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Home > Business > Special

Gloom around the globe

Paran Balakrishnan | May 10, 2003

The Iraq War is over and so is the post-Saddam euphoria that propelled stock markets upwards for a few heady days. Suddenly the economic uncertainty that had been blamed on Saddam and the Iraqis has returned in full force.

The gloom-inducing jobless figures from America seem to have dispirited anyone who was hoping for a fast bounce back. As a result the markets are falling backwards with an unpleasant thump.

Now, it seems brutally clear that it will be a tough haul upwards, especially since the German, Japanese and US economies are all in the dumps. The rest of Europe, too, is chugging along at an extremely slow rate and, except in countries like Spain, there's no sign of any speeding up.

That's why stock markets across the world reacted gloomily as US jobless figures climbed. As the euro rose to its highest ever level against the dollar that plunged some markets into even deeper depression.

The reason: many European companies have depended on the weak euro to boost competitiveness and sell in the US. That means many European companies like Axa and Siemens will feel the pain because they do large chunks of business in the US. The euro has shot up by 21 per cent against the dollar during the last 12 months.

On Thursday, it was the same story in different corners of the world. The Nikkei started first and lost about 78 points closing at 8031. Then, the FTSE fell by 64 points to 3928 and suddenly its brief climb over the 4000 mark was forgotten. All the major European exchanges also dropped steeply.

Finally, the Americans put the seal on the universal depression when the Dow Jones Index lost 69 points and settled at 8491. However, that's not bad compared to the Nikkei and the other European markets.

It's still some 2000 points its way above the level when Federal Chief Alan Greenspan weighed in with his famous fusillade against 'irrational exuberance'. But the Dow is also a long way from its lifetime high of 11750.

A combination of factors drove the markets to despair this week. The US jobless figures seemed to confirm that an economic recovery isn't around the corner in the New World. More than 425,000 people signed on for unemployment benefits last week.

That's the 12th week that the jobless figure has stayed above 400,000. And, as long as those numbers remain high, consumers will stay away from stores and cash registers, further stalling an upturn.

Meanwhile, the German jobless figures also soared to a five-year high and that has resulted in a considerable amount of heartburn both in Germany and the European Union. It seems like a long time ago that Germany was the locomotive that pulled the rest of Europe behind it.

In fact, there have been only two regions in the world that were putting up a gravity-defying show and staying in an aggressive growth mode. That was China and South East Asia. Now China, hit by Sars is shutting schools and businesses.

And the South East Asians like the Singaporeans have been taking draconian steps to prevent the disease from spreading. Inevitably tourism from regions like India is down drastically.

Even hardy Indians who take these things in their stride have cancelled their shopping jaunts to Singapore. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is so far off the travel map that it isn't worth mentioning.

Will the sliding dollar help American exporters and pump a bit of life back into the country's economy? It seems much too early for such an effect to take place.

And there isn't any sign that tech spending is starting once again. For that companies need to have confidence that things are picking up, so most corporations are making do with their existing systems.

So, to sum up, with three weeks having past since the war, it looks like all that received wisdom that a fast, successful, conflict would set the stage for a rapid recovery in global economic and financial market sentiment was badly misplaced.

All that seems clear now is that there are going to be no quick fixes to the world's economic doldrums.

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