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Nine Signposts for Navigating Market Volatility

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”
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The return of market volatility last week shouldn’t have come as a big surprise given the unusual economic, political and geopolitical fluidity around the world. The past year has been characterized by occasional spikes in volatility, either in the form of sharp asset-price gains or, as was the case last week, acute falls. And 2016 promises a lot more of the same, which should force investors to pay greater attention to the dynamics of potential tipping points.

The central question is not whether market volatility is on the rise; it is. Rather, the main uncertainty is whether these occasional spikes will prove both temporary and reversible, and, in particular, whether injections of liquidity from both public and private sources will continue to quickly stabilize market conditions, and for how long.

Here are nine aspects of the volatility question, which has both financial and economic implications:

  1. Bouts of volatility are to be expected, given rather sluggish global economic fundamentals, national politics that are heavily influenced by anti-establishment movements and a number of geopolitical instabilities and threats. The most recent financial market instability was accentuated by the Fed's decision to hike rates on Wednesday, which confirmed the divergent monetary policies undertaken by the world’s most-influential central banks. Also playing a role were concerns about market accidents following the news that at least two corporate bond funds had limited investor redemptions.
  2. These bouts of volatility are amplified by fragile market liquidity caused by the rather limited appetite (and regulatory ability) of broker-dealers to provide their balance sheet in a counter-cyclical manner. This phenomenon gets worse as these intermediaries get ready to close their books for the year.
  3. Excessive volatility, especially when associated with sharp downward movements in asset prices, is detrimental to the real economy for three reasons: By increasing risk aversion among many investors and thus reducing the flow of capital to productive activities. By threatening the “volatility repression” approach that central banks have used to encourage greater consumption and investment. By risking the disorderly deleveraging and, in some cases, liquidation of over-extended investors. And through the ensuing threat of financial “sudden stops.”
  4. Concerns about excessive volatility are a lot greater when markets approach tipping points. Three market segments -- energy, high yield bonds and emerging-market currencies -- already are unhinged. Others could follow if bouts of volatility and illiquidity become more frequent, sharper and harder to reverse relatively quickly.
  5. With economic and corporate fundamentals struggling to improve quickly enough, the task of stabilization has repeatedly fallen to liquidity injections from two sources: central banks, including through the use of large-scale asset purchase programs; and companies, which have deployed cash from their balance sheets to pursue share repurchases, pay higher dividends and carry out mergers and acquisitions.
  6. Whenever adverse volatility is apparent, some market participants are quick to call for the central bank to step in to restore calm. That occurred Friday when some suggested the Fed should reverse the 25 basis point interest rate hike it had implemented just two days earlier.
  7. The Fed is in no hurry to reverse course. In fact, it is much more likely to hike interest rates again then it is to cut them. Although other central banks -- including the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan and People's Bank of China -- will press harder on the stimulus accelerator, the now-divergent stance of global monetary policy makers will provide less support to asset price repression overall. As a result, more of the burden of stabilization will fall to the deployment of corporate liquidity.
  8. This configuration is a lot less supportive of financial markets, which will operate in a higher volatility regime -- notwithstanding continued liquidity injections from companies and central banks, even if these are at a lower level globally.
  9. With global growth continuing to slow, and as some systemically important emerging economies struggle to fully stabilize, we should not expect economic and corporate fundamentals to play a sufficiently deterministic stabilizer role for asset markets – and that is without taking into account the effects of national and geopolitical developments.

Financial markets are now transitioning from a world in which real and perceived liquidity injections have effectively repressed volatility to a new operating regime. As a result, the question for 2016 and beyond is not whether volatility bouts will be more frequent and, in some cases, more violent than in the last few years. They will be. The challenge will be in monitoring carefully the tipping points for various market segments, along with related price overshoots and undue asset-class contagion.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net