Wars and Military Conflicts

Geopolitical concerns to weigh in 2015

ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

The geopolitical storms which rocked markets in 2014 are unlikely to calm in the coming year, with a raft of warnings about a new era of instability.

The relative calm to the start of 2014 now seems like a distant memory. "From jihadism to populism to revanchism, politically-generated challenges to globalization are transforming the landscape," as Tina Fordham, chief global political analyst at Citi, pointed out in a report.

And after many got their fingers burned by not spotting risks like the dispute between Russia and Ukraine this year, investors are likely to react more quickly to geopolitical concerns.

On one hand, this could be positive as big market moves in response to news can often be the spur for governments to take action.

Yet on the other, it's likely to mean a bumpier ride for investors. They may want to put some history books on the economic fallout from previous crises on their Christmas list.

Here are four of the key themes likely to worry investors next year.

Russian rumblings

Russia's relationship with the West is at its worst since the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago, and its economy is teetering on the brink of full-scale crisis. Trapped by an oscillating ruble oscillates and plummeting oil price, President Vladimir Putin may lash out – or choose to negotiate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
Putin speech sparks more ruble volatility

Unfortunately, the lessons of 2014 suggest that it is probably safer to be pessimistic about the chances of Putin choosing a more diplomatic path.

There can be some wisdom in "going against the crowd and ignoring the short-term 'noise'" as Alan Higgins, chief UK investment officer at Coutts, who has suggested buying Russian equities as an anti-consensus play, told CNBC.

Islamic State and the Taliban

The rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now believed to be the richest terrorist group in the world after plundering banks and capturing oilfields in Iraq, was one of the most important international stories of 2014. In December, just after a gunman claiming to be allied to Isis was shot in Sydney, Australia, rival Islamic extremists in the Taliban stepped up their campaign in Pakistan, with a horrifying attack on a school.

History suggests that it will be difficult to defeat either group by airstrikes, such as those currently being carried out by a U.S.-led coalition, alone, and that further attacks by both groups are likely.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province.
How ISIS managed to acquire $2B in assets

Add into the mix the declining oil price, which by limiting economic prospects will make the Middle East's oil producing countries more vulnerable to popular protest, and the cauldron of the Middle East looks set to seethe for longer.

Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have the greatest spillover risks from the conflict in Iraq and Syria, according to Ana Jelenkovic, associate director, sovereign ratings at Standard & Poor's, who also highlighted the potential for violence on Israeli borders.

Chinese borders

It's not just Russia who's facing trouble over boundaries. The possibility for territorial conflict between China and either Japan or India –or even both -- was highlighted by Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura, as one of the most worrying issues for next year.

Disputes over the Sino-Indian border are centuries-old, with Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh, where India is building new border posts, the most likely imminent flashpoint. China's maritime disputes with Japan in the South and East China Sea are also potentially concerning. Yet leaders in all three countries are in the middle of ambitious economic reforms, and may want to focus on those instead of engaging in expensive disputes with their neighbors.

Majority in China expect war with Japan

The main risk, according to Kim Eng Tan, head of Asia Pacific sovereign ratings at S&P, is that dissatisfaction with Chinese economic reforms leads to more aggressive foreign policy. However, as long as China's economy remains "robust", its leadership should keep their current stance.

European elections

Just as populations across the European Union are getting more restive and far right groups are gaining greater support, the people of the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland and Poland will head to the polls in 2015. And don't rule out the possibility that Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny will bring voters to the polling booth sooner than planned.

Russian links to EU far right exposed by French loan

In the case of the UK and Spain, two of the region's most important countries economically and politically, neither is expected to result in a majority government, and anti-establishment parties may even end up holding the balance of power. This flight to nationalism, and growth in anti-European Union sentiment, may ultimately be the greatest threat to the EU since the euro zone debt crisis.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle