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Increasing debt in many African countries is a cause for worry - THE ECONOMIST

MARCH 14, 2018

Africa in the red

Unfortunately the keenest borrowers are also feckless spenders

 Print edition | Middle East and Africa

Mar 8th 2018| KAMPALA






“A FOOL’S bargain.” That is how Idriss Déby, Chad’s president, now describes the state oil company’s decision to borrow $1.4bn from Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss commodities trader, in 2014. The loan was to be repaid with future sales of crude, then trading above $100 a barrel. But two years later, as the price dived, debt payments were swallowing 85% of Chad’s dwindling oil revenue. For weeks schools have been closed and hospitals paralysed, as workers strike against austerity. On February 21st, after fractious talks, Chad and Glencore agreed to restructure the deal.

Chad’s woes recall an earlier era, when African economies groaned beneath unpayable debts. By the mid-1990s much of the continent was frozen out of the global financial system. The solution, reached in 2005, was for rich countries to forgive the debts that so-called “heavily indebted poor countries”, 30 of which were in Africa, owed to the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank. With new loans and better policies, many of these countries turned their economies around. By 2012 the median debt level in sub-Saharan Africa (as defined by the IMF) fell to just 30% of GDP.







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Today the median debt level is over 50% of GDP. That is low by international standards, but interest rates are generally higher for African countries, which collect relatively little tax. Economic growth slowed in response to lower commodity prices. As a consequence, there is much less revenue to service debts. The pace of borrowing has picked up. The IMF reckons that five sub-Saharan African countries are already in “debt distress”, with nine more at high risk of joining them.

Lending to Africa surged after the financial crisis, when interest rates in rich countries sank to historic lows. Fund managers chased the high yields of African government bonds and the profits from a commodities boom. The biggest lenders to Africa had long been Western governments. But since 2006, 16 African countries have sold their first dollar-denominated bonds to foreign investors. Interest rates in the rich world remain low, so several countries are scrambling back to the market this year. Senegal’s $2.2bn Eurobond was five times oversubscribed on March 6th.

Borrowing makes sense for poor countries if it finances things like roads, schools and hospitals, which improve welfare and support economic growth. But the keenest borrowers in Africa are also feckless spenders. Take Ghana, which racked up debt as it ran an average annual budget deficit of 10% from 2012 to 2016. When a new government entered office last year, it found a $1.6bn “hole” in the budget. The new chairman of the state cocoa board found that a $1.8bn loan meant to fund cocoa production in 2017 was “all gone”.

Ghana got a three-year loan of $918m from the IMF in 2015, ensuring a degree of transparency. Commercial loans are easier to hide. In Mozambique, three state-owned companies borrowed $2bn in deals arranged by European banks. Most of this was done in secret. The proceeds were squandered on overpriced security gear and a bogus fleet of trawlers. An audit could not trace $500m. The once-buoyant economy sank and Mozambique defaulted on its debt last year.

Leveraged corruption

A study of 39 African countries from 1970 to 2010 found that for every dollar borrowed, up to 63 cents left the continent within five years. The money is often siphoned out as private assets, suggests Léonce Ndikumana, one of the researchers, based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Some banks seem more interested in juicy fees than good governance.

China’s involvement in Africa has made it harder to assess the situation. Countries such as Zambia and Congo-Brazzaville have taken out opaque loans from Chinese companies. Angola has borrowed more than $19bn from China since 2004, mostly secured against oil. Such loans often have built-in clauses to review repayments as prices fluctuate, says Deborah Brautigam of the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. But there is little precedent for restructuring Chinese loans. Nor is China a full member of the Paris Club, which co-ordinates the actions of creditors when things go wrong.

Though much of the money borrowed by states comes from foreign investors, some is provided by local banks. They find it easier to buy government bills than to assess the reliability of businesses or homebuyers. Moody’s, a ratings agency, estimates that African banks’ exposure to sovereign debt is often 150% of their equity. So a sovereign-debt crisis could fast turn into a banking one.

