US PE exports on front line as Trump changes trade policies

It is almost a year since Donald Trump became President.  And whilst he has not followed through on many of his promises, he has indeed introduced the major policy changes that I began to discuss in September 2015, when I first suggested he could win the election and that the Republicans could control Congress:

“In the USA, the establishment candidacies of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans are being upstaged by the two populist candidates – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump….Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades. They now need to move quickly up the learning curve. Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s.

Many people have therefore had to go up a steep learning curve over the past year, given that their starting point was essentially disbelief, as one commentator noted when my analysis first appeared:

“I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that populist movements could have significant traction in the U.S. Congress in passing legislation that would seriously affect companies and investors.

Yet this, of course, is exactly what has happened.

It is true that many of the promises in candidate Trump’s Contract with America have been ignored:

  • Of his 174 promises, 13 have been achieved, 18 are in process, 37 have been broken, 3 have been partially achieved and 103 have not started
  • His top priority of a Constitutional amendment on term limits for members of Congress has not moved forward

Yet on areas that impact companies and investors, such as trade and corporate tax, the President has moved forward:

  • On trade, he has not (yet?) labelled China a currency manipulator or moved forward to fix water and environmental infrastructure
  • But he has announced the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his intention to withdraw from the UN Climate Change programme and lifted restrictions on fossil fuel production

These are complete game-changers in terms of America’s position in the world and its trading relationships.

Over the decades following World War 2, Republican and Democrat Presidents alike saw trade as the key to avoiding further wars by building global prosperity.  Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton all actively supported the growth of global trade and the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The US also led the world in environmental protection following publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring‘ in 1962, with its attack on the over-use of pesticides.

Clearly, today, these priorities no longer matter to President Trump.  And already, US companies are starting to lose out as politics, rather than economics, once again begins to dominate global trade.  We are returning to the trading models that operated before WTO:

  • Until the 1990s, trade largely took place within trading blocs rather than globally – in Europe, for example, the West was organised in the Common Market and the East operated within the Soviet Union
  • It is therefore very significant that one of the President’s first attacks has been on the WTO, where he has disrupted its work by blocking the appointment of new judges

Trump’s policy is instead based on the idea of bilateral trade agreements with individual countries, with the US dominating the relationship.  Understandably, many countries dislike this prospect and are instead preferring to work with China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as One Belt, One Road).

US POLYETHYLENE PRODUCERS WILL BE A CASE STUDY FOR THE IMPACT OF THE NEW POLICIES
US polyethylene (PE) producers are likely to provide a case study of the problems created by the new policies.

They are now bringing online around 6 million tonnes of new shale gas-based production.  It had been assumed a large part of this volume could be exported to China.  But the chart above suggests this now looks unlikely:

  • China’s PE market has indeed seen major growth since 2015, up 18% on a January – November basis.  Part of this is one-off demand growth, as China moved to ban imports of scrap product in 2017.  Its own production has also grown in line with total demand at 17%
  • But at the same time, its net imports rose by 1.8 million tonnes, 19%, with the main surge in 2017.  This was a perfect opportunity for US producers to increase their exports as their new capacity began to come online
  • Yet, actual US exports only rose 194kt – within NAFTA, Mexico actually outperformed with its exports up 197kt
  • The big winner was the Middle East, a key part of the BRI, which saw its volume jump 29% by 1.36 million tonnes

Sadly, it seems likely that 2018 will see further development of such trading blocs:

  • The President’s comments last week, when he reportedly called Africa and Haiti “shitholes” will clearly make it more difficult to build long-term relationships based on trust with these countries
  • They also caused anguish in traditionally pro-American countries such as the UK – adding to concerns that he has lost his early interest in the promised post-Brexit “very big and exciting” trade deal.

US companies were already facing an uphill task in selling all their new shale gas-based PE output.  The President’s new trade policies will make this task even more difficult, given that most of it will have to be exported.

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The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018

We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.

It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.

Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:

  • On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
  • On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl

Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.

An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.

His roadmap is the landmark ‘China 2030’ joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition:   “From policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008 in the west.

Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.

At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018.  Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.

