Opinion

James Saft

Waiting for labor’s gains

Oct 4, 2011 21:51 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Right about now, even the most committed capitalist investor ought to be hoping for one thing: that labor soon has the upper hand.

That’s because the whole edifice: the global economy, the consumption-based developed economies and the share prices they power are crumbling because average workers simply haven’t got enough earning and buying power to play their central role.

Wages in the U.S., for example, have been stagnant for the best part of 40 years, during which time the consumption merry-go-round has only been kept spinning through a combination of artificially high asset prices and spending borrowed money.

Consumer incomes actually fell in August for the first time in almost two years, according to new data, and consumer spending only eked out a modest gain due to a sharp fall in the savings rate. Given that people are living longer and have stressed balance sheets, dis-saving is a tactic that will only work for so long.

This state of affairs has allowed corporate profits, as a share of the economy, to hit their highest point in the second quarter since records began in 1947, and on track to hit an annual high since at least 1929. Even the stock market no longer sees that as evidence of rude health, as shown by the steady, grinding decline in prices relative to earnings.

The drugs don’t work any more

Sep 29, 2011 22:22 UTC

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

On one point departing Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig and the high-yield bond market agree: current monetary policy is not helping.

Bonds issued to highly indebted and riskier companies have suffered since the Federal Reserve last Wednesday introduced “Operation Twist,” its attempt to suppress longer-term rates and goose investment and speculation.

This should come as little surprise to Hoenig, who retires from the KC Fed on Oct. 1 after a long career as a central banker and banking supervisor, and who has decried the way monetary policy has encouraged the running up of debts.

Solving Europe doesn’t avoid recession

Sep 27, 2011 14:13 UTC

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

The question isn’t “will Europe tip the world into recession?” but rather how much worse the euro crisis will make the recession that is already chugging down the tracks.

Markets have been transfixed by the European debt crisis, with its dozens of moving pieces, and its potential to reshape the monetary and political map, to topple banks and to deal a massive shock to the global economy, trade and confidence. High-level meetings in Washington over the weekend were, once again, inconclusive. Some hope for a euro super bazooka bailout vehicle, though such a fund faces obstacles and its chances for lasting success are far from clear.

Investors are right to worry about the unraveling of Europe, but wrong to conflate averting disaster there with a return to rude economic health.

Don’t expect coordinated easing

Sep 22, 2011 21:31 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – That much-anticipated global coordinated easing won’t be global, won’t be coordinated and won’t even be much of an easing.

In 2008 the world got global coordinated monetary easing, with contributions from central banks from Tokyo to Washington.

In 2009 virtually every member of the Group of 20 nations contributed to global coordinated fiscal easing, committing to a total of almost $700 billion in additional spending, or more than 1 percent of global GDP.

One-note Geithner’s leverage song

Sep 21, 2011 21:12 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Tim Geithner went a very long way on Friday to accomplish very little, flying to Poland to pitch to the assembled euro zone finance ministers the same tactics that have worked so poorly in the U.S.

Faced with another debt problem, Geithner once again proposed more debt as the solution, suggesting that Europe should leverage its EFSF bailout fund so it can have enough firepower to buy up the debts of weak euro zone nations. This mislabels a debt problem as a price problem, and is an almost exact analogue to the U.S.’s own tactics in addressing its own financial system problem — creating leveraged funds to buy up toxic debt and thereby massage the balance sheets of banks.

This is the deflationary equivalent of reacting to runaway inflation by deciding to lop a zero off the end of prices; things will appear better but the underlying issue is not resolved. This is borne out in the U.S., where private fortunes continue to be made in banking, but where the system is unable to play its role in capital intermediation. Many lenders are still wary, rightly, of funding U.S. banks and are unconvinced that the toxic debt problem is gone for good.

‘BRICaid’ for Europe a busted flush

Sep 15, 2011 19:20 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Don’t count on the euro zone getting a leg up from the giants of the emerging markets.

The idea that Brazil, Russia, India and China will use some of their massive foreign reserves to buy up the bonds of weak euro zone countries has a certain symmetry, but it is unlikely to happen and even more unlikely to work if it does.

Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega on Tuesday confirmed that the so-called BRIC nations will discuss help for Europe when they meet next week in Washington in the run-up to the IMF meeting on Sept. 24.

Nations and shareholders vs bankers

Sep 13, 2011 15:32 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — It looks as if patriotism is the last refuge of bankers.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, on Monday inveighed against new Basel III banking regulations which will impose higher minimum levels of capital adequacy on banks.

“I’m very close to thinking the United States shouldn’t be in Basel any more. I would not have agreed to rules that are blatantly anti-American,” Dimon told the Financial Times. “Our regulators should go there and say: ‘If it’s not in the interests of the United States, we’re not doing it’.”

Switzerland ties itself to euro mast

Sep 8, 2011 20:44 UTC
James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – It is clear we are living in a strange world when Switzerland, that most euro-skeptic of nations, has tied its fortunes to the success, in its current fragile form, of the euro zone common currency.

The Swiss National Bank on Tuesday shocked the markets when it announced it was imposing, unilaterally and with immediate effect, a cap on the value of its currency against the euro, seeking to shield its economic competitiveness from the massive flows seeking safe haven amid doubts over the euro zone.

This amounts to an extreme expression of confidence in the euro zone’s ability to sort itself out, because if it cannot this policy will fail expensively. It may even fail if the euro does not but if worries about it generate enough of a flow of cash that the SNB turns and flees.

Europe’s banks wag the dog

Sep 6, 2011 14:46 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — With European banks facing mounting funding problems, it is time once again for the tail to try to wag the dog.

Democracy or not, procedure or not, principles or not, a funding crisis could soon put euro zone policy makers in a position where they either take radical steps to resolve their debt crisis, or face having their decisions made for them by events which would overwhelm their banking systems.

That, at least, is the impression given by recent comments from leading bankers. I’d love to tell you they are bluffing, but I am not so sure.

High price of old-fashioned volatility

Sep 6, 2011 14:44 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — If you thought you’d found someplace that was insulated from the economic weakness coming from the U.S. and Europe, well, chances are you are wrong.

Around the world, manufacturing is taking a hit, and the rate of slowing and the suddenness of the move pose a threat not just to the economy, but to financial market valuations.

Take Canada, long held up as a model of economic and financial system management, and supposedly well positioned due to great demand from emerging markets for its natural resources.

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