Disaster can still be averted in most African countries. Abebe Shimeles of the African Development Bank warns against sudden spending cuts, which would leave half-finished infrastructure projects to rust. Research from the IMF suggests that the least costly way to deal with fiscal imbalances in Africa is to raise meagre tax-to-GDP ratios, which have crept up by just a couple of percentage points this century.

Other proposals aim to make lenders share more risk with borrowers by, for example, linking interest payments to growth or commodity prices. Some suggest changing laws in America and Britain, where most debt is issued, so that countries are not liable for loans agreed to by leaders acting without due authority. Organisations such as the IMF could be more robust, speaking out early when countries seem to be in a downward debt spiral.

As it is, the costs of bad borrowing rarely fall on leaders or their lenders, which often makes politicians borrow (and steal) more. “It’s the common man that actually bears the brunt,” says Bernard Anaba of the Integrated Social Development Centre, a Ghanaian advocacy group. The people of Chad, now paying for Mr Déby’s foolish bargain, would surely agree.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline"On the rise again"

Tillerson’s sack won’t affect Nigeria-US relations – FG - PUNCH

MARCH 14, 2018

Olalekan Adetayo, Abuja

The Federal Government on Wednesday said the recent sack of Rex Tillerson as the United States Secretary of State would not affect the relationship between the US and Nigeria.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, said this in an interview with State House correspondents at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.


Onyeama said Nigeria expected all the discussions held during Tillerson’s recent visit to Nigeria as regards both countries relations to stand.

The minister said, “Rex Tillerson’s sack won’t affect the discussions held because government is a continuum, as we all know.

“When he came, it was the United States that was speaking and clearly we expect with every expectation that everything he has said as regards US/Nigeria relations reflects the position of the United States, reflects the position of the president of the United States, so we don’t see any change happening.”

Nigeria ranked 91st happiest country in the world - DAILY POST

MARCH 14, 2018



Nigeria has been ranked 91st happiest country in the world, according to an annual survey issued on Wednesday by the United Nations.
The survey report placed Finland at the top and Burundi at the bottom of the happiness index. Finland rose from fifth place in 2017 to oust Norway from the top spot.
The survey also found Americans were getting less happy even as their country became richer.
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s 2018 World Happiness Report ranked 156 countries according to their scores for things such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.

The 2018 top-10, as ever dominated by the Nordics, is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.


The U S. came in at 18th, down from 14th place in 2017. Britain was 19th and the United Arab Emirates 20th.

One chapter of the 170-page report is dedicated to emerging health problems such as obesity, depression and the opioid crisis, particularly in the U. S. where the prevalence of all three has grown faster than in most other countries.

While income per capita has increased markedly in the U. S. over the last half-century, the happiness index has been hit by weakened social support networks, a rise in perception of corruption in government and business and declining confidence in public institutions.

“We obviously have a social crisis in the U. S, more inequality, less trust, less confidence in government,” the head of the SDSN, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of New York’s Columbia University, told Reuters as the report was launched at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.


“It’s pretty stark right now. The signs are not good for the U.S. It is getting richer and richer but not getting happier,”‎ he said.

Asked how the current political situation in the United States could affect future happiness reports, Sachs said: “Time will tell, but I would say that in general that when confidence in government is low, when perceptions of corruption are high, inequality is high and health conditions are worsening … that is not conducive to good feelings.”

For the first time since it was started in 2012, the report, which uses a variety of polling organisations, official figures and research methods, ranked the happiness of foreign-born immigrants in 117 countries.

Finland took top honours in that category too, giving the country a statistical double-gold status.


The foreign-born were least happy in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for seven years.

“The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born,” said Prof. John Helliwell of Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” he said.

“Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.”

Dollar surges past 107 yen before U.S. price data - REUTERS

MARCH 13, 2018

BY  Saikat Chatterjee

LONDON (Reuters) - The dollar surged against the yen on Tuesday, heading for its biggest single-day rise in five months, before inflation data later in the day that may alter expectations for U.S. interest rate moves this year.

