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De-Risking Revisited

NEW YORK – Until the recent bout of financial-market turbulence, a variety of risky assets (including equities, government bonds, and commodities) had been rallying since last summer. But, while risk aversion and volatility were falling and asset prices were rising, economic growth remained sluggish throughout the world. Now the global economy’s chickens may be coming home to roost.

Japan, struggling against two decades of stagnation and deflation, had to resort to Abenomics to avoid a quintuple-dip recession. In the United Kingdom, the debate since last summer has focused on the prospect of a triple-dip recession. Most of the eurozone remains mired in a severe recession – now spreading from the periphery to parts of the core. Even in the United States, economic performance has remained mediocre, with growth hovering around 1.5% for the last few quarters.

And now the darlings of the world economy, emerging markets, have proved unable to reverse their own slowdowns. According to the IMF, China’s annual GDP growth has slowed to 8%, from 10% in 2010; over the same period, India’s growth rate slowed from 11.2% to 5.7%. Russia, Brazil, and South Africa are growing at around 3%, and other emerging markets are slowing as well.

This gap between Wall Street and Main Street (rising asset prices, despite worse-than-expected economic performance) can be explained by three factors. First, the tail risks (low-probability, high-impact events) in the global economy – a eurozone breakup, the US going over its fiscal cliff, a hard economic landing for China, a war between Israel and Iran over nuclear proliferation – are lower now than they were a year ago.