Opinion

James Saft

Euro plan drives into ditch

Nov 8, 2011 20:36 UTC

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

The early returns on the euro rescue are as straightforward as the plan was vague: it probably isn’t going to work.Two numbers tell the tale: the 177 basis points over German debt the supposedly AAA-rated euro rescue fund was forced to pay to borrow on Monday; and 6.67 percent, the 14-year record amount Italy had to pony up to borrow for 10 years.

Neither of those numbers fit in well with the plan announced last week to recapitalize banks, bail out Greece, erect a firewall around the larger weak economies and produce credible plans for fiscal and economic reform.

Put simply, these numbers are telling us that the market and debt investors do not believe the plan will work in its current form. And little wonder, it is now just days later and Greece’s government has fallen, Italy‘s Berlusconi is under siege and the much hoped-for support from outsiders like China has failed to materialize.

When the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) tried to sell 3 billion euros of 10-year debt Monday it only just managed to scrape up the cash and was forced to pay much more than it has in past. In some ways this is no surprise; the rescue plan was vague about crucial details of how the EFSF would be structured and employ leverage.

Hopes that China and other emerging powerhouses would step up and support the plan have so far gone exactly nowhere.

Europe up a creek with no central bank

Oct 7, 2011 21:32 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Europe is demonstrating that a sovereign nation without a true central bank is just an uninsured bank, liable to be tipped over by the markets.

While the ECB is a central bank in almost all respects, what it isn’t is a lender of last resort for individual euro zone nations, a role that is expressly ruled out by the European Treaty.
A lender of last resort is what stops a bank run on a solvent institution from bringing it down due to a lack of liquidity. In the case of a nation, a lender of last resort, usually the central bank, can simply print money to satisfy debts in its own currency. And though we’ve all become terribly cynical about the concept of liquidity crises in the past couple of years, not least because so many people in authority have used it as a place to hide when the real issue was solvency (Greece, Lehman Brothers), the fact is that markets take on their own momentum.
Just as no-one viewed euro zone debt as anything other than a safe haven for the currency area’s first decade, now investors are busy driving up the price of even German default insurance.
This is the terrible logic of markets when they view sovereign borrowers as credit risks; it is almost inevitable that they push, and in pushing weaken the un-backstopped borrower and ultimately bring it down. This is a process which needs a circuit breaker, and Europe has no adequate circuit breaker, unlike Britain or the U.S.
“Rather than viewing government bonds as risk-free, safe-haven assets, financial markets now view and trade euro area sovereigns mainly as credit risks. This has very profound consequences for the stability of financial markets,” economist Elga Bartsch of Morgan Stanley wrote in a note to clients.
“For it seems to me that some markets have lost their ability to find a new, stable equilibrium. This is because, instead of moving in sync with the business cycle, government bond yields now move against the cycle, ie, rising in a downturn. This seriously undermines the ability of the government sector to stabilise the economy and the financial sector.”
Bartsch looked at all sovereign borrowers since the mid-1990′s whose spreads above Treasuries rose to at least 10 percentage points, an indicator of distress. In only 20 percent of the cases did a debt restructuring, or default, ensure. Some were rescued by the IMF but many righted themselves.
Thus Europe is at the mercy of markets, left without a central bank or outside force which can break the cycle and impose order. The ECB has purchased government bonds as a back door means of providing support, but this is awkward, will ultimately test the limits of the bank’s capital and, as being against the spirit of EU law, is deeply divisive. The EFSF fund is not well suited for playing this role either.

