One of the very few positives for the world economy over the second quarter — or at least for the majority of the world that imports oil — has been an almost $40 per barrel plunge in the spot price of Brent crude. As the euro zone crisis, yet another soft patch stateside and a worryingly steep slowdown in the BRICs all combined to pull the demand rug from under the energy markets, the traditional stabilising effects of oil returned to the fray. So much so that by the last week in June, the annual drop in oil prices was a whopping 20%. Apart from putting more money in household and business purses by directly lowering fuel bills and eventually the cost of products with high energy inputs, the drop in oil prices should have a significant impact on headline consumer inflation rates that are already falling well below danger rates seen last year. And for central banks around the world desperate to ease monetary policy and print money again to offset the ravages of deleveraging banks, this is a major relief and will amount to a green light for many — not least the European Central Bank which is now widely expected to cut interest rates again this Thursday.
Financial markets are odd sometimes. For weeks they have fretted about the outcome of the Greek election and its impact on the future of the euro zone as a whole. But today they appeared to dismiss the outcome despite a result that was about as positive as global investors fearful for euro zone stability could have hoped for. So what gives?
How are we looking? Fluid, very fluid!
In a classic case of call and response, the latest twist of the euro saga has seen the crisis escalate sharply in Spain and Italy (with the attempted cleanup of Bankia the latest trigger for a surge in government borrowing rates in both) only to see the European Commission today invoke major policy responses including the proposed use of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to directly recapitalize euro banks, a single banking union, a euro-wide deposit protection system and even pushing back Spanish budget deadlines by a year.
Greek gloom dominates the start of the week as new elections there look inevitable and talk of Greek euro exit, or a Grexit” as common market parlance now has it, mounts. All risk assets and securities hinged on global growth have been hit, with China’s weekend reserve ratio easing doing little to offset gloomy data from world’s second biggest economy at the end of last week. World stocks are down heavily and emerging markets are underperforming; the euro has fallen to near 4-month lows below $1.29; safe haven core government debt is bid as euro peripheral debt yields in Italy and Spain push higher; and global growth bellwethers such as crude oil and the Australian dollar are down – the latter below parity against the US dollar for the first time in 5 months.
Markets have been dominated this week so far by the fallout from Sunday’s French presidential election, where Socialist Francois Hollande now looks set to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff , and the collapse of the ruling Dutch coalition on Monday. Public anxiety about budgetary austerity in Europe was further reinforced by news on Monday of a deepening of the euro zone private sector contraction in April. That said, euro equity, bond and currency prices have stabilised relatively quickly even if implied volatility has increased as investors brace for another month or so of political heat in the single currency bloc. The French runoff is now on the same day as the Greek elections and May 31 sees Ireland going to the polls to vote on the EU’s new fiscal compact. Wall St’s volatility gauge, the ViX, is back up toward 20% — better reflecting longer term averages — and relatively risky assets such as emerging market equities remain on the back foot. The euro political heat and slightly slower Q2 world growth pulse will likely keep markets subdued and jittery until mid year at least. At that point, another cyclical upswing in world manufacturing together with the passing of the EBA’s euro bank recapitalisation deadline as well as the introduction of the new European Stability Mechanism may well encourage investors to return at better levels.
For all the headline attention on euro zone political heat over the next six weeks or so (Spain is already in the spotlight, Sunday is the first round of the French presidential elections, Greece goes to the polls on May 6, Ireland votes on the EU fiscal pact on May 31 etc etc), global investors may be better rewarded if they follow the more mundane runes of the world’s manufacturing cycle for tips on market direction.
Thursday’s crude oil price surge to its highest in almost 4 years (apparently due to a subsequently denied report from Iran of a Saudi pipeline explosion…phew!) illustrates just how anxious and dangerous the energy market has become for world markets yet again this year and HSBC on Friday spotlighted its threat to the global economy and asset prices in a note entitled “Oil is the new Greece”. The point of the neat headline hook was a simple one: