That Stalling Feeling

NEW YORK – Despite the series of low-probability, high-impact events that have hit the global economy in 2011, financial markets continued to rise happily until a month or so ago. The year began with rising food, oil, and commodity prices, giving rise to the specter of high inflation. Then massive turmoil erupted in the Middle East, further ratcheting up oil prices. Then came Japan’s terrible earthquake, which severely damaged both its economy and global supply chains. And then Greece, Ireland, and Portugal lost access to credit markets, requiring bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

But that was not the end of it. Although Greece was bailed out a year ago, Plan A has now clearly failed. Greece will require another official bailout – or a bail-in of private creditors, an option that is fueling heated disagreement among European policymakers.

Lately, concerns about America’s unsustainable fiscal deficits have, likewise, resulted in ugly political infighting, almost leading to a government shutdown. A similar battle is now brewing about America’s “debt ceiling,” which, if unresolved, introduces the risk of a “technical” default on US public debt.

Until recently, markets seemed to discount these shocks; apart from a few days when panic about Japan or the Middle East caused a correction, they continued their upward march. But, since the end of April, a more persistent correction in global equity markets has set in, driven by worries that economic growth in the United States and worldwide may be slowing sharply.