Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Why breaking up Britain could tear apart the EU, too

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 12, 2014 19:10 UTC

A bunch of 'Yes' balloons are seen as Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond campaigns in Edinburgh, Scotland

While recent opinion polls have swung slightly back toward the “no” camp, there remains a distinct possibility that Thursday’s Scottish referendum will trigger a previously unthinkable breakup of Britain.

If this were to happen, the biggest risks for global businesses and investors do not lie in the economic problems created by Scotland’s choice of currency or the inevitable arguments about sharing North Sea oil revenue and the British national debt. These are crucial challenges for Scotland and have been much discussed in financial institutions and think tanks. But the crucial issue for the world economy and financial markets is about the resulting impact on the European Union — and especially on Britain, which would remain the world’s sixth largest economy even if Scotland departs.

These political risks, which I discussed here last week, can be broken down into four questions: What would Scottish independence, if it happens, mean for British politics and economic management over the nine months, until the May 2015 general election? What effect would it have on the election results? How would all this turmoil affect Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe? Would Scottish independence act as an inspiration for secessionist movements in other European countries?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a visit to the Scottish Widows building in Edinburgh, ScotlandThe answers to all four questions promise to be more destabilizing than almost anyone would have predicted a month ago.

Starting with the issue of other European independence movements, the answer is obvious. If Scotland votes for independence, it would become extremely difficult for the Spanish government to continue denying a similar democratic right to the Catalans and Basques. Beyond that, Flemish separatists would intensify pressure in Belgium, and the Northern League in Italy could get a new lease on life.

As chances of UK split grow, costs to the world become clearer

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 4, 2014 11:41 UTC

A man puts money in his sporran at the Birnam Highland Games in Scotland

Until this week almost nobody outside Scotland took very seriously the possibility that Europe’s most stable and durable nation, the only big country on earth not to have suffered invasion, revolution or civil war at any time in the past 268 years, might soon be wiped off the map. It now seems quite conceivable, however, that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will cease to exist after the referendum on Scottish independence to be held on September 18.

The prospects for Scotland and Britain changed abruptly on Tuesday when YouGov, one of Britain’s most authoritative polling organizations, published a survey showing the unionist lead narrowing to just 53-47, compared with the margins of 10 to 20 percentage points that were typical of previous polls. So sudden and large was the shift in the numbers that Peter Kellner, the President of YouGov, could hardly believe his own numbers. As he said on his weekly blog:

“Alex Salmond [the Scottish Nationalist leader] seemed to be heading for a heavy defeat…But now a close finish looks likely, and a ‘yes’ victory is a real possibility. When I first saw our data, I wanted to make sure the movement was real. All polls, however carefully conducted, are subject to sampling error. Can we be sure this rise in support for independence is real? I am now certain it is.”

What’s Europe’s best hope for avoiding a second euro crisis?

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 29, 2014 16:52 UTC

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This week’s theatrical resignation threat by Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, combined with deep European anxiety about deflation, suggest that the euro crisis may be coming back. But a crisis is often an opportunity, and this is the hope now beginning to excite markets in the eurozone.

Investors and business leaders are asking themselves three questions: Will European governments and the European Central Bank recognize the unexpected weakness of the eurozone economy as an opportunity to change course? If they do, will they know how to grasp it? And will they be allowed to do what is necessary by the true economic sovereign of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

First, the opportunity. Europe still has a chance to save itself from a Japanese-style lost decade of stagnation and deflation. And this may well be a last chance, because a lost decade in Europe could produce some very un-Japanese social rebellions and political upheavals. Europe, after all, lacks Japan’s social consensus, national unity and financial cohesion. It is far from clear that Europe could survive 10 years of recession without up the eurozone breaking up and even perhaps the European Union.

Here’s what it will take to trigger the next stock market correction

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 21, 2014 22:57 UTC

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the market's opening in New York

As Wall Street hit another new record Thursday, it is worth considering what could cause a serious setback in stock market prices around the world. Since I started writing this column in 2012, I have repeatedly argued that the rebound in stock market prices from their nadir in the 2008-09 global financial crisis was turning into a structural bull market that could continue into the next decade.

Asset prices, however, never move in a straight line. It has been more than two years without even a 10 percent correction and five years without a 20 percent setback. This cannot go on.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, investors are certain to suffer some big and painful losses — even if I am right in expecting equity prices to continue rising in the long term. What kind of event is most likely to end this bull run, or at least interrupt it with a setback of 20 percent or more?

Can central bankers succeed in getting global economy back on track?

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 15, 2014 22:24 UTC

Stanley Fischer, the former chief of the Bank of Israel, testifies before the Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination in Washington

Why is the world economy still so weak and can anything more be done to accelerate growth? Six years after the near-collapse of the global financial system and more than five years into one of the strongest bull markets in history, the answer still baffles policymakers, investors and business leaders.

