Opinion

The Great Debate

China’s coming magnificent bubble

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

If and when China makes its currency convertible and opens its financial system the stage will be set for a bubble that should make the dotcom and housing booms look tame.

China has recently signaled its key aspirations: for a greater international role for the renminbi and for Shanghai to become a great financial capital. Neither is imminent, but both imply, if not require, a series of steps that, taken in combination with China’s legitimately great potential for growth, could lead to a bubble of magnificent and dangerous proportions.

Magnificent in that, like the dotcom bubble or the railroad boom in the U.S. in the 19th century, a bubble in domestic China is directionally right and will build useful things which will change the world. A bubble, after all, needs a good story and China has one of the best ever.

Dangerous because, like the housing bubble, it will inevitably go too far and could take down banks and banking systems globally.

Sit back and enjoy the Kabuki trade show

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

Financial markets have plenty to be worried about but their latest concern — a trade war between the United States and China — should not be on the list.

Aligned self interest and a knowledge on both sides of the causes of the Great Depression should limit matters to a kind of trade war Kabuki, a highly stylized piece of theatre in which the United States shakes its fist and China responds in kind but no blows land.

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.

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.

Japan: The mother of all miserable recoveries

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

Investors met the news that Japan’s economy has emerged from a bone-breaking recession calmly and rationally: they sold shares quickly and in large amounts and made bets that consumer prices are going to be falling for years to come.

That’s because Japan’s recovery, coming as it does after a global bubble in the production of what I call, for lack of a more technical term, “stuff,” is really not sustainable.

The fact that the consumer portion of the recovery is only a reflection of income transfers from government to individuals isn’t very encouraging either.

How the bailout feeds bloated banker pay

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

Rising pay in the finance sector in the wake of the global financial crisis is no surprise and is driven partly by the government’s bailout itself and the underwriting of banks that are too big to fail.

News that some financial firms benefitting from government largesse actually increased the share of revenue they pay their employees sparked a lot of outrage but more heat than light.

An abnormal recovery

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

Things in the U.S. economy are moving in the right direction, but the pace will be slow, frustrating and very likely to disappoint investors betting on a rip roaring old-fashioned recovery.

News that the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller 20 City house price index rose for the first time in almost three years in the three months to May was greeted with much rejoicing.
The Case-Shiller data is important and encouraging but not nearly as positive as it looks at first glance.

For one thing, house prices are supposed to rise in the spring; when looked at on a more meaningful seasonally adjusted basis prices are still falling, though at a slower rate than before.

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