Markets have priced in 75 basis points of rate rises in the United States so far this year, and analysts say stronger-than-expected inflation data might cement the case for a fourth increase in 2018 after strong jobs data last week.

“The broader story remains that of U.S. monetary policy normalization in the backdrop of an improving economy, and a further decline in currency market volatility would only fuel more risk taking appetite,” said Commerzbank’s FX strategist Thu Lan Nguyen.

The dollar rose to a two-week high and was up 0.7 percent on the day at 107.28 yen, its biggest single-day rise since late October. Even so, the yen was set for a 5 percent gain against the dollar so far this year.

Against a basket of currencies .DXY, the dollar gained just 0.1 percent at 90.02.


The yen came under some pressure from a scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It weakened by 0.3 to 0.5 percent against other major currencies after Japan’s ministry of finance said on Monday it altered documents for a sale of state-owned land linked to Abe’s wife.

However, Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York said that“many see the eruption of the scandal that threatens senior government officials as yen-positive because it weakens those that ostensibly want to depreciate the yen through monetary policy.”

Morgan Stanley strategists said a further deterioration in Abe’s political situation might see the yen“forcefully return towards its previous upward trend.”

Elsewhere, the renewed drop in currency volatility prompted investors to bet on higher-yield currencies. The Australian dollar AUD=D3 recovered from three-month lows and the euro EURCHF= gained nearly 2 percent in the last 10 trading sessions against the Swiss franc.

The euro EUR=EBS was broadly flat around $1.2329 against the dollar on the day.

A key focus for investors is the U.S. consumer price data due at 1230 GMT. Median forecasts by economists polled by Reuters forecast annual core CPI inflation USCPFY=ECI of 1.8 percent in February, flat compared with January.

A higher reading could stoke expectations the Federal Reserve will raise rates four times this year rather than three. A rate increase at its meeting on March 20-21 has been long considered a done deal. Another increase in June is almost fully priced in.

But traders are also aware that the prospects of more U.S. rate hikes may not lift the U.S. currency, considering other factors weighing on the currency.

One big issue is U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariff on steel and aluminum, which many investors worry could trigger retaliatory moves by U.S. trade partners and hurt the economy.

Elsewhere, sterling slipped 0.1 percent against the euro on the day, after the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that Britain cannot retain the benefits of the European Union after it leaves the bloc in 2019.

Reporting by Saikat Chatterjee; additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano and Masayuki Kitano in Tokyo; editing by Larry King

Sterling falls ahead of Hammond's economic update - REUTERS

MARCH 13, 2018

LONDON (Reuters) - Sterling slipped on Tuesday as traders shied away from taking out big positions ahead of U.S. inflation data and a half-yearly update on the public finances from the British finance minister.

Philip Hammond is expected to announce an improvement in the country’s slow economic growth outlook in the run-up to Brexit while stressing that his priority remains to ease the pounds in public debt.

The spring statement will burden of Britain’s 1.7 trillion be the focus today. In terms of the implications for the pound, it will be limited,” said Lee Hardman, an analyst at MUFG, while adding that an upgrade to economic growth could“at the margins be supportive” for sterling.

With Britain stuck in negotiations with the European Union to try to agree the terms of a transition deal to cover the period after it leaves the bloc, Brexit continues to overshadow other influences on the pound.

The junior Brexit minister Robin Walker said on Monday that Britain was very close to agreeing the details of the implementation period with the EU for its transition out of the bloc. Britain is due to leave in March 2019.

Renewed concerns about the state of Brexit talks after the EU rejected some British proposals for a trade deal last week have weighed on the pound in recent weeks, as has a recovery in the dollar.

Sterling fell 0.2 percent to $1.3879 as the dollar pushed higher.

A focus for investors is the U.S. CPI data due at 1230 GMT. Median forecasts by economists polled by Reuters point to annual core CPI inflation of 1.8 percent in February, which would be flat from January.

Against the euro, sterling dropped 0.1 percent to 88.85 pence per euro.

Societe Generale’s Kit Juckes said Hammond’s statement, due at 1230 GMT, had been downgraded from a“major event to a mere speech”. The euro versus sterling remained“stuck in a range”, he said.

Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Alison Williams

Another Exchange Jumps on Bitcoin Bandwagon - WSJ

MARCH 13, 2018

Startup trueEX says it plans to offer derivatives on bitcoin

A bitcoin-related product is the latest gambit of trueEX co-founder and Chief Executive Sunil Hirani, a serial entrepreneur.

A bitcoin-related product is the latest gambit of trueEX co-founder and Chief Executive Sunil Hirani, a serial entrepreneur. PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS


Alexander Osipovich

March 12, 2018 11:35 a.m. ET


A startup exchange active in the derivatives market is expanding into bitcoin, the latest sign that market operators remain excited about cryptocurrencies despite bitcoin’s recent price slump.

New York-based trueEX LLC on Monday announced plans to offer derivatives on bitcoin and other “digital assets.” That makes it at least the sixth U.S. trading venue to jump into cryptocurrency derivatives in recent months.

Bitcoin’s price has fallen in half since hitting a high of nearly $20,000 in December, when investor mania for the digital currency hit a recent peak. But even with bitcoin’s value bobbing around $10,000, more financial firms have been eager to offer new products tied to the volatile digital currency.

Chicago-based exchange giants CME Group Inc. CME -1.31% and Cboe Global Markets Inc.CBOE -0.58% launched bitcoin futures in December. Their contracts let traders bet on the price of bitcoin without directly holding the digital currency, all on a regulated marketplace.


Some lesser-known players have also launched or planned to launch bitcoin derivatives, including LedgerX, a startup bitcoin-options exchange; Cantor Exchange, a small trading venue owned by broker Cantor Fitzgerald LP; and Nadex, owned by London-based IG Group .

Nasdaq Inc. has also said it is exploring the idea of introducing bitcoin futures.

Like its predecessors, trueEX is betting that Wall Street banks and money managers want to be able to trade bitcoin on a regulated market, without the risks that often come with cryptocurrency exchanges, such as theft.

The move is the latest gambit by trueEX co-founder and Chief Executive Sunil Hirani, a serial entrepreneur who helped bring derivatives trading from the phone to the screen over the past two decades and has more recently been eyeing opportunities in cryptocurrencies.


TrueEX initially plans to offer a type of contract called a “non-deliverable forward” linked to bitcoin prices. Such contracts are popular in foreign-exchange trading. They allow two parties to agree to pay each other in the future an amount based on the value of two currencies, such as the dollar and the euro.

The plan is under review by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates trueEX, the company said in a statement.

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Despite the budding interest in bitcoin, many on Wall Street are still wary of trading the cryptocurrency because of its uncertain legal status, as well as the risk that their holdings could be stolen by hackers. Investors have lost more than $700 million worth of digital currencies this year in hacks of cryptocurrency exchanges in Japan and Italy.

The bitcoin-futures market remains small compared with that for bitcoin itself. In February, about $75 million worth of CME’s futures changed hands each day, on average, while the comparable number at Cboe was around $62 million. Meanwhile, an average of over $1 billion worth of bitcoin changed hands daily on major cryptocurrency exchanges last month, according to blockchain.info, a bitcoin data and services provider.


Founded in 2010, trueEX isn’t the first exchange to try to launch non-deliverable forwards on bitcoin. TeraExchange LLC, a startup trading platform, introduced a similar product in 2014 but it never gained traction.

Mr. Hirani has a history of building successful ventures. In 1999 he co-founded Creditex, one of the first electronic-trading venues for credit-default swaps—a type of derivative that can used to be bet on whether a company or group of companies defaults on its debt. Nine years later, he sold Creditex to Intercontinental Exchange Inc. for $513 million.

