Panic stalks the Square Mile

In the tumultuous first week of August, the international markets woke up to the reality that extrem

During the stock-market panic of autumn 2008, we lived for the weekends. We were renting a cottage near Banbury in Oxfordshire and we would blast up the M40 on Friday nights, wend through the misty streets of our nearest village and then down into a dell, where the house nestled. An hour later, with our little boy tucked away in bed, I'd sit at my computer and watch the US markets until they closed.

Even when I knew that the traders in New York were stumbling from their offices to the bars of Broadway, I couldn't relax. It had become common practice for bad news to be released after the closing bell on Wall Street. Friday-night press releases - whether they were gloomy updates from struggling banks, a grim report from the Federal Reserve or a surprise downgrade from rating agencies - gave traders a couple of days to digest information before getting back to their desks on Monday. Those weekends, while walking through the bright clouds of falling leaves, I would try to get some perspective on the latest financial catastrophe, try to see the markets with a clarity that I wasn't afforded in the white-knuckle working week.

I thought back to that time as I sat up late on Sunday 7 August, trying to make sense of the negative headlines that had caused the stock-market jitters of late July to turn into an early-August rout. The trader's job is one of pattern recognition: to sift through information and judge between the incidental and the meaningful. The best in the business seem to make these judgements at the level of instinct. No mantic powers were required in the first week of August to tell that the news was bad. What traders, analysts and economists are now trying to work out is if this crisis is merely a big bump on the road to recovery, or a sign that the much-feared double dip is finally here.

As recently as 7 July, the FTSE was edging towards 6,100. By the end of 5 August, it sat at under 5,250. We entered correction territory - a fall of over 10 per cent from recent highs - on most major exchanges and, despite some decent US employment data, declines rivalled those that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The Dow Jones index staged a brief rally late that afternoon as Silvio Berlusconi announced measures aimed at liberalising Italy's economy. With the echo of the closing bell still ringing on Wall Street, however, Standard & Poor's (S&P) dramatically stripped the US of its AAA rating for the first time in history.

As long as the US retains its AAA status at the two other big rating agencies (Moody's and Fitch), S&P's move is largely symbolic. Banks and insurers will still be able to treat US treasury bonds as AAA-rated for risk management purposes and the downgrade will have only a marginal effect on borrowing costs. That doesn't mean we should ignore it.

Many will question the validity of S&P's move, given the tarnished reputations of such agencies after their decision to give ridiculously inflated ratings to sub-prime securitisations in the run-up to the financial crisis. The US government has highlighted flaws in S&P's calculations, pointing to a $2.1trn mistake. Yet S&P has, for once, got things right. The drawn-out relief rally that has taken place since early 2009 reflects the concerted, unilateral action taken by governments across the world to address the credit crisis. The over-leveraged financial system was bailed out by politicians, who realised that the only way to keep banks alive was to assume the liabilities of those in the worst shape, while pumping enormous amounts of liquidity into the markets to resuscitate the rest. The plan worked and stock markets heaved a communal sigh of relief.

Fearful symmetry

The political decisiveness of those mid-crisis days was a canard. In the weeks leading up to the S&P downgrade, there was a ghastly trans­atlantic symmetry as US politicians indulged in shameful point-scoring over the (usually routine) raising of the debt ceiling and Europe shilly-shallied over its response to the seemingly endless problems in Greece. Only debt of the most robust credit quality should be rated AAA. The US came within days of defaulting on its bonds as Republicans and Democrats played games of economic brinkmanship. In downgrading the US rating, S&P merely acknowledged that an investment in the country's debt risks falling foul of political intransigence.

Meanwhile, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, was correct to question the "systemic capacity of the euro area to respond to the evolving crisis" but this was unhelpful. The European Financial Stabilisation Facility - set up to bail out struggling euro-area governments - needs to be bigger than the current €440bn (£385bn) but any major increase will be resisted strongly by Germany. Italian and Spanish bond yields rocketed, pushed higher by a lack of direction at the European Central Bank (ECB), which initially held back from including their debt in its asset purchase scheme.

In the first week of August, the markets woke up to the reality that the financial crisis, which they had thought was behind them, had merely been transferred from the private sector to public balance sheets. Where companies led by supposedly decisive CEOs used to be the big borrowers, the debt is now in the hands of governments run by infighting bureaucrats. In the wake of the S&P downgrade, China called for the US to get over its "debt addiction". As a holder of over $2trn of US debt, China, by far the country's largest creditor, has a right to make its voice heard. More worrying for the US was a suggestion at the end of the press release that China might stop or scale down its purchase of treasuries. The S&P downgrade is not world-changing in itself, but if China uses it as an excuse to alter its asset allocation or push for the replacement of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, China's reference to the US as "the world's sole superpower" would end up carrying some heavy irony.

