Opinion

James Saft

The Knightian dog ate my recovery

Aug 31, 2010 13:38 UTC

Remember when business and economic leaders droned on about “100-year storms,” 2008′s get-out-of-jail free card for people who missed the housing bubble?

This was the whole idea that there was no way that people could be held accountable for the crisis because the notion of there being a problem with continual double-digit house price growth and sky-high leverage was just so darned unlikely.

Well, it looks like we have the 2010 version of how the dog ate their homework again and this time it is called “Knightian uncertainty.”

Over to European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet, who in a weekend speech at the Federal Reserve’s economic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming more or less said there is a biggish chance that he and his peers have no idea what is going on or what will happen next.

“Today, central bankers have to take decisions in an environment marked by a degree of uncertainty in the economic and financial sphere that seems to me largely unprecedented. … The acceleration of major advances in science and technology (not only information technology), the ensuing structural transformations of our economies, the ever-growing complexity of global finance and the overall process of globalisation are itself creating a multidimensional acceleration of change,” Trichet said.

We are all widows and orphans now

Aug 26, 2010 11:25 UTC

It may seem like a  world turned upside down: stocks are desired for their dividends and bonds are all about capital appreciation, or at least preservation.

It was all so different over much of the past 20 years, when despite steady falls in inflation and rising prices for bonds, the real money was perceived to be in equity price gains.

Dividends were for widows and orphans; those without the knowledge or guts to take the big risks and make the momentum plays.

A painful holiday’s end for Europe

Aug 24, 2010 12:06 UTC

Europe’s long summer holiday still has a week to run but this year’s reentry will bring with it evidence that very little progress has been made on the issues that threaten to rend the currency union and upend the global economy.

Despite waving the stress-test magic wand over its banks in late July the same problems continue to grow unchecked: a euro zone periphery that can’t compete, may not be able to pay its debts and so may bring down with them the very banks that have been pronounced healthy.

While the German economy is growing at a rate not seen since the Berlin Wall came down, things are a good bit worse in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and especially Greece, all of which face some combination of an austerity-induced recession and debts public and private which which threaten their banking systems, local governments and Treasuries.

COLUMN: A painful holiday’s end for Europe – James Saft

Aug 24, 2010 04:54 UTC

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

By Jim Saft

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Reuters) – Europe’s long summer holiday still has a week to run but this year’s reentry will bring with it evidence that very little progress has been made on the issues that threaten to rend the currency union and upend the global economy.

Despite waving the stress-test magic wand over its banks in late July the same problems continue to grow unchecked: a euro zone periphery that can’t compete, may not be able to pay its debts and so may bring down with them the very banks that have been pronounced healthy.

While the German economy is growing at a rate not seen since the Berlin Wall came down, things are a good bit worse in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and especially Greece, all of which face some combination of an austerity-induced recession and debts public and private which which threaten their banking systems, local governments and Treasuries.

Flight to “safety” eases China diversification

Aug 19, 2010 13:02 UTC

China appears to be taking steps to diversify its holdings away from the U.S. dollar and may just have chosen a pretty good time to do it.

Longer term a meaningful diversification by China, which holds about a third of its $2.45 trillion currency reserves in U.S. Treasuries, is probably both inevitable and highly risky.

Inevitable, because China probably realises that, given the U.S.’s difficult fiscal and economic challenges it is not sensible to have its own fortunes tied so closely to its major client.

Stocks from Venus, bonds from Mars

Aug 17, 2010 11:03 UTC

Forget about politics, the biggest divide in the U.S. is between stock and bond investors, who aren’t so much arguing as speaking entirely different languages.

Stocks, while about flat for the year, are priced moderately cheaply by historical standards, implying that investors think they have a reasonable, if not spectacular, outlook for the next couple of years.

Earnings are strong, and forward looking estimates of earnings, while coming somewhat off the boil, are still rosy and cash balances are high.

Fed can’t fix broken economy, politics

Aug 12, 2010 12:28 UTC

The Federal Reserve’s decision to move to a kind of quantitative neutrality is a tacit admission that it, or rather that the United States, is in a political bind that makes a bold response to a deteriorating economy difficult.

Despite reams of evidence that conditions are worsening — much of it cited in the statement the Fed made as it left rates on hold — the U.S. central bank made only a token gesture; announcing that as mortgage-related debt it holds on its balance sheet comes to term and is repaid it will replace it  with new, mostly long-term, Treasuries.

That keeps its quantitative easing policy essentially static, a strategy dubbed “quantitative neutrality” by Northern Trust economist Asha Bangalore.

For assets, demographics may be destiny

Aug 11, 2010 14:27 UTC

Right about now a massive demographic shift is getting under way which will put substantial downward pressure on house and stock prices, perhaps suppressing global asset prices by one percent a year.

This is going to complicate the response to a series of thorny outstanding problems. Less buoyant asset markets will make it that much harder to work out from under a massive overhang of debt in many advanced economies. It will also put retirement plans in a vise, as more would-be retirees find the assets they had hoped to live off of in old age are not worth enough.

That means longer working lives but also higher savings, which may, you guessed it, hit consumption, company profits and give stock and other asset prices another shove lower.

Stocks, bonds and the earnings season dance

Aug 5, 2010 12:09 UTC

A look at company earnings implies it is a great time to be a corporation in America, but for investors a rising savings rate and the threat of deflation mean that, ugly and risky as they are, government bonds looks good in comparison to stocks.

So far it has been a pretty remarkable earning season in the U.S. Almost 80 percent of companies reporting have beaten analysts’ estimates and profits among the largest companies are up more than 40 percent on the same period last year.
Perhaps even more remarkably, companies are managing to trouser a record 10.2 cents in every dollar of revenue after operating costs, according to Standard & Poor’s.

That’s the rub – profitability growth is outpacing revenue growth, which has been 9.0 percent, implying that the gangbusters pace of profits is more due to cost cutting and efficiencies than a sustainable expansion in anyone’s business model.

‘Random refereeing’ of economy is not what’s stagnating it

Aug 3, 2010 15:10 UTC

Apparently, the U.S. economy is being held back by massive uncertainty over new regulation, future taxation and the deficit and how it will be handled, a state so frightening and confusing that investors won’t invest, businesses won’t hire and nervous consumers have taken to their beds.

That, at least, is the account of Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher, who, in a speech last week, blamed fear of the arbitrary exercise of power by those in government for slowing the economy and putting those who make, employ and spend in a “defensive crouch.”

“For some time now in internal discussions with my colleagues at the Fed, I have ascribed the economy’s slow growth pathology to what I call ‘random refereeing’ — the current predilection of government to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game of recovery,” Fisher told business leaders in San Antonio.

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