Stock market turmoil, and trouble ahead

Markets have had a bad start to the year, but there could be worse to come

John Hewson

Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Trade and industry | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

12 February 2016

Uncertainty in oil markets and climate risks ahead highlight future challenges, writes John Hewson.

Major stock markets have had their worst start for the year on record, mostly reflecting concerns about global growth, particularly China, and weak oil and other commodity prices.

Although the US Federal Reserve finally started to raise US interest rates, it probably couldn’t have picked a worse time, with fourth quarter growth in the US coming in at about half expectations, further compounding the global growth concerns.

Financial markets have also been unsettled by the growing belief that the Chinese authorities will attempt to stimulate their economy by engineering a substantial depreciation of the Yuan, which could precipitate a host of competitive devaluations in response.

One particularly important feature of the recent stock market volatility has been the falls in bank stocks, as markets have started to focus on their exposures to coal, gas, petroleum and energy companies, and related companies and projects.

These exposures are very significant in some cases, threatening sizeable losses and write-downs if these assets were marked-to-market, given the collapse of commodity prices and in the market value of many related assets such as coal loaders, ports and in transport.

To some of us, this market downgrade of key banks has been a long time coming, probably delayed in the expectation/hope that commodity prices would recover.

However, this is unlikely for the next several years as growth in industrial countries could remain in a ‘growth recession’ – where growth rates run on average under 2 per cent – with Chinese growth more like 5 per cent rather than the near 7 per cent declared, and Europe and Japan still flat, or weak.

In turn, this is compounded by the uncertainty in the oil market in particular, with Iran coming on stream, and genuine uncertainty about the strategies of OPEC, especially Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

I am also concerned about the climate risk exposures – including but not confined to fossil fuels ­– of the largest global asset holders, mostly pension and superannuation funds, sovereign wealth funds, some university endowment funds, and insurance companies.

The Asset Owners Disclosure Project that I Chair surveys and ranks the top 500 of these assets owners – collectively worth over US$40 trillion – and last year found that just 7 per cent of these asset owners could actually calculate the climate exposures in their portfolios; only 1.4 per cent had reduced their emissions intensity in the last year; and only a poor 2 per cent had a target for 2016.

The shareholdings of these funds are quite significant in several stock markets, so it is important that these exposures be disclosed, and managed. The recent initiative launched by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, of an industry-led Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, to be Chaired by Michael Bloomberg, should prove to be very important.

Although the initial focus will be on encouraging voluntary disclosure, it shouldn’t be too long before we hear cries for mandatory disclosure, as it should be!

The risk of another global financial crisis driven by climate – either as a result of extreme weather events, government responses to climate change and technology or, most likely, some combination of these – is very real.

As Hank Paulson, Secretary of the US Treasury at the time of the last GFC has said, the risks of a climate-induced financial crisis dwarfs the risks that were run in the recent sub-prime induced crisis.

One of the biggest challenges is what Carney calls “the tragedy of the horizon”, as the likely effects lie beyond the time horizons of government and business decision makers.

We have a long way to go to effectively deal with this reality in Australia, where the significant challenge of climate change has been subject to gross, negligent, and irresponsible short-term politicking.

 

This article was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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