How bookmakers deal with winning customers

888, an online betting firm, was fined a record £7.8m ($10.3m) in August after more than 7,000 customers who had chosen to ban themselves from their betting accounts were allowed to retain access. Yet away from the regulator’s gaze, bookies often stand accused of the opposite excess: being too prompt to shun winning customers. Successful bettors complain that their accounts get closed down for what are sometimes described as business decisions. Others say their wagers get capped overnight to minuscule amounts. The move may be unpopular with punters, but in most parts of the world it is legal.

Operators say scrutinising winners is necessary to help prevent fraud. Competition in the gambling industry increased with the arrival of online betting, prompting bookmakers to offer odds on markets they did not previously cover. In some, such as Eastern European football leagues, low wages and late payments make fertile ground for match-fixing. A winning streak at the windows can signal foul play. Most often, however, efforts to spot savvy customers are not rooted in a desire to thwart dodgy schemes. Rather, they are part of what industry insiders call “risk management”: to remain profitable, bookies seek to cap potential losses. As one betting consultant puts it, “Bookmakers close unprofitable accounts, just as insurance companies will not cover houses that are prone to flooding.” Betting outlets get to know their customers by gleaning information online, tracking web habits and checking whether punters visit odds-comparison sites. Profiling has also been made easier by the tightening of anti-money laundering regulations, which require online punters to provide detailed information when opening accounts.

Professional gamblers rarely do business with high-street bookmakers. They often place their trades on betting exchanges like Betfair or Smarkets, which do not restrict winning customers (though Betfair charges a premium to some of its most successful users). Alternatively they work with those bookmakers who use successful gamblers to improve the efficiency of their betting markets, and make most of their money on commission. These profess not to limit winning accounts and accept much bigger bets (Pinnacle, an influential bookie, often has a $1m limit for major events). Betting professionals also sneak in big trades via brokers, like Gambit Research, a British operation that uses technology to place multiple smaller bets with a range of bookmakers. Asian agents, in particular, have made their names in that trade: many are able to channel sizeable bets to local bookies anonymously. Unlike the sports they love, the games played by professional gamblers and bookmakers are kept out of the spotlight.

Sources: The Economist magazine web site.

 

Advertisements

Active fund managers have had a good 12 months, but a terrible ten years

coin flip

When it comes to choosing an index-tracking, or passive fund management, investment a lot of people choose a manager who tries to beat the market by picking the best stocks, because that sounds like a great idea.

The tricky bit is finding the right manager. The temptation is to look at past performance but fund managers rarely beat the market for long.

The average fund manager is always going to struggle to beat the market (this is a separate argument from whether markets are “efficient”). That is because the index reflects the performance of the average investor before costs. In a world dominated by professional fund managers, there aren’t enough amateurs for the professionals to beat. Even the hedge funds, those supposed “masters of the universe”, haven’t been able to do it; Warren Buffett looks set to win a $1m bet on the issue.

The table, from Standard & Poor’s, shows how many European-domiciled funds (investing in a wide range of markets) have managed to beat the market over one, three, five and 10 years. Eight out of 19 categories managed the feat over one year, but that drops to four categories over three years, three over five years and none over 10 years. In most categories over 10 years, you had a less than one-in-five chance of finding a fund that beat the market.

The Economist fund table

So why do so many people think they can pick a winner? The answer may be found in a new paper from James White, Jeff Rosenbluth and Victor Haghani of Elm Partners that shows people find it very difficult to tell skill from luck. Suppose you have two coins, one fair and the other biased 60% in favour of heads. How many parallel tosses would you need to be 95% certain (statistically speaking) of identifying the rigged coin? They asked 700 financial professionals the question and their median guess was 40. The actual answer is 143.  If you widen the experiment to three coins, the number rises to 220.

The authors then use a thought experiment, which assumes that 15% of fund managers can generate a post-fee return of 1% a year relative to the market while the other 85% lose 1%. They put 1% of the portfolio a year into each fund and then shift more to the winners each year, based on the probability that they can continue to outperform. Even after 10 years, the expected return on this portfolio is -0.6% a year, relative to the index.

