Opinion

James Saft

3 numbers spell danger: $100, 3.44, 20

Feb 24, 2011 13:13 UTC

If you think the recovery is firm and the risk of deflation has vanished, look at the three following numbers: $100, 3.44 and 20.

The first, everyone knows, is the price that New York crude oil touched briefly on Wednesday, driven 14 percent higher in just five trading sessions by conflict in Libya and concern over the reliability of supply elsewhere.

The second is the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes, and if you are keeping score, they have dropped a rapid 28 basis points from early February, a drop that is telling you that bond investors do not believe the U.S. economy can easily withstand $100 oil.

The third, that 20 percent, is perhaps the most poignant, as it represents the current level, an all-time high, in the ratio of their disposable income that Americans are getting from government benefits.

That’s right: social security, food stamps, unemployment insurance and the like account for two out of every 10 dimes Americans have once they have paid their tax.

Investors should “Viva!” the revolutions

Feb 22, 2011 13:12 UTC

Rather than fear the spread of people power revolutions, investors should welcome them.

Just don’t expect an easy ride in the near term.

Lots of people have made lots of money out of dictatorships, but you, dear reader, are probably not one of them and are likely to do better, in the long run, as they fall.

A spreading revolt in Libya, following closely on the overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, sent a scare into global financial markets on Monday, hitting share prices and prompting a near six percent spike in the price of oil.

No jam today or tomorrow for Britain

Feb 17, 2011 12:46 UTC

Poor Mervyn King — damned if he doesn’t raise interest rates, futile if he does.

The Bank of England governor is in the unenviable position of having to steer interest rate policy during a period when living standards are being battered, his inflation target is being mocked by even small boys in the street and there is no obvious course of policy which can reconcile the two problems.

The BOE on Wednesday released its quarterly inflation report which judged the chances to be about equal of inflation being above or below its 2 percent target in two years’ time, this despite predicting that it will spike above its current 4 percent rate in the near term.

The great bad news of housing reform

Feb 15, 2011 12:58 UTC

The reform of U.S. housing finance proposed by President Obama will drive the price of mortgages higher and be a disaster for house prices, construction and the real estate industry.

In other words, in helping to kill the illusion that a whole nation can grow rich by living in ever more expensive houses, it will be a very good thing.

The U.S. released a range of proposals for scaling back government involvement in housing last week, all of which are aimed at transforming a mortgage market in which 92 percent of new loans currently carry a government guarantee.

Bonds, risk and Bernanke’s intentions

Feb 10, 2011 20:49 UTC

Will bond investors keep faith with U.S. government debt amid signs of growing global inflation?

In the end, as with all banks, even central banks, it boils down to trust.

Asked on Wednesday at an appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee if the Fed’s $600 billion programme of quantitative easing amounted to monetization — that Peter to Paul transfer when a government prints money to pay for a shortfall — Ben Bernanke said an interesting thing:

“Monetization involves a permanent increase in money supply though money creation. (QE) is a temporary measure that will be reversed. Money will be normalized and there will be no permanent increase in outstanding balance sheet or inflation.”

Currencies: war, tragedy or farce?

Feb 8, 2011 12:46 UTC

Call it what you like — war, tragedy or farce — but the disagreement over global currency exchange rates shows no sign of coming to a peaceful negotiated agreement.

Asked last week if loose Federal Reserve monetary policy was to blame for inflation in emerging markets, Ben Bernanke stoutly denied that it was anything to do with him, maintaining in central banker-speak that he’d been tucked up in bed at home at the time.

“I think it’s entirely unfair to attribute excess demand pressures in emerging markets to U.S. monetary policy, because emerging markets have all the tools they need to address excess demand in those countries,” the Fed chief told reporters assembled at the National Press Club in Washington.

Good luck hedging against inflation

Feb 3, 2011 13:42 UTC

Looking to hedge against a spike in inflation? Equities may not be much help.

Neither, for that matter, will you do all that well over the longer haul with bonds, cash or even commodities, at least on the historical evidence. In short, when it comes to investing, inflation is a real drag.

It’s impossible to know if, much less when, the current very stimulative monetary policy in the developed world will spur inflation, but increasingly indicators are raising concerns. Emerging market economies show signs of overheating, while prices of food and many other commodities are surging.

The traditional view has been that equities are an effective hedge against inflation, in least over the long term, because companies will, all things being equal, eventually pass on inflation to their clients as higher prices.

Egypt, inflation and Japan debt crisis

Feb 1, 2011 13:16 UTC

Markets are busy speculating on which country might follow Egypt on the revolutionary road, but watch out for the impact on a country where bellies are full and the chances of revolt are exactly nil: Japan.

The same inflation in food and energy which fanned discontent in Tunisia and Egypt could badly hit real wages and purchasing power among Japanese citizens, potentially undermining their willingness to hang on to the debt which the government desperately needs them to own.

That’s right, deflation could actually ease in Japan and, that’s right, its demise could help tip the country into the long-awaited financing crisis.

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