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Covid congestion raises the spectre of inflation

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A shortage of empty containers and congestion at ports has led to a tripling of the price of moving a container from China to the US over the past eight weeks. The rise in shipping costs raises a spectre of so-called “cost push inflation” for advanced economies. It is not clear, yet, how much the pandemic has damaged the capacity of the economy to produce goods and services. If more normal activity resumes after vaccination schemes the increase in overall demand could swiftly outpace diminished supply. Stagflation — high unemployment combined with rising prices — would be a nightmare scenario for central banks having to make policy for heavily indebted economies.

Shipping costs are a notoriously volatile economic indicator. It takes years to build a container ship, so when demand is high there is little prospect of bringing more on stream: that means prices rocket. If demand is low there is not much else a vessel can be used for, so prices swiftly collapse thanks to the excess capacity. Empty containers were left stranded in Europe and the US during the first set of lockdowns, but now ports cannot handle the volume of trade.

Worryingly, increases in costs are not limited to shipping. Car manufacturers have similarly been caught short by an unexpected surge in demand at the end of last year and bottlenecks in semiconductor supplies have forced factory closures. Liquid natural gas prices reached a record earlier this month, partly due to a cold snap. Other commodity prices too, are surging; metals prices have risen rapidly because of mine closures in Africa and South America and rising Chinese industrial production. Wheat, soyabean, rice, and corn prices are higher too: shipping costs, weather and Covid-related stockpiling have all played their part. 

Overreacting to a transitory surge in inflation would be a mistake, however. Consumer prices similarly spiked during the 2008 financial crisis thanks to a commodity boom — a contributing factor to a wave of protests in the Arab world. The increase swiftly faded and was not incorporated into long-term expectations. Not did it prompt any increase in the price of the most important input to production: labour. The European Central Bank’s two successive increases in interest rates in 2011, an attempt to forestall inflation, have gone down in the annals of monetary policy as a hubristic mistake. 

Central banks should be vigilant that price expectations remain under control. Lessons from previous business cycles may not apply: efforts to build “resilience” into supply chains may be worthwhile but they will also raise the costs of doing business. Some kinds of economic activity are likely to have to operate under constraints for the short term at least. Protectionism and trade tensions, too, can raise costs, as many British businesses have experienced since the end of the Brexit transition period

There is a transatlantic divide too. While the ECB, which announces its latest interest rate decision on Thursday, is facing another month of deflation and the added challenge of a surging euro, dollar weakness will only amplify the inflationary pressures in the US. Communications by the Federal Reserve have also suggested the US central bank has become more tolerant of inflation; implied predictions of inflation in options prices, an admittedly imperfect measure of expectations, have diverged on either side of the Atlantic. For the moment, however, this should merit nothing more than a particularly sharp reminder that the Fed has not abandoned price stability as a goal altogether.



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Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut

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Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.

The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.

Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.

Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used. 

Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.

The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.

Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year. 

Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.

Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”

Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.

Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.

Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.



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German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs

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Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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