Fearless Financial Markets

A number of thoughtful observers – like Citigroup’s Robert Rubin, Harvard’s Larry Summers, and The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf – have expressed puzzlement in recent months about financial markets’ perceptions of risk. While markets have judged today’s world – especially the dollar and securities linked to it – to have low risk when viewed in historical perspective, geopolitical risks in fact appear to be large. Wolf, for example, argues that financial markets have adopted a head-in-the-sand focus on the “long run of small gains,” ignoring the “occasional calamity” in advance, while losses will be attributed after the fact to “unforeseeable bad luck.”

But if an investor today did wish to insure against geopolitical catastrophe, how would he or she do so? In the generation before World War I, the safe assets were thought to be the debt of governments tied to the gold standard, which supposedly offered protection against the inflationary populist viruses that afflicted countries like Mexico, France, or the United States. But investors in British government debt faced huge losses when Britain’s commitment to World War I produced inflation, and investors in Czarist bonds papered their bathrooms with them after the October Revolution.

After the inflations of World War I, a prudent investor might have thought gold – easily assessable, portable, and real – an attractive asset. But gold is stagnant, while capital is productive. In any case, American gold holders found their wealth involuntarily transformed into paper dollars by the Roosevelt administration at the nadir of the Great Depression. Following World War II, investments in the US seemed safer than any alternative. But, in the 1970’s, investors in American stocks and long-term bonds lost half their principal, and even investors in short-term American debt were down by 20% in real terms by the end of the decade.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.

required

Log in

http://prosyn.org/AOq4BFm;
  1. An employee works at a chemical fiber weaving company VCG/Getty Images

    China in the Lead?

    For four decades, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth under a centralized, authoritarian political system, far outpacing growth in the Western liberal democracies. So, is Chinese President Xi Jinping right to double down on authoritarianism, and is the “China model” truly a viable rival to Western-style democratic capitalism?

  2. The assembly line at Ford Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

    Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

    The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

  3. Donald Trump Saul Loeb/Getty Images

    The Globalization of Our Discontent

    Globalization, which was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries alike, is now reviled almost everywhere, as the political backlash in Europe and the US has shown. The challenge is to minimize the risk that the backlash will intensify, and that starts by understanding – and avoiding – past mistakes.

  4. A general view of the Corn Market in the City of Manchester Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

    A Better British Story

    Despite all of the doom and gloom over the United Kingdom's impending withdrawal from the European Union, key manufacturing indicators are at their highest levels in four years, and the mood for investment may be improving. While parts of the UK are certainly weakening economically, others may finally be overcoming longstanding challenges.

  5. UK supermarket Waring Abbott/Getty Images

    The UK’s Multilateral Trade Future

    With Brexit looming, the UK has no choice but to redesign its future trading relationships. As a major producer of sophisticated components, its long-term trade strategy should focus on gaining deep and unfettered access to integrated cross-border supply chains – and that means adopting a multilateral approach.

  6. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now