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How will the European Central Bank react to longer lockdowns?

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How will the European Central Bank react to longer lockdowns?

Extended Covid-19 lockdowns, the pace of vaccinations and the prospects for an economic recovery will be in focus when the European Central Bank holds its first rate-setting meeting of the year on Thursday.

Christine Lagarde, ECB president, gave a flavour of what to expect from the discussion when she said last week that there was likely to be a rebound in economic activity this year, driven by “expected pent-up demand” being released as the pandemic is brought under control. 

But that would not be enough to justify a tightening of the ECB’s monetary policy, she warned. “Any kind of tightening at the moment would be very unwarranted,” she told a Reuters event. 

Her comments came as German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that her country’s lockdown might last another eight to 10 weeks, while the Netherlands extended its lockdown by three weeks.

While the central bank is widely expected to keep its main monetary policies unchanged on Thursday, Ms Lagarde has already signalled that it could expand its main bond-buying programme further if there is a delay in vaccinations and lockdowns remain in place for longer than expected.

The central bank last month expanded its emergency bond-buying programme to €1.85tn and extended it until March 2022.

Meanwhile, the ECB is keeping a close eye on the recent rise in the euro against the US dollar, which it expects to put downward pressure on inflation by lowering the price of imports. Ms Lagarde said it would “continue to be extremely attentive to the impact on prices that exchange rates have”. Martin Arnold

Will inflation data push Bank of England into negative rates?

The UK economy risks entering a double-dip recession, and inflation remains well below the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target, testing the view held by some investors that negative rates are not on the agenda.

Investors are betting that the bank of England won’t respond to the economic gloom by pushing interest rates below zero, money market pricing indicates. For much of 2020 markets were pricing a cut into negative territory over the coming two years, until the arrival of coronavirus vaccines fuelled expectations of a sharp rebound in economic activity.

But the picture is now murkier, after data from the Office for National Statistics on Friday showed a contraction in November, the first in six months. Inflation numbers for December, published on Wednesday, will be crucial in shaping investors’ expectations about the central bank’s next move.

“The probability of a cut is rising,” said Robert Wood, UK economist at Bank of America. “Inflation and likely persistent spare capacity suggests a need for more stimulus.”

Analysts at RBC say the central bank could push rates from 0.1 per cent to minus 0.15 per cent at its next meeting in February.

Policymakers are also sending signals that a rate cut is still an option for the bank. Silvana Tenreyro, an external member of the BoE’s monetary policy committee, said last week that there was a possibility that the economy would need further support, in which case “having negative rates in our toolbox will . . . be important”. Eva Szalay

Can Hong Kong’s stock market finally recover from the pandemic?

Hong Kong stocks lagged behind their peers badly in 2020, failing to fully recover from sharp falls early in the year as Covid-19 swept first through China before the rest of the world. The Hang Seng index lost 3.4 per cent compared with local-currency gains of 27 per cent for the mainland China benchmark and 16 per cent for US stocks.

Shares listed in the city lost ground after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in June, and experienced regulatory pressure from both Beijing and Washington on big Hong Kong-listed tech groups such as Alibaba and Tencent.

But 2021 is shaping up to be a better year for the Hang Seng, as Chinese investors continue to pour money into Hong Kong-listed stocks through market link-ups with Shanghai and Shenzhen. Together with adjustments to the stock index to reflect Chinese tech groups’ growing dominance, this could finally push the benchmark, which is up 4.9 per cent since the start of January, back above the 29,000 level for the first time in a year.

And Chinese appetite for so-called “H shares” shows no sign of fading. A fourth-quarter survey by the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business showed Chinese investor sentiment towards Hong Kong improving markedly, with more than 46 per cent of respondents saying they were more confident that shares would rise. Hudson Lockett



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Saudis agree oil deal with Pakistan to counter Iran influence

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Saudi Arabia has agreed to restart oil aid to Pakistan worth at least $1.5bn annually in July, according to officials in Islamabad, as Riyadh works to counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Riyadh demanded that Pakistan repay a $3bn loan last year after Islamabad pressured Saudi Arabia to criticise India’s nullification of Kashmir’s special status.

But the acrimony between the two longtime allies has eased after Imran Khan, the prime minister, met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May.

News of the oil deal with Pakistan comes as Saudi Arabia embarks on a diplomatic push with the US and Qatar to build a front against Iran, said analysts. Riyadh lifted a three-year blockade of Qatar in January in what experts said was an attempt to curry favour with the newly elected Joe Biden.

