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For many months, as dark clouds have gathered over the Chinese economy, it has seemed obvious that the authorities might be tempted to press an escape button that has been used by all the other major economies since 2008. That button is labelled “devaluation”. Yet, until Tuesday, this temptation was stoutly resisted. Premier Li Keqiang has never seemed particularly attracted to a traditional Asian devaluation strategy. Indeed, export-led growth is the reverse of the economic rebalancing that he has always championed.
China has now clearly blinked, and the renminbi has fallen by 4 per cent in two days. However, as so often in China, it is impossible to tell from official statements whether a major regime shift has actually taken place.
The PBOC is trying to describe the devaluation as nothing more than a tactical shift to allow market forces to work more actively, thus allowing the currency to enter the SDR fairly soon. But the PBOC has also warned that the short term market moves might be quite large. They may be seeking to dress up a deliberate devaluation in the clothes of a “market friendly” reform.
If China really has pressed its own escape button, the consequences for everyone else will be far reaching. Read more
Financial markets began 2014 in an ebullient mood. Omens of economic recovery in the developed world buoyed investors across the globe. Troubles in emerging markets, it was thought, would amount only to a handful of little local difficulties.
It did not last.
In developed markets, the past three weeks have seen the steepest falls in equity prices since mid-2013, when fears that the US Federal Reserve would begin phasing out its massive bond-buying programme caused interest rates to surge. This time, however, there has been no rise in short-term interest rates in the US or Europe, and bond yields have fallen slightly. There has been no change then in the market’s reading of the Fed or the European Central Bank’s policy stance.
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Many people are asking why the financial markets have so far been unruffled by the political crisis which is playing itself out in Washington. That is a very good question. Yesterday was a case in point. The Financial Times website led with a story by Martin Wolf headlined “America is flirting with self destruction”. Yet equities were up on the day, and gold fell sharply.
The explanation for this conundrum, I believe, is twofold. Part of it is connected to the nature of markets, and part to the nature of this particular episode.
To start with the nature of markets, it has become very clear in recent years that asset prices are not necessarily very good at reacting in a smooth manner to changes in the perceived risk of extremely unlikely events taking place. For long periods, the markets do not react at all, and then they suddenly react in a discontinuous manner. The manner in which asset prices reacted to the risk of sovereign defaults in the euro area before and during the crisis of 2011-12 was a good example of this.
For many years, the markets acted as if there was no risk at all of default. Then, in the summer of 2011, they suddenly started to price a risk of 30 per cent or more that several sovereigns would default within the next 5 years, an assessment which now appears to have been a significant over-reaction. So the fact that markets do not price these risks for very long periods of deteriorating newsflow does not imply that the risks are in fact non existent, or that they will not suddenly appear in asset prices.
Why do markets behave in this way when, after all, the major participants are fairly rational, most of the time?