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US tax cuts will fail as Trump’s demographic deficit replaces Reagan’s demographic dividend

No country in the world now has a top quality pension system.  That’s the conclusion from the latest Report by pensions consultants Melbourne Mercer.  As the chart above shows:

  • Denmark and The Netherlands have fallen out of the top category
  • In the G7 wealthy nations: Canada is in category B; Germany and UK in C+; France, US and Italy in C; Japan in D
  • In the BRICS emerging economies: Brazil is in category C; India, China and S Africa are D; and Russia’s system is so poor it is unclassified

Unsurprisingly, the cause of the problems is today’s ‘demographic deficit’, as the authors highlight:

“The provision of financial security in retirement is critical for both individuals and societies as most countries are now grappling with the social, economic and financial effects of ageing populations. The major causes of this demographic shift are declining birth rates and increasing longevity. Inevitably these developments are placing financial pressure on current retirement income systems. Indeed, the sustainability of some current systems is under threat.”

These problems have been building for years, as politicians have not wanted to have difficult conversations with voters over raising the retirement age.  Instead, they have preferred to ignore the issue, hoping that it will go away.

But, of course, problems that are ignored tend to get worse over time, rather than go away.  In the US, public pension funds saw their deficits jump $343bn last year to $3.85tn – making it almost certain that, eventually, pension benefits will have to be cut and taxes raised.

The issue has been that politicians preferred to believe central bank stimulus programmes could solve the deficit by cutting interest rates and printing large amounts of virtually free cash.  And unfortunately, when it became clear this policy was failing to work, the banks “doubled down” and pursued negative interest rates rather than admitting defeat:

  • Currently, 17% of all bonds (worth $8tn), trade at negative rates
  • Swiss bond yields are negative out to 2027, as the Pensions Partners chart shows
  • Most major European countries, and Japan, suffer from negative rates

2 years ago, Swiss pension experts suggested that its pension system would be bankrupt within 10 years, due to the requirement to pay retirees an annuity of 6.8% of their total savings each year.  This rate is clearly unaffordable with negative interest rates, unless the funds take massive risks with their capital.

The US faces similar problems with Social Security, which is the major source of income for most retirees.  The Trustees forecast its reserves will be depleted by 2034, when benefits will need to be cut by around a quarter.  Medicare funds for hospital and nursing will be depleted by 2029.  And as the Social Security Administration reports:

173 million workers are covered under Social Security.  46% of the workforce in private industry has no private pension coverage.  39% of workers report that they and/or their spouse have not personally saved any money for retirement.”

Rising life expectancy is a key part of the problem, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported in May.  Back in 1889, life expectancy was under 50 when Bismarck introduced the world’s first state pension in Germany.  Today, the average baby born in the G7 countries can expect to live to be 100.  As WEF conclude:

“One obvious implication of living longer is that we are going to have to spend longer working. The expectation that retirement will start early- to mid-60s is likely to be a thing of the past, or a privilege of the very wealthy.” 

Sadly, politicians are still in denial, as President Trump’s proposed tax cuts confirm.

Today is not 1986, when President Reagan cut taxes in his October 1986 Tax Reform Act and was rewarded with higher tax revenues.  30 years ago, more and more BabyBoomers were entering the wealth creating 25 – 54 age group, as the chart from the Atlanta Fed confirms:

The issue is the ageing of the Boomers combined with the collapse of fertility rates:

  • The oldest Boomers left the Wealth Creator cohort in 2001, and the average Boomer (born in 1955) left in 2010
  • The relative number of Wealth Creators is also in decline, as US fertility rates have been below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman) for 45 years since 1970

Inevitably, therefore, Reagan’s demographic dividend has become Trump’s demographic deficit.

As I warned back in May, debt and demographics are set to destroy Trump’s growth dream.  And without immigration, the US working age population will fall by 18m by 2035, making a bad situation even worse.  Instead of tax cuts, Trump should instead be focused on 3 key priorities to:

  • Design measures to support older Boomers to stay in the workforce
  • Reverse the decline that has taken place in corporate funding for pensions
  • Tackle looming deficits in Social Security and Medicare”

Future retirees will not thank him for creating yet further debt headwinds by proposing unfunded tax cuts.  These might boost GDP in the short-term.  But they will certainly make it even more difficult to solve tomorrow’s pension deficits.

