There are a number of potential triggers to a new crisis.
The first potential trigger may be equity prices.
The US stock market runs into trouble. A stronger dollar affects US exports and foreign earnings. Emerging market weakness affects businesses in the technology, aerospace, automobile, consumer products and luxury product industries. Currency devaluations combined with excess capacity, driven by debt fuelled over-investment in China, maintain deflationary pressures reducing pricing power. Lower oil prices reduce earnings, cash flow and asset values of energy producers. Overinflated technology and bio-tech stocks disappoint.
Earnings and liquidity pressures reduce merger activity and stock buybacks which have supported equity values. US equity weakness flows into global equity markets.
The second potential trigger may be debt markets. Heavily indebted energy companies and emerging market borrowers face increased risk of financial distress.
According to the Bank of International Settlements, total borrowing by the global oil and gas industry reached US$2.5 trillion in 2014, up 250 percent from US$1 trillion in 2008.
The initial stress will be focused in the US shale oil and gas industry which is highly levered with borrowings that are over three times gross operating profits. Many firms were cash flow negative even when prices were high, needing to constantly raise capital to sink new wells to maintain production. If the firms have difficulty meeting existing commitments, then decreased available funding and higher costs will create a toxic negative spiral.
A number of large emerging market borrowers, such as Brazil’s Petrobras, Mexico’s Pemex and Russia’s Gazprom and Rosneft, are also vulnerable. These companies increased leverage in recent years, in part due to low interest rates to finance significant operational expansion on the assumption of high oil prices.
These borrowers have, in recent years, used capital markets rather than bank loans to raise funds, cashing in on demand from yield hungry investors. Since 2009, Petrobras, Pemex and Gazprom (along with its eponymous bank) have issued US$140 billion in debt. Petrobras alone has US$170 billion in outstanding debt. Russian companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft and major banks have sold US$244 billion of bonds. The risk of contagion is high as institutional and retail bond investors worldwide are exposed.
A third possible trigger may be problems in the banking system fed by falling asset prices and non-performing loans. European banks have around €1.2 trillion in troubled loans. Chinese and Indian bank problem loans are also high.
A fourth potential trigger may be changes in liquidity conditions exacerbate stress. Since 2009, asset prices have been affected by the central banks’ attempted reflation. Today, as much as US$200-250 billion in new liquidity each quarter may be needed to simply maintain asset prices. However, the world is entering a period of asynchronous monetary policy, with divergences between individual central banks.
The US Federal Reserve is not adding the liquidity it did between 2009 and 2014. While the Bank of Japan and European Central Banks continue to expand their balance sheets, it may not be sufficient to support asset prices.
Falling commodity prices also reduces global liquidity. Since the first oil shock, petro-dollar recycling, the surplus revenues from oil exporters, has been an essential component of global capital flows providing financing, boosting asset prices and keeping interest rates low. A prolonged period of low oil prices will reduce petrodollar liquidity and may necessitate sales of foreign investments.
Declines in global liquidity driven by falling petrodollar liquidity and emerging market currency reserves affect asset prices and interest rates globally.
A fifth potential trigger will be currency volatility and the currency wars that are not, at least according to policy makers, under way. A stronger dollar may weaken US growth. But a weaker dollar means a stronger Euro and a stronger Yen affecting the prospects of the Euro-zone and Japan.
A sixth potential trigger may be weakness in global economic activity. One factor will be the weaker energy sector. The belief that lower oil prices will lead to an increase in growth may be misplaced, with the problems of producers offsetting the benefits for consumers. Approximately US$1 trillion of new investment may be uneconomic at lower oil prices, especially if they continue for an extended period of time. When combined with the reduction in planned investment in other resource sectors as a result of lower prices, the effect on economies will be significant.
There are also increasing problems in emerging markets. Growth is slowing as a result of slower export demand from developed markets, unsustainable debt and unaddressed structural weaknesses. For commodity producing nations, lower revenues will weaken economic performance triggering a rerating. The problems will spread across emerging markets.
Slowing growth, low inflation and financial problems will refocus attention on the level and sustainability of sovereign debt. The unresolved public debt issues of Japan and the US will attract renewed investor scrutiny. In Europe, the sovereign debt problems will affect core nations such as Italy and France.
A seventh potential trigger may be a loss of faith in policy makers. A critical appraisal of government and central bank policies and find them wanting. The artificial financial stability engineered by low interest rates and QE is undermined by concern about the long term effects of the policies and the lack of self-sustaining recovery.
A final trigger is political stress. With existing political elites seen as captured by businesses, banks and the wealthy, electorates are turning to political extremes in search of representation and solutions. The resulting policy uncertainty and inconsistency further suppresses recovery. The geopolitical situation has also deteriorated sharply.
In reality, it will not be a single factor but an unexpected concatenation of events, that result in a financial crisis, driving global contagion and an economic slowdown.