He returned to his entrepreneurial roots with trueEX, which sought to take advantage of postcrisis regulations that pushed more derivatives trading onto electronic platforms.

The company is now the sixth-largest venue for the trading of interest-rate swaps in the U.S., having traded $9 trillion of them last year, according to industry group FIA.

Write to Alexander Osipovich at [email protected]

U.S. Dollar Weakens as Investors Seek Second Opinion on Inflation - WSJ

MARCH 13, 2018

Investors look ahead to consumer price data and reports on wholesale prices, retail sales


By Daniel Kruger

The U.S. dollar edged lower Monday as investors sought confirmation about the pace of inflation after last week’s weaker-than expected report on wage growth.

The WSJ Dollar Index, which measures the U.S. currency against a basket of 16 others, declined for a second consecutive day, dropping 0.2% to 83.63. The currency lost 0.2% against the euro and and 0.4% versus the British pound and Japanese yen.

The Labor Department will release data on the consumer price index Tuesday which could confirm that inflation remains tepid, even as the job market remains tight. The dollar weakened Friday after a Labor Department report showed that wages rose 2.6% from a year earlier in February, below economists’ estimates, and the annual wage gain in January was revised down to a 2.8% increase. The report also showed that nonfarm payrolls rose a seasonally adjusted 313,000 last month, the strongest monthly gain since July 2016.


Investors will also be looking to reports on wholesale prices and retail sales, in a wave of data arriving before a two-day Federal Reserve meeting that concludes March 21. Policy makers are expected to raise interest rates at the meeting and are scheduled to release updated forecasts for the path of monetary policy and economic growth.

“The markets are taking a step back because it’s going to be a very eventful data week for the U.S.,” said Paresh Upadhyaya, who manages currencies for Amundi Pioneer Investments. ”We’re sort of in a holding pattern.”

The inflation data are particularly important, as many private economists have forecast the Fed will raise interest rates four times this year, compared with the three increases policy makers penciled in at their December meeting. Should Fed officials signal they intend to accelerate the pace of monetary tightening, it could give a boost to the dollar, which had declined 2.5% through March 9. Higher interest rates typically support a nation’s currency by offering a greater rate of return.

Write to Daniel Kruger at [email protected]

Faulty business models, policies shrink air travel market, survival of airlines - THE GUARDIAN

MARCH 13, 2018

By Wole Oyebade

Beyond the prevailing harsh operating environment, the faulty business models airlines’ operators often adopt may be responsible for the perennial low market penetration and short lifespan of local carriers in the country, findings by The Guardian has shown.

Further findings by The Guardian also revealed that equally poor extant policies of regulators are not encouraging niche markets and other innovations to maximise the potential market at large.

Rather, an environment is created where all operators converge on the small viable high traffic routes, with gross under-utilisation of available equipment and neglect of potential traffic.

The consequence is that less than seven per cent of the population travel by air till date, with perennial low turnover for operators and steady decline in terms of viability and lifespan of airlines.


Records made available by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) show that no fewer than 40 registered airlines, scheduled and non-scheduled, have colapsed in the last 15 years.

Among the carriers are Associated Aviation, Allied Air, Hak Air, Kabo Air, TAT Nigeria, Belview, Sossoliso, Chanchangi, Sky World Express, Virgin Nigeria, ADC, Concord Airlines, IRS and Okada Air.

The high turnover in mortality rate,  perhaps a record in global aviation, is often blame on various reasons including unfriendly business environment, multiple charges, lack of government’s support, non-viable routes and low patronage.

Indeed, Nigeria has about 180 million population and one of the lowest air traffic demands by population. For instance, the air travel sector in 2017 transported a total of 11.3 million passengers, which is a dip from 12.2 million that travelled in 2016, as shown by the NCAA’s factsheet. By implication, less than seven per cent of the population travel by air.

Meanwhile, there are 26 airports scattered across the country with more than two-third of the 36 states,  including the Federal Capital  Territory (FCT), having at least an airport.

Station Manager at Yola Airport in Adamawa State,  Sheik Abdullahi, told The Guardian that it is not that people in Yola, Sokoto, Jalingo, Jos, Markurdi, Minna, Yenogoa, Ibadan, Akure, Maiduguri and so on, don’t want to travel by air, being the fastest and safest mode of transportation. “But we all get frustrated having to sleep in airport for two to three days waiting for an airline that may not even come,” Abdullahi lamented.

Fact is that it makes no economic sense for airlines to fly to an airport where there is no guarantee of at least 80 per cent load factor as the Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and, sometimes Kano, routes offer.

Chief Operating Officer of one of the popular airlines narrates that it costs at least N800,000 to N1million to fuel a Boeing 737 aircraft to do a frequency of two landings. “Imagine if all you have as passengers are 20 persons going and 10 on the return with each paying N24, 000 for ticket (N720,000). Is that a profit or loss, on fuel alone?”

But route viability, as a determinant, was hardly the case in the 80s and 90s. Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), recalled that the defunct Nigerian Airways in its hey days strategically covered most parts of the country, including regional and international routes.

For example, the national carrier, flew the B727 and B737 to Kano where it already positioned the Fokker F27 turboprop that would fly passengers destined to Sokoto, Kaduna and Jos twice daily and also to Makurdi and Yola. Besides, there were direct flights to Yola and Maiduguri from Lagos, once a day. There were 50-seat capacity F27 flights from Lagos to Ibadan and Benin too.



“Nigeria Airways was flying F28 aircraft mainly to other places like Enugu, Port Harcourt, Calabar at least twice daily. The airline had 32 aircraft  and could in addition fly the west coast. In addition, Nigeria Airways was flying to New York, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Rome, Jedda, Nairobi, and so on.”

Ojikutu, the Secretary General of the Aviation Safety Round-table Initiative (ASTRI), said what has changed and where the current operators are getting it wrong is in business plan that is tailored at flying all routes with Boeing and Airbus types of aircraft.

“You cannot fly all the routes at the same time. That is why I recommend that new airlines should start with a minimum of five aircraft and target about four or five routes. From Lagos, transport everyone to Abuja or Kano and from there use the smaller aircraft to distribute into other states. Flying big aircraft like Airbus without a full load is a big problem; you are losing money. And that is the major problem that I have seen here,” Ojikutu said.

Fact is that at least 90 per cent of airplanes in commercial operations in the country are the B737 series,  which is considered fuel inefficient and runs at a loss without 90 to 95 per cent load factor per flight.

Former Managing Director of Defunct Virgin Nigeria, Capt. Dapo Olumide, said the B737 series are now rarely used on shorthaul services because of their low fuel efficiency. “So, it is now like buy one, get one free. That is why everyone is buying it here,” Olumide said.

Apparently in agreement with Ojikutu and Olumide, Captain Roland Iyayi, however, stressed that there is no separating the faulty business models and wrong types of equipment from the regulatory policies that permitted them and allowed the industry to stagnate.

Iyayi said a business model is a dictate of what obtains in an operating environment but “if the extant policies do not support the kind of business one wants to operate,  such is bound to fail irrespective of how wonderful the model is.”


Iyayi, a former Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), explained that the policies of the NCAA are such that welcome all-comers “without due diligence of cross-checking business case assumptions in line with the realities and needs of market”.

He observed the new airlines in countries like Brazil,  Ethiopia and even Ghana, are hardly allowed into already established local market, to protect operating airlines from failing. So, new entrants must have their niche market.

“To do contrary is to end up with what we have here. You have a situation where all the airlines are concentrated on three routes, engaging in destructive competition because you are throwing too much capacity into the otherwise saturated market.

“These three routes give you 80 per cent of the traffic. In realistic terms, what is the break-even factor that each airline would have? It all tells you that the NCAA does not see the wisdom to licence airlines to focus on niche markets like Minna-Abuja or Minna-Sokoto and so on.”

