The threat of a falling stock market

Story highlights

  • A steep decline in China's market indicates a growth slowdown, with reverberations across the world
  • Frida Ghitis: Stock market turmoil can reflect or aggravate economic problems and hurt governments

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)People in power have learned to fear swings in financial markets. That's because a whipsaw in the markets can reflect or aggravate problems in the economy. And there is nothing scarier to a ruling government than an economic collapse.

Falling markets can topple governments. That is a fact well-established throughout history, clearly visible from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring.
    It's not just the market slide that is creating turmoil, but financial markets are both signaling and causing harsher economic conditions.
    When the economy is working, people tend to forgive their leaders' misdeeds. When times get tough, there is no patience for corruption, incompetence and arrogance. Cast your glance toward Brazil, Iraq, Venezuela and elsewhere, and you'll see shivers of anxiety at the highest level.
    Frida Ghitis
    Something is happening with the global economy. We are seeing it now in stocks, but the evidence of trouble surfaced many months ago in the commodity markets. Prices for raw materials have been dropping steadily for about a year. That occurred in large part because China, the world's second-largest economy, which had been growing at eye-popping rates for years, suddenly started to slow down. That was a devastating turn of events for economies that had built their fortunes on feeding China's voracious appetite.
    China's economy grew 7.4% in 2014. For any other country, that would count as spectacular. But it was the lowest rate of growth since 1990, the year after the Tiananmen Square massacre prompted international sanctions.
    And now, indications point to a steeper decline in China's growth, with visible reverberations in all corners of the world.
    The entire phenomenon is made even more acute by the collapse of oil prices, the result of both supply and demand factors. New technologies have exploded oil production. The sharp increase in supply converged with a slowdown in demand.
    Europe, another major global powerhouse, is still in the economic doldrums. A sluggish Europe and China have further depressed oil and other commodity prices.
    For consumers, lower prices sound like reason to rejoice. But economies and markets don't respond well to sudden change. They like it to happen gradually, allowing them to adjust.
    Instead, we have turmoil in the markets, people taking to the streets and governments looking wobbly.
    China's slowdown brought a sudden end to the economic boom in much of Latin America, and with that, people ran out of patience with corruption, creating a wave of anti-graft movements that is threatening to topple once powerful governments throughout the region.
    Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest a massive corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras. She has not been directly implicated, but dozens of top government officials, business tycoons, and scores of legislators are under investigation or have already been charged. Calls for the President's impeachment are growing louder.
    It's no coincidence that public impatience with the system ran out just as the economic boom ended and Brazil plunged into recession.
    Venezuela, where economic mismanagement was concealed under oil riches, is now teetering on the edge of a cliff.
    Across the developing world, where commodity exports tend to play a large economic role, growth is weaker. Mining firms are losing ground. Investors are leaving. Currencies are falling.
    Without foreign investors, countries that did not feel exposed to commodity prices are now in trouble. Spillover fears are threatening Turkey, where the economic minister, watching the collapse of the Turkish lira, said, "For God's sake, take my word. There is no crisis in Turkey."
    But there is enough of a crisis that an economic slowdown was the top issue in June elections. And the ruling AK Party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. What came later, including the end of a peace process and a new conflict against Kurdish separatists, is viewed by critics as an effort to reverse AK Party's slide in the polls ahead of a new election in a couple of months.
    In Iraq, the drop in oil export revenues pummeled state finances, already drained by war, taking a toll on public services. In the scorching summer heat, the lack of air conditioning was enough to bring masses of protesters to the streets to complain about corruption and mismanagement. Trying to save his government, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is enacting far-reaching reforms unlike anything Iraq has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
    The drop in earnings has hit Russia, where gas exports financed rising living standards, burnishing Vladimir Putin's personality cult. The economy, now also hurt by sanctions, is contracting. But Putin's popularity is kept radiant by the patriotic appeals of war in Ukraine.
    In China, the epicenter of the economic contraction, the government continues to play its curious oxymoronic game of communist capitalism, a form of capitalism closely managed by a powerful state apparatus controlled by the Communist Party.
    Many investors doubt Chinese economic statistics and find other signs of economic trouble ahead. Authorities say the economy is still growing, but more slowly than usual. They say exports fell 8% last month.
    When the Shanghai market started nose-diving, the government, which had deliberately propped it up, seemed to panic.
    The country has vast cash reserves -- about $4 trillion -- so there is plenty of money to stimulate the economy. But there are limits to the government's powers. In fact, the more China tries to stimulate growth, the more global markets smell fear that the situation is worse than it's letting on.
    For now, all eyes are on China. The world has grown accustomed to strong Chinese economic growth. In an irony of globalization, governments everywhere are rooting for China's regime to succeed in stabilizing its economy, because if it doesn't, political turmoil will intensify in other parts of the world.