Pakistan had shifted closer to Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals Iran and Turkey, which, along with Malaysia, have sought to establish a Muslim bloc to rival the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Khan has developed a strong rapport with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, encouraging Pakistanis to watch the Turkish historical television series Dirilis Ertugrul (Ertugrul’s Resurrection) for its depiction of Islamic values.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator familiar with the leadership’s thinking, said that “bad blood” had accumulated between Riyadh and Islamabad, but recent bilateral meetings had “cleared the air” and reset relations to the extent that oil credit payments would restart soon.

A senior Pakistan government official said: “Our relations with Saudi Arabia have recovered from [a downturn] earlier. Saudi Arabia’s support will come through deferred payments [on oil] and the Saudis are looking to resume their investment plans in Pakistan.”

The Saudi offer is less than half of the previous oil facility of $3.4bn, which was put on hold when ties frayed.

But Fahad Rauf, head of equity research at Ismail Iqbal Securities in Karachi, said: “Any amount of dollars helps because time and again we face a current account crisis. And with these prices north of $70 a barrel anything helps.”

Pakistan’s foreign reserves were more than $16bn in June compared with about $7bn in 2019 before it entered its $6bn IMF programme.

Robin Mills at consultancy Qamar Energy said: “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are allies, but their relationship has always been rocky. And the Pakistan-Iran relationship is better than you might think.”

Mills said that the timing of the Saudi gesture was “interesting” given that Iran was preparing to step up oil exports with the US considering easing sanctions.

“The Saudis are on a bridge-building mission more generally. They have sought to mend fences with the US and there is also the resumption of relations with Qatar,” he said.

Ahmed Rashid, an author of books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, said that there were a variety of factors that might have spurred Riyadh to restart the oil facility.

It may be “partially linked to the American need for bases” to launch counter-terrorism attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan, he said, but added that its priority was probably to prevent Islamabad from falling under Tehran’s influence.

Rashid pointed out that Pakistan was caught between China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, and the US.

“Pakistan has to play it carefully, it is dependent on China for the Belt and Road, dependent on the west for loans,” said Rashi. “This is a very complex game.”

Anjli Raval in London and Simeon Kerr in Dubai



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Digital euro will protect consumer privacy, ECB executive pledges

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The introduction of a digital euro would boost consumers’ privacy and protect the eurozone from the “threat” of competing cryptocurrencies that could undermine the bloc’s monetary sovereignty, according to the central banker overseeing its development.

Fabio Panetta, an executive board member at the European Central Bank, told the Financial Times that one of the project’s key aims was to combat the spread of digital coins created by other nations and companies.

“If the central bank gets involved in digital payments, privacy is going to be better protected . . . because we are not like private companies,” he said. “We have no commercial interest in storing, managing, let alone abusing, data of users.”

“Of course there is the potential threat that could come from others issuing a digital means of payment . . . If people do want to pay digitally and we do not offer them a digital means of payment, somebody [else] would do that.”

He contrasted the digital euro — an electronic version of cash issued by the central bank — with “unstable coins” such as Diem, Facebook’s planned digital currency which would let users send money as easily as text messages.

The ECB’s recent consultation on a digital euro found that people’s greatest concern was that it would erode their privacy. But Panetta said the central bank had tested ways to separate people’s identities from their payment details. “The payment will go through, but nobody in the payment chain would have access to all the information,” he said. 

The central bank has also tested “offline payments for small amounts, in which no data is recorded outside the wallets of payer and payee”, he said; transfers of up to €70 or €100 could be done using a Bluetooth link between devices. 

Chart showing expected post-pandemic payment behaviour in the eurozone

“For very small amounts, we could permit really anonymous payments, but in general, confidentiality and privacy are different from anonymity,” Panetta said, adding that some checks would be needed on most transactions to avoid money laundering, terrorism finance or tax evasion.

“A payment can be reconstructed [after the event] if the police want to assess whether there’s been any illicit activity,” he said.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s central banks are running practical experiments on whether to launch digital currencies, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

But commercial banks worry that central bank digital currencies could erode their deposits, especially in a crisis. Morgan Stanley estimated as much as €837bn, or 8 per cent of eurozone bank deposits, could switch to digital euros.

It could also crowd out cash, some critics have argued; more than half of German households surveyed recently by the Bundesbank expressed scepticism about a digital euro and frequent cash users were the most dubious.

Panetta said a digital euro would lead to “a fundamental change in the way in which payments, the financial system and society at large will function”, for example by being “programmable” to allow automated payments, such as road tolls or in a cinema.

But he said the ECB was determined to make sure the digital euro did not undermine the commercial banking system, replace cash, crowd out innovation or become a shadow currency in smaller countries.

To achieve this, it is planning to either cap the amount anyone can hold at €3,000 each or impose “disincentivising remuneration” above that threshold, Panetta said.

The ECB’s governing council will meet next month to decide whether to push ahead with the preparations and Panetta said it could be ready for use in about five years’ time. 

