You know the moment in a horror movie when the characters are going about their business and nothing bad has happened to them yet, but there seem to be ominous signs everywhere that only you, the viewer, notice?
That’s what watching global financial markets the last couple of weeks has felt like.
In a lot of ways, nothing looks particularly wrong. The S&P 500 was down 0.7 percent Wednesday, tumbling for a second consecutive session, but over all is down only about 5.5 percent from its early May high. The unemployment rate is at a five-decade low. With major companies nearly done releasing their first-quarter results, 76 percent had results above expectations.
But along the way, global bond prices have soared, driving interest rates down sharply. Ten-year Treasury bonds are yielding only 2.26 percent as of Wednesday’s market close, down nearly a full percentage point since November 2018. The outlook for inflation in the years ahead is falling as well, as are the prices of oil and other commodities.
Most significant, the fall in longer-term bond yields has not been matched by a fall in shorter-term rates. For example, a 30-day Treasury bill is yielding 2.35 percent — meaning you can earn more on your money tying it up for a month risk-free than you can tying it up for a full decade.
This is not normal. It is called an inverted yield curve, and historically it has been viewed as a sign of a recession in the offing. At a minimum, it indicates that bond investors believe the Federal Reserve will soon need to cut interest rates — in effect, that it overshot with those four rate increases last year.
There is also a soft underbelly to some of the good economic data of late. Orders for capital goods like business equipment fell 0.9 percent in April, suggesting companies may not be in an expansionary mood. The Institute for Supply Management’s index of activity at manufacturing companies fell sharply in the most recent reading, though it remained in expansion territory.
The financial markets don’t always tell a tidy little story about what is happening, but here’s a theory about reconciling the apparent calm in the economy with the many worrying signs.
The breakdown in trade negotiations with China and the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods are part of the story, but only a part.
Businesses have weathered escalating tariffs for two years now, and while tariffs can be costly, they do not need to wreck the economy. After all, prices for products fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, and market economies are pretty good at adjusting.
When the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries met in Vienna in December, it was in danger of imploding.
Oil prices had plunged. Member states Iran, Venezuela and Libya were refusing to cut production. Qatar had quit. And U.S. President Donald Trump was pressuring Saudi Arabia to keep prices low.
With negotiations teetering on the brink of failure, rescue came from an unlikely place—Russia, which isn’t even an OPEC member. President Vladimir Putin agreed to cut Russian oil production in league with OPEC, provided that Iran was allowed to keep pumping.
The degree of acrimony that pervaded that critical meeting, and the critical role Russia played in resolving the crisis, hasn’t previously been reported. What happened behind closed doors in December was a pivotal moment in Russia’s transformation from a nation that didn’t cooperate with OPEC at all to one that has become an indispensable partner.
Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih recently joked that he talks more with his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak than with some of his colleagues in the Saudi cabinet. “We met 12 times in 2018,” he said of Mr. Novak at a news conference in March.
At the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for May, Russia and Saudi officials will discuss whether to formalize what has been until now an temporary alliance.
For decades, the U.S. has embraced Saudi Arabia as one of its close geopolitical allies, selling it arms and encouraging its role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. In exchange, Washington has come to expect a stable supply of oil to global markets to help damp price spikes and to prevent harm to the U.S. economy.
With its new ally in Russia, Saudi Arabia is no longer beholden only to Washington.
Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has altered its longstanding, hands-off approach to the cartel. Mr. Trump has repeatedly tweeted for OPEC to boost output to drive oil prices down, and he has phoned the Saudi government directly asking the kingdom to open the taps.
“The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship plays a critical role in ensuring Middle East stability and maintaining maximum pressure against Iran,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The U.S.-Saudi relationship remains strong.”
The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last October created a fresh rift between the Saudi kingdom and the U.S.—and provided an opening for Russia to insert itself further into OPEC.
.. Oil prices had cratered in 2016 and didn’t look likely to rebound. The three men needed to orchestrate a deal to reduce crude output to lift global prices. Russia and OPEC agreed to cut production.
By the middle of last year, crude was soaring again, thanks to lower output from OPEC and Russia and renewed prospects for global economic growth. By the end of the year, however, amid a U.S.-China trade battle, the world’s economic outlook was dimming.
As the December OPEC meeting loomed, oil prices had plunged some 30% in six weeks. The Saudis needed unanimous agreement on proposed production cuts to shore up prices. Iran, already hobbled by U.S. sanctions that began in November, was reluctant to curb its output. Libya and Venezuela, with domestic troubles of their own, also were holdouts.
With the cartel about to meet in Vienna, Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor in the Persian Gulf, shocked global oil markets by announcing it was leaving OPEC. It was among a small group of member countries that felt overshadowed as the Saudi-Russia alliance grew stronger. OPEC has become “basically all about what [Prince Mohammed] and his buddy Putin want,” says a Qatari official.
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 1 They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world! 2
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. 3 They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!
After nineteen years of Putinism, during which power has been concentrated in the federal executive branch, none of these elections can have measurable policy consequences, but they serve as a barometer of the popular mood. In four regions, members of the ruling United Russia party failed to get fifty per cent of the vote and will face runoff elections. This is not exactly a trouncing—in the end, Kremlin-approved candidates are virtually guaranteed all of the ostensibly contested seats—but it is a significant sign of dissatisfaction.
.. During his first two terms as President, he enjoyed extreme economic luck: thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Russia was more prosperous than ever in its history. This kept the population satisfied and distracted, and when a crisis did arise, as it did the last time the government attempted pension reform, in 2005, the Kremlin was able to pour money on the fire. Now this is no longer an option: the Russian governmenthas used up its currency reserves, which is part of the impetus for the current attempt at pension reform.
.. Putin’s other tool of distraction has been war. Less than a year after taking office for the third time, in 2012, he launched a war with Ukraine, occupying Crimea. This fostered a sense of triumph and national unity that kept his popularity safely in the stratosphere for four years.
.. Russians are more worried than they used to be about almost everything, from rising inequality to environmental pollution and decaying morals. There is no war to take their minds off their concerns
.. When Putin is scared, which he undoubtedly is now, he reacts by attacking. This is a personality trait that he has owned in his autobiographical storytelling, and one that he exhibited in 2012, when, faced with mass protests, he launched a crackdown that created a population of political prisoners in Russia. There is nothing to stop him from doubling down now:
.. The suppression of dissent in Russia will probably intensify in the wake of last weekend’s protests, but that will not satisfy him fully. It may secure his power, but it will not repair his numbers. Only war can do that. All he needs is a worthy enemy, and a fitting propaganda campaign, to take people’s minds off their worries and make them feel a part of something great. Expect Russia’s neighbors, once again, to pay for the Kremlin’s instability.