Instead of glancing at your 401(k) fund balances this week – and please don’t – look instead at gas station prices. Then turn your attention to China. The turmoil in global financial markets this month can largely be tied both to falling oil prices and a shaky Chinese economy, which is growing at its slowest rate in a quarter-century and has played a big role in the lessening demand for oil.
On Wednesday, persistent investor worries gave way to an all-out panic for a few hours — the Dow Jones industrial average lopped off 550 points before climbing back to close down by a more manageable 249 points. But as the year’s third week of trading staggers toward Friday’s finish line, it isn’t the direction of any one day’s numbers that should be of most concern — it’s the attitude of stock traders. Their malaise could become contagious, creating a genuine drag on the actual U.S. economy — the one that exists beyond Wall Street; the one that is so far holding its own.
Despite data that continue to show the economy remains fundamentally sturdy, investors have worked themselves into a frenzy over goings-on in other parts of the world. While most people feel a bit better about their personal financial situation every time they fill up a gas tank these days, investment managers and traders have a different perspective.
They worry that oil prices — down about 70 percent since the summer of 2014 — still have not reached the bottom floor. The lifting of sanctions on Iran will only add to the glut, they say, since the OPEC nation can start exporting oil again. Eroding demand for oil, and not just in China, has predictably led to layoffs at energy companies, whose stocks have been clobbered and are now at five-year lows. That, in turn, is becoming increasingly troublesome for banks that are heavily invested in the energy sector. You don’t have to dig far back into history to figure out what happens when bankers get the jitters.
No doubt, the January meltdown has been unsettling, especially for the millions of Americans in or near retirement who are dependent on IRAs and company-sponsored savings plans. But as financial analysts cite dire numbers day after day, there is comfort to be found in context. For starters, while plenty of American companies are eager to expand their businesses in China, the U.S., unlike many other countries, doesn’t rise and fall on China’s growth rate.
Remember that strong jobs report from December? In addition, consumer confidence was up last month, the cost of living fell, the unemployment rate is at 5 percent and inflation hasn’t been a factor for a long time. Yes, lower energy prices played a part in all of those measures, but taken as a whole they make a decent case for an economy that can withstand a month or two of white-knuckle markets. As long as investors don’t buy into fear.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE BOSTON GLOBE