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August Market Commentary

Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

August Market Commentary

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Gold hit a six-year high as nervous investors looked for alternatives to stock markets. The IMF cut global growth forecasts amid continuing trade tensions.

In any normal month these would have been perfectly normal introduction, but July was not a normal month. With Boris Johnson becoming UK Prime Minister and sweeping into 10 Downing Street on a wave of promises to deliver Brexit ‘do or die’ by 31st October – only a handful of months away. 

How you feel about that commitment will almost certainly depend on how you voted in the 2016 Referendum. If you voted Leave then Boris is showing real leadership, we finally have a Prime Minister who is negotiating from a position of strength and he has achieved more in a week than Theresa May achieved in three years.

If you voted Remain then Johnson is threatening the union of the UK, driving the pound to dangerously low levels and risking – if not actively seeking – a catastrophic ‘no deal’ exit on 31st October. 

The one thing we think you can now say is that the UK will leave the European Union on 31st October. The public commitments to that date have been so clear that any backtracking is unthinkable. But there remain any number of imponderables, as we discuss in the Brexit section below. 

And so to the other world news that made the headlines in July. And yes, gold did hit a six year high of $1,450 (£1,190) an ounce as jittery investors looked for a safe haven. Gold is up by 6% over the last month and 12% in the last year as the US/China trade dispute, lower growth prospects for world trade and worries about inflation if the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates all added to investors’ uncertainties. 

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has trimmed its growth forecasts for the global economy for both this year and next year. Growth for this year is now forecast to be 3.2% – down from the 3.3% forecast in April – with growth for 2020 forecast to be 3.5%. Growth “remains subdued” said the IMF, with an “urgent need” to reduce trade and technology tensions. However, the IMF did raise its forecast for UK growth, from 1.2% to 1.3%. 

July was a generally uninspiring month for world stock markets. Of the major markets we cover in this Commentary only four made gains, and none of those gains were significant. Let’s look at what happened in more detail.

UK 

June was a wet month and UK high street retailers duly reported a ‘wash out.’ Total sales decreased by 1.3% in the month, taking the yearly average down to a 20-year low according to research from the British Retail Consortium. 

Bookmaker William Hill added to the gloom with plans to close 700 shops – putting 4,500 jobs at risk – and there are suggestions that up to 3,000 betting shops could close up and down the UK as gamblers increasingly move online and the reduction in stakes on fixed odds betting terminals starts to bite. 

And it is not just betting shops. A report from Retail Economics predicted that internet shopping will overtake physical stores by 2028 as deliveries become faster, cheaper and more convenient. The trend will be driven by millennials and Generation Z, who will form 50% of the adult population in the next decade. Ten years from now our high streets will be very different places – if they exist at all. 

Away from the high street there was good news in July though, as Amazon (who else?) announced plans to create up to 2,000 new jobs, taking its UK workforce up to nearly 30,000. 

Japanese telecoms company NTT announced that it would be opening a global HQ in London for one of its subsidiaries and at the end of the month Hitachi Rail announced a £400m investment at its plant in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

Jaguar Land Rover also unveiled an investment of ‘hundreds of millions’ to build a range of electric vehicles as its Castle Bromwich plant, which will secure the jobs of 2,700 workers at the plant. But – as there was across Europe – there was also bad news for the UK car industry, with Nissan threatening to cut 10,000 jobs worldwide and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders saying that overall investment in the industry has ‘plummeted.’

From the roads to the rail. Boris Johnson has long been sceptical of HS2 and the chairman of the project has now written to the Department of Transport saying that it ‘cannot be delivered within its £56bn budget and the cost could rise by £30bn. There is bound to be a review of the project but meanwhile the Prime Minister used a speech in Manchester to commit to a faster trans-Pennine rail link – something the North of England has long needed. 

Let’s end the new Prime Minister’s first UK section with some more good news. ‘Fintech’ (financial technology) investment is booming in the UK and 2019 is set to be a record year, as funding reached £2.3bn in the first six months of the year. And household finances are looking up – June saw consumers saying they were optimistic about their personal finances for the first time this year. 

