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Spectator

When I think about global stock markets these days, the image that springs to mind is the final scene of The Italian Job – the iconic 1969 original, not the tacky 2003 remake. “Hang on a minute, lads,” says Charlie Crocker, Michael Caine’s heistmaster-in-chief, as he and his rogue brethren balance precariously in a bus loaded with gold on the edge of an Alpine cliff. “I’ve got a great idea”.

The film ends ambiguously, of course. As the credits roll, viewers are left guessing as to whether the gang gets the loot and to safety, or plunges into the depths of a rocky ravine. Well, I’m similarly ambiguous about the state of global markets and the related prospects for the world’s large economies, not least the UK. It strikes me, in fact, that the whole economic shebang is balanced on a knife-edge.
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The Western world is a mess. The “advanced” economies are failing to generate higher living standards for the majority of citizens. Many of us believe, rightly, our children and grandchildren will have less prosperous lives than we do. That not only runs counter to the tide of Western history but jars with natural human instincts, creating a deep sense of unease.

The public no longer trusts the political classes to deliver a brighter future – so lots of us don’t vote. Recent British general elections and US Presidential contests have seen turnouts averaging well below two-thirds, resulting in indecisive outcomes and weak governments. In last week’s European elections, only around two-fifths of voters bothered casting their ballot. Many of those who did, of course, abandoned mainstream parties for the extremes.
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‘The US stock market is rigged.’ That’s the j’accuse headline that screams out from Flash Boys, the new book by Michael Lewis. It’s a very big claim, made by America’s foremost financial writer. It’s also a claim that, after years of accumulating evidence, warrants extremely close and sustained official scrutiny.

Lewis produced Liar’s Poker, his first bestseller, in 1989 — after a four-year stint as a fresh-from-the-Ivy-League bond dealer at the now defunct firm Salomon Brothers. The book, an insider’s account, brilliantly lampooned the macho, aggressive behaviour of the ‘big swinging dicks’ who paced the carpet-tiled trading floors. Liar’s Poker defined popular understanding of Wall Street in the go-go, testosterone-fuelled 1980s.
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William Hague was on rather shaky ground when he argued this week that Moscow has chosen “the route to isolation” by recognizing Crimea’s referendum. On the contrary, it is the European Union and the United States who look as if they have seriously overplayed their respective hands in Ukraine. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the cry of “Western hypocrisy” has been heard much louder than complaints about Vladimir Putin.

Even in the UK, mainstream opinion is steadily becoming more critical of Western interventionism and our “New Cold War” posturing – despite some pretty one-sided media coverage and much establishment “tut-tutting”. Independent thought is still viewed with suspicion, and even disgust, by some – and I should know, having consistently argued we should negotiate with Moscow, not threaten tough sanctions we’ll never impose.
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