So that was “jarring January”. Since the start of the year, over £4,000bn has been wiped off the value of global equities – that’s four, followed by 12 zeroes.
US stocks endured a steeper first-week decline in 2016 than in any year since before the First World War. Market volatility drove the MSCI World Index of leading shares down 8pc in January – a degree of decline usually seen during systemic crises, such as the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse or the 2001 dot.com bust.
While policymakers maintain that “the fundamentals are sound”, many large investors now think otherwise. We’re getting caught in the dreaded “negative feedback loop” – when market turbulence brings about the very economic slowdown it fears, with investor anxiety itself becoming the catalyst for a renewed slump.
The world economy is “still expanding” but growth is “weak and uneven” admitted Maurice Obstfeld, the International Monetary Fund’s Chief Economist, last week.
“This coming year will be one of great challenges and policymakers should be thinking about short-term resilience,” he said.
Having downgraded its global growth forecast for 2016 by another 0.2pc, to 3.4pc, the IMF is acknowledging the world economy is shaky. US banking giant Morgan Stanley goes further, pointing to a one-in-five chance the world economy will re-enter recession this year – defined as growth below the 2.5pc rate needed to match world-wide population gains. This last happened in the immediate aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ collapse.
The reasons behind recent stomach-churning falls on global markets are many and varied. The most significant, in my view, was brought into focus by the quarter point rise in US interest rates in December, the first in almost a decade.
Since late-2008, Western stock markets have been pumped up by quantitative easing (QE), with the Federal Reserve increasing its balance sheet more than three-fold since 2009 – ably assisted in such bubble-blowing by the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan.
Yes – some extra liquidity was needed in the darkest days of the credit crunch. But QE has gone way beyond that. Necessary emergency measures have been transformed, at the behest of powerful financiers and myopic politicians, into a stock-boosting lifestyle choice, the financial equivalent of crack cocaine.
With US money-printing now on hold and rates seemingly on the up, many financial assets – from equities to bonds –look overvalued, not just in America but across the world. That’s the single most important reason global markets are so jumpy – because investors know, in their bones, that the strong gains of recent years have been built on debt and QE.
Despite massive monetary and fiscal stimulus, the US economy has not only been unable to stage a sustained recovery, but is now showing worrying signs of reversal. The biggest economy on earth is failing to fire on all cylinders and produce anything like the growth that could justify current stock prices.
America’s all-important consumers are now reining in their spending, with retail sales falling 0.1pc in December, marking the end of the weakest consumer year since 2009. Industrial production was 0.4pc down, having dropped 0.9pc the month before, with the US manufacturing sector now officially in recession.
Survey data released last week points to an alarming slowdown in America’s service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of the economy. The influential purchasing managers’ index dropped to 53.2 in January – a 27-month low.
While still expanding, growth in US services is now slowing, with financial volatility taking its toll on deal-making and spending across a range of sectors, as the feed-back loop tightens.
Rather than a “normalisation” of policy-making, then, this US rate rise, and the spasmodic response of financial markets and the broader economy to it, indicates the Fed’s weakness.
Having boldly pointed to four rate rises during 2016, US policymakers have changed their tune – with futures markets now pricing in no US rates hikes until next year at the earliest.
I maintain that financial volatility will prove so destabilising, and cause such damage to America’s economy that we’ll see yet more US QE – and perhaps even a reversal of December’s rate increase. Rather than placating the markets, that could do more harm than good.
This over-reliance on monetary and fiscal stimulus obviously extends way beyond the US. The Eurozone and Japan have now grabbed the money-printing baton, of course, as they too try to keep their moribund banks alive with “funny money” and their central banks prop up their respective “markets” for government debt.
The 25pc drop in oil prices so far during 2016, the latest leg in a 70pc collapse since mid-2014, also has everyone spooked.
Ordinarily, it’s high oil prices that point to economic danger. Every global recession since 1970 has been preceded by a big rise in oil prices. Significant drops in the price of crude have, over the years, sparked faster growth. But the world has now changed.
Ultra-cheap oil has piled pressure on commodity exporters; from Russia to South Africa; from Brazil to the Gulf. These countries are now themselves of global economic significance – and their oil-price pain has slowed overall global demand.
Rather than responding to cheaper fuel and heating costs by spending more, as they have in the past, debt-soaked Western consumers are now retrenching, using the windfalls that haven’t been grabbed by the petrol and utility monoliths to reduce their debts.
Cheap oil is also raising major questions about the health of the US corporate debt market. This is particularly true of the huge “junk bond” sector, dominated as it is by struggling energy companies, not least those trying to survive as Saudi Arabia floods global markets with oil.
A key US “junk-bond” stress index hit a six-year high in January, Moody’s announced last week. The ratings agency indicated liquidity is drying up in sectors going beyond energy, suggesting cheap oil could yet spark a bond crisis similar to previous “sub-prime” woes.
Low oil prices have also generated a renewed danger of sovereign debt risk, with Venezuela, one of the world’s top-10 oil exporters, now seen as a likely default candidate. Venezuelan government bonds are yielding over 40pc, up from 10pc just 18 months ago. Given that a Thai default was enough to spark a global crisis in the late-1990s, the seemingly obscure Venezuelan sovereign debt market cannot be ignored.
Since the Lehman collapse, the world’s major economies have engaged in “currency wars”, attempting to bring about foreign exchange depreciations to grab competitive advantage. These must now end.
Despite all the geopolitical tensions, and bad-tempered exchanges between the Western world and the emerging markets in recent years, serious international policy coordination is needed.
Back in 1985, the world’s leading powers came together in a New York hotel and negotiated the Plaza Accord. This saw central banks join together to steadily depreciate an over-valued dollar, which threatened to cause an outbreak of protectionism in the US. We need something similar, but different, today.
The yuan has weakened significantly over the last six months, as the Chinese economy has slowed and capital has shifted back to the West. As China’s central bank has sacrificed over $500bn of reserves, fears have mounted Beijing could act aggressively, imposing a sudden, one-off devaluation that would spread global panic.
China is chairing the G20 group of world economic powers during 2016. Finance Ministers meet in Shanghai next month.
What we need is “Plaza 2”, to support the Chinese yuan and prevent the dollar from strengthening more. That won’t defuse QE or prevent further falls in global stocks. But it would be a start.