Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

The super-wealthy bounce back

Peter Rudegeair
Jun 30, 2011 22:28 UTC

Keith Banks is the president of U.S. Trust, the private wealth management arm of Bank of America. He stopped by the Reuters studio in Aspen to chat with Chrystia about the resurgent risk appetite among the world’s super-wealthy investors, his tripartite outlook for the global economy and the alternative asset classes that are currently in vogue. Here is a transcript of some of the highlights of their discussion:

The super-wealthy have gotten their groove back:

KEITH BANKS: The thing that was very interesting to me was even the super wealthy, people with hundreds of millions of dollars, how impacted they were psychologically by the crisis. So even though arguably their standard of living didn’t change, yeah their net worth was down, but it was not down to a point where they had to change their lifestyle. But psychologically, they were very impacted by it. If they happened to be business owners on top of that, they were really feeling pretty beaten up, because not only were they dealing with the personal aspects of that, but they were running businesses that were looking at higher taxes, more regulation, higher health care costs, and a lot of uncertainty and generals. They were getting kind of a double whammy. So I would say our clients came out of the crisis really hunkered down, were really impacted psychologically. And what it really changed was their thinking about what they wanted to do from an investment standpoint… I’d say about six, nine months ago, we slowly began to see that shift where clients began to engage. We’re able to engage clients more in a discussion about areas they should be thinking about moving their assets into to get somewhat higher returns, still managing the risk. So I think the psyche has improved. They’re doing more and they’re more willing to move money around, whereas 12 months ago, not interested.

A tale of three cities in the global economy:

There’s a tale of three cities going on.  Number one is the U.S.  And the U.S. — think about right now is a two to three percent grower, okay.  Not what we want to see, but certainly not the worst-case scenario.  The– the second city is Europe, Eurozone.  Now it’s going to be a one to two percent growth, right, even more anemic, with a very wide range of outcomes by country.  But again pretty anemic stuff.  And then the stars of the show continue to be the emerging markets. In general, China and Asia in particular.  But when you blend that all together, we’re still looking at growth north of four percent globally.  That’s a fantastic number.  And a lot of our– our multinational firms, the S&P 500 types of companies get as much of 50 percent or more of sales [abroad]… So if you’re a company that has a global market place that you’re serving, you’re probably looking out there saying this is pretty good, right.  I’m seeing good growth, I’m seeing good sales, I’m seeing good profits because I have the streamlined core structure.  So those companies and those executives are feeling good about things.  If you’re a smaller company that’s pretty much a U.S. domiciled, U.S.-centric company in terms of who your customers are, you’re probably not feeling nearly as buoyant, [or] nearly as robust because you’re feeling more the effects of that two percent, two and a half percent growth dynamic that we’re seeing just here in the U.S.  And obviously, if you’re U.S. and Europe, then you’re really not too pumped up because then you’re too mired in two of the areas that again are seeing the least robust growth.  So it really depends on what your market is, who you’re serving, where your sales come from.

The smart money bets the farm:

KEITH BANKS: And so now the question’s going to be how fast can we grow, both in the U.S. and globally, what opportunities does that create for them both from a business standpoint as well as a personal investment standpoint, and then positioning them accordingly. One thing that’s also very interesting is our clients, in addition to the traditional financial assets, stocks, bonds, all that, they’re getting increasingly interested in hard assets.  Hard assets to find as timberland, farmland, oil and gas properties.  We have the ability–

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Real estate?

KEITH BANKS: Real estate.  But not so much, not residential.  There are opportunities in the commercial side just because values have gotten depressed.  But what’s interesting is if you believe that global growth will continue at a four percent plus rate, you’re already seeing inflation picking up in those countries that are seeing the faster growth, but it’s a reflation (PH) dynamic. And so what people are saying is own — owning the hard asset is not only a good diversifier with respect to financial assets, the traditional assets, but it’s a place you want to be if ultimately inflation will begin to slowly but surely tick up.  So we have a group within U.S. Trust that can do that.  We’re engaging a lot of clients in that discussion.

Halfway to a lost decade

Peter Rudegeair
Jun 30, 2011 19:58 UTC

At the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, Chrystia interviewed the iconoclastic and polymathic economist Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Here is a transcript of some of the highlights of their discussion:

On the U.S. economy’s lost half decade:

JUSTIN WOLFERS: If you go back, you look at how bad the economy’s been for so long.  So the NBER says the recession started in 2007.  Actually it may have started as early as 2006… One of the difficulties is we keep revising what happened to history. And if you look at the latest revisions of history, our current understanding is the economy actually peaked in late 2006. This I’m sure is something you’re going to hear a lot about during election season, ’cause they’re going to call this again, you know, the Bush recession. They’re going to be very keen to get that story out. But, you know, the first part of 2011 looks like it’s pretty grim. It’s very hard to see– a lot of strong growth.  And certainly, you know, things are well below potential now. You know, people talk about a lost decade, and if you think about 2006 to the present, we’re halfway there. And if you want to be the real pessimist — and I’m not — I’m not this pessimistic. But, you know, if you look at things like median family income, it actually fell during the Bush years.  Which actually means if you’re the median family– we’re well past a lost decade.

On the Fed’s need for a new marketing campaign:

JUSTIN WOLFERS: See this is where we’ve got the branding all wrong.  So QE1 and QE2, they sound complicated.  What are they, they’re the government buying bonds to reduce interest rates.  What’s monetary policy, standard run-of-the-mill monetary policy?  The government buying bonds to affect interest rates.  We’re just changing different interest rates.  So let’s change all of ‘em and let’s keep changing ‘em.  There’s nothing–

The jobs council weighs in

Peter Rudegeair
Jun 29, 2011 20:52 UTC

“Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! What can we do?” was the title of a panel Chrystia moderated at the New York Forum last week with members of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  The Council has been tasked with jump-starting the U.S. labor market and recommending changes to the nation’s education and training initiatives, and each of the panelists touched on a different aspect of the Council’s findings.

