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

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt