Opinion: A crash everyone should have expected | Opinion | DW | 24.08.2015
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Opinion

Opinion: A crash everyone should have expected

Stock exchanges around the world have been going down the tubes for days. Is a new crisis imminent, spurred by the chaos in China? There's much evidence to the contrary, writes DW's Henrik Böhme.

Technically, nothing has really happened yet. It's still just the "markets" that are being shaken up, albeit rather violently. Granted, for every minute of trading at the moment, billions of dollars evaporate. But if you really think about it, and manage to ignore the dizzying sums being wiped from balance sheets, this most recent crash isn't all that surprising.

Yes, I realize there has been a lot of bad news going around that the overheated financial markets had to cope with in the past few weeks, most notably from China. When the second-largest economy in the world experiences such a dizzy spell, it can make investors nervous. But it's not the only cause of the current turbulence.

There are a handful of other countries once touted as up-and-coming emerging nations that have people worried. Take Russia, for instance: It has recently been weakened by Western sanctions and its own homemade problems. Or Brazil, which like Russia mainly relies on its commodity exports to keep the economy going. But now, hampered by falling demand for those commodities and thus falling revenues, it has slipped into recession.

How to spend all that money?

It would of course be only too easy to lay the blame at emerging markets' doors. That's because the current stock market boom, which has been holding now for seven years, is basically being subsidized by the central banks of the world.

DW's Henrik Böhme

DW's Henrik Böhme

Since the Lehman Brothers crash, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have been pumping billions of dollars and euros into the markets while keeping interest rates near zero. But where should all that money go? It has to be profitably invested somewhere, especially when pension funds and insurance companies want to keep their promises of returns.

So what happened? It was invested in all kinds of equities. And if one thing is for sure about stocks, it's that they are vulnerable to market fluctuations. And sometimes those fluctuations can totally wipe out a stock's value. That's just the way it goes. Another product of these wild years has been the tendency for companies to use their considerable profits only secondarily for new investments. They much prefer to reward their shareholders with plump yields.

No questions asked when things are rosy

But it's also not like this was the first crash of the last few years. The markets - according to many experts' predictions in light of the cheap money bubble - would become extremely volatile and prone to fluctuation. Remember last autumn, when the German DAX suddenly began skidding and didn't stop until it hit 8,400 points? The reason at the time was economic concerns.

Those concerns turned out to be unfounded. After that it recovered rapidly, jumping 4,000 points within half a year. The rally didn't end until the DAX hit a record 12,390 points. Isn't it funny that no one seems to care what the reasons are for such dramatic market gains? Only when things go south do people begin asking questions.

In such cases, it helps to take a look at the raw numbers. Germany, the global export champion, mostly delivers its products to Europe. Only 7 percent go to China. Beijing's problems may indeed be the cause of many sleepless nights for German business leaders, particularly in the auto industry. But there are plenty of others who don't share their concerns. Another reassuring fact is the state of the US economy, which is currently in a position to grow. On top of that, prices for raw materials like oil and copper are low. That may be lamentable for some countries, but for others it's a welcome stimulus.

Much is now in the hands of the head of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen. The mere suggestion of a shift in monetary policy there that would see the Fed raise interest rates is enough to instill great fear in emerging economies, where investors have been withdrawing massive amounts of money because they expect higher rates of return in the US. It's a vicious cycle. But at some point the anti-crisis measures of cheap money and low interest rates have to end. The only problem is that if China's crisis expands and drags the world economy down with it, the West will be out of instruments to counter it. The residual effects of the Lehman crash can still be felt today.

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