The Great Reckoning for policymakers’ failures has begun

Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2018-2020 period. The aim, as always, will be to challenge conventional wisdom when this seems to be heading in the wrong direction.  Before publishing the new Outlook each year, I always like to review my previous forecast. Past performance may not be a perfect guide to the future, but it is the best we have:

The 2007 Outlook ‘Budgeting for a Downturn‘, and 2008′s ‘Budgeting for Survival’ meant I was one of the few to forecast the 2008 Crisis
2009′s ‘Budgeting for a New Normal’ was then more positive than the consensus, suggesting “2010 should be a better year, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP
The 2010 Outlook was ‘Budgeting for Uncertainty’. This introduced the concept of Scenario planning, to help deal with “today’s increasingly uncertain New Normal environment.”
2011 was ‘Budgeting for Austerity’. It anticipated weak growth across Europe as a result of the austerity measures being introduced, and disappointing global growth, whilst arguing that major new opportunities were opening up as a result of changing demographic trends
2012 was ‘Budgeting for an L-shaped recovery’, arguing that recovery was unlikely to meet expectations
2013 was ‘Budgeting for a VUCA world‘ where Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity would dominate
2014 was ‘Budgeting for the Cycle of Deflation‘, 2015 was ’Budgeting for the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus’, 2016 was ‘Budgeting for the Great Reckoning’

Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

My argument last year was that companies and investors would begin to run up against the reality of the impact of today’s “demographic deficit”.  They would find demand had fallen far short of policymakers’ promises.  As the chart shows, the IMF had forecast in 2011 that 2016 growth would be 4.7%, but in reality it was a third lower at just 3.2%.   I therefore argued:

“This false optimism has now created some very negative consequences:

 Companies committed to major capacity expansions during the 2011 – 2013 period, assuming demand growth would return to “normal” levels
 Policymakers committed to vast stimulus programmes, assuming that the debt would be paid off by a mixture of “normal” growth and rising inflation
 Today, this means that companies are losing pricing power as this new capacity comes online, whilst governments have found their debt is still rising in real terms

“This is the Great Reckoning that now faces investors and companies as they plan their Budgets for 2017 – 2019.”

Oil markets are just one example of what has happened.  A year ago, OPEC had forecast its new quotas would “rebalance the oil market” in H1 this year. When this proved over-optimistic, they had to be extended for a further 9 months into March 2018. Now, it expects to have to extend them through the whole of 2018.  And even today’s fragile supply/demand balance is only due to China’s massive purchases to fill its Strategic Reserve.

Policymakers’ unrealistic view of the world has also had political and social consequences, as I noted in the Outlook:

“The problem, of course, is that it will take years to undo the damage that has been done. Stimulus policies have created highly dangerous bubbles in many financial markets, which may well burst before too long. They have also meant it is most unlikely that governments will be able to keep their pension promises, as I warned a year ago.

Of course, it is still possible to hope that “something may turn up” to support “business as usual” Budgets. But hope is not a strategy. Today’s economic problems are already creating political and social unrest. And unfortunately, the outlook for 2017 – 2019 is that the economic, political and social landscape will become ever more uncertain.”

As the second chart confirms from Ipsos MORI, most people in the world’s major countries feel things are going in the wrong direction.  Voters have lost confidence in the political elite’s ability to deliver on its promises.  Almost everywhere one looks today, one now sees potential “accidents waiting to happen”.

Understandably, Populism gains support in such circumstances as people feel they and their children are losing out.

The last 10 years have proved that stimulus programmes cannot substitute for a lack of babies.  They generate debt mountains instead of sustainable demand, and so make the problems worse, not better.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2018 – 2020 period, and the key risks that have developed as a result of the policy failures of the past decade.

 

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Brexit disaster looms as UK government power struggle erupts

UK voters were never very bothered about membership of the European Union (EU) before the Brexit vote last year.  Opinion polls instead showed they shared the general feeling of voters everywhere – that their country was heading in the wrong direction, and it was time for a change.  Now, last week’s Conservative Party conference showed that the government itself, and the prime minister, have also lost all sense of direction.

The problem is that nobody has any idea of a what a post-Brexit world would look like for the UK.  The Leave campaigners famously told the voters it would be a land where the UK would no longer “give” £350m/week ($455m) to Brussels, and could instead spend this money on improving health care and other worthy objectives.  This, of course, was a lie, as the head of the National Statistics Agency has since confirmed.  But then-premier Cameron failed to call out the lie at the time – fearing it would split his Conservative Party if he did.

15 months later, this lie has again come centre stage as the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, revived it before the Conference as part of his bid to replace premier May:

“Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week.  It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

As a result, the splits in the Conservative Party are out in the open, with its former chairman now calling for a leadership election and claiming at least 30 law-makers already support the move.  Bookmakers now expect May to leave office this year (offering odds of just evens), and suggest the UK will have a new election next year (odds of 2/1), despite the fact that Parliament has nearly 5 years to run.