Laura Tyson, a former chief economic adviser to President Clinton and an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, stressed that infrastructure projects were the low-hanging fruit of job creation.  She argued that $1 billion in infrastructure investment could create between 11,000 and 30,000 jobs.  Many infrastructure projects have been approved and are shovel-ready — the only thing that’s holding them up is the Department of Transportation’s lengthy permitting process, Tyson noted.

Valerie Jarrett, a Senior Advisor to President Obama, added that in order to offset the rise in structural unemployment, investments in education and worker placement must be made sooner rather than later:

America’s economy: glass half full?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 24, 2011 14:50 UTC

Is it morning in America? Or is now a time for blood, sweat, toil and tears? As the United States warms up for the presidential elections, the choice between those two narratives will be the most important decision each party makes and may determine who wins in 2012.

Both are ways of talking about the economy — the issue that polls show overwhelmingly preoccupies U.S. voters. The morning-in-America storyline is that the financial crisis is over, the economy is healing and the country’s innate powers of renewal, reinvention and innovation are already asserting themselves. The blood, sweat, toil and tears view is that the U.S. economy is still sick and that it will take a significant, arduous and collective effort to nurse it back to health.

For now, the White House is committed to morning in America. That was the message of a discussion among members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness that I moderated this week at the New York Forum, a high-powered annual gathering of CEO’s and politicians that is shaping up to be New York’s answer to Davos.

Hungary’s revolution and the Arab Spring

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 17, 2011 16:18 UTC

BUDAPEST – Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right. The Arab Spring really is the most important political event since the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. So it makes sense to find out what the East Europeans make of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and to ask what they think it will take to transform the promise of these rebellions into a lasting political transformation.

A good place to look for those answers this week was Budapest, where Central European University, one of the intellectual centers of the region’s political and economic transition, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The scholars and activists who gathered here to toast those two decades strolled along the sunny banks of the Danube, listened to a special concert of Liszt and Mahler — and spent a lot of time debating the lessons of their revolution for the Arab Spring.

Is U.S. business abandoning the middle class?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 10, 2011 13:33 UTC

The big mystery in the United States today is why the job crisis is not at the center of the political and economic debate. After all, the numbers — and the human tragedies they reflect — could not be bleaker.

Nearly 14 million Americans — 9.1 percent of the working population — are unemployed. That’s just a couple of a million shy of the populations of Greece and Ireland, Europe’s two problem children, combined. Another 8.5 million would like to work full time, but can only find part-time jobs. A further 2.2 million have been so discouraged by the grim labor market that they have given up looking for jobs altogether.

It is hard to blame them — those still actively looking for work have been unemployed for an average of 39.7 weeks. These are cruel numbers, and they depict an unemployment crisis that is deeper and more sustained than at any time since 1948, when records first started to be kept.

Hedge funds: friends or foes?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 9, 2011 16:58 UTC

Are hedge funds malign financial firms that are exploiting and encouraging volatility? Or are they contrarian investors that lean against asset bubbles and make markets more stable? Chrystia interviewed Roger Martin of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations about the role of hedge funds in the economy, George Soros’s “gloriously schizophrenic personality,” and the lessons financial regulators can learn from the NFL commissioner:

Americans will never allow Medicare to be gutted

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 3, 2011 14:58 UTC

The political theater in the United States this week has been all about the “debt ceiling”: Congress voting not to increase it; President Barack Obama and the House Republicans meeting to discuss it; and the Treasury warning that failure to raise it will bring economic apocalypse for the United States and the world.

Elites like to accuse ordinary Americans of a lack of political sophistication, but everyone from Main Street to Wall Street is savvy enough to understand that so far, the fighting over the ceiling is pure Kabuki. As with the budget deal earlier this year, the real negotiating is unlikely to happen until the very last minute.

But everyone also understands that this summer game of brinkmanship matters because it is a proxy war being fought over a very real problem: the growing national debt and deficit. At just under 60 percent of gross domestic product, the U.S. national debt is lower than that of France, Germany and Britain. And the rest of the world still seems delighted to lend the United States money on historically generous terms.

Spotlight on philanthropy

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 1, 2011 19:25 UTC

In 1984 Marc Koska read a newspaper article that changed his life. The article predicted that the HIV contagion that had surfaced a few years earlier would morph into an all-out pandemic across the developed world via the unsanitary practice of reusing syringes. He spent the next three years traveling and designing a cost-effective syringe that would lock up if someone attempted to reuse it. Fast forward to the present, and 13 manufacturers around the world are making a couple of million of Koska’s K1 syringes every day. Yet, as he told Chrystia at Google’s 2011 European Zeitgeist conference in May, doctors and nurses in developing countries continue to reuse unsterilized syringes:

The vast majority of injections are not in any way safe if they don’t use this or they don’t use correct procedure.So we end up with something like 1.3 million deaths — World Health Organization number — being caused every single year, which is twice the amount of the death toll of malaria even. And what angers me is, this is caused by a doctor or a nurse. This isn’t, you know, an innocent mosquito. This is actually being transmitted to the patients via a health care worker.

Marc’s approach to development was one of many that were discussed during Chrystia’s Zeitgeist panel “Spotlight on Philanthropy.” Another panelist, Oxfam CEO Barbara Stocking, stressed that business had a crucial role to play in poverty alleviation and argued, “the best thing that companies can do is actually work in their core business in a way that actually helps poor people.” She cited a recent initiative from consumer-goods behemoth Unilever as an encouraging example:

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