Read the complete article on The Economist web site.

What machines can tell from your face

machine facial recognition on punzhu puzzles

We are now living our lives in the age of facial recognition, and each new technology comes with its own pro’s and con’s.

THE human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy. One big difference between faces and other biometric data, such as fingerprints, is that they work at a distance. Anyone with a phone can take a picture for facial-recognition programs to use. FindFace, an app in Russia, compares snaps of strangers with pictures on VKontakte, a social network, and can identify people with a 70% accuracy rate. Facebook’s bank of facial images cannot be scraped by others, but the Silicon Valley giant could obtain pictures of visitors to a car showroom, say, and later use facial recognition to serve them ads for cars. Even if private firms are unable to join the dots between images and identity, the state often can. China’s government keeps a record of its citizens’ faces; photographs of half of America’s adult population are stored in databases that can be used by the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies now have a powerful weapon in their ability to track criminals, but at enormous potential cost to citizens’ privacy.

The face is not just a name-tag. It displays a lot of other information—and machines can read that, too. Again, that promises benefits. Some firms are analysing faces to provide automated diagnoses of rare genetic conditions, such as Hajdu-Cheney syndrome, far earlier than would otherwise be possible. Systems that measure emotion may give autistic people a grasp of social signals they find elusive. But the technology also threatens. Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated that, when shown pictures of one gay man, and one straight man, the algorithm could attribute their sexuality correctly 81% of the time. Humans managed only 61% (see article). In countries where homosexuality is a crime, software which promises to infer sexuality from a face is an alarming prospect.

Keys, wallet, balaclava

Less violent forms of discrimination could also become common. Employers can already act on their prejudices to deny people a job. But facial recognition could make such bias routine, enabling firms to filter all job applications for ethnicity and signs of intelligence and sexuality. Nightclubs and sports grounds may face pressure to protect people by scanning entrants’ faces for the threat of violence—even though, owing to the nature of machine-learning, all facial-recognition systems inevitably deal in probabilities. Moreover, such systems may be biased against those who do not have white skin, since algorithms trained on data sets of mostly white faces do not work well with different ethnicities. Such biases have cropped up in automated assessments used to inform courts’ decisions about bail and sentencing.

Eventually, continuous facial recording and gadgets that paint computerised data onto the real world might change the texture of social interactions. Dissembling helps grease the wheels of daily life. If your partner can spot every suppressed yawn, and your boss every grimace of irritation, marriages and working relationships will be more truthful, but less harmonious. The basis of social interactions might change, too, from a set of commitments founded on trust to calculations of risk and reward derived from the information a computer attaches to someone’s face. Relationships might become more rational, but also more transactional.

In democracies, at least, legislation can help alter the balance of good and bad outcomes. European regulators have embedded a set of principles in forthcoming data-protection regulation, decreeing that biometric information, which would include “faceprints”, belongs to its owner and that its use requires consent—so that, in Europe, unlike America, Facebook could not just sell ads to those car-showroom visitors. Laws against discrimination can be applied to an employer screening candidates’ images. Suppliers of commercial face-recognition systems might submit to audits, to demonstrate that their systems are not propagating bias unintentionally. Firms that use such technologies should be held accountable.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

 

Donald Trump has no grasp of what it means to be president

DEFENDERS of President Donald Trump offer two arguments in his favour—that he is a businessman who will curb the excesses of the state; and that he will help America stand tall again by demolishing the politically correct taboos of left-leaning, establishment elites. From the start, these arguments looked like wishful thinking. After Mr Trump’s press conference in New York on August 15th they lie in ruins.

The unscripted remarks were his third attempt to deal with violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend (see article). In them the president stepped back from Monday’s—scripted—condemnation of the white supremacists who had marched to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, and fought with counter-demonstrators, including some from the left. In New York, as his new chief of staff looked on dejected, Mr Trump let rip, stressing once again that there was blame “on both sides”. He left no doubt which of those sides lies closer to his heart.

