Opinion

The Great Debate

Housing’s Humpty Dumpty moment

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

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men have been busy propping up the housing market but sometime this year, perhaps soon, it will face a Humpty Dumpty moment.

While it gets a lot less attention than the banking bailout, the official forces targeted at supporting house prices are truly vast; a generous tax break for buyers and a mortgage market that has essentially been nationalized.

That’s bought a recovery of sorts — Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price index released on Tuesday showed that in 20 major cities home prices rose 0.2 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis between October and November, despite a national unemployment rate of 10 percent and a slow-motion cascade of foreclosures.

But like the egg in the nursery rhyme, which once broken cannot be reassembled, housing still faces some pretty horrendous fundamentals. It needs a strong recovery in employment to arrive before political consensus for housing support cools. (Full disclosure: I just bought a house, but hey, everybody’s got to live somewhere).

Already there are signs that housing may be faltering. Existing home sales declined sharply in December, though this was partly because many rushed to close purchases before a now extended deadline for tax rebates expired on Dec. 1.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Geithner’s faulty apologia

Tim Geithner's appearance in front of Congress today was another embarrassment, perhaps more for the people's representatives than the Treasury Secretary. Still, Geithner offered a clumsy defense for paying out 100¢ on the dollar to AIG's counterparties, which included more than Goldman Sachs.

What they lacked in knowledge and nuance, Congress made up for in volume and OUTRAGE. The worst moment I saw was the utterly bogus comparison by Rep. Stephen Lynch between AIG's payout to Goldman (100¢ on the dollar!) and the bailout offer for Bear Stearns shareholders (only $2 per share). 100 is a bigger number than 2, you see.

Geithner was lucky to be doing battle with such an unprepared, unimpressive group.

Obama disappoints on bank reform

— Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. —

President Obama announced he wants to prohibit banks from forming hedge funds, private equity funds and trading securities on their own accounts, and he wants to limit the size of banks and financial institutions generally.

Hedge funds, private equity funds and proprietary securities trading did not cause the banks to get into trouble, and the size of banks did not cause the credit crisis.

Bernanke’s fearful asymmetry

saft2.jpg – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Ben Bernanke may minimize the role of monetary policy in the housing debacle, but he minimizes two key factors: the effect of low rates and the Fed’s policy of cleaning up after but not popping bubbles had on risk-taking.

In what amounts to a defense of his own and Alan Greenspan’s legacy, Bernanke maintains that low interest rates didn’t cause the bubble, which he says required a regulatory rather than monetary solution.

Fed audit push gives impetus to gold rally

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

Auditing the Federal Reserve may or may not be a good idea, but one thing seems pretty sure: just discussing it seriously will tend to drive the price of gold higher.

The U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee last week voted to approve an amendment that would bring about an audit of the Fed, its monetary policy and lending programs, since when gold has gone its merry way higher, hitting an all-time high of $1,174 per ounce on Monday.

The amendment, a provision to a broader financial services reform bill that is still under consideration, was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Ron Paul, author of the book “End the Fed,” and the man least likely to be found chairing a panel at Jackson Hole or Davos.

Can recovery and credit crunch coexist?

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

New studies from the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank show that, whatever else, a recovery in the economy is not being supported by a resumption in bank lending, raising concerns about how exactly growth will become self-sustaining when official stimulus ebbs.

The ECB last week released its loan survey showing banks tightened credit yet again for businesses and consumers, though at a less severe rate than in the previous quarter. Much was made of the fact that banks said they expected to ease terms to businesses, but not individuals, slightly in the last three months of the year.

Days later the Fed was out with its own survey, and again the news is getting worse more slowly, which must mean it is time to pop open the tap water. Banks are tightening terms and conditions to large firms, though fewer are doing so than before. Of course we should be thankful for small mercies, but the fact remains that this is a relative rather than an absolute survey, which means that even if fewer are being tougher the vast majority are being just as tight with money as they were three months ago when things were very tight indeed.

The death of the “punchbowl” metaphor

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

Don’t expect the year-long rally in risky assets to be undermined any time soon by the Federal Reserve becoming concerned about inflation.

The old metaphor — that the Fed’s job is to take away the punchbowl just when the party starts getting good — just doesn’t apply in the current circumstances. That’s not to say inflation isn’t a threat in the medium term — it is virtually a promise.

But punchbowl thinking dates from a time when firstly the Fed was presumed to have a degree of control over events we now know is not true and secondly to an era when asset prices were the caboose rather than the engine of the economic train.

Dollar faces long journey downward

cr_lrg_108_jamessaft1.jpg

- James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

Even putting aside the spectacular but hard-to-measure risks of a financing crisis or the loss of its special status, the dollar faces really serious headwinds from boring old fundamentals.

The dollar has been weak for months and markets have been fretting over a host of big picture worries.

Perhaps the world’s oil exporters will stop using the dollar as the medium for petroleum trade. Or maybe the so-far patient and docile buyers of Treasuries will finally turn jittery. Either could be a disaster for the dollar, but you don’t need conspiracies or crises to be bearish on a currency from a country which on some measures has run the largest-ever deficit between what it imports and what it sells abroad.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Time for a Fed fire drill

Former Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin joked that it was his job to "take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going." But Alan Greenspan never did, choosing instead to spike it every time the party slowed down. The results were more than a little unfortunate.

Now, faced with years of economic stagnation, most economists conclude interest rates will stay low indefinitely. The Fed is doing little to disabuse them, though an opinion article from Fed Governor Kevin Warsh in today's Wall Street Journal tries to warn us not to get complacent.

Warsh says, a bit technically: "'Whatever it takes'... cannot be an asymmetric mantra, trotted out only during times of deep economic and financial distress, and discarded when the cycle turns." In other words, if the Fed only intervenes during downturns, it risks its credibility as protector of the dollar.

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.

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