Why are the markets so calm about the US shutdown and debt ceiling debates?

The "Fear Index" is languishing at 17.

The government of the world’s largest economy is shut down and the current debt limit of $16.699 trn was expended in May. Since then the US Treasury has only managed to keep the show on the road by using what it calls "extraordinary measures" but even they will all have been exhausted by 17th October, (-ish).

It now looks increasingly likely that the two questions of passing the Continuing Resolution Bill to allow the government to keep spending money, and raising the debt ceiling, so that the US can repay principal and interest as they become due on current debt, and subsequently issue yet more IOU’s, will become co-mingled.

The trouble is that there is now a three party system in the States; Democrats, Republicans and the Tea Party, and the latter seem to have become almost impossible for House Speaker Boehner to rule, as evidenced by their insistence that the Continuing Resolution Bill was sent to the Senate only following the addition of amendments that would de-fund President Obama’s cherished Affordable Healthcare Act. Amendments that stood zero chance of ever getting through the Democratic controlled Senate.

The moderate wing of the Republican Party is now livid with the Tea Party-one gathers Republican Senators recently fired a volley of angry questions at prominent Tea Party member Ted Cruz, (he of the recent 21-hour filibuster on this matter), their main point being to ask what is his overall strategy, how did he ever think in a million years that he or the Republicans as a whole would come out of this in better shape for next year’s mid-term Congressional elections?

In the chilling words of Vanderbilt University public policy professor Bruce Oppenheimer, "The thing that's different about these Republicans, (the Tea Party), is their unwillingness to bargain," and  "I'm not sure if it's because they lack government experience or they've made such strong promises to their constituencies, but they've put their feet in cement and can't or won't move."

This will very probably end with Boehner leading enough Republicans into a deal to vote with Democrats to get the requisite legislation through, even if this contravenes a party policy known as the “Hastert rule” which prevents a bill getting to the floor that doesn’t command majority Republican support.

A further disturbing factor was the Treasury’s perhaps naïve assurance that in fact Oct 17th isn’t a firm deadline, as they can russle up another $30bn to keep things going to the end of the month.

What I find most chilling, however, is the markets insouciance towards the whole debate, especially the debt ceiling. The Vix Index of equity market volatility, the so-called "Fear Index", is languishing at 17, whereas it reached 48 during the last debt ceiling impasse in August 2011, as the S and P 500 Index fell 15 per cent in a matter of days. Admittedly simultaneously the Eurozone crisis had markets on the edge then, but one gets the distinct feeling that everyone now believes there will be eventual agreement, and sees any dip in prices as a chance to buy stocks, or is sitting comfortably overweight.

Markets always cause the most pain they possibly can; in a world where everyone thinks a solution will be found, but actually has no idea how, there is a distinct chance that before this is over the markets suddenly wake up to the gravity of the risks involved and suffer a very significant pull-back, if not a crash.

Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era