There are many reasons cited for this week’s market turndown and risk pullback, including concerns about global growth, Ebola, turmoil in the Middle East, and excessive investor comfort from easy money. What has been less commented on is the role played by last weekend’s IMF and World Bank Annual Meetings. Sometimes these meetings pass uneventfully, but sometimes bringing so many people together—policymakers and market people—creates a conversation that moves the consensus and as a result moves markets. It seems this year’s was one of those occasions. As the meetings progressed, optimism about a G-20 growth agenda and infrastructure boom receded and concerns about growth outside of the United States began to dominate the discussion. The perception that policymakers—particularly European policymakers—were either unable or unwilling to act contributed to the gloom. Time will tell whether macro risk factors that markets have shrugged off over the past few years will now be a source of volatility going forward. But if that is the case, perhaps these meetings had something to do with it.
Over the past year, Europe has enjoyed calm financial markets. At the core of the market’s comfort were two assumptions about policy. First, that the European governments would do just enough to keep the process of European integration moving forward. Second, that the ECB would, in the words of Mario Draghi, do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. The centerpiece of the ECB’s subsequent efforts was expanded liquidity (through long-term repurchase operations and easier collateral requirements for banks to access ECB liquidity) and a commitment to purchase government bonds to support countries return to market (the OMT program). Even many pessimists who fear that Europe is trapped on a unsustainable, low-growth trajectory remain optimistic that Europe will do what it takes to navigate the near term risks. It may be time to question that optimism.