PARIS: Financial markets began to rebound in 2012 with help from central banks, and now head into 2013 with hopes of economic growth in China and the US while keeping a wary eye on the situation in the euro zone.
“In 2012, there will clearly be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ Draghi,” said Aurel BGC broker Jean-Louis Mourier in reference to European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi.
Early in the year, tension on financial markets had spiked owing in part to the deterioration of the Spanish economy and the government’s financial position.
But in late July, Draghi said the ECB was “ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro,” and turned the tide against speculators who were betting on a full-blown euro zone crisis.
In September, the central bank unveiled one of its most effective tools to date, a bond-buying program dubbed Outright Monetary Transactions or OMTs to underpin the debt of countries that that have sought help from European rescue funds.
The program has not been used to date, mainly because its very announcement reassured investors and the fact that Spain has done its best to avoid seeking a bailout similar to those which were granted to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
“No matter. The ECB has now built a very effective firewall. The public debt crisis is not over, countries will need years to get back within their budget limits, but the risk that represented on financial markets has essentially disappeared,” Mourier said.
The scenario of Greece being forced to pull out of the 17-nation euro zone has also faded into the background, while moves toward a common eurozone banking supervisor and structural reforms in Italy and Spain have bolstered investor confidence as well.
Major European stock markets have taken note and as of December 20, Paris showed a gain of 16 percent from the beginning of the year, while London was up by 7.0 percent and Frankfurt by 30 percent.
In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average showed a gain of 8.5 percent, and the MSCI emerging markets index was up by 12 percent.
On secondary markets for public debt, high tension that persisted earlier this year has eased, even though the interest rates on Italian and Spanish debt remain at elevated levels.
Looking ahead to 2013, investors are reassured, but remain prudent nonetheless.
Looming ahead is the threat of a so-called fiscal cliff in the US, a combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January barring a compromise before then by Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Economists warn that the combination of increases and cuts worth around $600 billion could push the US economy into recession.
“US companies have held back on investment plans for three quarters. The machine has to be restarted,” said Mirela Agache-Durand at Oddo Securities.
Several unknowns exist in Europe as well.
“Where do things stand with a Spanish bailout request, a new write-down of Greek debt, or French reforms,” wondered Olivier Raingeard, head economist at the Neuflize OBC bank.
“Elections in Germany and Italy will also put some pressure on markets,” he noted.
What seems like the biggest brake however is a chronic lack of economic growth in the eurozone.
“Leaders are going to have to come to agreement to ease budget constraints that are holding countries back to give their economies some breathing space,” Raingeard said.
He forecast that would happen once it became clear that France would not reach its target of cutting the public deficit to 3.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) next year.
Meanwhile, the US economy and those of key emerging markets, look set for solid expansions in 2013.
In the US, business activity should “benefit from a rebound in real-estate” and a “sharp decrease in energy prices,” Agache-Durand forecast.
In China, “the perspectives are encouraging” as well, analysts at the Swiss bank Pictet said in a research note, owing to anticipated increases in construction and other investments.