The political risk landscape is as broad as ever. Discussions taking place at the FT Political Risk Summit encompassed old and new risks, from China’s economy to the refugee crisis and from Brexit to the US elections.
China’s slowdown has been worrisome for months, and it could get worse still. Professor Steven Keen, head of the school of economics, history and politics at Kingston University in London, presented a compelling, data-based argument of how high levels of private debt fuel GDP growth, only to cause a fall when the borrowing slows down.
Speaking about what could trigger the next economic crisis, Keen argued for the inclusion of private debt levels in understanding a country’s situation, and highlighted China as one particularly at risk.
According to him, the country should be using its monetary power to write the debt off, letting the value of its assets fall. China seems to be moving in that direction, and has taken steps to take money out of volatile sectors, like property and construction. The government also announced the laying off of 1.8 million workers in the steel and coal industries, sectors that have been heavily supported by government projects and funds, in a further sign of policy changes. Uncertainty surrounding China’s economic data, however, clouds any forecast or analysis with doubt.
There were other reasons to be observing China closely, according to panellists at the conference, who pointed out a shifting attitude of Chinese foreign policy, which under current president Xi Jinping has become more aggressive in its territorial ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea, unnerving neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
This is just one example of increased political risks mentioned at the summit. Citi’s managing director and chief global political analyst Tina Fordham said geopolitical risk involving military conflict and territorial disputes are on the rise. Additionally, for the past three years, Citi has been observing what it calls a vox populi risk, referring to the rise of populism, non-traditional political parties and mass protests.
One example could be seen in Donald Trump’s increased likelihood of obtaining the Republican or GOP nomination, which was discussed with equal amounts of amazement and concern. According to Fordham, Trump’s supporters are those who lost out to globalisation, who have experienced 20 years of wage stagnation, and are disillusioned about their and their children’s prospects.
Citi’s vox populi risk also includes the uncertainty brought about by referendums. The upcoming UK referendum on the country’s presence in the European Union (EU) is only the most prominent example of what, according to Fordham, is an increasing trend in calling popular consultations as weaker political leaders look for support through public consensus.
This comes at a cost for businesses, which have to deal with increased uncertainty. Helen Kennett, director of UK government relations at Rolls Royce, a company which has come out publicly in support of the UK staying in the EU, warns of underplaying how an emotional response to a potential Brexit could affect businesses. All forecast scenarios imply rational behaviour, because the emotional element is difficult to predict. That uncertainty, she said, “is why business prefers continuity.”
Even if the UK decision did not affect the EU, the continent still faces the refugee crisis, which is eroding support for German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, and the unresolved Ukranian conflict. While the war in Syria has distracted Russia from Ukraine, the relationship between Russia, Europe, and the US remains frosty, and the continuation of the sanctions regime leaves little prospects for rapprochement in the short term.