What impact will instability in Iraq have on stock markets?

What impact will the instability in Iraq have on stock markets?

So the proverbial Black Swan has appeared - in the form of Sunni militants rampaging across Iraq - but instead of investors panicking they are pretty much contentedly feeding the ducks.

A modest 120-point drop in the Dow Jones index on Tuesday 24 June was followed by a 50-point rebound; which is nothing compared with days of 200 to 300-point volatility in 2011 to 2012 amid the jitters over US and eurozone debt.

Are markets being rational or complacent as a new era of Islamic fundamentalism spreads fear and chaos around the world? Are they so 'high' on monetary stimulus from central banks, as to be dangerously oblivious?

As yet, capitalism appears to view the insurgency as just another chapter of centuries-long, religious conflict in the Middle East. More significantly, about 90 per cent of Iraq's oil production remains sheltered from trouble in the peaceful south of the country, although if the country's largest refinery at Baiji is lost there would be shudders.

oil exports

The risk is Sunni insurgency spreading if President Obama frets with the dilemma of air strikes and the Shiite-led Iraq government continues to resist reform.

If Iraq deteriorates to the point where oil exports are disrupted - sending prices higher - then indeed this could prick confidence in stock markets as it would be a risk for global growth. But oil markets remain relatively calm and there is hope that exports could increase from Kurdistan.

Investors continue to wonder where else they could go. Zilch interest rates have effectively penalised holding cash, and a series of 'crises' since summer 2011 - from the US debt ceiling to eurozone debt, Greece, Cyprus, Syria - all show it is possible to ride out volatility.

Central bankers have achieved their aim to force idle money into riskier plays hence stimulate economic recovery, although it is debatable whether bubbles are emerging in financial assets versus direct investment in firms.

For example, equity and bond prices alike are riding high: stock markets anticipate stronger economic growth yet the yields on US Treasury bonds have fallen (and prices risen) which normally indicates expectations of lower growth and inflation.

complacency

Also volatility has calmed, not only in measures of the Vix index but also one's general market watching. 'Sell in May' has been a non-event. Some observers - notably the hedge fund baron Sir Michael Hintze - reckon this is dangerous complacency.

'The problem is that we're not there (in a low-volatility environment) because markets have decided this, but because central banks have told us... There is no room for dissenting voices.

'My fear is that when everyone is in the same place, a change in sentiment causes the maximum disruption.' But he concedes: 'We're being told what to do by central bankers - and you lose money if you don't follow their lead.'

So could this game of 'follow the pied piper' become musical chairs? It is likely going to need serious bad news from the Middle East, otherwise economic data does indeed look pretty encouraging.

Latest figures suggest the US economy has rebounded in the second quarter of 2014 after an exceptionally weak first quarter as a harsh winter culminated. Sales of new homes jumped by 18.6 per cent in May, which was the biggest increase since January 1992 and the highest rate since 2008.

An index of US consumer attitudes has risen to 85.2 in June from a downwardly revised 82.2 in May. China has showed better data in May and June and the governor of the Bank of England (BoE) says UK economic recovery is becoming more balanced.

blot on the landscape

Only the eurozone blots the landscape with growth slowing for a consecutive month in June as France struggles although its socialist government policies have anyway been criticised as likely to impede enterprise. At least the European Central Bank is committed to monetary stimulus; likewise the Bank of Japan.

Evidence from major countries therefore weighs to the upside: the US showing bouts of vigour and no debacle in China from excess debt. The UK property market is cause for concern but the BoE is capping some home loans and increasing mortgage affordability tests.

Reading daily company news I notice a trend of broadly meeting expectations: yes there are challenged sectors such as retail, especially supermarkets, but no real sign of profit warnings on the increase.

So while equity prices appear fair to fully valued considering price/earnings multiples against growth rates, also dividend yields, companies look an unlikely source of woe. By and large, management teams have emerged from the recessionary years having cut costs and re-positioned so as to benefit from recovery.

The downside case therefore assumes equities and bonds alike are a crowded trade; that in due course something is bound to change opinion, because... that is the nature of social affairs. You don't want to be over-exposed to stocks especially, when it happens.

But this isn't a genuine contrarian argument because one can't as yet establish why things should change beyond speculate of carnage from the Middle East or a major loss of confidence in central banks.

Possibly the complacency is affecting even a cynic like me with over 30 years in markets. But unless events in Iraq deteriorate further, the merry consensus may well continue.


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