Syria has finally seeped into financial markets. It's horrific

Wall Street's "fear gage" up 40 per cent.

Syria. It’s seeped into national politics, public life, and, lately, social media. But this week, as the taboo word “intervention” is used for the first time, Syria has finally seeped into financial markets. And its effect is horrific.

A quick run through the financial headlines and you get the idea: The FTSE 100 is off about 0.5pc at 6,408, the FTSE Asia Pacific index is down 1.6 per cent, the CBOE Vix volatility index (which the FT calls "Wall Street’s fear gauge") is 40 per cent higher than the start of August. The Indian stock market is off 1.1 per cent, 8 per cent since the start of the month, as the rupee continues to fall.  Indonesia’s rupiah is at a fresh four-year low and Turkey’s lira is also suffering. Japan’s Nikkei 225 is down 1.5 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng down 1.6 per cent.

Underlying these falls is a rush to that old commodity – oil. "Oil volatility" had almost become a by-word to describe financial markets of the 70s and 80s as developed nations thought that blasting water into their sovereign rocks – fracking – would put an end to it. But no, when it comes to the Middle East, oil is key and today its prices are at a two year high. The WTI advanced to $112.24, the highest since May 2011, and Brent oil climbed 0.7 percent to $115.16, after reaching $117.34.

The price of gold has also surged this week – the word "intervention" being, for some, a war cry to seize safe assets.

But while financial markets get hysterical over the possible military intervention in Syria and the effects on oil, consider the scene on the ground. Although Syria’s economy has long been shot, oil never really formed a part of it. Before sanctions stopped the pumps, most of the country’s oil fields were in the East of the country, along the Euphrates, nowhere near the fighting that continues between Damascus and Aleppo and along Lebanese and Turkish borders. Should the Syrian civil war spill well beyond these borders, it shouldn’t matter to the oil market as neither are these countries significant producers.

While major oil pipelines ring Syria, none actually go through the country. Likewise with Syria’s coast, which, when it was deprived of Beirut during the Sykes–Picot Agreement, has never been a maritime trader.

Further still, should neighbouring trade routes, such as the Sumed or Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines be put at jeopardy, there is a high chance that Saudi Arabia will lead the charge of OPEC countries to stabilise prises by increasing production – just as they did with Libya two years ago.     

So why now and why oil? Are commodity traders so globally naive as to still believe that "the Middle East=oil"? Or, maybe the word "intervention" triggers an unknowing array of financial algorithms to sell dodgy assets?

But what is happening now in the financial markets is so large that, even if the answer is "yes" to these two questions, there are larger forces at play. After the aforementioned financial chaos, it seems that markets are now predicting what many of us have thought for a while, that this conflict, stirred by intervention, is going to be much larger than simply "Syria".

Markets, to emphasis, are taking on board what William Hague said last week: "What's happening now in the Middle East is the most important event of the 21st Century so far even compared to the financial crises we have been through...it will take years and maybe decades to play out".

Financial markets get hysterical. Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.