The central bank will also complete its new oversight framework for private digital currencies and crypto asset providers by the end of this year, he said.

Chart showing average amount of cash in the wallet at the beginning of the day, by country

Crypto assets such as bitcoin are “very dangerous animals” that are “largely used for criminal activities” and consume “a huge amount of energy”, Panetta warned. 

So-called stablecoins such as Diem are meant to be safer as they are backed by fiat currency reserves, but Panetta said the potential volatility of those reserves created “an inherent instability in the function of these coins — and for this reason they are still unstable coins”.

Regulating and supervising crypto assets is hard “because there is no responsible legal entity,” he said. “It is decentralised. They could be in China. They could be in Switzerland or in South America . . . But to the extent that intermediaries are involved in the supply of those crypto assets, then we would have regulation and oversight in place.”

The digital euro should be made available in limited amounts for tourists visiting Europe, Panetta said, but the ECB would “have to reflect very carefully on access, and up to which limit, for foreign users”. 

Major central banks are in talks to ensure their digital currencies are kept “interoperable”, Panetta said, as this would help to “make cross-border payments more efficient and much cheaper”.



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SEC aims to stop insiders dumping stock before the bad news hits

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It seems the great trading edge enjoyed by corporate insiders is knowing when to sell. That makes sense. There are many brokers and business-TV guests with stock buying tips, but few who will urge you to sell now, before the bad news comes out.

But we are probably coming to the end of a great couple of decades for legalised insider trading in America. This boom really started with a 2002 “reform”, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s adoption of Rule 10b5-1. This provided a means for senior executives or board members to sell their shares without making themselves vulnerable to charges of acting on “material non public information”.

New SEC chief Gary Gensler has called for reform of the rule, telling a Wall Street Journal conference that it led to “real cracks in our insider-trading regime”.

The rule was issued, as is customary with major reforms, in the wake of a series of giant corporate scandals — in this case those that came to light after the dotcom crash of 2000-2001. You know, pump earnings, goose the stock, dump your shares. Never again.

To qualify for protection under 10b5-1, covered insiders could no longer sell their companies’ shares at will. They have to enter into a (non-binding) contract, or plan, that instructs a third party to execute trades on their behalf according to a written plan, based on value, timing, number of shares, and so on. The stock sales under these plans would then be disclosed to the SEC and then the general public.

At the time, this seemed like a reasonable way to ensure market transparency while allowing insiders to sell shares to make tax payments, buy houses, or cover school tuition. Plans + disclosure + aligned interests = good.

In practice, Rule 10b5-1 has turned out to be a “get out of jail free” card for opportunistic timing of stock sales using insider information. It is also probably a good object lesson for why $4,000/hour lawyers are a better value than $400/hour lawyers.

To begin with, you, the insider, must follow a plan, detailed in a SEC Form 144, which you adopt at a time when you are not in possession of material non-public information. That would include, for example, certain knowledge that the next earnings announcement will be disappointing for the public shareholders.

Ah, but while you have to establish the plan with, say, your broker or family lawyer, you can modify or cancel the plan at will, in private. And you are not required to inform the SEC or the public that the plan is in place. Even better, there is no minimum number of transactions, so you can use it to make one big sale.

And you can file your plan (when you are ready) on a paper form, rather than in an easily accessed online filing. Until the pandemic, the 10b5-1s were only available for a limited time in the SEC’s Reading Room. It is possible, even likely, that an insider’s pre-filed plan might become general knowledge only after their stock sale has already been executed by his broker.

Mostly the insiders appear to be getting out before bad news is disclosed.

Daniel Taylor, a Wharton School associate professor and director of the Wharton Forensic Analytics Lab, has co-authored a series of studies on data combed from the 10b5-1 filings. He says “the sellers’ outperformance (in timing trades) comes from avoidance of risk”.

According to one of his studies, sales executed in the first 30 days of plan adoption are associated with the stocks underperforming others in their industry by 2.5 percentage points over the following six months.

Sales made 30 to 60 days after a plan adoption foreshadow 1.5 points of underperformance by the insiders’ companies. The sell-off effect was consistent over the 2016-2020 period covered by the study. The insider advantage disappears if sales are made under plans that are at least 60 days old.

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As Taylor (and others) see it, the policy lesson is clear: insiders should be required to wait for at least two months after filing their plans publicly before their stock sales can be executed. Oh, and those plans should be filed in easily accessible electronic form, so insiders’ lessened commitment to their companies becomes obvious before the bad news.

The odds favour the SEC’s adoption of such changes.

The next frontier, Taylor says, is to limit insiders’ use of privileged information about competitors, suppliers, customers and the like. That “shadow trading” is probably a bigger rip-off than insider selling.

 



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