Far from being the saviour of the Republic, their president is politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office.

Self-harm

Start with the ineptness. In last year’s presidential election Mr Trump campaigned against the political class to devastating effect. Yet this week he has bungled the simplest of political tests: finding a way to condemn Nazis. Having equivocated at his first press conference on Saturday, Mr Trump said what was needed on Monday and then undid all his good work on Tuesday—briefly uniting Fox News and Mother Jones in their criticism, surely a first. As business leaders started to resign enmasse from his advisory panels, the White House disbanded them. Mr Trump did, however, earn the endorsement of David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr Trump’s inept politics stem from a moral failure. Some counter-demonstrators were indeed violent, and Mr Trump could have included harsh words against them somewhere in his remarks. But to equate the protest and the counter-protest reveals his shallowness. Video footage shows marchers carrying fascist banners, waving torches, brandishing sticks and shields, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Footage of the counter-demonstration mostly shows average citizens shouting down their opponents. And they were right to do so: white supremacists and neo-Nazis yearn for a society based on race, which America fought a world war to prevent. Mr Trump’s seemingly heartfelt defence of those marching to defend Confederate statues spoke to the degree to which white grievance and angry, sour nostalgia is part of his world view.

At the root of it all is Mr Trump’s temperament. In difficult times a president has a duty to unite the nation. Mr Trump tried in Monday’s press conference, but could not sustain the effort for even 24 hours because he cannot get beyond himself. A president needs to rise above the point-scoring and to act in the national interest. Mr Trump cannot see beyond the latest slight.

An Oval Office-shaped hole

For Republicans in Congress the choice should be clearer. Many held their noses and backed Mr Trump because they thought he would advance their agenda. That deal has not paid off. Mr Trump is not a Republican, but the solo star of his own drama. By tying their fate to his, they are harming their country and their party. His boorish attempts at plain speaking serve only to poison national life. Any gains from economic reform—and the booming stockmarket and low unemployment owe more to the global economy, tech firms and dollar weakness than to him—will come at an unacceptable price.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

The attorney-general’s amnesia

The Economist magazine writes “Millions of Americans who watched or listened to Mr Sessions’s testimony, which was broadcast live on National Public Radio and all major cable-news channels, heard his version of the truth. But he did not provide much enlightenment for those who followed the saga of Russia’s alleged meddling in the election in 2016 closely. In response to numerous questions, the attorney-general said that he could not remember or was unable to reply. He insisted he would not discuss his conversations with Mr Trump even though the president had not invoked his executive privilege to prevent such testimony. “Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president,” he said.

Mr Sessions then specifically addressed an allegation that he had met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, at an event at the Mayflower hotel in Washington in April 2016:

I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel. I did not attend any meetings at that event. Prior to the speech, I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump. Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials.

The attorney-general’s denial of a meeting with the Russian envoy matters because, during his confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions had testified under oath that he did not communicate with the Russians in 2016. It later emerged that he had had at least two encounters with Mr Kislyak. This created many negative headlines, which is why many assumed that Mr Sessions swiftly recused himself from the probe into Russia’s interference in the election. But in his testimony Mr Sessions claimed that he stepped aside not because of any wrongdoing on his part, but because a regulation of the Department of Justice mandated it. The regulation, 28 CFR 45.2, notes that an employee of the Department of Justice shall not participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with an elected official.

Mr Sessions’s refusal to talk about his discussions with Mr Trump meant that he was unable to answer some of the hearing’s most salient questions. He would not say whether he ever talked with the president about the FBI’s probe of Russian interference into the election. And he told Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who ran for president last year, that he could not comment on Mr Comey’s account that Mr Trump asked everyone to leave the Oval Office after a meeting on February 14th so he could lean on the former FBI director who was then in charge of the Russia probe.

Read the complete article on The Economist web site.

