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When successful investors warn of a global market crash, we should all be nervous

Profits are so thin that the slightest pothole could cause a crash.

This year’s January sales seem to have extended to the world’s stock markets. A week in to 2016, you could buy the FTSE for 6 per cent less than on New Year’s Eve. It is the worst start to the year in at least two decades.

What is behind these New Year blues? As ever, when it comes to the markets, there is an embarrassment of plausible culprits and a cacophony of self-styled experts willing to tell you what they are. This time, however, you can also turn to someone whose hard-earned credibility is not in doubt.

Martin Taylor is probably the best-known investor you have never heard of. A legend among the trading cognoscenti, he has returned over 20 per cent a year to his investors for more than two decades. On 4 January, he announced that he was closing his Nevsky Fund, arguing that we are heading for a combination of catastrophes that even the most skilful investor will be unable to avoid. His assessment makes fascinating reading. The root of the challenge that Taylor sees facing the world economy is simple. In December 2015, the US Federal Reserve raised its policy rate from near zero for the first time since December 2008. It is likely to be the start of a cycle. The direct effect is that the cost of borrowing dollars is rising. The indirect effect is that the dollar is strengthening on the foreign exchanges. After seven years in the bargain basement, the greenback is becoming expensive again.

Interest-rate hikes are always a shock to the system but they have happened numerous times before over the past few decades: so why should they be such a problem now? The answer is that, this time, the situation is different in three crucial respects. First, interest rates have been stuck at unusually low levels for an unusually long period of time. (In Britain, the Bank of England’s rate has been 0.5 per cent since 2009.) Borrowers throughout the economy have got used to easy money; a generation of homeowners and investors has never seen anything else. After more than seven years of cheap debt, the shock of the old will be all the worse.

Second, a terrible irony is at work in the corporate sector. Companies have responded to the lacklustre recovery from the global financial crisis with Protestant virtue, cutting costs and sweating assets, to make do now in the hope of better times ahead. Yet the perverse result is that even those companies that have not gorged themselves on free money are ill-prepared for the end of the cheap dollar era. Profit margins are so thin and balance sheets so stretched that the slightest pothole may cause a crash.

If we are lucky, that possibility will not materialise. Taylor’s third fear already has. In today’s financially globalised world, the US dollar is the currency not just of America but of half the countries on the map. Borrowing in US dollars by companies in emerging markets stood at a staggering $4trn as of June 2015. Rising US interest rates will put the squeeze on them, too.

By far the most important participant in this global dollar economy is China. Its companies have borrowed over $1trn. Now, just when the Chinese economy is slowing, its debts are becoming more onerous as the dollar becomes more expensive.

If that all adds up to a dismal outlook for the world economy, Taylor’s verdict on the state of the financial markets is perhaps even more worrying. Whereas many of us find William Goldman’s verdict on the movie business – “Nobody knows anything” – remarkably apt when it comes to economic predictions, few would bet against an assessment of the financial markets from a man with Taylor’s experience.

The successful co-ordination of modern capitalist economies rests on three critical supports. The first is reliable data – about company performance and macroeconomic activity – on which people can base their decisions. The second is the transparency and logical coherence of the frameworks used by powerful non-market actors: central bankers, politicians and regulators. The third is well-functioning stock, bond and currency markets, which generate prices that provide true signals to investors, businesses and governments.

Today, Taylor argues, all three supports seem ramshackle. China is the world’s second-largest economy and the decisive market for most emerging economies, yet its own leaders deride its macroeconomic statistics as unreliable. The old theories of monetary policy were discredited by the crash and nothing has yet replaced them, and so no one fully understands what central bankers are doing. The financial markets, meanwhile, are dominated by computer-driven trading. They have become a postmodern parody of themselves, in which prices are determined not by economic fundamentals but by the behaviour of other prices.

With an economic and financial-market outlook such as this, the New Year hangover for stocks hardly comes as a surprise. Yet there is a germ of optimism amid this well-founded gloom. In Taylor’s analysis, there is barely a mention of any of the structural economic challenges that have been exercising policymakers recently: the secular stagnation, the slowdown in productivity, the threat of technological unemployment, and so on. The problems that he foresees are, almost without exception, financial.

If this diagnosis is correct (and, in large part, I think it is), it is a reason for hope. We are not condemned to crisis or stagnation by epochal forces outside our control. It is the financial system – rules and institutions of our making – that has gone awry. The hardware of the global economy is in reasonable shape. It is only the software that has become corrupt. As such, it can be debugged. The alternative is a crash.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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