Also looking up was the FTSE 100 index of leading shares, which closed July up 2% at 7,587. But if the stock market was going up, the pound was definitely going in the other direction with the financial markets anticipating a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The pound closed the month down 4% against the dollar at $1.2218. 

Brexit 

To no-one’s surprise, it was Boris. The result was, perhaps, closer than many had predicted but Boris Johnson comfortably beat Jeremy Hunt in the vote by Conservative members, kissed the Queen’s hand and took over from Theresa May as Prime Minister. He duly appointed Sajid Javid as Chancellor, and we can expect a radical Budget when the new man in 11 Downing Street presents it. Whether that will be before or after 31st October remains to be seen, but one suspects that the speech – and the measures proposed – will be in stark contrast to anything Philip Hammond might have had in mind. 

Boris Johnson has had meetings in Northern Ireland, having already visited Scotland and Wales. He has demanded that the Irish backstop – the most contentious part of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – be scrapped and he’s been met with the predictable response from Europe. 

Are we now headed for a ‘no deal’ Brexit? Boris Johnson says he doesn’t want that, but has ramped up preparations just in case, with Sajid Javid committing an extra £2.1bn and meetings of the relevant Cabinet committee taking place every day. 

There remains, however, a significant number of MPs vehemently opposed to ‘no deal’ and the Government’s majority is wafer-thin. It’s unlikely, but you cannot rule out a General Election before 31st October and there will certainly be further attempts in parliament to thwart a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Meanwhile the Brexit Party and the hard-line Eurosceptics will be holding the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is supposedly a Chinese curse. If nothing else the next 90 days in UK politics will certainly be interesting.

Europe 

There was plenty of economic news in Europe in July, but we should perhaps start in the corridors of power where, after much talking, negotiating and deal-making, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen emerged as the only name on the ballot paper to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission chief. 

Von der Leyen makes no secret of her wish to move to closer European integration and – while the headlines were all about how her appointment will impact Brexit – she could, in the long run, be very bad news for a country like Ireland, which has benefitted from a lower corporation tax rate. 

It was all change in the top jobs as Christine Lagarde left the IMF to take over as head of the European Central Bank. 

Lower down the bankers’ food chain it was very much all change at the beleaguered Deutsche Bank as it announced plans for 18,000 job losses. There are rumours that the bank’s customers are pulling out $1bn (£800m) a day amid worries about the bank’s continuing solvency. 

There was also more gloom for the European car industry as car sales dropped by 7.9% in the European Union in June, the biggest fall since December and 130,000 registrations down on the same period last year. 

More generally the German manufacturing recession worsened as the Purchasing Managers’ Index for the sector dropped to 43.1 from 45.0, with any figure above 50 reflecting ‘optimism.’ This was the lowest level since 2012 as export orders showed their sharpest decline for a decade. 

How did all this translate onto the European stock markets? The German DAX index was down 2% in July to 12,189 while the French stock market fell just 20 points – unchanged in percentage terms – to 5,519. In Greece the market rose 4% to 900 as the centre-right under Kyriakos Mitsotakis won the snap general election. 

US

It was a good start to the month in the US, as figures for June confirmed that 224,000 jobs had been created against the expected 160,000. Normally this would have persuaded the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates on hold 

However, revised figures at the end of the month showed that the US economy had grown by less than expected in 2018, increasing by 2.5% and missing the President’s target of 3%. 

With Donald Trump continuing to describe the Fed’s decision to keep interest rates on hold as a ‘faulty thought process’ something clearly had to give and it duly gave on the last day of the month, as the Fed reduced US interest rates for the first time since 2008. The rate was cut by 0.25% to a target range of 2-2.25% but this wasn’t enough for the President. He scorned Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell on Twitter: ‘As usual, Powell let us down.’ 

In company news, there was the now seemingly-monthly bad news for Facebook, which faced a $5bn (£4.1bn) fine over privacy breaches, while US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin criticised its plans for a crypto-currency, telling a press conference that it could be used by money launderers and terrorist financiers and was a national security issue. 

