Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Despite election results, reason still rules Europe

Anatole Kaletsky
May 30, 2014 18:09 UTC

anatole -- french student

When can a vote of 25 percent be described as a “stunning victory” or even a “political earthquake”?

According to the European establishment, it’s when these votes go to a rabble of odd-ball extremists, ranging from overt racists and even disciples of Adolf Hitler to unreconstructed Stalinists and comically naïve anarchists.

However, the most alarming symptom of political breakdown revealed by the European parliament election is mainstream politician’s hysterical reaction to a perfectly predictable — and justifiable — upsurge of populist anger after the euro crisis.

anatole -- unemploymentAfter all, people have suffered five years of unnecessary hardship as a result of misguided economic policies. Why then should anyone be surprised that tens of millions of voters decided “to give their governments a kicking” as British Prime Minister David Cameron put it? Especially when the European elections provided an ideal opportunity for people to vent their anger with national governments, with no risk of letting the populists get anywhere near true power.

While the media were banging on about the shock and devastation of Sunday’s supposed political earthquake, this benign, and perfectly plausible, interpretation was quietly adopted by financial markets and the European business community.

No reason for these stock market jitters

Anatole Kaletsky
May 8, 2014 21:49 UTC

anatole -- unhappy trader

“Sell in May and go away.”

This stock market adage has served investors well four years in a row. Every year since 2010, stock markets around the world have suffered significant corrections between a high reached in May and a low in the summer or early autumn: by 15 percent in 2010, 19 percent in 2011, 9 percent in 2012 and 5 percent in 2013, as gauged by the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Given that the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its highest level ever on April 30, while the S&P 500 peaked less than 1 percent shy of its all-time record, it may seem sensible to follow the seasonal adage. Regardless of one’s views about the long-term prospects for the world economy.

That is precisely how financial markets have behaved since May 1. In the past week, investors around the world responded negatively to what have been, by any standards, extremely favorable economic figures from the United States, Britain and even Europe.

We’re coming into financial hurricane season

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 5, 2012 19:57 UTC

The North Atlantic hurricane season runs from mid-August to October, with a strong peak in storm activity around the middle of September. A less familiar but even more destructive pattern of disturbances is the financial hurricane season, which coincides with the meteorological one almost to the day.

Most of the great financial crises of modern history have occurred in the two months from mid-August: the Wall Street crashes of Oct. 22, 1907, Oct. 24, 1929, and Oct. 19, 1987; Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard on Sept. 19, 1931; the postwar sterling devaluation on Sept. 19, 1949; the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system on Aug. 15, 1971; the Mexican default that triggered the Third World debt crisis on Aug. 20, 1982; the breakup of the European exchange-rate mechanism on Sept. 16, 1992; the Russian default on Aug. 17, 1998, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15. 2008 – and this list could go on.

The coincidence between financial and meteorological hurricanes may not be entirely fortuitous. The global economy, like the world’s atmosphere, is a finely balanced complex system. In such systems, small perturbations can accumulate to trigger big effects. And just as the meteorological tipping points tend to occur when autumn air circulation starts to disrupt the humid air accumulated in the summer doldrums, something similar seems to happen to financial markets when trading becalmed by the summer holidays returns to normal. The result can be sudden and violent reaction to events accumulated over the summer that markets had seemed to ignore. The world economy does not, of course, experience hurricanes with the same regularity as the Caribbean. But when big events happen over the summer, financial disturbances become quite probable in the fall. This is probably the reason why September has historically been the worst month of the year for stock market performance. In fact, September is the only month in which Wall Street prices have, on average, declined since the 1920s.

Why is the response to economic crisis not more serious?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 12, 2012 14:46 UTC

The state of the world economy these days reminds me of the famous telegram from an Austrian general, responding to his German counterpart toward the end of World War One. The German described the situation in his sector of the Eastern front as “serious but not catastrophic”.  In the Austrian sector, the reply came, “the situation is catastrophic but not serious”. In much of the world today the economic situation is verging on catastrophic, but “not serious” seems a perfect description of the political response.

Four years after the Lehman crisis, economic activity and employment in the OECD has not yet returned to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment is at postwar highs in every major European country apart from Germany and, while the U.S. jobless rate is now a little below its postwar record, it has been stuck above 8 percent for longer than at any time since the Great Depression. And in Britain, the long-term loss of output assumed by the government’s latest budget forecasts implies, according to Goldman Sachs calculations, that the six months of the post-Lehman crisis did greater permanent damage to the country’s productive capacity than the Great Depression or World War Two.

Now consider the response. In the U.S., the four years since Lehman have been dominated by economic debates among politicians, media commentators and business leaders on issues that are almost totally irrelevant to unemployment and the pace of economic recovery: how to reduce long-term budget deficits and whether to tweak the top rate of income tax from 36 percent to 39.6 percent. In Britain, the biggest economic controversy this year has been the extension of value added tax to hot pies. Europe’s response to the deepest economic depression in living memory – and an even more alarming xenophobic nationalism that threatens the literal disintegration of the euro and the European Union – has been to debate the bureaucratic “modalities” of bank regulations, fiscal treaties and pension reforms in the next decade.

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