The Confidence Game

The Confidence Game

If you own stocks, anywhere in the world, there’s a good chance that the markets’ wild ride this week upset your stomach. But, worried as you were, you probably felt some confidence that the US and European economies are relatively stable, that governments in those places know what they’re doing and are relatively transparent about it, and that markets would recover.


Now consider a day in the (not-so-distant) future when a market meltdown begins not on Wall Street but in China. Imagine further that when that day comes, China is the largest economy on earth (by some measures, it already is). Will you be as confident in China’s leadership and markets are you are in the US and Europe’s?

A few thoughts:

1. In China, all the big political and economic decisions are made behind closed doors by seven men — the Politburo Standing Committee. No one alive today has ever lived in a world where the largest economy on earth was governed in such secrecy.

2. Last week’s stock market rollercoaster started in part because of expectations that the US Federal Reserve will soon raise interest rates to keep the economy from overheating. Investors don’t like higher interest rates, but they know how the Fed works and what it wants to achieve. The Fed has a responsibility to explain its decisions. Imagine the uncertainty when investors are instead hanging on the words of China’s central bank, where decisions must be approved by politicians who feel no need to explain their actions.

3. Starting this year, Chinese stocks are included in the MSCI EM index, one of the largest indices of stocks from “emerging market” economies. Because many American pension funds hold the MSCI EM Index, they — and maybe you — now have direct exposure to China’s domestic stock market for the first time, even if you’re not aware of it.

4. Today, China’s economy appears strong, but many analysts say economic statistics produced in that country are more vulnerable to political manipulation, particularly at the local level, than stats from countries like the US, Germany, or Japan. In fact, several Chinese provincial governments admitted recently that they faked their GDP data for 2016. Investors shrugged off this news because they’re confident in smooth sailing for China’s economy. But what happens when the waters get choppy and investors get queasy?

5. Investors know that, in a crisis, China’s leaders will worry about political stability first and the credibility of state-generated information a distant second. So even if China produces accurate info, will panicky investors believe it? How long will it take for confidence to be restored?

Confidence is the fuel that powers economies forward — at the local, national, and global levels. Today, China and its economic engine inspire confidence. That may no longer be true on the day when real trouble shakes an economy governed by secretive leaders who care more about political survival than the credibility of the information they share with the world.

That day is coming.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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