When Will Stocks Tumble Again? Investors Look to Bitcoin for Answers - WSJ

MARCH 13, 2018

Highly volatile digital currency becomes ‘a sign of speculative enthusiasm’ for some

Bitcoin is seen fulfilling a role that other highly volatile investments have played during previous market run-ups: The highest-returning asset is often among the first to fall when investor appetite for risk starts to change.

Bitcoin is seen fulfilling a role that other highly volatile investments have played during previous market run-ups: The highest-returning asset is often among the first to fall when investor appetite for risk starts to change. PHOTO: LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG NEWS

By Ben Eisen

Investors are latching onto bitcoin as a new indicator for determining whether the stock market is headed for another downturn.

A number of traders said they started paying closer attention to the highly volatile digital currency after it suffered a sharp fall about a month before the global stock market decline. The price of a bitcoin roughly halved from its late-December high of near $20,000, reversing a powerful speculative rally. That was followed by the first 10% decline in the S&P 500 in two years, beginning in late January. Recently, both have been volatile.

Some investors say the tandem moves suggest bitcoin may be a barometer of investor sentiment that ultimately feeds into the stock market and other risky investments. If stocks are headed for another pullback, the thinking goes, bitcoin may fall first—and harder.

“We’ve begun to watch bitcoin more closely as a sign of speculative enthusiasm,” said Doug Ramsey, chief investment officer of the Minneapolis money manager Leuthold Group. The top in bitcoin in December and stocks in January marked a peak in investor optimism, Mr. Ramsey said.

Crypto CueInvestors have increasingly turned to bitcoinas an indicator as the digital currency andstocks move in closer alignment.Bitcoin price

Record highOct. ’17Dec.Feb. ’1802,5005,0007,50010,00012,50015,00017,50020,000$22,500

S&P 500

Record highOct. ’17Dec.Feb. ’18240025002600270028002900

The 90-day correlation between bitcoin andS&P 500 returnsSources: CoinDesk (bitcoin); SIX Financial (index);DataTrek Research (correlation)

Oct. ’17Dec.Feb. ’

Tom Forester, chief investment officer at Forester Capital Management, said he pays particular attention to the big moves in the cryptocurrency when looking for signals. “We do view bitcoin as a sentiment indicator,” he said.

In recent days, stocks and bitcoin have both been volatile, but for different reasons. Equities fell as the U.S. discussed and signed tariffs on steel and aluminum, then rebounded after a strong jobs report on Friday. Bitcoin prices dropped below $10,000 apiece recently as regulators globally scrutinized cryptocurrencies.

Still, the relationship has been most closely aligned when investor sentiment is driving financial markets. Last month as the stock market sold off, the correlation between the cryptocurrency and the S&P 500 jumped to its highest in records going back to the beginning of 2016, according DataTrek Research, which looked at that link on a 90-day basis. Shorter-term correlations spiked as well, the firm found.

For some investors, bitcoin is fulfilling a role that other highly volatile investments have played during previous market run-ups when frothy levels had become a concern: The highest-returning asset is often among the first to fall when investor appetite for risk starts to change.

During the 1990s dot-com boom, for example, some of the most speculative companies with little or no profit history, from e-commerce retailer Pets.com Inc. to online grocery business Webvan Group Inc., shot to prominence the fastest. They were also among the hardest to fall, signaling a broader market retreat when the S&P 500 dropped 49% from its peak in 2000 to its trough in the fall of 2002.

With the U.S. stock market bull run reaching its nine-year anniversary on Friday, investors are worried that the Federal Reserve is starting to pull back its extraordinary easing measure at a time when valuations are becoming stretched and the long U.S. economic expansion appears to be in its later stages. The proposed steel and aluminum tariffs have ignited concerns of a trade war. All this has traders looking for fresh signs that investor sentiment is turning again.

Since many of the more speculative assets have been rising alongside stocks, any investor retreat from risk could have broad ramifications in markets ranging from metals and oil to emerging-market bonds.

