Debunking the Myth of Decoupling Global Markets

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Includes: EEM, EPP, GUR, ILF
by: Max Fraad Wolff

The last week has seen contagious and discontinuous market swoons rile global investors, policy makers and pundits. US, European and Asian markets have delinked, re-linked, de-linked and tumbled. The only consistent trend is down, down, down. Multiple theories have been fed through the meat grinder with the allocations they inspired. Hundreds of billions in paper wealth has been transformed into fuel for a raging fear inferno. Of course this will not last forever. Time will salve wounds and leading firms and prudent long-term plays will eventually emerge. Our first order of business must be to understand what is actually happening. The first casualty of fear is perspective. Let's try to zoom out, take in the action and figure out what is going on.

For the last three years non-US equity market's returns have handily outperformed US returns. This is compounded by the prolonged slide in the Dollar. Since trouble began to dramatically unfold in the summer of 2007, many developing markets continued to trend higher. The growth in Brazil, India, China and Russia- called BRIC-has been spectacular over the past few years. As a US led global slow-down loomed these traditionally delicate emerging markets continued to outperform. If we use broad ETF (exchange traded funds) as proxies for emerging market performance, we see clearly that these markets have been doing better than the US- even before adjustment is made for increases in their currencies against the US Dollar. In the below chart ILF is the Latin America ETF, EPP is Asia ex-Japan, GUR is Emerging Europe and GSPCX represents the S&P 500.

Part and parcel of this outperformance has been belief that these economies are poised for rising international import and new era growth. IMF data make clear that in 2007, India and China accounted for more global growth than the US. I don't doubt that the future global economy will be far less US centric. I don't doubt that GDP growth will be more rapid in the emerging markets over many of the coming years. I do doubt they can magically delink from trouble in the US and Western Europe. The US, Western Europe and Japan still account for over 50% of world GDP and over 70% global market capitalization. Part of the carnage of this week has been the realization that de-linking theories are de-linked from history, economic analysis and common sense.

At the same time as this decoupling fantasy was hit, further fallout from US financial and debt loss overhang became clear. The slide toward recession in America gained momentum as Treasury Secretary Paulson and President Bush pushed fiscal policy stimulus and further weak corporate earnings were announced. Growth slowdowns call into question high energy prices, commodity price highs and asset bottom feeding. We are clearly not done with credit related problems and attendant economic weakness in the US. This added fuel to fear's fire and quickly spread to Europe. Fears of further losses from credit market turmoil and asset write downs riled England, France, Germany and beyond. Lower euro-zone growth estimates and downside risk awareness in Europe's markets led to volume asset sales. Investors have been selling in Asia, Europe and the US at different rates for different but related reasons for the last week. World Central banks- save the US Federal Reserve- have not responded for fear of stoking inflationary pressures and being seen as narrowly subservient to financial markets. Thus, there has been a delinking of coordinated central bank liquidity policy as global markets melt down. The loss of concerted action by central bankers has added more fuel to the fires.

Thus, asset prices are presently burning down. Price movements have been bizarre since Friday January 18, 2008. Normal correlations and lock step movements in global markets have come unglued. Asian shares trade differently in NY and Hong Kong. European shares trade differently in Asia, New York and Europe. The divergence of course means that market openings are expected to price heavy action elsewhere and influence tomorrow's action simultaneously. The first sign of calming will be movement toward harmony across markets' direction and magnitude of change. I will be scanning the smoky horizon for coupling of market movement.