Is it conceivable that Britain will leave the European Union? A few years ago this question would hardly have been worth asking. In the past 12 months, however, the issue of EU withdrawal has shot into the British political headlines.
Happy New Year! For the first time since 2008, we investors, economists and businesspeople say these words without irony. While last year was statistically disappointing, with global growth slowing slightly from 2012 and apparently belying the optimism expressed here last January, the verdict of financial markets and business sentiment has been much more consistent with my predictions. Despite the apparent slowdown, stock markets enjoyed their best performance since the 1990s, long-term interest rates soared and consumer confidence all over the world ended 2013 much higher than it started. This apparent paradox is easily explained: the statistical weakness of 2013 was due entirely to a very weak period last winter, connected with the U.S. presidential election and leadership transition in China. By the second quarter, growth had revived in the U.S. and China and accelerated strongly in Britain and Japan.
Thanks goodness it’s over. Financial market behavior ahead of last night’s announcement by Ben Bernanke on a gradual reduction in U.S. monetary stimulus has been tedious and irritating, rather like listening to whining children in the back of the car on a long journey: “Daddy, are we there yet?” In fact, impatient whining about when the Fed might start to “taper” has spoiled for many investors what should have been one of the most enjoyable financial journeys of all time, scaling previously unexplored market peaks and passing through unprecedented monetary vistas.
The muted market reaction to this week’s budget deal in Washington may initially seem like a disappointment. After all, uncertainty over government spending, debt and taxes has consistently emerged in business sentiment surveys as the biggest single factor holding back corporate investment and damaging financial confidence. Why then did Wall Street celebrate this breakthrough with its biggest daily fall in two months?
Students of British history will recall the story of Thomas a’Becket, the 12th century prelate who was handpicked by Henry II to become Archbishop of Canterbury because of his loyalty to the Crown. Within months of his appointment, a’Becket turned against the King in the numerous conflicts between church and state. As a result, a’Becket was murdered at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, after four of Henry’s henchmen heard their royal master mutter in irritation: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Archbishops do not have much political clout these days, but comparable spiritual importance now attaches to central bankers. And a central banker who suddenly seems reminiscent of Thomas a’Becket is Mark Carney, the recently appointed governor of the Bank of England.
At a time when economic optimism is growing and stock markets are hitting new highs almost daily, it is worth asking what could go wrong for the global economy in the year or two ahead. The standard response, now that a war with Iran or a euro breakup is off the agenda, is that some kind of new financial bubble could be about to burst in the U.S. But a very different, and rather more plausible, threat is looming on the other side of the world.
If anyone still doubted that central bankers all over the world will keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels, those doubts should have been dispelled this week. Janet Yellen’s statement on Thursday to the U.S. Senate that the Fed has “more work to do” to stimulate employment, and that “supporting the recovery today is the surest path to returning to a more normal approach to monetary policy,” capped a series of surprisingly clear commitments to easy money from central bankers this week. On Wednesday Joerg Asmussen, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, and Ewald Nowotny, the Austrian central bank governor — both of whom had previously been reported as voting against last week’s surprise ECB rate cut — said that they might in fact support further rate cuts and even negative interest rates, as well as the possibility of breaking the taboo against U.S.-style purchases of government bonds. And Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, reiterated more strongly than ever that any early increase in British interest rates was out of the question, despite the fact that the outlook for the British economy has turned out to be much better than the BoE had expected.
The ponderously named Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which takes place this weekend, is a more important event for the world economy and for global geopolitics than the budget battles, central bank meetings and elections that attract infinitely more attention in the media and financial markets.
What is happening to the euro? Currencies are more important than stock market prices or bond yields for many businesses and investors, not to mention for globe-trotting families and humble tourists. Which makes it surprising that so little attention has recently been devoted to the strengthening of the euro, which hit its highest level since 2011 this Monday, having jumped by 5.5 percent since September and over 8 percent since early July. This remarkable ascent, which has also driven the euro to its highest level against the yen since the 2008-09 financial crisis, means that European exporters are losing competitiveness, Americans and Asians who live or travel in Europe are feeling like poor relations and many economists are starting to worry that Europe’s nascent economic recovery will be snuffed out.