Stock markets are usually good indicators of future economic conditions. Their savage downturn since the start of the year suggests that investors now feel a growth slowdown is almost inevitable.

Barrons (the major US investment paper) today highlights another very worrying development. It notes that ‘selling rallies aggressively is (now) more fruitful than buying every little dip’. This marks a complete change of behaviour by investors. Barrons suggests that the rationale is that now ‘overshoots tend to occur on the downside’ rather than on the upside.

The basis for the argument can be seen in the chart, which plots the relative performance of 5 main indices (the German DAX, UK FTSE 100, Shanghai Composite, US S&P500, Japan Nikkei) over the past month. All are down by around 15%, with Japan down over 20%.

These are major losses by any standard. Particularly at this time of year, when seasonal influences are strongly positive. And although rallies have taken place, these have soon given way to further falls. Last Friday, for example, news of the Bush stimulus package led to a major intra-day rally in the US, but the market still closed down. And today, more selling has taken place in Asia and Europe.

Unless something changes quickly, this synchronised downturn would imply that we are now in a fully-fledged global bear market. Strong rallies do occur in bear markets, just as corrections happen during bull markets. But they cannot disguise the fact that the overall trend has become negative.

In turn, this would suggest that chemical companies should not expect either that consumer demand will recover quickly, or that Asia will successfully ‘decouple’ its economy from western markets. They should also be very careful about credit risks, as if the economy does go into a slowdown, company defaults will rise.


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