Nervy global investors revisit 1930s playbook

Wed Jun 22, 2016 4:58am EDT
 
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By Mike Dolan

LONDON (Reuters) - Global investors are once again dusting off studies of the 1930s as fears of protectionism, nationalism and a retreat of globalization, sharpened by this week's Brexit referendum, escalate anew.

With markets on tenterhooks over Thursday's "too close to call" vote on Britain's future in the European Union, the damage an exit vote would deal business activity and world commerce is amplified by the precarious state of the global economy and its inability to absorb any left-field political shocks.

As such, the Brexit vote will not be an open-and-shut case regardless of the outcome. Broader worries about global trade, frail growth and dwindling investment returns have festered since the banking shock of 2007/08 and have mounted this year.

Stalling trade growth has already led the world economy to the brink of recession for the second time in a decade, with growth now hovering just above the 2.0-2.5 percent level most economists say is needed to keep per capita world output stable.

Three-month averages for growth of world trade volumes through March this year have turned negative compared with the prior three months, according to the Dutch government statistics body widely cited as the arbiter of global trade data.

And it's not a seasonal blip. Last year saw the biggest drop in imports and exports since 2009 and their average annual growth of 3 percent over the intervening seven years was itself half that of the 25 years before, according to Swiss asset manager Pictet. 2016 is set to be the fifth sub-par year in row.

A study published by the Centre For Economic Policy Research shows this paltry pace of trade growth is also below the 4.2 percent average for the past 200 years.

Foreign direct investment growth of 2 percent of world output is also at its lowest since the 1990s, while the hangover from the credit crunch has seen annual growth rates in cross-border bank lending grind to a halt from some 10 pct in the decade to 2008.   Continued...

 
An unemployed man in an old coat is seen lying down on a pier in the New York City docks during the Great Depression, 1935.   REUTERS/Lewis W Hine/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives and Records Administration/Handout/File Photo