Fresh signs of economic weakness in China deepened the global commodity slump, hammered the Canadian dollar and other resource-linked currencies and drove equity investors to the exits in markets around the world.
The trigger for the sell-off was a worse-than-expected fall of 6.8 per cent in China's exports last month from a year earlier, despite an increase in shipments to the United States. Imports slid 8.7 per cent, which was better than most forecasts and a big improvement over the October slide of 18.8 per cent. Still, it was the 13th consecutive monthly decline for imports and the fifth in a row for exports.
China's economic growth slipped to 6.9 per cent in the third quarter, the slowest since 2009, when much of the world was mired in recession. This could be interpreted as a positive indication that China's strenuous efforts to develop its domestic market and service sector and wean its economy off a dependence on cheap export goods and costly imports are beginning to pay off.
The November numbers "were not as bad as they appeared," said David Rees, senior markets economist with Capital Economics in London. "The decline in exports reflected weak global demand, which we doubt will persist. And while imports continued to contract … the rate of decline was actually much slower than had been expected and seasonally adjusted figures pointed to a sharp increase on the month." Accordingly, it seems that policy support has begun to boost domestic demand," Mr. Rees said.
But to already-jittery markets, the data confirmed fears that demand from the world's biggest buyer of resources would remain feeble and that the global economy is not exactly glowing with good health, either.
Coming on the heels of a decision on Friday by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep the oil taps wide open despite the current glut – driving crude prices to their lowest level since the global financial meltdown of 2008 – the numbers were bound to roil the markets.
The loonie dropped to an 11-year low against the U.S. dollar, the Norwegian krone fell to its lowest level since 2002, the Australian dollar took a pummelling as iron ore prices plumbed new lows and the South African rand plunged to a record low, as mining giant Anglo American PLC revealed that it would slash nearly two-thirds of its jobs and sell off major pieces of its operations.
Among major equity indexes, the S&P 500, Dow Jones and S&P/TSX composite joined European, Asian and most emerging markets in the red on Tuesday.
The other U.S. exchanges took a hit despite improving domestic data, which has the Federal Reserve poised to hike interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade. That is because more than 40 per cent of the profits of listed companies come from overseas. And the S&P boasts a large number of energy producers and their suppliers.
As a result, "anything that pounds energy is going to pound the S&P," equity perma-bull Jeremy Siegel, a finance professor at the Wharton School, recently told an interviewer.
The extreme pressure on commodity prices has some experts wondering if Fed chair Janet Yellen should keep the brakes on interest rates at least until the picture clears later in 2016.
Cheaper oil is a boon to major consumers such as the United States. But the drastic drop in world prices will take an increasingly heavy toll on higher-cost North American producers, which, after all, is one of the reasons the Saudis and their OPEC friends chose not to put a ceiling on production. They want to drive out as much competition as possible.
"If I were in her shoes, I would be having second thoughts [about a rate hike]," economist Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, told Bloomberg Radio.