May’s problem is two-fold:

 As the photo shows, she was humiliated in her main speech to the Conference by a prankster handing her a P45 form (the UK’s legal dismissal notice), and claiming Johnson had asked him to do it
 Her previous set-piece speech in Florence on negotiations with Brussels over the UK’s exit arrangements had also rebounded, as it made clear the Cabinet was divided on the terms that should be negotiated

Voters don’t like being lied to, and they don’t like governments that are unable to govern because of internal splits – particularly when the splits are over such a critical issue as the UK’s economic future.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, the opposition Labour party are now favorites to win the next election, and their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is favourite to become the next prime minister.  This, of course, would confirm my suggestion 2 years ago:

“My local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, won the UK Labour Party leadership election on Saturday with a 60% majority. An anti-NATO socialist, he has represented the constituency for 32 years, and has never held even a junior ministerial post. Now, he could possibly become the UK’s next Prime Minister.

“His path to power depends on two developments taking place, neither of which are impossible to imagine. First, he needs to win back the 40 seats that Labour lost to the Scottish Nationalists in May. And then he has to hope the ruling Conservative Party tears itself apart during the up-coming Europe Referendum.”

Unfortunately, Corbyn would be unlikely to resolve the mess over Brexit.  In the past, before becoming leader, he took the Trotskyist view that the EU is a capitalist club, set up to defraud the workers.  He has since refused to confirm or deny his views on the subject, but he did take very little part in the Referendum campaign last year.  Had he been more active in arguing the official Labour Party position of Remain, it is unlikely that Leave would have won.

Today, he is far more concerned over the likely result of a Labour Party win on financial markets, with his shadow Finance Minister admitting recently they were “war-gaming” in advance of an expected currency crisis.  UK interest rates are already rising, as foreign buyers wonder whether they should continue to hold their current 28% share of the UK government bond market.  Clearly, it is highly likely that a Labour government would need to return to capital controls after a 40-year break, to protect their finances.

A VERY HARD BREXIT IS BECOMING ALMOST CERTAIN
The confusion and growing chaos in the political world means that the detail of Brexit negotiations has taken a back seat.  The UK has still to make detailed proposals on the 3 critical issues that need to be settled before any trade talks can begin – rights of EU/UK citizens post-Brexit; status of the N Ireland/Ireland border; UK debts to Brussels for previously agreed spending.  And most European governments are now far more focused on domestic concerns:

  As I warned a year ago, the Populist Alternative für Deutschland did indeed “gain enough seats to make a continuation of the current “Grand Coalition” between the CDU/CSU/SDP impossible” in Germany
  Spain has to somehow resolve the Catalan crisis, following last week’s violence over the independence referendum
  Italy has autonomy referenda taking place in the wealthy Lombardy and Venice regions in 2 weeks, and then faces a difficult national election where the populist 5 Star movement leads most opinion polls. The scope for political chaos is clear, as the wealthy Northern regions want to reduce their tax payments to the south – whilst southern-based 5 Star want more money to go in their direction

President Trump has also undermined the Brexit position.  He initially promised a “very big and exciting” US-UK trade deal post Brexit.  But since then the US has supported a protectionist move by Boeing to effectively shut-down the vital Bombardier aircraft factory in Belfast, N Ireland, despite May’s personal appeals to him. And last week, it joined Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil in objecting to the EU-UK agreement on agricultural quotas post-Brexit.

I have taken part in trade talks and have also negotiated major contracts around the world.  So I know from experience the UK could never have achieved new deals within the 2 years promised by leading Brexiteers.

Today, it is also increasingly clear that May’s government doesn’t have the votes in Parliament to agree any financial deal that would be acceptable in Brussels.  So whilst large parts of UK industry still assume Brexit will mean “business as usual”, European companies are being more realistic.    In a most unusual move, the head of the Federation of German Industries spelt out the likely end result last week:

“The British government is lacking a clear concept despite talking a lot. German companies with a presence in Britain and Northern Ireland must now make provisions for the serious case of a very hard exit. Anything else would be naive…The unbundling of one of Germany’s closest allies is unavoidably connected with high economic losses. A disorderly exit by the British from the EU without any follow up controls would bring with it considerable upheaval for all participants. (German companies feel) not only that the sword of Damocles of insecurity is hovering over them, but even more so that they are exposed to the danger of massive devaluation.”

UK, European and global companies are already drawing up their budgets for 2018 – 2020. They cannot wait until Brexit day on 29 March 2019 before making their plans. And so, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the UK-EU talks are headed for stalemate, and that ideas of a lengthy transition period are simply a dream, they will make their own plans on the assumption that the UK will head over the Brexit cliff in 18 months time.

