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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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