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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Q&A: Turmoil on world markets
Graph showing market movements
Inflationary pressures have caused market turbulence worldwide
Stock markets around the world have been falling sharply, as fears grow over the prospect of higher US interest rates.

The market upheaval has also pushed down the price of commodities such as oil and gold.

Some analysts fear the volatility could be a forerunner to more serious turmoil, with a sharp turnaround in expectations about the future course of inflation.

Why are share and commodity prices falling?

There are a number of factors behind the current dip, not least the perception that prices may have been too high in the first place.

In the past two years, shares in some companies have risen by as much as a third, prompting the need for a correction as the markets recoil from arguably overvalued stocks.

Commodities are also seen as having overshot the mark, although no-one would deny that there are solid economic reasons for the soaring prices of oil and precious metals.

Growth in major emerging markets such as China and India has boosted world demand for crude, which has been at or near the $70-a-barrel mark for nearly a year now.

Oil has fallen 6% in the past week, while gold is 4.5% lower and copper is down 5.2%.

However, these are modest retreats that still leave commodities trading at a far higher level than last year. Copper, in particular, has risen 85% since 2006 began.

But why is all this happening now?

The latest figures from the world's biggest economy, the US, have been concentrating investors' minds in recent days.

US consumer prices rose by 0.6% during April, which was faster than analysts had expected.

At the same time, US industrial output was also beating forecasts. It surged by 0.8%, raising concerns of inflationary price rises as American factories approach their production limits.

If the US economy starts to overheat and inflation goes up, one way of reining it in is to curb the money supply by making borrowing more expensive - in other words, raising interest rates.

The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, is clearly worried about a resurgence of inflation. It has put up interest rates by a quarter-point at each of its last 16 meetings, and investors had hoped that rates would now hold steady at 5%.

However, the Fed's boss, Ben Bernanke, is giving little away about his future intentions, and some observers believe his instincts will be to keep prices under control even at the risk of harming growth.

Why would higher interest rates prompt a share sell-off?

Investors have a choice of destinations for their money, depending on the economic circumstances at the time.

Shares, as any financial advisor will tell you, can go down as well as up, while bonds and savings accounts offer a fixed rate of return and are less inherently risky.

When interest rates are low, an investor stands to make more money from shares.

But when interest rates are high, bonds become more attractive as a safe haven for your money - so it makes sense to sell your stocks and shift the cash to fixed-rate investments.

What other damage can higher interest rates do?

There are fears that further interest rate rises could aggravate existing imbalances in the world economy.

The record $742bn US trade deficit has long worried the markets, as the value of US imports continues to outstrip the amount that the country can sell to the rest of the world.

The $400bn US budget deficit - the gap between the government's income and its expenditure - also shows little sign of decreasing.

And it's not only the US government that is spending too much. The country's five-year housing boom has fuelled consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of US GDP, by encouraging homeowners to borrow against the rising value of their properties.

But higher interest rates would lead to higher mortgage rates, putting consumers under pressure and jeopardising the health of the economy.


FTSE 100
23.70 0.44%
19.54 0.34%
Cac 40
14.48 0.38%
Dow Jones
78.53 0.76%
35.31 1.58%
S&P 500
11.22 1.02%
BBC Global 30
20.65 0.36%
Data delayed by at least 15 minutes

Asia mirrors falling world stocks
18 May 06 |  Business
Shares slump across Europe and US
17 May 06 |  Business
Global sell-off begins to falter
16 May 06 |  Business
Why the dollar is falling so fast
15 May 06 |  Business
Surprise fall in US trade deficit
12 May 06 |  Business
US rates raised to five-year peak
10 May 06 |  Business


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