The last time stocks hit the lows seen on the morning of 5 August was towards the end of August last year, when a combination of concerns over European peripherals (Ireland and Portugal specifically), Chinese inflation and poor US economic data hit investor confidence. The old trader adage "Sell in May and go away" (that is, hold only cash from May to October) would have been particularly useful this year. The rationale behind the maxim is sound: with investors on holiday, any moves in the market are affected by illiquidity. Where, in a fully functioning market, one would expect buyers and sellers to remain more or less balanced, in the summer months there is no one around to stand in the way of a rout. Last year's August slump was largely owing to this summer sluggishness.

The situation this time around is rather different. Because of the ongoing wrangle over the US debt ceiling, traders have been chained to their desks for the past few weeks. Many of those who did get away have been called back from their trips to the Côte d'Azur. Volumes have been heavy recently. On 5 August, US stocks experienced the highest levels of trading since the "flash crash" of May 2010, when computer-driven, high-frequency-trading hedge funds caused a correction of nearly 1,000 points in the Dow Jones index. Then, it was a technical fault in the market that caused the enormous trading volumes. This time, investors are scared and are selling out of all but the most defensive stocks.

Another sure sign of fear is the record volume of options trades that went through on 4 and 5 August as investors attempted to put in place hedges against further market turmoil. Panic once again stalks the Square Mile and traders are struggling to make sense of a complex picture. Usually, in times of market turmoil, gold rises in price; but when panic really sets in, the highest-quality assets suffer.

Some of the best trades of my career were made in the mad days between October 2008 and February 2009, when hedge funds were scrambling to raise money to meet margin calls (a requirement to post cash against the falling value of the fund's assets). Because it was impossible to sell anything but the most liquid assets (the "family silver", as it was described), those of us who did have cash to spend were able to pick up extraordinary bargains, with discounts of anywhere up to 70 per cent of face value. This time, gold is the "family silver". It is always useful to watch the gold price - it's a pretty good sign of where investors are on the greed/fear continuum - and falls in gold in times of panic suggest a capitulation of confidence. If you believe Warren Buffett's mantra of "Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful", it's a good signal to start picking up bargains.

The big question for traders and portfolio managers is whether we have experienced a short, sharp shock and should be buying selectively or whether we are at the beginning of a new bear market, which would entail an overhauling of asset allocations. The picture looks bleak. If we are entering a double-dip recession, investment strategy will be a matter of quick thinking and guesswork - but there are obvious approaches traders could take and a few likely developments to keep in mind.

1 Equity exposures should be reduced for all but the most defensive stocks. Pharmaceutical companies, basic household and consumer goods should be held.
2 Currency investment will focus on a new breed of solvent nations with stable political and economic systems. The Singaporean dollar, the Norwegian krone and the Australian dollar will join the yen and the Swiss franc as the main safe-haven currencies.
3 We should not rule out dramatic inflation driven by governments attempting to inflate away the unsustainable levels of debt on their balance sheets. Already, there is talk of further quantitative easing in the US. Although everything points to a bubble in the gold price, it remains one of the few sure-fire ways of hedging against inflation.
4 Diversification is still key. A portfolio with a good spread of asset classes (including commodities, private equity and hedge funds) and geographies (with attention to Asia and South America) will - with luck - ride the storm.

Back to reality

As traders returned to their desks on Monday 8 August, it appeared that a weekend's contemplation had failed to lift the gloom. After following Asian stocks lower, the FTSE briefly rallied into positive territory. This window of optimism prompted Nick Clegg to claim that the ECB's buying of Italian and Spanish bonds was "calming the markets". He was wrong.

As Wall Street futures plunged, the FTSE gave up its modest gains and slumped towards the 5,000 level. Gold hit a record high. Crude oil dived. With unrest on the streets mirroring the turmoil in the markets, it is impossible to say how bad things will get from here.

Following Lehman's collapse, it felt as if all of the certainties had been stripped from the markets, as if there was nothing between us and financial Armageddon. It feels like that again. Without bold intervention from the governments at the heart of this crisis, traders will be looking back on the weekends of the 2008 crash with misty-eyed nostalgia. Back then, it felt like the end; now, we know that it was just the beginning.

Alex Preston is the author of "This Bleeding City" (Faber & Faber, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror