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January 2001

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  • Nasdaq is still collapsing and there are worries that the US economy could be recession bound as the tech investment boom ends. But I remain optimistic. I reckon the global economy is in for a super-soft landing to sub-3% growth in 2001. Oil prices will stay around $25 a barrel and global inflation will fall, boosting real incomes. Risk appetite will recover. The mini-bear market is almost over.
  • The $700 billion trade-finance market is one of the few large pools of tradeable fixed-income assets that has not yet attracted the attention of institutional fixed-income investors. Changing that, and propelling the fragmented and illiquid trade-finance market through the same developments that transformed the emerging-market debt market in the 1980s is the ambition of a group of bankers and traders who last month launched Internet Trade Finance Exchange (ITF).
  • Austria's banks may have had regional expansion thrust upon them, but they have achieved much over the past decade in broadening their franchise, developing retail banking in central and eastern Europe and acting as a bridgehead between transitional economies and the western capital base. Austrian banks reacted very quickly to the opportunities that were opened up in the region as a result of political reform.
  • Investment banks are entering a tricky time as the economy slows and deals dry up. Goldman Sachs' latest earnings showed an increase of just 3% on the same quarter in 1999, a far cry from the double-digit increases of recent years. And for the second quarter in a row Morgan Stanley Dean Witter missed the analysts' earnings consensus. Last time it was by eight cents, half of that coming from a $45 million loss in its high-yield business, a fact which annoyed investors as the firm appeared determined to conceal it. This quarter, it was 23 cents off, which it put down to increased compensation costs, losses in equity investments, and lower underwriting and trading volumes.
  • CSFB is also the chief suspect in a probe into IPO allocation processes by the Securities and Exchange Commission, one which could shake up the entire industry.
  • Stephen Jennnings, CEO at Renaissance Capital, looks at consolidation in Russian industry.
  • Glenn Grossman doesn't have a lot of good words for banking consolidation. "Each year the party gets better and attendance improves, and each year we raise less money," he says.
  • "If Austria's capital market can be proud of one thing above all else," says a foreign banker in Vienna, "it is the performance of the Federal Financing Agency. I would say that in sophistication and risk management Helmut Eder and his team are one of the top five borrowers in Europe."
  • Corporate governance is back on the agenda in Russia. Along with squashing the oligarchs and bashing the regional governors, as part of Putin's "law and order" drive, the president also wants to bring Russia's companies to heel.
  • Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic offer three different puzzles for western European banks. While the fall of the iron curtain presented new opportunities in new markets, the transition from communist regimes to free market economies is still proving a painful struggle.
  • Is news and trading organization chief Mike Bloomberg set to run for mayor of New York? That's certainly the impression several of his senior staff have given, and Bloomberg himself has made no denial.
  • When the first generation of online firms appeared in the US equity market, they loudly broadcast their ambitions to take on the established players in distribution and new issues. Some made a brief impression, a few managed to get themselves acquired by their larger rivals, many failed. The big firms rolled on. The latest group of internet start-ups have learned a lesson: don’t compete directly with the big equity firms, do something they don’t do.
  • Each month since last August, Vladimir Putin’s government has attempted to put in place a new aspect of economic reform. But some problems, notably the banking sector and the entrenched Soviet-style bureaucracy, are particularly intractable.
  • The most dynamic of Russia’s companies are relatively small compared with the energy and utility behemoths. Typically manufacturing consumer goods with a rapid payback from investment, they have been able, so far, to grow using their own resources.
  • This one's a tough one.
  • At the end of last year, a new stock exchange was unveiled in Vienna – the New Europe Exchange. It typifies the Austrian financial markets: it’s a joint venture with a German partner aimed at trading equities of central and eastern European companies. Austrian banks have long known they cannot survive on the meagre profits at home. Increasingly their search for new business will lead them beyond even near neighbours.
  • Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the stock markets, the biggest bear on the block is back.
  • The Financial Services Authority will set up a new market abuse regime next year, but withthe proposals on the table, City lawyers doubt that it will make their lives, and those of their clients, any easier.
  • A wakeup call is hardly ever welcome. Core shareholders of Indian companies are being jolted awake by a hostile predator, a rare event in corporate India. In October, Renaissance Estates, a Delhi-based company owned by Abhishek Dalmia, made an open offer to buy Gesco, a property company owned by the Sheths, a prominent industrialist family with interests in the shipping business. Dalmia had bought up just over 10% of Gesco's shares in the market, and bid for another 45% to gain control from the Sheths who own around 13%.
