James Saft

For the Fed, faith may not follow transparency

Apr 28, 2011 16:58 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE — Wednesday was a weird day, caught somewhere between being a victory for the paranoid and a genuine step forward for openness and transparency.

And no, I am not talking about the sad spectacle of President Obama trotting out his birth certificate to assuage his deluded doubters. I am instead speaking of the Federal Reserve, which for the first time in its long history has taken the step of actually taking questions from the press after announcing its monetary policy decision.

Unlike the birth nonsense, there are two not mutually exclusive ways you can interpret the Fed’s decision to put itself at the mercy of the hacks. First, it is a real step forward for transparency, a step along the way towards renouncing the cant of the era of Greenspan, who seemed to regard himself as part economist, part Delphic Oracle and part Wizard of Oz.  Second, it marks a waning of the power of the Fed, which has been diminished by its poor track record and by steps it took which opened it up to attack.

It is perhaps this second point which is more important; the Fed is under attack, under suspicion and trying very hard to husband its credibility. This is a tough combination of factors, and a state of play that could make it more difficult for the Fed to effectively fight inflation.

The most important weapon of any central bank is its credibility, which amounts to the faith that people have that it will follow its mandates. That’s not simply faith that a bank will do what it says, but belief that it can do what it says. For the Fed, which has a dual mandate to foster employment and keep a lid on inflation, this is sometimes nearly impossible. It may also not be something that is aided by transparency. Fiat money is a system of faith, and as many religions have found, faith and transparency don’t always mix.

Oil gets “evil speculator” buy signal

Apr 26, 2011 13:17 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE — If history is any indication, the Obama administration’s investigation into oil speculators makes now a potentially great time to load up on oil futures.

The Justice Department on Thursday announced a working group to probe fraud, speculation, index trackers and “investor practices” in the energy market, a move taken after gasoline prices topped $3.80 per gallon, the highest in almost three years and a politically very inconvenient fact.

Authorities playing the “evil speculators” card is an  excellent indication that they have both lost control of the narrative and have little they can do to alter the policies and fundamentals that brought on the pesky high, or sometimes low, prices in the first place. The right play could just be to take this as a signal that prices are going to continue to annoy authority, and make your investments accordingly.

Triumph of gold, the anti-investment

Apr 21, 2011 12:23 UTC

In investing, extreme behavior is becoming more mainstream every day.

How else can we interpret the extraordinary moves by the University of Texas’ endowment fund to not only buy nearly $1 billion of gold, equal to about 5 percent of its assets, but to insist on taking physical delivery of the precious metal.

Things really have come to an interesting juncture when the second-largest academic endowment in the U.S., managed and advised by sober, rational people, decides that what they need is insurance against getting, in essence, robbed, via inflation, by fiscal and monetary policy.

Little wonder that gold futures went above $1,500 per ounce for the first time on Wednesday, driven by a laundry list of concerns starting with a falling dollar and not ending with the growing chance of “debt restructuring” (well, default, if you insist) by Greece.

S&P U.S. warning — late and welcome

Apr 19, 2011 14:19 UTC

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

Standard & Poor’s decision to put the U.S. on warning that it may lose its AAA debt rating is both deliciously absurd and genuinely earthshaking.

Absurd because S&P are some of the people who missed the real estate bubble and mortgage bond implosion; and earthshaking because not only has the U.S. never held less than a AAA rating, much less been put on threat of downgrade, it thoroughly deserves the warning.

Standard & Poor’s cited the risks of a lack of a credible plan to reduce the national debt and said the move flags a one-in-three chance of a downgrade over the coming two years.

Government shutdown may kill corporate debt

Apr 14, 2011 16:03 UTC

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

If you are worried about the impact of a U.S. government shutdown on markets, you might just want to look past Treasuries and keep a weather eye on corporate bonds.

Investors will have good reason to dump U.S. corporate debt and shares in the event of a shutdown. Given that there are $29 trillion of corporate securities outstanding compared to only $9 trillion of Treasury debt in public hands some of those sales could flow into supposedly safer longer-term Treasuries even as corporate yields burst higher.

President Barack Obama proposed on Wednesday cutting the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, less than a week after Democrats and Republicans struck a last-minute stopgap deal to temporarily avert a government shutdown. Even so, the political divisions are deep and there are ample opportunities in coming months for impasse to lead on to nonpayment of bills, the sort of sort-of default that would doubtless send markets reeling.

Banks 1, nation states nil

Apr 12, 2011 11:19 UTC

The battle between the banks and nation states is shaping up as something that lies between a phony war and a rout.

The bald facts are that three years after the crisis in which banking almost brought down the global economy, the biggest banks are bigger, more global and more entrenched in their positions courtesy of a now all-but-explicit government guarantee.

All three factors make large banks harder for individual nations to control, even the U.S., and even if the U.S. manifested the desire to pull out of its heads-you-win-tails-we-lose bargain.

Budget cuts to test banks’ mettle

Apr 7, 2011 16:03 UTC

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

While it may well be a case of cut the U.S. budget or suffer a bond crisis, the current debate begs a question: who will pick up the slack in the economy and who exactly will finance them?

Democrats and Republicans raced, in a plodding sort of way, on Wednesday to reach a compromise budget deal that would keep the government operating past a Friday deadline.

Regardless of what may be wise, the likelihood is that there are going to be further substantial cuts in government expenditure, though this won’t begin in earnest until after the 2012 elections.