Nobody knows what will happen next.  But prudent companies, investors and individuals have to face the fact that Brexit, as I warned after the vote, is likely to be “a disaster for the UK, Europe and the world“.

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Investors ponder further shocks after North Korea jolt

Interviewed for this Reuters articleI suggest today’s low levels of market volatility could be “the calm before the storm” 

Wall St Aug17Saikat Chatterjee and Vikram Subhedar, AUGUST 11, 2017 / 5:06 PM

LONDON (Reuters) – After this week’s war of words between the United States and North Korea triggered the biggest fall in global stocks since the U.S. presidential election, investors are wondering what other off-radar shocks may be waiting to rock world markets.

Although there is little sign so far that investors are protecting themselves against a major sell-off, some say the current environment masks latent risks.

“Every day, our risk models tell us to take more risk because of falling volatility but with markets being where they are, we have to be very careful in not following them blindly,” said James Kwok, head of currency management at Amundi in London.  ”So we try to project scenarios on what can go wrong and where are markets not looking.”

Such has been the extraordinary period of stability in financial markets in recent years that world stocks have hit a series of record highs while gauges of broad market volatility have plunged to record lows.  That benign investment environment has been fostered by central banks which have pumped vast sums of cash into economies since the global financial crisis that began a decade ago, lifting asset prices globally.

Flows into most asset classes have already overtaken peaks reached before the financial crisis.  For example, inflows into active and passive equity funds have nearly doubled to $10.9 trillion at the end of June 2017 from a September 2007 peak, according to Thomson Reuters Lipper data. Inflows into bonds have meanwhile increased nearly three-fold to $4.1 trillion in that period.

Broad market gauges of risk, such as the CBOE Volatility Index .VIX, better known as the VIX, and its bond market counterpart, the Merrill Lynch Option volatility index .VOL remain pinned near record lows despite a spike this week.  But analysts say low market volatility masks the heavy weight of options written on these gauges by investment banks betting that the calm conditions will persist for a long time.

That has been accompanied by the growing popularity of inverse-volatility ETF products, which have doubled in value this year as market volatility has cratered.  Morgan Stanley strategists say the volume of bets on volatility remaining low means even a small increase in price swings could force some of these leveraged bets to unwind, triggering shock waves in the financial system and sending stock markets tumbling.

Daily percentage changes are important in the volatility world because a lot of these exchange-listed products and notes are rebalanced daily based on these changes, so that any large change would automatically trigger selling pressure elsewhere.

“This is why lower volatility creates higher risk,” said Christopher Metli, a Morgan Stanley quantitative derivatives strategist in a recent note.  He estimates that a 12 point rise in the VIX could send the S&P 500 index down by 3.5 percent. A move of that magnitude was last seen after Britain’s shock Brexit vote in June 2016.

But a spike in volatility is not the only scenario worrying investors.

Other risks markets may be ignoring include the implications of a messy British exit from the European Union and the risks that the Qatar crisis could spiral out of control in the Middle East and hit oil prices. Even the prospect of a newcomer at top of the U.S. Federal Reserve when Janet Yellen steps down in 2018 could prove unnerving.

“Today’s low volatility is the calm before the storm and doesn’t reflect the real world in which companies are operating, or the major uncertainties that are developing,” said Paul Hodges, chairman at International eChem, a consultancy.

Another variable is the expectation that central banks will soon start unwinding their massive post-crisis stimulus measures, with unpredictable results.  One of the biggest risks seen lurking is the rise and growing influence on the world’s stock markets of passive funds, which aim to track rather than beat benchmarks and charge lower fees than their more actively-managed peers.

The proportion of stocks on the main U.S. benchmark equity index that are now owned by such passive investors has nearly doubled since the 2008 crisis to 37 percent.  But redemption pressures on large passive investors could exacerbate any market selloff.

Apple Inc (AAPL.O), a stock market darling, has a fifth of its outstanding stock held by index funds with Vanguard, BlackRock and State Street making up the top three holders, according to latest Thomson Reuters data.  The head of sales of a large British-based bond fund said some of its clients are trying to put together pools of money with which to snap up beaten-down stocks if a large emerging market-focused ETF is faced with sudden redemption pressures.

“We get a lot of queries on what are some of the risks that markets may be overlooking, and that is what keeps us up at night,” he said.

 

Reporting by Saikat Chatterjee and Vikram Subhedar, Graphic by Saikat Chatterjee and Ritvik Carvalho; Editing by Catherine Evans