This week brought another slew of disappointing figures from Europe and Japan, the weakest links in the world economy since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, despite the fact that the financial crisis originated in the United States. But even in the United States, Britain and China, where growth appeared to be accelerating before the summer, the latest statistics — disappointing retail sales in the United States, the weakest wage figures on record in Britain and the biggest decline in credit in China since 2009 — suggested that the recovery may be running out of steam.

As Stanley Fischer, the new vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, lamented on August 11 in his first major policy speech: “Year after year, we have had to explain from mid-year onwards why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back. … This pattern of disappointment and downward revision sets up the first, and the basic, challenge on the list of issues policymakers face in moving ahead: restoring growth, if that is possible.”

Markets: Exuberance is not always ‘irrational’

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 25, 2014 19:17 UTC

A pedestrian holding his mobile phone walks past an electronic board showing the stock market indices of various countries outside a brokerage in Tokyo

With the stock market continuing to hit new highs almost daily despite the appalling geopolitical disasters and human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, there has been much head-scratching about the baffling indifference among investors. Many economists and analysts see this apparent complacency as a symptom of a deeper malaise: an “irrational exuberance” that has pushed stock prices to absurdly overvalued levels.

The most celebrated proponent of this view is Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning, Yale University economist who is often credited with predicting both the 2000 stock market crash and the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Shiller may or may not have deserved a Nobel Prize for his academic work on behavioral economics but as a practical guide to investing, his approach has been thoroughly refuted by real-world experience.

Robert Shiller, one of three American scientists who won the 2013 economics Nobel prize, attends a press conference in New HavenShiller’s status as an investment guru owes much to the timing of his book “Irrational Exuberance,” published just days before the collapse of Internet and technology stocks in March 2000. What is less widely advertised, however, is that for decades, both before and after that predictive triumph, the stock market strategy implied by his analysis has turned out to be plain wrong.

Karl Marx was right — at least about one thing

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2014 18:42 UTC

 A board displays the Dow Jones industrials average after the close at the New York Stock Exchange

Confidence in the global economy is steadily improving, as shown in the financial markets’ bullish behavior and confident comments from companies and policymakers over the past few weeks. Though these columns have argued in favor of a robust recovery, when investors get uniformly bullish, the pessimistic case deserves attention.

Many distinguished economists believe that the current improvement in global conditions is just a blip. They insist that the world faces years, if not decades, of “secular stagnation.” How seriously should we take them?

The good news is that there is little evidence of secular stagnation in global statistics. The “new normal” for the world economy since 2008 has not been very different from the pre-crisis period. The average growth of the global economy from 1988 to 2007, the 20 years before the crisis, was 3.6 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook database. The IMF latest forecast for 2014 is exactly the same — 3.6 percent. Though Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, hinted at a modest downgrade this week.

How EU politics pushed Merkel to lift Germany’s austerity policies

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 4, 2014 15:27 UTC

German Chancellor Merkel and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Juncker hold a joint news conference after a meeting in Luxembourg

Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy who took the revolving presidency of the European Union this week, seems to be the sort of man that Napoleon was referring to when he reputedly said that the key qualification he sought in recruiting a general was good luck.

Renzi become prime minister without even needing to win an election because Silvio Berlusconi and all other rivals self-destructed. He took power just after Italy passed the lowest ebb of its economic fortunes. In May, he was rewarded for his good fortune by Italy’s voters, who anointed him with a strong democratic mandate in the same European elections that discredited almost all Europe’s other national leaders. Now he is taking the helm in Europe, as an economic recovery is starting and the European Central Bank is swinging decisively in support of growth.

But even a politician as lucky as Renzi could not have counted on his latest and most unexpected windfall: the unintended consequence of last week’s failed campaign by British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 27, 2014 06:00 UTC

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday — still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread — the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable — at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

Yellen’s remarkably unremarkable news conference – and why it’s a good thing

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 19, 2014 20:03 UTC

Yellen holds a news conference following two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting at the Federal Reserve in WashingtonJohn Maynard Keynes famously said that his highest ambition was to make economic policy as boring as dentistry. In this respect, as in so many others, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is proving to be a loyal Keynesian.

Yellen’s second news conference as Fed chair conveyed no new information about the timing of future interest rate moves. She gave no hints about an “exit strategy” for the Fed to return the $3 trillion of bonds it has acquired to the private sector. She told us nothing about the Fed’s expectations on inflation, employment and economic growth — not even about the board’s views on financial volatility, regulation, asset prices or bank credit policies.

Yellen refused even to repeat, or repeal, her earlier answer to a question about the meaning of the “considerable period” she expected between the end of tapering and the first rate hike. At her first news conference, Yellen responded to a similar question by blurting out “six months.” This caused an eruption of volatility in financial markets — that lasted about five minutes.

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