allows two parties to exchange a series of floating interest payments — typically linked to fluctuations in Bank of England interest rates — for a series of fixed payments. 

Plymouth decided to seek a swap because of its reliance on short-term debt. This financing, in the form of loans from other local authorities, is cheap compared with available sources of long-term borrowing, but exposes the council to the risk of rising rates when it refinances. By paying a fixed rate of 0.56 per cent and receiving a floating rate, it hedges part of this exposure.

If interest rates fell, the hit it would take on the swaps should be more than offset by the availability of cheaper short-term loans, Mr Looby added.

Hammersmith and Fulham ran into trouble because its activity in the swaps market went beyond hedging into outright speculation, the Lords found. The council entered derivative positions with a notional value of more than £6bn, compared with its total debt of £390m, which were designed to profit from falling interest rates and saw it rapidly rack up losses when rates rose.

In contrast, Plymouth was “just giving ourselves protection against interest rate rises,” Mr Looby said.

Stuart Selby-Jerrold, of Santander UK’s risk solutions group, said he expected other councils to follow suit. “Hammersmith and Fulham was a very different situation to what’s happening now,” he added.

“This is a very simple product which allows [Plymouth] to fix their interest costs. I think it will be appropriate for other local authorities, but it needs to be considered as part of an overall financing strategy.”



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PayPal to acquire ‘buy now, pay later’ provider Paidy for $2.7bn

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Mergers & Acquisitions updates

PayPal, the US online payments company, has agreed to acquire Paidy, a Tokyo-based “buy now, pay later” group, for ¥300bn ($2.7bn) in the latest shake-up in the industry.

The deal announced late on Tuesday, which will be paid for principally in cash, deepens PayPal’s push into the crowded BNPL sector, in which consumers spread the cost of goods over a small number of payments, typically without interest and often without requiring a credit check.

Last month, Square, the payments company led by Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, acquired BNPL group Afterpay for $29bn, in the largest takeover in Australian history.

Shares in San Francisco-based Affirm, another BNPL company, soared last month after it announced a partnership with Amazon allowing shoppers who spend more than $50 to make payments in monthly instalments.

Paidy, founded in 2008, is one of Japan’s few “unicorns”, or start-ups worth more than $1bn. The company launched the country’s first zero-interest post-payment service last year.

While the global BNPL market has exploded in popularity owing to the pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, the trend is only starting to catch on in Japan, where consumers still depend heavily on cash payments.

Paidy allows its 6m registered users to split the cost of goods into three equal instalments with no interest. Users can pay off their balance using cash at convenience stores or bank transfers.

According to Yano Research Institute, the volume of transactions made through post-payment services in Japan is expected to more than double from an estimated ¥882bn in fiscal 2020 to ¥1.88tn by fiscal 2024.

Paidy was valued at $1.3bn when it raised $120m in March, and was expected to list its shares in Tokyo later this year. It has been backed by trading house Itochu, Goldman Sachs and Soros Capital Management along with PayPal.

Russell Cummer, the Japanese fintech’s founder, recently told the Financial Times that a public listing “made sense” — though no firm timetable had been established. Instead, the company is now expected to become part of PayPal by the fourth quarter of this year.

“Paidy pioneered ‘buy now, pay later’ solutions tailored to the Japanese market and quickly grew to become the leading service, developing a sizeable two-sided platform of consumers and merchants,” said Peter Kenevan, PayPal’s vice-president and head of business in Japan.

“Combining Paidy’s brand, capabilities and talented team with PayPal’s expertise, resources and global scale will create a strong foundation to accelerate our momentum in this strategically important market.”

PayPal said Paidy would “continue to operating its existing business, maintain its brand and support a wide variety of consumer wallets and marketplaces”. Cummer and Riku Sugie, Paidy’s president and chief executive, will continue to lead the company, according to a statement.

“Paidy is just at the beginning of our journey and joining PayPal will accelerate our plans to expand beyond ecommerce and build unique services as the new shopping standard,” said Sugie. “PayPal was a founding partner for Paidy Link and we look forward to working together to create even more value.”

The acquisition comes as PayPal rolls out its broader strategy to become a “super app” — incorporating payments, cryptocurrency investments and savings — drawing inspiration from under-one-roof Chinese apps such as WeChat.

