RORO: Risk on, risk off

Assets are moving in lockstep with each other, which is making life very hard for traders indeed.

The phenomenon of RORO – risk on, risk off – is nicely illustrated in two graphs from HSBC, via alphaville:

What you are seeing is two maps of correlations between various assets, in 2005 and 2012. Dark red means the two assets are strongly positively correlated, dark blue means they are strongly negatively correlated, and turquoise, green and yellow means no real correlation either way.

In 2005, most assets were roughly uncorrelated. Some, like the NASDAQ, S&P500 and Dow Jones, moved in tandem, as did the four key European markets, and the key sovereign and investment-grade bonds. But for the most part, different assets gained and lost value in an uncorrelated manner.

Come 2012, and everything changed. In the top left are all the assets which get stronger in the good times – mostly indexes like the FTSE, but also a few currencies and copper. In the bottom right, there are the assets used to hedge bets when times are rough: the sovereign bonds, the Yen, and right down at the bottom, the US Dollar.

The former class are the risk-on assets; those investors buy when they want to take on risk to make money. The latter are the risk-off assets; those which they buy to get themselves some stability.

The simplified reason for the change is the bimodal nature of responses to crises. When things go wrong, one of two things happen: Governments step in and save the day, or they don't. Quantitative easing is one example of this, but so are bank bailouts, expansions of the "firewall", and so on. If they happen, every risk-on asset rises; if they don't, everything falls.

For those interested, a deeper examination of what RORO means for markets is given by Bryce Elder over at the FT, but the overall problem with the phenomenon is that it reduces trading to a bet on up or down. As a result, traders hate it. As Elder writes, instead of being able to do their job well, by focusing on the fundamentals of each asset they buy (asking questions like "is copper going to be in demand because of growing infrastructure demands"), "each day’s profit or loss is determined to a large degree by results of a sovereign bond auction or comments by a central banker".

Until the crisis is over, though, RORO is sticking around, so investors had better learn to live with it.

Risk on: A trader at the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.