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Market fear and loathing

From oil to Chinese stocks, panic is spreading through the markets, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Flick through this week's issue and you will see nothing but market fear and loathing. We look at commodities, for example. Oil is down to around $50 a barrel. Gold is at a five-year low. Copper is as cheap as it was in 2008. Mining stocks have been slammed.

We also tell you about the junk-bond market (bonds issued by low-quality firms with higher-than-usual interest payments). This isn't one many MoneyWeek readers will be actively involved in and isn't particularly well understood (see John Stepek's piece on the market). But if you were involved, you'd know that some prices are off by 50%.

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Then there is China: the market is down around 25% since its peak and fell 8% in one day alone this week, despite government efforts to prop it up. Things aren't too good in Western markets either: the FTSE 100 is down 8% since April. There is the odd silver lining: mining sector yields haven't been this high since the 1990s and we still think that China is more likely to be in the midst of a structural bull market by 2016 than stuck in a bear.

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Even so, there isn't an optimist out there who doesn't have to admit that the constant abrupt movement (more down than up) in today's markets is a bit scary. So what's up? It's pretty simple. Nobody knows what is really going on.

The signals from the real economy are confounding. There are signs of rising wages and good growth in parts of the US and UK. But China is slowing fast and as a result, so are commodity-producing countries everywhere from Latin America to Australia. Global trade numbers are troubling too down in four of the first five months of the year and Europe is as fragile as ever.

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So while the US and UK know it's time to have a go at normalising interest rates, the rest of the world economy is saying they may have to reverse any rises pretty quickly. The fear is also about the dawning realisation that we might be stuck with the lack of global growth.

We've left our central banks to cover the cracks in our world. And they just can't do it. Quantitative easing and zero interest rates haven't given us prosperity. They might, as James Grant notes in the FT, have pushed up stock and bond prices. But without GDP and profit growth, those prices can't stay up indefinitely. Central banks can't do magic. What you are seeing in today's markets is the world beginning to understand that.

That said, there's always somewhere to invest. In this week's issue of MoneyWeek, David Stevenson looks at a market that actually looks undervalued (rare and special in today's world) Vietnam. And for some firms in the UK with a better-than-average chance of strong growth, David Thornton looks at firms with high levels of employee ownership and explains why employee power, unlike central bank power, is good for capitalism and for companies.

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