Market limbo

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 23, 2012 20:40 hrs

The world’s three economic engines are not pulling together. China is up. Europe is down. The United States is slow. That suggests market nerves will stay on edge.

European investors have clutched eagerly at the latest China data - and with reason. November’s purchasing managers index for manufacturing has shown expansion for the first time since October 2011.

Growth may be weak, but at least it is positive. Overall output and new export orders expanded. This indicates China is stabilising. The much-feared hard landing still looks less likely than a continuation of growth at a lower, safer pace.

US data is also reassuring. The most recent manufacturing survey showed a pickup. Leading indicators suggest the American economy will improve next year - provided the United States avoids its infamous fiscal cliff. Recent employment data are also encouraging.

But the worst euro zone services data for 40 months muddy the global picture. What should trouble investors is that weakness is now not confined to the periphery.

Germany is suffering from weak demand in its neighbours and a loss of confidence in its own: business activity has declined for 15 of the past 16 months. Even the German economy now looks likely to contract in the fourth quarter.

The profound problem is that the periphery’s crisis has not been overcome and risks spreading to the core. The latest Greek talks have left the country with unsustainable debt. Spain, Italy and Portugal are in recession.

So the outlook for the global economy is looking better than Europe’s. The European drag and the US fiscal cliff are stubborn worries.

If both were overcome, a convincing, broad-based recovery will bring equity gains and slaughter for safe-haven bonds. For now, markets remain stuck in limbo.

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