Global investors think it’s all over, but they’re in deep denial about impending risks

Spending, investment and production plans are all being downgraded

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 11:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 3:37pm

US jobs are surging, Fed rate tightening bets are back on the table, emerging markets are breaking higher, commodity prices are rebounding and global investors have a newfound sense of confidence. Crisis! What crisis? They think it’s all over, but they would be wrong to believe it.

Short squeeze, bear market rebound, call it what you like, but markets are back on nothing more solid than a mini roll right now. It might extend a little further beyond this week’s European Central Bank meeting, which should see more monetary stimulus conjured up, but it is inevitable that global investors remain in deep denial about the impending risks.

The slide in world trade growth in the past few years underlines that global economic confidence is extremely weak. Even after all the monetary pump priming in recent years, from unprecedented amounts of quantitative easing (QE) and zero interest rates from the major central banks, world activity is still slowing down.

Sentiment is clearly being driven by the global glut of cheap and easy money

There are deep-rooted fears about a hard landing in China, some key emerging markets are in the grip of recession, Europe’s recovery is flat-lining, deflation fears abound and global policymakers are in disarray on how to tackle it all. Global political risks are on the rise, not least from the crisis in the Middle East, the latest nuclear sabre-rattling from North Korea and the threat of Brexit and a euro zone break-up in Europe. Investors could have their heads in the sand.

Given all this, it is no surprise that world trade growth has been steeped in negative territory for so long. Over the past 18-months, world trade has slumped as low as 14 per cent from a year earlier as global economic activity has slowed. With consumers, governments and businesses fretting about the future outlook, spending, investment and production plans are all being downgraded and slower global trade flows are the price being paid.

It is hardly likely to get better in the immediate future. Global sentiment surveys reveal the full extent of the growing pessimism. The Organisation for Economic Cooperations and Development’s leading indicators have been trending weaker for the past two years and are clearly heading deeper into negative territory. Meanwhile, global purchasing managers’ sentiment surveys show hopes fading and wavering on the cusp of global stagnation.

Stock markets might be back on a short-term roll, but sentiment is clearly being driven by the global glut of cheap and easy money, thanks to QE and zero and negative interest rates. The world economy has entered into a bizarre universe where investors are effectively being encouraged to take bigger risks in a world where secure and positive returns are becoming increasingly tougher to find.

It is not an environment that inspires much confidence and no surprise that some investors are happier to plug for capital protection in negative yielding, mainstream safe-haven government bonds than take a risk in the QE-fed global casinos. The worry is that market volatility can easily turn and the liquidity driven rally can quickly high tail it in the absence of strong and reliable economic fundamentals.

Positive macroeconomic fundamentals are in very short supply right now. The central banks have done an admirable job keeping the global economy afloat in the seven years since the global financial crisis first burst onto the scene. But global monetary policy is fast losing its traction.

The ECB will cut rates deeper into negative territory this week and ply the markets with more QE money, but there are growing doubts about its long term effectiveness. It is less like pulling a brick along by an elastic – when it finally snaps into motion – and more akin to pushing it along with a rubber band. Economic demand is becoming increasingly inert.

The major worry longer term is how the world eventually weans itself off this unhealthy dependency on QE and negative interest rates. It is fine while the status quo continues but, at some stage, policy needs to normalise. Investors may greet stronger US employment trends as a market positive right now, but not when it means the Fed’s US$4.5 trillion QE asset horde is finally unwound. Higher interest rates and bond yields will destroy the rally.

There will come a time when investors start to rue the risks of this year’s upcoming US presidential election in November. Conservative Republicans have been queuing up to decry the Fed’s balance sheet build-up. The markets could even be at risk of getting Trump-ed at some stage in the future.

David Brown is chief executive of New View Economics