Apple posted a small rise in sales for the third quarter of its year – although iPhone sales and profits both dipped. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Amazon posted more impressive figures, with both firms reporting sales increases of close to 20% for the latest quarter. 

Meanwhile Elon Musk – of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company and other future fame – brought us what may be his most revolutionary project yet. His company Neuralink revealed a brown and white rat with thousands of tiny electrodes implanted in its brain. It is, apparently, the first step towards linking the human brain to artificial intelligence, with the company betting that millions of people will eventually pay to become cybernetically enhanced. 

If Wall Street was cybernetically enhanced in July it wasn’t by much. The Dow Jones Index rose by just 1% in the month, closing at 26,864. 

Far East 

There was plenty of news in the Far East in July, but one story dominated all the others. The month began with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemning the extreme use of violence as pro-democracy protesters stormed the parliament building. 

The protests continued throughout the month, and it seems inevitable that they will go on into August, quite possibly with ever increasing violence. Beijing – through the Hong Kong legislature – is determined to stamp down on any show of dissent and when then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tried to intervene he was told in no uncertain terms to show some respect.

Away from the protests figures confirmed that China’s economy had grown at just 6.2% in the second quarter of the year. Obviously ‘just’ is a relative term, but this is the slowest rate of growth in China since the 1990s. 

Unsurprisingly the continuing trade tensions with the US meant that both China’s exports and imports were down when figures for June were reported, with exports down by 1.3% and imports down by 7.3% as domestic demand slowed. With China’s economy now driving so much growth around the world – not just in the Far East – it was hardly surprising that the IMF reduced its projection for global growth this year. 

In South Korea, Samsung announced that it was finally ready to sell its long-awaited folding phone after the April launch was delayed due to problems with the screen. The phone will go on sale in September in selected markets but – with the phone costing nearly $2,000 (£1,630).

A week later, Samsung faced rather bigger problems than fixing the screen on a folding phone, as the world’s biggest smartphone and memory chip manufacturer saw profits fall 56% in the three months to June. Samsung said results were in line with expectations as it blamed the continuing China/US trade war and a trade dispute between the South Korean and Japanese governments. 

It was – perhaps unsurprisingly – a disappointing month on Far Eastern stock markets as three of the four major markets fell.  China’s Shanghai Composite Index was down 2% to 2,933 while the Hong Kong market was down by 3% to 27,778. South Korea suffered a sharper fall as the market dropped by 5% to end July at 2,025. The one bright spot was Japan’s Nikkei Dow index, which was up 1% in the month to 21,522. 

Emerging Markets 

It was a relatively quiet month for our Emerging Markets section. Of the three markets we cover, Brazil was the only one to make any gains in the month with the stock market rising just 1% to 101,812. The Russian market slipped back by a similar amount, closing down 1% at 2,739. However, India suffered a sharper fall, sharing the month’s wooden spoon with South Korea as it fell 5% to end July ay 37,481. 

And finally…

News from the French Civil Service: Auditors for the Provence-Alps-Riviera region published a report in July showing 30 ‘ghost’ civil servants had been paid more than £22m to do nothing for the last three decades. Their jobs were phased out in 1989 but they continued to be paid, much to the embarrassment of the French President.

But, of course, we now know that the real way to riches is through your teenage son’s bedroom. Worried that he’s spending far too long in there playing video games? Nonsense, he’s working on his future career. July saw 16 year old US teenager Kyle Giersdorf win $3m (£2.46m) as he became world champion of the computer game Fortnite. 

With two British teenagers also picking up major prizes, it’s becoming an even bigger challenge for parents trying to convince their kids to wash the dishes. 

Facebook to launch new currency

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Is this a megalomaniac move by Zuckerberg or a futuristic step into a brave new tomorrow? 

Social media titan Facebook has unveiled plans to launch a new digital currency by the name of Libra, with their eyes set on a 2020 release. The company says that consumers will be able to make payments with the currency via its own apps, as well as via the messaging app WhatsApp. Firms such as Uber and Visa are also slated to adopt the currency in the future, according to Facebook. 

According to the company, paying with the currency is something you can do “as easily and instantly as you might send a text.” From 2020, users will be able buy Libra via its platforms and store it in a sort of ‘digital wallet’ named Calibra. 

