Opinion

The Great Debate

While the music plays funds gotta dance

cr_lrg_108_jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

With just a few short weeks until the end of the year, look for many fund managers to take on more risk in an effort to salvage their annual return figures.

This is not about fundamentals, this is about something far more important: career risk.

Hedge Fund Research’s Global Hedge Fund index, which is broadly representative of the industry, is up just 11.9 percent year to date, while its Equity Hedge index is scarcely doing better, up 12.6 percent. The HFR Macro Fund index is actually down 8 percent, indicating the best paid minds in the business did not see the astounding emerging markets rally and dollar fall coming.

Given that global emerging markets are up something on the order of 60 percent this year, that all global shares are up 30 percent and even the S&P 500 is up 22 percent, we can conclude that a lot of managers are heading into the year-end reporting season with a lot of ground to make up.

There are also lifeboats full of institutional fund managers and mutual fund managers in the same position.

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.

A rally that is both rational and crazy

(Jjamessaft1ames Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Stocks and other risky assets are rallying around the world this week because the Group of 20 nations said on the weekend they would keep the economic stimulus flowing, a state of events which illustrates where we are and what a very strange place it is.

The G20, the only group of big hitters that matters because it is the only group which includes the Chinese, met in Scotland over the weekend and, as is the way of these things, did very little with immediate consequences for anybody.

In the communique they issued, the Group of 20 finance ministers, after congratulating themselves on the recovery, more or less admitted that the measures we once thought of as heroic are in the process of becoming commonplace.

Look out for emerging markets inflation

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

Emerging markets could be the first to suffer destabilizing inflation, courtesy of a strong economic rebound, a weak dollar and extremely loose monetary policy in the developed world.

Inflation, in faster growing emerging markets, was not high on the list of worries even months ago, but the speed and strength of the rebound and red-hot asset markets in some places show that it may be a rising threat.

“The surprise could be that inflation in emerging markets really takes off,” Amer Bisat of hedge fund Traxis Partners said on Tuesday at a Euromoney foreign exchange conference in New York.

UK takes right step on too-big banks

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

So it can be done after all.

Britain is poised to take tough steps to break up the large banks it rescued, setting it in stark contrast to the United States, which seems set on a policy of shoring up the unfair advantages it grants its too-big-to-fail banks while regulating around the edges.

It is quite a change for Britain, which has a sorry history of self-serving self-regulation in financial services combined with limp and outgunned official control.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling on Sunday told the BBC that Lloyds, RBS and Northern Rock would be partly broken up and assets sold to new entrants into the banking market. Large existing competitors such as HSBC are expected to be blocked from making bids for the assets.

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.

Time for a shareholder revolt

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

There are encouraging signs that shareholders are becoming more assertive in defending their interests.

The Financial Times reported on Monday that some of Britain’s largest institutional shareholders – including Standard Life, Legal & General and M&G – are working on a plan to bypass investment banks by creating a club to underwrite new issues of equity by small and medium-sized British companies, a move that could save hugely on fees.

What, you may wonder, took them so long?

Second only to taxpayers, investors have been the great patsies of the financial crisis, paying massive costs to a financial services industry which has, to put it mildly, not served them well.

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.

An unhealthy privilege

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

When the U.S. dollar ultimately loses its status as the world’s premier reserve currency it will be painful for all involved, almost certainly disorganized, and very possibly a very good thing.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick outlined the risks to the dollar’s status in a speech in Washington on Monday.

Global imbalances: out with a bang?

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

The simplest way to end the imbalances in the world’s economy is also sadly perhaps the most likely: for the Chinese to stop buying U.S. debt.

This is not going to happen anytime soon, for one thing deleveraging in the U.S. will for a time make U.S. Treasuries look good value, but a buyer’s strike is a heck of a lot more likely than the orchestrated rebalancing the U.S. will push at this week’s G-20 meeting of leading nations.

The U.S. plans to advance a plan at the Pittsburgh summit to fundamentally change the balance of the global economy, which over the past 15 years or so has been characterized by over-borrowing and consumption in the West provided and financed by savers and workers in Asia.

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