Opinion

James Saft

Europe shambles as Greek fire spreads

Apr 29, 2010 14:21 UTC

Europe desperately needs to get out in front of its solvency problem, Greek edition; not because it is right, not even because it will work in the long term, but to stem rapid and costly contagion through financial markets to other weak links in the euro zone, not least to banks.

Whether euro zone institutions will have the agility and resolve to quickly put in place out-sized measures for Greece is doubtful.

That Greece on Wednesday was paying more than 20 percent, or about double the rate of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, to borrow money for two years showed that investors were expecting either a default or very large burden sharing by existing creditors, and possibly a, by definition, disorderly exit from the euro by Greece. Spain joined the list of sovereign downgrades, as Standard & Poor’s cut its rating a notch to AA, a day after the debt rating agency slashed Greece to junk status and cut Portugal to AA.

The moves prompted rapid widening of Spanish and Portuguese debt, and hit financial markets world-wide. Investors, lulled by an apparently miraculous government-underwritten escape from the banking crisis, and aware of how badly things would go if Greece were not bailed out, had been operating on a cheerful if lazy assumption that this crisis too would be made to disappear, because the alternative is too horrible.

Month has followed month, meeting has piled upon meeting and even with broad consensus there is still huge lack of clarity about who in the European Union is going to do what exactly to whom.

Stop worrying and love emerging markets

Apr 27, 2010 11:30 UTC

Better growth, less debt and what is shaping up to be a very nice little supply and demand mismatch make emerging markets very attractive relative to the developed world.

Sure, China could go ‘pffft’ every now and then, and yes, there is potential for getting caught at some point on the wrong side of a deflating bubble, but boom and bust is the world in which we live. Stay in the developed world and you could get run over by the proverbial Greek bus on its way out of the euro or see your portfolio shot out from under you by the bond market vigilantes.

And, as the International Monetary Fund pointed out last week, emerging market returns have been better on a volatility adjusted basis, both during the downturn and the market recovery. Think about that: historically the trade-off in emerging markets has been that you try to capture a share of superior economic growth but bear the risks of higher volatility and a bigger chance of being abused as an investor by entrenched local interests.

Taxing spoils of the financial sector

Apr 22, 2010 13:17 UTC

If you want less of something, tax it.

That truism is often used as an argument against a tax on profits, or health benefits, or employment, but in the case of the rents extracted from the economy by the financial services industry here’s hoping it proves more of a promise than a threat.

The International Monetary Fund has put forward two new taxes on banks to pay the costs of future rescues, one of which is a fairly conventional “Financial Stability Contribution,” with an initial flat levy on all banks, to be refined later into something with more precise institutional and systemic risk adjustments.

More interestingly, the IMF is also proposing a “Financial Activities Tax,” (FAT) a tax on bank pay and profits which, if correctly designed, could serve as a tax on rents — the unwarranted spoils — of the financial sector.

Don’t bank on clients to punish Goldman

Apr 20, 2010 14:26 UTC

So remind me, why will clients continue to do business with Goldman Sachs?

I know, it is a stupid question; investors and corporations will continue to do business with Goldman even after the bank has been charged with an alleged fraud for the same reasons they always have: because they hope, like every gambler, to beat stacked odds and because they flatter themselves that they are not the sucker at the table.

Bank lending and profits; a costly divergence

Apr 13, 2010 11:37 UTC

Don’t count on the profitability of the financial services sector as a leading indicator of anything. Well, anything other than financial services compensation.

A stupendous recovery in profits is underway at U.S. banks, brokerages and insurance companies, but the big picture shows that for the rest of us that rebound may prove sterile.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the sector had an absolutely cracking 2009, with profits rising in the fourth quarter by 240 percent against the same period a year before.

Deflation pressure not just from housing

Apr 8, 2010 16:59 UTC

It will take more than a recovery in housing to reignite inflation in the U.S. economy, a state of play that argues for the continued threat of deflation and a Federal Reserve that is pinned to the mat, unable, even if willing, to raise interest rates.

The strong disinflationary forces in the United States are deeper and wider than a simple, if bloody, aftermath of a housing bubble.

Many took encouragement from a report by Reis Inc that apartment rents in the United States rose in the first quarter for the first time in a year and a half even as the apartment vacancy rate stayed at an all-time high of 8 percent. Besides indicating a possible recovery in jobs and household formation, which tracks jobs, there is a hope that stabilization in housing values and rents would remove a powerful disinflationary force.

Deflation pressure not just from housing

Apr 8, 2010 16:59 UTC

It will take more than a recovery in housing to reignite inflation in the U.S. economy, a state of play that argues for the continued threat of deflation and a Federal Reserve that is pinned to the mat, unable, even if willing, to raise interest rates.

The strong disinflationary forces in the United States are deeper and wider than a simple, if bloody, aftermath of a housing bubble.

Many took encouragement from a report by Reis Inc that apartment rents in the United States rose in the first quarter for the first time in a year and a half even as the apartment vacancy rate stayed at an all-time high of 8 percent. Besides indicating a possible recovery in jobs and household formation, which tracks jobs, there is a hope that stabilization in housing values and rents would remove a powerful disinflationary force.

Nice job, pity about falling wages

Apr 6, 2010 18:59 UTC

It was the strongest U.S. employment report in three years and yet just beneath the surface was plenty of evidence that inflation pressure from the labor market is more of a fond hope than a real threat.

Nonagricultural payrolls rose in March by 162,000, the most in exactly three years and for only the third time since the recession began later that year. Of course, the United States probably needs about 200,000 new jobs a month just to bring unemployment down by a point in a year’s time. No sooner do jobs become available than sidelined would-be workers start seeking employment again. That kept the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, while the key broader measure of the unemployed, the underemployed, the discouraged and the marginally attached — those game for work but unable to find it, get to it or find child-care while they go — hit a whopping 16.9 percent.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why, in an economic recovery with a growing job market, average hourly earnings actually fell by two cents an hour, or 0.1 percent from the month before.

Nice job, pity about falling wages

Apr 6, 2010 18:59 UTC

It was the strongest U.S. employment report in three years and yet just beneath the surface was plenty of evidence that inflation pressure from the labor market is more of a fond hope than a real threat.

Nonagricultural payrolls rose in March by 162,000, the most in exactly three years and for only the third time since the recession began later that year. Of course, the United States probably needs about 200,000 new jobs a month just to bring unemployment down by a point in a year’s time. No sooner do jobs become available than sidelined would-be workers start seeking employment again. That kept the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, while the key broader measure of the unemployed, the underemployed, the discouraged and the marginally attached — those game for work but unable to find it, get to it or find child-care while they go — hit a whopping 16.9 percent.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why, in an economic recovery with a growing job market, average hourly earnings actually fell by two cents an hour, or 0.1 percent from the month before.

The Age of Frugality takes a holiday

Apr 1, 2010 16:40 UTC

That whole Age of Frugality thing didn’t last long, did it?

U.S. real personal consumption grew in February at a respectable 0.3 percent clip, the fifth straight such monthly rise, a fact widely greeted as news that the recovery is on course. The fly in this tasty soup, however, is income, which in real terms didn’t increase at all, not even by one tenth of a percent.

American’s did this neat trick — spending more while earning the same — the old fashioned way: they cut back on luxuries … like saving.

Savings as a percentage of disposable personal income fell to 3.1 percent from 3.4 percent the month before and down from a recent peak of 6.4 percent in May 2009. In fact, the last time the savings rate was lower was October 2008 when a market maelstrom was convincing so many people, apparently falsely, that something rather dangerous and important was wrong with the economy. In real terms, consumption is only very slightly below where it peaked in 2007.

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