World stocks ride to record high, dollar retreats

Stock traders follow market activity at the New York Stock Exchange in this Feb. 9, 2017 file photoWorld stocks hit an all-time high on Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
Updated 16 February 2017
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World stocks ride to record high, dollar retreats

LONDON: World stocks hit an all time high on Thursday as the latest round of robust global data matched hopes that major economies like the US will soon be serving up large helpings of fiscal stimulus.
MSCI’s All Country World index, which spans 46 countries, notched the milestone as Wall Street hit its latest record and Asia and Europe consolidated the roughly 10 percent gains both have made since mid-December.
There were surges in exports from Indonesia and Taiwan, falls in unemployment in Europe from Sweden to the Netherlands while stronger US retail sales and inflation data on Wednesday came as Donald Trump again promised mass tax cuts.
“With the exception of politics, I have rarely seen such as network of positive signals,” said ABN Amro’s chief investment officer Didier Duret.
“There is a momentum, we don’t know when it will stop, but at the moment it is strong,” he said. “Investors are rather underinvested anyway and there is lots of cash so equities are the asset class of default in this environment.”
Another reason for the upbeat mood has been that, unlike in recent years, the prospect of US interest rate rises — which tend to set the bar for global borrowing costs — does not seem to be spooking markets.
The dollar is still down for the year despite a strong run over the last couple of weeks, while Treasury yields , have barely risen, which has helped propel emerging market bonds, stocks and many currencies higher.
The dollar hit the brakes again on Thursday as the glow of the previous day’s upbeat data faded. US government bond yields eased too, taking German Bunds and Europe’s other benchmarks with them.
Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, have kept investors interested in “safe” government bonds particularly with anti-euro and anti-EU sentiment on the increase throughout the continent.
Markets will also get a better idea later of how much of an impact the recent rebound in euro zone inflation has had on the thinking at the European Central Bank when it publishes the minutes of its January meeting.
“The ECB minutes should provide more minutes on the extent of any hawkish dissent (to its stimulus program),” Mizuho analysts said in a note.
Overvalued?
In commodity markets, which have also been enjoying a strong year so far, oil prices recovered from a knock from data showing record high US crude and gasoline inventories.
Brent and US crude both inched up 0.3 percent to $55.92 and $53.28 a barrel respectively, while gold prices also rose as the dollar drifted down.
Industrial bellwether copper, which has surged 30 percent since late October, eased however to $6,028 a ton after China’s overseas investment weakened. China is the world’s top copper user, but prices were supported by the prospect of supply disruptions in Chile and Indonesia.
The mildly weaker metals prices meant European shares couldn’t quite hold their ground either despite the sentiment boost from the new record high in global stocks.
The region’s STOXX 600 index was 0.3 percent lower by 1000 GMT but this year’s rally has been underpinned by the fact European company earnings are expected to grow 14 percent this year, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data.
Asia had no such problems overnight. MSCI’s main Asia index rose 0.2 percent to its highest since July 2015 after Wall Street had again pushed relentlessly into record-high territory.
Some investors said markets were looking slightly overvalued from a technical perspective after the bounce in recent weeks. For example, on a relative strength index (RSI), the MSCI Asia-ex Japan index was at its most overbought since 2015.
“We are seeing some profit-taking at these levels and unless there is a big correction, the broader uptrend in the Hong Kong market seems broadly intact,” said Alex Wong, Hong Kong-based director of Ample Finance Group.


‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Updated 26 May 2018
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‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Tom Fletcher might be best described as “the anti-diplomat.” Not in the sense that he sees no value in diplomacy, but in his steadfast refusal to live up to the stereotype expected of the ambassadorial profession.
While British ambassador in Beirut, he tweeted his way to acceptance by his hosts with an informal style and social accessibility that was in distinct contrast to the stuffy image of the traditional diplomatic circuit.
He told the BBC that there was not a single Ferrero Rocher in the embassy building — referring to the chocolates jokingly associated with the job after a 1990s TV commercial — and his “Dear Lebanon” farewell blog in 2015 after four years in the job boosted his broad international online appeal.
Now, Fletcher is running a portfolio of careers in the space where business, technology and public policy intersect. He is a visiting professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, specializing in international relations, and is also involved with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, the “ambassadors’ finishing school” in the UAE capital.
The former envoy is also chairman of the international board of the UK’s Creative Industries Federation and a member of the United Nations’ Global Tech Panel, as well as continuing a career as a successful author. His book “The Naked Diplomat” explored the interactions between governments, technology and big business, and became an international bestseller.
His experience and Internet renown make him a star attraction on the international forums circuit. He was on a panel in Dubai recently to discuss the findings of the 10th Arab Youth Survey, and afterwards went into some detail on the findings of the poll, which showed — alarmingly for some — that the US was waning in popularity in the region under President Trump and that Russia was increasingly regarded as a friend for young people in the Middle East.
Fletcher told Arab News that there was some reason to be worried about those findings, but also cause for optimism. “We have seen a striking fall in reputation among young people in the region since the US elections. But it was also worth noting the wider admiration for the American people as a whole, which looks quite resilient.
“The Russia results were interesting, because Russia has not always been a stabilizing force in the region. On Trump, they are further confirmation that the election of the leader of the free world created a vacuum. But the lights will eventually come back on in the shining city on a hill,” he said.
The survey seemed also to reveal a generational split in the Arab world, with many youngsters demonstrably not sharing their elders’ view of the US president. “I think that the region has access to the same information as the rest of us, and can take from it a pretty clear assessment of Donald Trump’s reliability. There are clearly some areas of alignment with some countries, such as the rejection of the Iran deal. But the survey shows that people across the region also hear the Trump administration’s wider messaging on the Middle East,” Fletcher said.
The Iranian situation was clearly on his mind, but he said there were alternatives to an escalating confrontation between the US and the Gulf states on the one hand, and the regime in Tehran on the other. “Wherever you stand on the Iran deal, its violation is a concern for regional security. The issue we have to ask ourselves is ‘what is the alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear potential?’ Personally, I haven’t seen a better answer to that than the existing Iran agreement.
“Of course, the Iran deal in itself isn’t sufficient in reacting to Iran’s wider regional role, not least in Syria. But I worry that it is the hard-liners in Tel Aviv and Tehran who seem keenest to end the agreement,” he said.
A lot of his time in Beirut was spent dealing with the regional fallout from the Syrian crisis, which started just as he began the ambassador’s job. Surely, seven years on and with no solution in sight, that represents a failure of traditional diplomacy?
Fletcher’s response was, well, diplomatic. “Not all has failed. Huge effort has gone into keeping Lebanon relatively stable, despite the scale of the Syria crisis just across the border. Diplomacy has failed on Syria and on Palestine/Israel. But George Mitchell (the American politician credited with helping bring about an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1990s) said that making peace was 700 days of failure and one of success. We have no choice but to keep trying, and to work harder than those who want to see diplomacy continue to stumble,” he said.
Fletcher’s work in the Gulf has enabled him to take a broad overview of developments in the region, and there is no more intriguing situation than in Saudi Arabia, which is going through a rapid transformation of the economy and society under the Vision 2030 strategy. “I think there has been a shift in international opinion on Vision 2030 over the last year. Initially many were curious, and conscious of the obstacles.
“But there is now a growing realization of how important a reform agenda is, especially if it succeeds in creating more opportunity for young people, including women. We all should hope it succeeds — I think it can, but will need maximum involvement of citizens themselves in shaping an open approach,” he said.
Fletcher also has a clear view of the kind of socioeconomic order that will emerge from the transformational policies of regional leaders.
“The Gulf has clearly realized that there is a need to move away from oil dependency well before the oil runs out. The answer has to lie in a knowledge economy. I’m heartened by the kinds of issues that my students at NYU AD want to work on and pioneer. And by the government focus on themes like wellbeing and education reform.
“Twenty-first century skills will need to be at the heart of the school curriculum, with learners encouraged to be curious, to seek out sources of knowledge and wonder, and to learn teamworking and innovation. This is happening increasingly in the larger cities, but there is still work to be done to mainstream knowledge, skills and character in education systems,” he said.
With the power of Big Data coming under scrutiny as never before in cases such as the controversy over Facebook’s role in the political process in the US and elsewhere, Fletcher’s work for the UN is more relevant than ever, and he believes there is a big role for the Gulf states to play in that debate.
“The Middle East needs to ensure it is better represented in the international architecture. It needs to be a key part of the debate about security and liberty online — the UAE Artificial Intelligence Minister (Omar Bin Sultan Al-Olama) is a great example of this. And it needs to help get everyone on to a free Internet,” he said.
Before entering the diplomatic service, Fletcher was an adviser on foreign policy to three British prime ministers, which gives him a unique perspective on the big current issue in the UK — the increasingly bitter process of leaving the EU, or Brexit.
The search for new trading partners has seen a succession of British ministers visiting the Gulf region in a bid to clinch new business. Fletcher does not share the view of some that the UK is destined for insularity and isolation in the post-Brexit world.
“The UK is going through a complex process, but it is always at its best when it has a worldview formed from having actually viewed the world. When it is open minded, outward looking. When it stands for more liberty — rights, trade, thought.
“The creative industries are already showing the way. And the royal wedding was a brilliant reminder of what the UK can be — diverse, modern, self-aware, creative. We all badly needed that reminder,” he said.
Fletcher was the youngest person ever to get a major ambassadorial post, and seems well set to pursue a handsomely paid career in virtually any sector, from international policy-making, to domestic UK politics or the private sector.
But he still regards himself as a diplomat with a creative twist. “I still write diplomat on the landing cards in planes.” And there is a second book in the works, he revealed: “I’ve just finished a murder novel, featuring an ambassador detective,” he said.
It is doubtful there will be a Ferrero Rocher mentioned in the book.