Why Trumponomics won’t make America great again

The impulsiveness and shallowness of America’s president threaten the economy as well as the rule of law. Graphic: The Economist

Accordng to this article in The Economist: DONALD TRUMP rules over Washington as if he were a king and the White House his court. His displays of dominance, his need to be the centre of attention and his impetuousness have a whiff of Henry VIII about them. Fortified by his belief that his extraordinary route to power is proof of the collective mediocrity of Congress, the bureaucracy and the media, he attacks any person and any idea standing in his way.

Just how much trouble that can cause was on sensational display this week, with his sacking of James Comey—only the second director of the FBI to have been kicked out. Mr Comey has made mistakes and Mr Trump was within his rights. But the president has succeeded only in drawing attention to questions about his links to Russia and his contempt for the norms designed to hold would-be kings in check.

Just as dangerous, and no less important to ordinary Americans, however, is Mr Trump’s plan for the economy. It treats orthodoxy, accuracy and consistency as if they were simply to be negotiated away in a series of earth-shattering deals. Although Trumponomics could stoke a mini-boom, it, too, poses dangers to America and the world.

Trumponomics 101

In an interview with this newspaper, the president gave his most extensive description yet of what he wants for the economy (see article). His target is to ensure that more Americans have well-paid jobs by raising the growth rate. His advisers talk of 3% GDP growth—a full percentage point higher than what most economists believe is today’s sustainable pace.

In Mr Trump’s mind the most important path to better jobs and faster growth is through fairer trade deals. Though he claims he is a free-trader, provided the rules are fair, his outlook is squarely that of an economic nationalist. Trade is fair when trade flows are balanced. Firms should be rewarded for investing at home and punished for investing abroad.

The second and third strands of Trumponomics, tax cuts and deregulation, will encourage that domestic investment. Lower taxes and fewer rules will fire up entrepreneurs, leading to faster growth and better jobs. This is standard supply-side economics, but to see Trumponomics as a rehash of Republican orthodoxy is a mistake—and not only because its economic nationalism is a departure for a party that has championed free trade.

The real difference is that Trumponomics (unlike, say, Reaganomics) is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king. Mr Trump has listened to scores of executives, but there are barely any economists in the White House. His approach to the economy is born of a mindset where deals have winners and losers and where canny negotiators confound abstract principles. Call it boardroom capitalism.

That Trumponomics is a business wishlist helps explain why critics on the left have laid into its poor distributional consequences, fiscal indiscipline and potential cronyism. And it makes clear why businessmen and investors have been enthusiastic, seeing it as a shot in the arm for those who take risks and seek profits. Stockmarkets are close to record highs and indices of business confidence have soared.

In the short term that confidence could prove self-fulfilling. America can bully Canada and Mexico into renegotiating NAFTA. For all their sermons about fiscal prudence, Republicans in Congress are unlikely to deny Mr Trump a tax cut. Stimulus and rule-slashing may lead to faster growth. And with inflation still quiescent, the Federal Reserve might not choke that growth with sharply higher interest rates.

Unleashing pent-up energy would be welcome, but Mr Trump’s agenda comes with two dangers. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date.

Contrary to the Trump team’s assertions, there is little evidence that either the global trading system or individual trade deals have been systematically biased against America (see article). Instead, America’s trade deficit—Mr Trump’s main gauge of the unfairness of trade deals—is better understood as the gap between how much Americans save and how much they invest (see article). The fine print of trade deals is all but irrelevant. Textbooks predict that Mr Trump’s plans to boost domestic investment will probably lead to larger trade deficits, as it did in the Reagan boom of the 1980s. If so, Mr Trump will either need to abandon his measure of fair trade or, more damagingly, try to curb deficits by using protectionist tariffs that will hurt growth and sow mistrust around the world.

A deeper problem is that Trumponomics draws on a blinkered view of America’s economy. Mr Trump and his advisers are obsessed with the effect of trade on manufacturing jobs, even though manufacturing employs only 8.5% of America’s workers and accounts for only 12% of GDP. Service industries barely seem to register. This blinds Trumponomics to today’s biggest economic worry: the turbulence being created by new technologies. Yet technology, not trade, is ravaging American retailing, an industry that employs more people than manufacturing (see article). And economic nationalism will speed automation: firms unable to outsource jobs to Mexico will stay competitive by investing in machines at home. Productivity and profits may rise, but this may not help the less-skilled factory workers who Mr Trump claims are his priority.

