Opinion

James Saft

Fed audit push gives impetus to gold rally

Nov 24, 2009 12:50 UTC

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.

The Fed, understandably, hates the idea, saying it will compromise its hard-won independence, the administration loathes it, and really it will almost certainly never become effective in a recognizable form.

Even so, and even interpreting the vote as a populist cry of the heart against Washington and Wall Street, the fact that it has gotten this far will cause some serious people without an ideological dog in the Federal Reserve fight to buy a bit of gold, which is really a sort of anti-currency, as a hedge against increased political influence in the process of making monetary policy.

Fed audit push gives impetus to gold rally

Nov 24, 2009 12:50 UTC

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.

A rising tide of capital controls

Nov 19, 2009 19:09 UTC

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

Easy money in the United States, a falling dollar and growing flows of funds seeking better returns in emerging markets are touching off a new round of capital controls in hot emerging markets, a trend that could accelerate and will at the very least increase market volatility.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really; loose money in the developed world is helping to spur investment into emerging markets, driving currencies up and making local exports less competitive for countries which, unlike China, aren’t hitching a free ride as the dollar declines.

Inflation may be a threat for many of these, but with the global economy still struggling, it certainly won’t feel that way to policy makers.

While the music plays funds gotta dance

Nov 17, 2009 12:34 UTC

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.

While the music plays funds gotta dance

Nov 17, 2009 12:34 UTC

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.

A rally that is both rational and crazy

Nov 10, 2009 12:24 UTC

(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.”However, the recovery is uneven and remains dependent on policy support, and high unemployment is a major concern,” the statement said. “To restore the global economy and financial system to health, we agreed to maintain support for the recovery until it is assured.”Let me put that in human terms for you:”We’ve spent untold trillions saving the economy, but, er, we’ve really only saved the financial system and that only to the extent that we keep on saving it. Jobs, well, not so much. We therefore pledge to continue doing this thing that may or may not be working until we are sure that it is.”Global stock markets then went off on a stonking rally on Monday, which major media attributed to the pledge of continued stimulus. I suppose we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the financial media was, as we often do, mistaking coincidence for causation, but professionals were citing it too.So, what are they promising to do? Will they be able to do it? And why do the risk markets like it so much?There are at least two aspects to the stimulus – continued easy money from central banks and actual government spending.The easy money part – low interest rates and unconventional measures – clearly will continue. It will be politically very difficult to raise interest rates while unemployment is still so high, and given the wan nature of the recovery, unemployment will take a long time to fall.The actual government spending part is a lot harder to bank on, as it were. One reading of the Japanese experience in the 1990s is that their stimulative measures worked but they lost heart and withdrew them for mostly political reasons, thereby bringing on a relapse from which they never really properly recovered.The politics of another stimulative spending binge will not be easy, especially in the U.S. and especially given populist backlash. That’s not to say more stimulus won’t be needed, it very likely will, but you can’t count on it arriving. Deleveraging takes a long time and we very likely would have been better off just writing the debt down in the first place.MARKETS LOVE CERTAINTY Investors have decided, and I think they are probably right, that so long as the authorities are hell bent on reflation it is foolish to get in the way.As analyst David Merkel has pointed out, the statement of the Federal Reserve meeting, released last week, characterized financial markets as “roughly unchanged” since they last met in September, revealing that they pay far more attention to equity markets than debt markets.Because of course equity markets were going more or less sideways in October but many of the riskier parts of the debt markets were rallying strongly. Wasn’t this whole crisis, and its expensive fix, supposed to be about “unfreezing credit markets”? Not anymore, apparently.That is because the Fed realize that they have got to keep equity markets up, indeed have got to force them to rise. It is the only way to float the equity above the debt, make the banks and the holders of debt whole, and allow the financial system to weather the crisis.There were other options – default, temporary nationalization – but that is not the route we went down. So, within this context the rally makes great sense.Notice how equity markets have been on a huge tear since last week, going up on news that implied that the Fed would remain on hold for a long time, going up on unemployment rising through 10 percent in the U.S. and, funnily enough, going up on faith that the G20 would stick with stimulus measures.This brings us to the crazy part. While it may be individually rational for everyone to hitch a ride on the policy train and follow asset prices higher, I would argue that the project is collective folly.The risks are inflation and a rapidly falling U.S. dollar which leave banks and debtors solvent in nominal terms but not better off. Those risks are best observed now through the dollar, which is falling, and gold, which is at record highs.(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

A rally that is both rational and crazy

Nov 10, 2009 12:24 UTC

(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.”However, the recovery is uneven and remains dependent on policy support, and high unemployment is a major concern,” the statement said. “To restore the global economy and financial system to health, we agreed to maintain support for the recovery until it is assured.”Let me put that in human terms for you:”We’ve spent untold trillions saving the economy, but, er, we’ve really only saved the financial system and that only to the extent that we keep on saving it. Jobs, well, not so much. We therefore pledge to continue doing this thing that may or may not be working until we are sure that it is.”Global stock markets then went off on a stonking rally on Monday, which major media attributed to the pledge of continued stimulus. I suppose we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the financial media was, as we often do, mistaking coincidence for causation, but professionals were citing it too.So, what are they promising to do? Will they be able to do it? And why do the risk markets like it so much?There are at least two aspects to the stimulus – continued easy money from central banks and actual government spending.The easy money part – low interest rates and unconventional measures – clearly will continue. It will be politically very difficult to raise interest rates while unemployment is still so high, and given the wan nature of the recovery, unemployment will take a long time to fall.The actual government spending part is a lot harder to bank on, as it were. One reading of the Japanese experience in the 1990s is that their stimulative measures worked but they lost heart and withdrew them for mostly political reasons, thereby bringing on a relapse from which they never really properly recovered.The politics of another stimulative spending binge will not be easy, especially in the U.S. and especially given populist backlash. That’s not to say more stimulus won’t be needed, it very likely will, but you can’t count on it arriving. Deleveraging takes a long time and we very likely would have been better off just writing the debt down in the first place.MARKETS LOVE CERTAINTY Investors have decided, and I think they are probably right, that so long as the authorities are hell bent on reflation it is foolish to get in the way.As analyst David Merkel has pointed out, the statement of the Federal Reserve meeting, released last week, characterized financial markets as “roughly unchanged” since they last met in September, revealing that they pay far more attention to equity markets than debt markets.Because of course equity markets were going more or less sideways in October but many of the riskier parts of the debt markets were rallying strongly. Wasn’t this whole crisis, and its expensive fix, supposed to be about “unfreezing credit markets”? Not anymore, apparently.That is because the Fed realize that they have got to keep equity markets up, indeed have got to force them to rise. It is the only way to float the equity above the debt, make the banks and the holders of debt whole, and allow the financial system to weather the crisis.There were other options – default, temporary nationalization – but that is not the route we went down. So, within this context the rally makes great sense.Notice how equity markets have been on a huge tear since last week, going up on news that implied that the Fed would remain on hold for a long time, going up on unemployment rising through 10 percent in the U.S. and, funnily enough, going up on faith that the G20 would stick with stimulus measures.This brings us to the crazy part. While it may be individually rational for everyone to hitch a ride on the policy train and follow asset prices higher, I would argue that the project is collective folly.The risks are inflation and a rapidly falling U.S. dollar which leave banks and debtors solvent in nominal terms but not better off. Those risks are best observed now through the dollar, which is falling, and gold, which is at record highs.(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

  •