08.04.11

Wall Street Is Irrelevant

Markets crashed Thursday because Europe looks sick and the U.S. looks feeble. Money manager Zachary Karabell on why it’s developing countries that will carry us out of this mess.

Carnage on Wall Street came fast and swift Thursday, triggered in part by a raft of European selling on the heels of less-than-reassuring remarks by the president of the European Central Bank. But that alone can’t account for a day that saw stocks down almost 5 percent—the worst day since the nasty days of February 2009.

As someone who manages money for clients, I can say that I wasn’t fully prepared for such a drop, or at least not in one day. I have been cautious for some time, as sentiment has turned negative about everything from the global economy to the fate of the United States in post-debt-deal land. Even two-plus years after the meltdown, the psyche of the financial class remains fragile, and Thursday showed that what happens anywhere in the world will ultimately reverberate everywhere in the world. Thursday's selling was indiscriminate, programmatic, and undoubtedly made a few people big money as the vast majority swallowed losses.

And yet, while I claim no particular crystal ball insight on whether the next move is 5 percent down or 5 percent up, I can see that a global system is emerging increasingly anchored by what used to be called the “emerging markets” and hobbled by what used to be called the “developed world.” These are and have always been coupled, and too much weakness in one cannot be readily offset by too much weakness in the other. Now, it’s just reversed.

China, even a slightly-slowing China, has been a source of growth for a Brazil that sells it iron ore, a Chile and Peru that provides copper, an Australia that sells a whole suit of base metals, a Canada that does the same, a sub-Saharan Africa that provides agricultural commodities, and even an Indonesia and a Vietnam that are becoming sources of lower cost labor for a domestic market.

And then there is India, more insulated from the turbulent global financial markets—by design—not as sexy as its northern neighbor but still messily knitting together a democracy of affluence and poised to lead, along with others.

The turmoil in financial markets of the past years has been a developed world phenomenon, and this recent vertiginous move originates from the oldest center of wealth, Europe. The irony of course is that even a dysfunctional Europe remains rich beyond the wildest dreams of humanity throughout the ages, and yet its collective inability to channel capital to peripheral nations, such as Greece and Portugal, threatens that experiment.

So where does this sell-off leave us? The panoply above is vital—because it indicates that there is no cliff off of which the global economy is about to plunge, despite the blathering of pessimistic talking heads.

Yes, there is and will continue to be a risk of collapse; the events of 2008-2009 showed that we don’t have a safety net for our interconnectivity, and that is a real risk. But we do live in a much less levered world, and one in which there is a level of confidence, albeit new and untested, in the world beyond the reach of Wall Street and the capitals of Europe, to say nothing of the forgotten behemoth Japan.

Again, you’d be a fool to make a definitive market call for today or next week, but it’s hard to panic about a system that thrives where it used to lag and lags where it used to thrive. Those realities meet on the balance sheets of thousands of global companies who have been reporting just that for the past two years—booming abroad, treading water at home. This stock sell-off has little to do with profits, and everything to do with the relentless need for capital in Europe, plus an American investing class that is only slowly awakening to the fact that yes, this time it’s different.

What happens anywhere in the world will ultimately reverberate everywhere in the world.

Nothing in this story has changed in the 10 percent move in the markets over the past weeks. The debt debate provided a distraction and in some ways may have confirmed just how stuck the United States is, just as the continuing credit crisis in Europe is doing the same. In this, there is only one thing relatively clear: Barring complete systemic collapse, Apple will continue to sell millions of iPads and iPhones, and China will continue to plow ahead. They have done so without much help from the European Central Bank or from Congress. And they will continue to do so.

Meanwhile, this is a storm, no doubt, but one—in the context of massive global liquidity—that moves quickly. The whipsaw can and does go up with almost as much speed as it goes down—recall the snap back from the lows of March of 2009. Traders will scoff that there is any rhyme or reason in the markets; they’ll just turn to their spreadsheet and charts, and hedge accordingly.

But there is some rhyme, and—at the end of the day—there is some reason. This sell-off speaks to the continuing anxiety that a world not led by the United States and Europe and Japan is a world adrift. The smart money should bet that this swoon isn’t based on what we can see, but rather a fear of the unknown and the new. Welcome to the 21st century.