The bite behind the bark

Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant. Worse, when the contradictions become apparent, Mr Trump’s economic nationalism may become fiercer, leading to backlashes in other countries—further stoking anger in America. Even if it produces a short-lived burst of growth, Trumponomics offers no lasting remedy for America’s economic ills. It may yet pave the way for something worse.

A complete transcript of The Economist’s interview with Mr Trump is available here.

Palace whispers in the court of King Donald

Image from The Economist magazine article.

IT IS too soon to know whether Donald Trump’s sudden, regal dismissal of the FBI director—“Off with his head!”—will trigger a constitutional crisis. Much depends on who is appointed to succeed James Comey, and on the fate of FBI probes into Russian meddling in the election of 2016.

It is not too soon to make a more general observation. Less than four months into the reign of King Donald, his impetuous ways are making it more likely that his presidency will be a failure, with few large achievements to its name. That is not journalistic snark but a statement of fact, based on warnings from prominent Republicans and Democrats, notably in the Senate.

The 100 members of the Senate have a touchy relationship with every president. They are grandees, with a keen sense of superiority over the toiling hacks who serve in the House of Representatives and the here-today-gone-tomorrow political appointees who run the executive branch. Senators are treated as princes when they travel overseas, briefed by grizzled American generals and treated to tea by local potentates. In their dreams, election campaigns might still involve addressing crowds from the flag-draped caboose of a private train. Small wonder, then, that senators often resent the still-grander life of a president. Yet their dismay over Mr Trump sounds different.

As the Trump era began, Democratic senators recalled how this populist president had scorned both parties on the campaign trail, and wondered whether he might seek new, bipartisan coalitions to help hard-pressed working Americans. Democrats would muse, off the record, about the terms they would demand for supporting policies like a vast infrastructure programme. Perhaps, for example, they might seek union wage rates for workers building Mr Trump’s new airports and bridges. Republican senators worried, privately, about the same thing from the other side. They fretted that their new president would strike bargains with the new Democratic leader in the Senate, the canny, deal-cutting Charles Schumer of New York. To comfort themselves, Republicans imagined Mr Trump as a sort of salesman-CEO, selling comprehensive tax reform and deregulation to the masses while delegating day-to-day government to conventional conservatives such as his vice-president, Mike Pence.

Not any more. Increasingly the mood among Senate Republicans is a mixture of incredulity and gloom, as each political success (the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice, deftly handled cruise-missile strikes on Syria) is followed by a momentum-killing outburst from the president.

Some cast Mr Trump’s woes as a crisis of messaging and of White House staff discipline. At a recent lunch for Senate Republicans , Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the owl-like majority leader, scolded Mr Pence over a Trump tweet that suggested a government shutdown might be a nifty idea. You don’t believe that, we don’t believe that, and that sort of tweet only makes our lives harder, Mr McConnell reportedly told the vice-president. Prominent Republicans and Democrats have offered Mr Trump the same advice: find a chief of staff in the ferocious mould of James Baker, chief enforcer in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Some senators have still more specific counsel to offer. They urge Mr Trump to create a domestic policy team that apes the professionalism of his national security team. They praise his second national security adviser, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, for turning around a group left in chaos by his ill-starred predecessor, Mike Flynn, and hail the way that his defence secretary, James Mattis, works with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Not only do the chieftains of the Pentagon and State Department meet on their own at least once a week for breakfast to share their thinking, when recommending policies they try to present the president with a single option.

At the root of each fresh crisis lies Mr Trump’s character. If he were a king in velvet and ermine that would matter less. But he is an American president. Party loyalty may save him from a revolution. But, startlingly early on, his own colleagues are starting to wonder what King Donald is for.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.