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Bitcoin: El Salvador’s experiment does not warrant cross-cryptocurrency price rise

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Bitcoin updates

Early adopters of virtual currencies have a clear incentive to promote mainstream acceptance. The more buyers, the higher the price. Crypto fans, therefore, hatched an online plan to bolster bitcoin as El Salvador legalised the tokens for payments. That was logical. The knock-on rise in other cryptocurrency prices was not.

Bitcoin’s 8 per cent rise over the past seven days means that it is now worth about $51,000. But according to data from CoinGecko, which tracks more than 9,000 coins, it is not the largest mover. Ethereum, the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency, has leapt 16 per cent over the past week. Solana’s SOL tokens have risen 69 per cent.

There is no sensible reason for these rallies. El Salvador is not expected to make other virtual currencies legal tender. Instead, the jumps reflect a soupy mixture of low rates, blind faith and better investor access.

Trading apps make it easier for retail investors to buy cryptos. The initial public offering of Coinbase in April raised its profile, leading to a jump in downloads.

The make-believe world of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, has also given cryptos a boost. These prove ownership of digital assets such as art, music or even virtual pet rocks. Many use the ethereum network. Solana, which is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, has its own NFT marketplace, Solanart.

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None of this, however, has anything to do with El Salvador’s attention-seeking adoption of bitcoin. This diverts domestic attention from the failing economy of this impoverished Central American nation, the first country to embrace bitcoin as legal tender. It also supplies cheerier news flow to bitcoin fans than did the cryptocurrency’s collapse in value this spring.

Rising prices mean the total market value of cryptocurrencies has reached nearly $2.4tn. It is rapidly closing in on the previous record of $2.57tn set in May. Bitcoin’s share of the market has fallen. It is now about 40 per cent, down from 57 per cent a year ago. Yet bitcoin remains a powerful bellwether.

This could be a problem if bitcoin’s latest rally depends on success in El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele says the country has purchased 400 bitcoins — equal to just 0.002 per cent of the outstanding value. Local opposition is widespread, suggesting take-up will be low. A damp squib is more likely than the financial dislocation some critics are prophesying.

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Europe stocks notch best day in 6 weeks on sustained stimulus hopes

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Equities updates

European equities had their biggest rise since late July on Monday as weaker-than-expected US jobs data suggested pandemic-era stimulus, which has helped prop up markets, may continue for longer than anticipated.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index gained 0.7 per cent, the region-wide benchmark’s best day in six weeks, as traders analysed the implications of a large miss in US job creation. Employers in the US added 235,000 jobs in August, which fell wide of economists’ projections of more than 728,000 new hires.

“The weak jobs number gave the Federal Reserve ample room to take it easy in terms of how and when it will taper” its $120bn of monthly bond purchases that begun in March 2020, said Maarten Geerdink, head of European equities at NN Investment Partners.

Before Friday’s non-farm payrolls report, some analysts had expected the Fed to announce a reduction of its asset purchases as early as this month.

European stocks, Geerdink added, were “in a sweet spot with the eurozone economy doing well while financial conditions remain extremely loose”.

London’s FTSE 100 index also ended the session 0.7 per cent higher while US markets were closed for Labor Day.

Column chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index, daily % change  showing European stocks notch best day in six weeks

Economists expect the European Central Bank to provide an update about its own debt purchases at its meeting on Thursday, with government bond prices signalling some expectations of a pullback. The yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, was steady on Monday at minus 0.37 per cent, around its highest point since mid-July.

Technology shares, which tend to perform well when expectations of low-for-longer bond yields flatter valuations of growth companies, were the best performers in Europe with the sector rising 1.7 per cent on Monday.

In Asian equity markets on Monday, Chinese shares rallied after vice-premier Liu He said the government would continue to support private businesses despite a regulatory crackdown across the technology and education sectors. 

“Policies for supporting the private economy have not changed . . . and will not change in the future,” Liu said in comments reported by state news agency Xinhua. The CSI 300 index of mainland Chinese stocks climbed 1.9 per cent. 

Japan’s Nikkei 225 gained 1.8 per cent as investors bet that last week’s abrupt resignation by prime minister Yoshihide Suga would usher in a successor more focused on protecting the nation’s economy from rising Covid-19 cases. 

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, slid 0.7 per cent to $72.10 a barrel.



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