FOOL ME ONCE

You could object that, of course, all sovereign borrowers are ultimately credit risks. Even if one is repaid in the sovereign’s currency, that currency can be debased by inflation or the money printing press. True, but markets do not seem to impose the same penalty on inflation risk that they do on default risk.
There are two main take-aways from this. The first, of course, is that if you don’t have a proper central bank you ought to keep your debt profile slim so as not to attract too much attention to your vulnerability. This worked for Germany, whose Bundesbank was similarly forbidden by charter from printing money to buy government debt. Not borrowing too much is good advice but not terribly helpful in the current circumstances.
The second is that Europe needs a democratic way in which to agree to monetize or otherwise write down its debts. Failing that, the risk is that the domino-style run on government credit becomes self-fulfilling, as we’ve seen is the risk with ever larger sovereign borrowers like Italy being weighed by the markets and found wanting. This ultimately will break the euro, probably at about the point when Germany realizes it is picking up France’s dinner check.
This is not an argument in favour of suppressing markets by banning short selling or other measures, as is so often the impulse in Europe. Those arguments are raised by people, be they politicians or investment bank CEOs, who want to be insulated from the consequences of their own decisions. It is instead about clarity about who pays.
Europe suffers from unclear lines of accountability. There are easy fixes for that, but imposing them quickly will be difficult. That is certainly how markets are trading, and the result may be a self-fulfilling fracturing of the euro.

Good riddance to dollar hegemony

May 19, 2011 14:52 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — While the U.S. will fight it kicking and screaming, the dollar’s upcoming fall from its central global role will be a blessing all round.

The World Bank on Tuesday predicted that the dollar will lose its place by 2025 as the principle global reserve currency, to be supplanted by a multipolar world where it, the euro and the yuan will share top billing.

First off, things have come to a sorry pass when the dollar is going to lose out to two currencies of which one, the euro, many people worry may cease to exist, and the other, the yuan, isn’t even properly convertible.

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.

ECB set for an error for the ages

Mar 29, 2011 11:45 UTC

In a field of endeavor with a long and glorious history of folly, the European Central Bank is preparing to commit an error for the ages: hike interest rates into the face of a crisis of existence for the euro zone.

There is an increasing likelihood that when the ECB meets  on April 7 they will respond to surging energy costs and 2.4 percent annual inflation – the highest since 2008 – by raising interest rates, probably by a quarter of a percent.

“Inflation rates … are now durably above the common definition of price stability in the euro zone,” ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet told an audience in Paris on Monday.

Much depends on, gulp, German consumer

Jan 13, 2011 13:10 UTC

If the euro is going to survive without a Depression, German consumers are going to have to behave in ways that are, well, distinctly un-German.

While attention is focused on the suffering that the euro zone debt debacle is inflicting on the weak and the political anger the costs of bailouts are engendering among the strong, it is important to understand that the belt-tightening won’t just be a Gaelic and Mediterranean phenomenon.

German consumers will (rightly) regard events as likely to increase their taxes while doing precious little for their incomes and job prospects. If they react to this like Americans and spend like there is no tomorrow, well then, perhaps the euro zone can handle the local recessions in the Austerity Provinces. If, on the other hand, Germans behave anything like the way they have in the past, they will save more and only increase spending marginally, if at all.

EU must choose its lies wisely

Dec 16, 2010 14:06 UTC

You can lie to taxpayers or you can lie to creditors, European authorities are learning, but doing both at the same time is very hard.

The proposed policy that current senior creditors to troubled states will not face losses on their loans but future private lenders will be forced to share in losses with taxpayers is so irrational, so bound to fail that it falls out of the realm of economics and into the ambit of brain injury.

European Union member states will this week hold a summit at which they will create a permanent fund to lend to troubled members under co-called strict conditions of fiscal responsibility.

Pension savers get the boot

Nov 30, 2010 15:04 UTC

From Dublin to Paris to Budapest to inside those brown UPS trucks delivering holiday packages, it has been a tough few weeks for savers and retirees.

Moves by the Irish, French and Hungarian governments, and by the famous delivery company, showed that in the post-crisis world retirees, present and future, will be paying much of the price and taking on more of the risk.

This goes beyond merely cutting back on pension benefits, rising to actual appropriation of supposedly long-term retirement assets to help fund short term emergencies.

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