Few rallies have approached the size of bitcoin’s, where prices ran up from less than $1,000 at the beginning of 2017 to about 20 times that level in under 12 months. That drew in mainstream investor interest and spawned a series of other digital currencies. In one sign of crypto fever, an ice tea company rebranded to focus on the technology used in bitcoin.

The S&P 500’s forward price-to-earnings ratio, a traditional valuation measure, topped out on the same December day that the bitcoin price peaked, according to Morgan Stanley .That was shortly before Congress passed a sweeping tax code overhaul, and the two gauges acted as a sign of “peak excitement” in the market, the bank’s analysts concluded.

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The virtual currency bitcoin continues surging to new highs as a frenzy of investors get in on the action. WSJ's Paul Vigna explains what you need to know, and how to invest should you want to join the mania. Photo: Alexander Hotz/The Wall Street Journal.

Many analysts say there are limits to the link between bitcoin and stocks. Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek, found that the high correlations began to drop after the market selloff ebbed in the middle of last month. Mr. Colas concluded that while there are signs the correlations between the two assets have been rising in recent months, the link is strongest when the assets are falling.

Others outright reject bitcoin’s value as a stock market indicator. “I think that’s absurd,” said Jason Ware, chief investment officer at Albion Financial Group. “Ultimately, stock returns are grounded in the economy, corporate earnings, interest rates and inflation,” which he said that bitcoin investors don’t seem to care much about.

Movements in the two assets have some very different characteristics. The levels of the S&P 500 and bitcoin have moved in the same direction on just over half of weekday trading sessions since the end of October, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Market Data Group. That is hardly a lockstep relationship.

But even those who aren’t convinced bitcoin will signal the next big fall in stock prices say they are watching the cryptocurrency alongside other sentiment gauges.

“I feel that there is always something at a top that offers a clue,” said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Baird.

Write to Ben Eisen at [email protected]

US, Nigeria trade hits $9bn - BUSINESSDAY

MARCH 13, 2018

The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, says Nigeria remains America’s second largest trading partner with trade volume in the region of $9 billion.

Tillerson, speaking on his final leg of his African tour at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, noted that Nigeria was regarded as America’s important trade partner.

Nigeria is expected to play leading role as African countries sign Intercontinental Free trade agreement in Rwanda next week, Tillerson said.

He noted that although the United States was not against taking loans from China, America is more concerned with the aftermath of the Loans as experience has shown that such countries ended up forfeiting their sovereignty.

“You have to be in charge of your local infrastructures. We have seen a situation were some countries lost such control due to the loans,” he said.

He revealed that Donald Trump has set up a committee to look at structuring financial strategy similar to what the Chinese government is offering with less risks.

The US government is also developing mechanism that will also create alternative opportunities financing offer.

There are alternatives, including great potentials for public private collaborations.

He noted that the United States will want to see China obey international rules and norms and financial structure to deal with unforeseen circumstances, adding that countries need to look more carefully.

“There  are other alternatives ,financing mechanism that are available and I think in particular, of government plans to create the right conditions around those infrastructures investments, there are also great potentials for public-private sector co-investing in the infrastructures,” Tillerson said.

Speaking on the abducted Dapchi school girls, he expressed hopes that the girls would be released peacefully through safe negotiation.

He assured that the United States government has offered to assist Nigeria in ensuring speedy rescue of the girls by providing materials, intelligence training, among others.

He affirmed that Boko Haram remains a threat not just to Nigeria but the sub region.

Tillerson commended President Buhari for leading the sub-region in the fight against terrorism as well as his fight against corruption, which he noted had earned the president recognition at the African Union.

“I think it is important to clarify that we do not seek to stop Chinese investments from flowing to countries that need those investments. But what we are cautioning countries is to look carefully, that the implications of the level of debts, the terms of the debts, and whether the arrangements around the local financing are intact creating jobs, local capacity or the projects being carried out by foreign labour being brought to your country,” he said.


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