Indifference to calamities scary
GEOPOLITICAL risk appears to have lost its ability to shock and awe global investors for now.
On Thursday, when news hit during Wall Street's trading hours of the shocking crash of Malaysia Airlines' Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, the S&P 500 Index lost 1.3 per cent, as United States stocks suffered a knee-jerk sell-off.
This was following fears that the Ukrainian conflict might escalate.
But the following day, Wall Street staged a strong rebound, with the S&P rallying 1 per cent, as the severe risk aversion triggered by the plane crash faded away.
The same indifferent reaction was encountered with other recent calamitous events, which would once have caused investors to abandon the stock market in fear and flee to safe-haven assets.
One such safe-haven asset - gold - fell US$6 (S$7) to US$1,310 an ounce on Friday, after gaining US$20 the previous day.
Besides the MH17 calamity, other geopolitical events shrugged off by traders included the intense Israeli bombing of Gaza City, which would have provoked fears of a fresh Middle East conflict in the past, and the sanctions imposed by the US on some of Russia's most prominent companies last week - just before the MH17 crash - to put pressure on Moscow over the Ukrainian conflict.
The collapse of Iraq, as it was swarmed by jihadists last month, hardly caused a ripple in oil prices. Closer to home, the military coup in Thailand in May barely caused a blip in regional stock markets.
This gives rise to the cynical observation that, as long as the fighting in faraway places is contained, it would not have an impact on the world's financial markets.
The latest fund-flow data report from Citi Investment Research shows that, in the week to Wednesday, investors had turned bullish on stocks again. They poured a net sum of US$6.2 billion into equity funds.
The bulk of the investments went into US equity exchange traded funds (ETFs). They attracted a net inflow of US$4.9 billion.
In Asia, China ETFs took in US$370 million. However, Japanese equity funds suffered a net outflow of US$1.4 billion.
One reason for the more positive sentiment on China stocks was the news last week that the mainland's growth had quickened in the second quarter to 7.5 per cent year-on-year, as the loosening of credit, which included a re-lending facility by the central bank, helped to put growth back on track and swept aside fears of a property crash and corporate default.
Traders will also be eyeing the HSBC purchasing managers' index, due later this week, for confirmation that China's mighty industrial sector is back on a growth trajectory.
Yet, despite the ability of the markets to take the recent crises in their stride, one big question is whether they might suffer a correction going forward.
Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that any pullback is imminent.
Valuations are not stretched and global earnings are continuing to improve on the back of gradually improving economic growth.
But one worry is over global stock markets' growing complacency about geopolitical risks and the possible threat which they pose to the bull rally.
On the local front, DBS Vickers Research noted that the Straits Times Index (STI) is fairly valued at its current level.
Last week, the STI ended 0.5 per cent higher to hit a 14-month high of 3,310.53.
DBS Vickers expects that the STI could go as high as 3,400 by the year end, as the market could get a boost from further merger and acquisition activities.
However, it also warned that the STI could fall as low as 3,150 during this quarter, if Wall Street encounters a sell-off.
DBS Vickers was also hopeful that if Jakarta governor Joko Widodo wins the Indonesian presidential election, counters such as Jardine Cycle & Carriage, which derive much of their earnings from Indonesia, will get a boost.
THE STRAITS TIMES