Opinion

The Great Debate

Here lies the Great American Consumer

jamessaft1.jpg–James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Rest in peace, Great American Consumer. We will not see your like again.

“Cash-for-clunkers” aside, consumers seem bent on actually paying back debt rather than racking it up, a change that if sustained, as it is likely to be, will dampen economic growth not for months but for years, and not just in the U.S.

Outstanding U.S. consumer borrowing fell by a jaw-dropping $21.6 billion in July, according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve, five times more than analysts expected and the second largest monthly drop since the end of World War II.

June’s borrowing was revised to negative $15.5 billion from what had been an impressive minus $10.3 billion.

Over the past year, the stock of consumer loans outstanding has dropped by 4.2 percent, or nearly $110 billion, leaving the total now lower than it was before the crisis began in 2007.

Worry about bank capital, not bonuses

jamessaft1–James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.–

The effort to rein in banking bonuses, outrageous as they may be, is akin to banning glue sniffing because you are worried about the effects of intoxication.

There are, as the kids in the alley behind the high school can tell you, other ways of getting high.

Fishy bailout profits and ephemeral gains

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

There is a long list of outfits which have done well out of the banking bailout, but the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve are not among them.

According to calculations made for the New York Times, the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) has reaped profits of about $4 billion, or 15 percent annualized, as eight of the largest banks to participate have fully repaid what they owe.

Meanwhile unnamed Federal Reserve officials told the Financial Times that the central bank’s liquidity facilities have generated a “gain” of $14 billion since August of 2007.

A brief, but welcome recovery in housing

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Activity in the U.S. housing market has bottomed – a huge plus for the economy – but a recovery in prices will not be sustained and the threat from real estate to bank capital remains acute.

We are over the worst, but only because of massive official support, support that will soon ebb. That could lead to a relapse, especially among more expensive houses, but nothing along the lines of what we have suffered so far.

The news has been good.

Newly built homes sold in July at the fastest pace in ten months, up 9.6 percent, in U.S. Commerce Department data on Wednesday. This echoes a fairly good showing in last week’s data on sales of existing homes which are selling at the fastest pace in almost two years.

How not to avoid the next panic

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

A proposal to give banks, hedge funds and private equity firms “affordable” credit default swap-based insurance against market panics will be very effective: it will effectively encourage even more risk taking and turn the next crisis into one about government credit.

Global central bankers assembled at the Jackson Hole conference last week heard the proposal, by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Ricardo Caballero and Pablo Kurlat. Their idea is that most of the damage in panics is due to a combination of investors overestimating the damage during a market seizure and policy-makers being too slow to pull the trigger on bailouts.

The solution, therefore, is to send the banks into the next panic ready armed with a Fed-backed get out of jail free card which the authorities can activate at a moment’s notice.

Pensions and the coming savings boom

jamessaft1James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

The explosion in company pension fund shortfalls in Britain nicely illustrates issues which will dominate economics and investment in coming years: the re-pricing of risk, a disillusionment with equity markets, and the boom in savings these shortfalls will help to drive.

Under current accounting rules, the pension funds of companies in Britain’s FTSE 100 index are together 96 billion pounds ($170 billion) underfunded, more than double the deficit of a year ago and an all-time record, according to a report from pension fund consultants Lane, Clark & Peacock.

The dollar’s Tinkerbell moment

James Saft (James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Repeat after me: “I believe in a strong dollar as the primary global reserve currency, I believe in a strong dollar as the primary global reserve currency.”

Better hope it works, because the current debate over a far-in-the-future new monetary system may bring on a here-and-now dollar selloff and a whole new leg of the crisis.

Sadly, what worked when the children espoused their faith in Tinkerbell may not for a currency backed by the full faith and credit of a debtor nation which has socialised its banking system’s risk and needs to sell trillions in further debt to pay that and other bills.

U.S. should batten down the TARP

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The U.S. faces a lengthening series of request from industries and interests seeking shelter under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, most of which it should dismiss out of hand.

YRC Worldwide, a large trucking company, told the Wall Street Journal it will seek $1 billion in TARP funds to help relive it of its pension obligations.

Get ready for the “Great Immoderation”

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The recession will soon be dead, laid to rest alongside the idea of the “Great Moderation”, a set of hopeful assumptions that underpins expectations about economic growth and asset valuations.

This, when investors, bankers and executives ultimately realise it will cause them to pull in their horns, take less risks and be less willing to pay high prices for assets.

Active funds, more high-paid value destroyers

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

While they have avoided the opprobrium heaped on bankers during the bear market, traditional active fund managers have quietly been proving that they too are often highly paid destroyers of value.

Active managers have few bushes left to hide behind, and the release of a new report from Standard & Poor’s uproots one of the few left: that somehow they provide protection during down markets, being able to go into cash and defensive stocks.

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