Supporters of the Comunidad Ciudadana opposition party clash with police as they try to reach the electoral supreme tribunal after learning the results of general elections in La Paz, Bolivia, on October 24 2019. Picture: AFP/JORGE BERNAL
Supporters of the Comunidad Ciudadana opposition party clash with police as they try to reach the electoral supreme tribunal after learning the results of general elections in La Paz, Bolivia, on October 24 2019. Picture: AFP/JORGE BERNAL

London — An alarming spread of street protests and civil unrest across the world in recent weeks looms large on the radar of financial markets, with investors wary that the resulting pressures on stretched government finances will be one of many consequences.

Money managers and risk analysts seeking a common thread between often unconnected sources of popular anger — in Hong Kong, Beirut, Cairo, Santiago and beyond — reckon the unrest is particularly worrying following years of modest global economic growth and relatively low joblessness.

If, as many fear, the world is slipping back into its first recession in more than a decade, then the root causes of restive streets will only deepen and force embattled governments to loosen purse strings further to fund better employment, education, healthcare and other services to placate them.

Forced fiscal loosening in a world already swamped with debt and heading into another downturn may unnerve creditors and bond holders, especially those holding government debt as an insurance against recession and a haven from volatility.

“Protests per se are unpredictable for investors by definition and fit a pattern of rising political risks that have affected market perceptions in almost all geographies,” said Standard Chartered Bank strategist Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce. “Investors will get more nervous when they see that a country’s International Monetary Fund (IMF) package or investment promises are conditioned on fiscal consolidation and that the first austerity measures are followed by massive protests.”

More broadly, popular pushback against debt reduction and austerity raises serious questions about how still-mushrooming debt loads can be sustained, even after the massive central bank intervention to underwrite it in recent years.

Many also fear the feedback loop.

According to the IMF this month, a global downturn half as severe as the one spurred by the last financial crisis in 2007-2009 would result in $19-trillion of corporate debt being considered “at risk” — defined as debt from firms whose earnings would not cover the cost of their interest payments, let alone pay off the original debt.

Rising bankruptcies at so-called “zombie” firms would, in turn, risk spurring rising job losses and yet more unrest.

Marc Ostwald, global strategist at ADM Investor Services, said he saw many of the protests as “straws that break the camel’s back” — tipping points in a broad swath of long-standing complaints about inequality, corruption and oppression, variations on the broader themes of populism and anti-globalisation.

However, Ostwald said there is a worry for financial markets who have surfed rising debt piles for years thanks to central bank money printing and bond buying.

“At some point the smothering impact of quantitative easing (QE) will run its course,” Ostwald said. “And as many of the zombie companies then go to the wall, so governments will face rising unemployment and desperately need to borrow money to prop up their economies — particularly as social unrest rises, as we are witnessing.”

Of the dozens of protest movements that have emerged in recent years, here are some of the most prominent ones.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests after the city state tried to bring in legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The plan has been formally withdrawn but it is unlikely to end the unrest as it meets only one of five demands pro-democracy protesters have.

On Tuesday, authorities announced HK$2bn ($255m) in relief measures for the city’s economy, particularly in its transport, tourism and retail industries. It followed a more sizeable HK$19.1bn package in August to support the underprivileged and businesses. Hong Kong’s financial secretary has also said more assistance will be given if needed.

The Hang Seng, one of Asia’s most prominent share markets, is down 12% since the protests started and although it has been recovered some ground over the past two months, it has continued to lag behind other major markets.

Lebanon

Hundreds of thousands of people have been flooding the streets for nearly two weeks, furious at a political class they accuse of pushing the economy to the point of collapse.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced on Monday a symbolic halving of the salaries of ministers and law makers, as well as steps towards implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing the finances of the heavily indebted state.

Markets are increasingly worried it will all end in default. The government’s bonds are now selling at a 40% discount and credit default swaps, which investors use as insurance against those risks, have soared.

Iraq

Similar factors are behind deadly civil unrest in Iraq that flared in early October. More than 100 people died in violent protests across a country where many Iraqis, especially young people, felt they had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State (IS) militants were defeated in 2017.

The government responded with a 17-point plan to increase subsidised housing for the poor, stipends for the unemployed, and training programmes and small-loan initiatives for unemployed youth.

Extinction Rebellion (XR)

This London-bred movement is pushing for political, economic and social changes to avert the worst devastation of climate change. XR protesters began blockading streets and occupying prominent public spaces late in 2018 and, following 11 days of back-to-back protests in April, the UK government symbolically declared a climate “emergency”.

The movement is developing alongside the growing FridaysForFuture led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, which sees school children boycott lessons on Fridays.

It has been particularly strong in Germany and the government there recently launched the “grüne null” or “green zero” policy, which specifies that any spending that pushes the government’s budget into deficit must be on climate-focused investments.

Incoming European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has also introduced an ambitious “European green deal” that would include the support of €1-trillion in sustainable investments across the bloc.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in September, pledged to make the largest US e-commerce company net carbon-neutral by 2040.

Chile

At least 15 people have died in Chile’s protests, which started over a hike in public transport costs but have grown to reflect simmering anger over intense economic inequality, as well as costly health, education and pension systems, seen by many as inadequate.

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera announced an ambitious raft of measures on Tuesday aimed at quelling the unrest, including a guaranteed minimum wage, a hike in the state pension offering, and the stabilisation of electricity costs.

Ecuador

Violent protests at the start of October forced Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno to scrap his own law to cut expensive fuel subsidies that have been in place for four decades. The government had estimated the cuts would have freed up nearly $1.5bn per year in the government budget, helping shrink the fiscal deficit as part of a $4.2bn IMF loan deal Moreno had signed.

Bolivia

Mass protests and marches broke out in Bolivia last week after the opposition said counting in the country’s presidential election at the weekend was rigged in favour of current leader Evo Morales.

The unrest — already the severest test of Morales’s rule since he came to power in 2006 — could spread if his declaration of outright victory is confirmed, after monitors, foreign governments and the opposition called for a second-round vote.

Egypt

Protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi broke out in Cairo and other cities in September following online calls for demonstrations against alleged government corruption, as well as recent austerity-focused measures.

Protests are rare under the former army chief and about 3,400 people have been arrested since the protests began, including about 300 who have since been released, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent body.

The country’s main stock market dropped 10% over three days as the protests kicked off, although it has since recovered more than half of that ground.

France

The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movemen,t named after the fluorescent yellow safety vests that all French motorists must carry, began a year ago to oppose fuel tax increases, but quickly morphed into a broader backlash against President Emmanuel Macron’s government, rising economic inequality and climate change.

Macron swiftly reversed the tax hikes and announced a swath of other measures worth more than €10bn to boost the purchasing power of lower-income voters. That was followed up with another €5bn package of tax cuts in April.

Arab Spring

Beginning in late 2010, anti-government protests roiled Tunisia. By early 2011 they had spread into what became known as the Arab Spring wave of protests and uprisings that ended up toppling not only Tunisia’s leader but Egypt, Libya, and Yemen’s. The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria developed into a civil war that continues to be waged today.

Ethiopia

A total of 16 people have been killed in at least four cities since fierce clashes broke out last Wednesday against the reformist policies of Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The greater freedoms that those policies bring have unleashed long-repressed tensions between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups as local politicians claim more resources, power and land for their own regions. Ethiopia is due to hold elections next year.

Reuters