  • Jim Toffey takes a seat in the conference room of his 51st floor offices in the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. His composed manner is the result of increasingly broad recognition that he has helped build what is thus far the only successful multi-bank broker-to-client trading consortium. Back in the mid-1990s he and Lee Olesky, now Europe CEO of Brokertec, persuaded their employer, Credit Suisse First Boston, to allow them to set up an electronic platform to trade US government bonds.
  • Talk to analysts outside Hungary and they express mystification at what they see as the country's apparent lack of support for the development of its stock market. Part of the problem, they say, is that economic growth is being driven so forcefully by inward flows of foreign direct investment (FDI), which in turn has the effect of diverting companies away from the Budapest Stock Exchange (BSE). "Inflows of FDI practically never manifest themselves in new stock market listings," says Frances Cloud, analyst at Nomura in London. "If they take the form of greenfield factories the companies in question don't list on the market, and if it's a question of taking over a local company it usually means the delisting of the stock. We are getting to the point in Hungary where some of the biggest companies are effectively disappearing from the stock market because their free floats are diminishing to practically zero." The problem, says Cloud, is especially pronounced in the chemicals sector.
  • With the oil price high and large new oil finds in the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan has attracted plenty of interest from foreign investors. But tensions have grown up between foreign multinationals and the Kazakhstan government over previously agreed deals. The government feels it has been overly generous in the past, raising fears among foreign investors that old contracts will be redrafted. The president has convened a special council to discuss these issues.
  • Deutsche Bank tops our annual poll of polls – by a wide margin – after a consistently impressive run of survey results in 2000, most notably in foreign exchange, where Citigroup was dethroned for the first time in 21 years. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Citigroup head the rankings for a new category, market rating, which brings together overall returns on equity, assets and employees. The market rating and poll of polls have been combined to produce an implied competitiveness rating, in which Deutsche again pips eight American rivals to top position. But a mediocre score for market rating and mergers elsewhere suggest that the German bank might not have it so easy in 2001.
  • Emerging market governments were forced to bail out collapsing banking systems at huge public cost following the economic and financial crises of the 1990s and 1980s. Many are now considering setting up deposit insurance systems to bring more transparency and stability to implicit sovereign guarantees for banks. Oddly, in the US, where deposit insurance was first established and whose model emerging markets are often encouraged to follow, deposit insurance is being reconsidered. On its own, it’s no safeguard against banking crises.
  • Following the turbulence of 2000 in financial markets - with the euro in free fall, volatility in tech stocks, a climbing oil price and continuing problems in Japan - economists are divided into two camps over the outlook for 2001: the cautious and the downright worried.
  • Vladimir Putin has quickly crushed Russia's infamous oligarchs who once thrived under Boris Yeltsin, though the Family still holds some influence in Moscow. Alongside it, two new factions now share the ascendancy in the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov leads the hardliners that Putin is using to tighten his grip on political power. German Gref leads the liberal economists charting Russia's economic reform. A clash between them may be coming.
  • Listening to Grigory Marchenko talk you could be forgiven for thinking he was central bank governor of a booming first world economy. The budget is balanced - in fact there is a surplus; financial infrastructure is robust and the banking system in good shape. Marchenko himself is urbane, highly qualified and very persuasive. He is however the chairman of the Kazakhstan National Bank and the country he describes is not one its inhabitants are entirely familiar with.
  • Issuer: British TelecommunicationsAmount: $10 billionType of issue: global bondDate of issue: December 5, 2000Bookrunners: Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Schroder SSB
  • Russia’s three biggest monopolies – the companies that control gas and electricity production and supply, and the railways – need heavy investment and reorganization. President Putin is trying to push through change but he is dealing with “states within the state”.
  • Turning money and small-value payments into digital form doesn’t interest the banks – it’s against their interests and too expensive. Into the vacuum have stepped hundreds of payment schemes, many of them claiming they have found the Holy Grail. These boasts are premature. Some ideas are elegant but don’t have critical mass. Worse still, they rely on those indifferent beasts, the banks. Find your way through the Darwinian jungle with the help of David Shirreff