Opinion

The Great Debate

Finance throws sand in wheels of trade

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

Trade finance, a basic lubricant for the global economy, is becoming much more expensive and tougher to get, accelerating an already harrowing downturn.

Banks are reluctant to allocate scarce capital to trade finance, which funds cross-border buying and selling, and are very wary about being caught short by defaults by other banks which write letters of credit or by the importers and exporters themselves.

While not the prime cause of a slowdown in global trade, which is being buffeted by declining consumption and tighter finance to households and businesses, tough conditions for the obscure but crucial corner of finance that funds goods and commodities between dispatch and delivery is sand in the wheels.

Stunningly bad trade figures from China underlined the problem. China had been expected to show double digit growth in trade last month as compared to November 2007, but the data showed exports falling 2.2 percent from a year ago and imports down 17.9 percent.

“Risk free” rate going way of free lunch

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

One of the many comfortable but unreliable certainties now coming unglued is the idea that U.S. Treasury interest rates are the paramount benchmark, a measure of “risk free” investment, an idea at the heart of finance.

In the old days we quaintly believed that U.S. government debt yields represented a benchmark against which all other types of risk taking could be measured. The 30-year yield, later supplanted by the 10-year, used to be called the most important rate in the world for just that reason. All other risk taking began from this handy jumping off point and all capital allocation decisions used it as an implicit or explicit input.

Banking spins destruction myth: Hoocoodanode?

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

Just as every society has a creation myth, banking is now busily writing a destruction myth that seeks to explain and soothe in a world torn to its foundations.

The myth, as expounded by regulators, bankers and their various service providers, is that we were hit by a perfect storm, a 1,000-year flood so unpredictable that we can’t possibly be held accountable for it. An act of god, rather than the folly of man.

Credit cards unkindest cut for U.S. consumers

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

Government intervention or not, banks will be cutting up America’s credit cards at an unprecedented rate, with grave implications for the economy and company profits.

The U.S. Federal Reserve last week added more nutrition to its alphabet soup of rescue programs when it unveiled the Term Asset-backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), under which, among other things, it will lend up to $200 billion to investors in securities backed by credit-card, auto and student loans.

Even UK guarantee can’t stop housing crash

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

Britain needs to reflate its mortgage markets to save its economy and its banks. Problem is, few want to borrow and there is precious little money to lend.

British property prices are down about 15 percent in a year and mortgage approvals are down 52 percent. Given the freeze in the securitization market and the scarcity of savings in Britain, new net mortgage lending may even fall below zero in 2009, according to James Crosby, former head of UK mortgage bank HBOS, who authored a government report on the mortgage market.

Slouching towards nationalization

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

The Citigroup bailout is sure to succeed, but only if you count avoiding making unpleasant but needed decisions as success.

It won’t work if you define success as building confidence and attracting private capital back to the banking system. It fails to work out a clearing price for rotten assets, and though it underwrites $306 billion of them even this huge sum is not enough to suspend disbelief.

Fighting deflation globally ain’t easy

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

With the U.S., Japan and Britain — nearly 40 percent of the global economy — facing the threat of deflation, it’s going to be just too easy for one, two or all three of them to get the policy response horribly wrong.

The global economy is so connected, and our experience with similar situations so limited that the scope for error is huge.

Petrodollar drought another blow to banks

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

Banks in Europe and Britain, and their unfortunate would-be borrowers, face another blow as plunging oil prices tighten the spigot of petrodollar deposits.

Billions of dollars worth of funds from oil exporting nations have made their way into banks from Zurich to London in recent years. These inflows helped banks withstand credit crisis losses and, given much of the money was in dollars, was a source of dollar liquidity during recent money market difficulties.

A long, shaky bridge to recovery

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

The lessons of Japan’s stumbling path out of deflation and recession suggest that government spending can help stave off an extended recession, but it may take years not months and require an unlikely combination of political will and consensus.

That’ll be a lot of bridges to nowhere.

The particular type of recession the United States faces, a balance sheet one, means that cutting interest rates will be really pretty ineffective, and while you can throw everything you have at saving the banking system, you can’t make people and businesses borrow and put the money to work. They too have their own balance sheet problems, having loaded up on debt and holding as they are assets like real estate and stocks that have fallen in value.

New President, same inadequate economic tools

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

By James Saft

LONDON (Reuters) – President-elect Barack Obama will have to confront the same intractable economic problems with the same inadequate tools.

The banking system remains impaired and will require more taxpayer support. The impact of one percent official interest rates will still be blunted by the congestive failure of banking. There also isn’t much more in interest rate to cut before the United States looks rather, well, Japanese.

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