Concerns have already been raised around the security of users’ money and data, as well as the potential volatility of the currency. Facebook has addressed these concerns, saying that Libra would be backed by real assets and be independently managed. 

According to Facebook, its Calibra payments system will have strong protection to keep money and personal data safe. It also said that the Calibra system would use the same verification and anti-fraud processes used by financial institutions and credit card providers, and would refund any money stolen. We currently await further details on these statements. 

In an attempt to build trust in Libra, Facebook has been engaging with central banks, regulators and even governments. Meetings have been made with officials from the Bank of England and the US Treasury to help ease Libra’s entry into various national markets. 

This isn’t a new foray by Facebook – over a decade ago it attempted to launch its own virtual currency named ‘Facebook Credits,’  a sort of virtual currency that enabled people to purchase items in apps and on the social media site itself. The project failed to garner any popularity, however, and was scrapped.

While the currency has been given the green light in the US, it may struggle in places such as India, who have recently introduced stricter regulations surrounding cryptocurrencies. 

The world holds its breath for more information surrounding Zuckerberg’s newest attempt at innovation. For more information on Libra, watch this space. 

Making Tax Digital: are you onboard?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

A survey of small to medium-sized businesses, conducted by the Independent, has found that 11% of UK companies are unaware of new ‘making tax digital’ requirements.

As of 1st April, more than one million firms with annual taxable income over £85,000 are now required by law to submit VAT returns online. The same rules will then apply to trusts, local authorities, not-for-profits and public corporations from October. This is all part of HMRC’s new Making Tax Digital (MTD) initiative.

Of all the businesses leaders who responded to the survey, 46% of those who believed they were compliant with the new rules were found not to be, whilst 25% of compliant companies believed they were underprepared. 

HMRC have been quoted to be taking a “light touch” approach towards penalties during the first year of the law’s implementation. However, this is only where they believe businesses are doing their best to comply. 

Only 13% of respondents said that moving to MTD was more time consuming than they thought it would be. Showing that the government’s plans to slow the pace of mandation might be working. MTD will not be mandated for taxes other than VAT until at least April 2020. Further to this, the government announced in March that any new taxes or businesses will not have to worry about the legislation until 2020. 

Businesses also need to keep digital records from the start of their accounting period using MTD-compatible software. It’s best to do some research into which software may be best for you, as many providers offer extra benefits that might be of help. The government has even provided a handy search tool to help businesses find the right MTD-compatible software to suit their needs.

Rules for MTD VAT rules can be found here

For more information on the government’s MTD initiative and how to best prepare yourselves for the new era of digital taxation,  get in touch. 

What is a green mortgage?

Thursday, July 4th, 2019

Back in 2017, the UK government published their Clean Growth Strategy, a report that included plans to work with lenders in order to create “green mortgage products,” that are able to “take account of the lower lending risk associated with more efficient properties and the reduced outgoings for customers living in more efficient homes.”

More recently in June 2019, The World Green Building Council Europe launched a new report: ‘Creating an energy-efficient Mortgage for Europe: the supporting role of the green building sector.’ So steps are certainly being made all over the world to introduce green mortgages into the market, but what exactly are they?

Green mortgages in the UK are mortgages that support energy-efficient homes. Barclays launched their first green mortgage back in April 2018, partnering with construction companies all over the UK in offering green mortgages on energy-efficient new builds. The home has to have an energy efficiency rating of 81 or above, or be in energy efficiency bands A or B, to be eligible.

Analysis by the Bank of England in October 2018 found that homeowners living in energy-efficient properties are less likely to be in payment arrears. The study of 1.8 million properties found that around 1.14% of energy-inefficient homes are in mortgage payment arrears, compared with 0.93% of energy-efficient properties, concluding that “energy efficiency of a property is a relevant predictor of mortgage risk.”

In support of these new energy efficient mortgages, providers are offering reduced rates for those looking to purchase property. The premise is simple: those owning energy-efficient homes are less likely to be in arrears, therefore carrying reduced risk to the lender.

These new mortgage options herald a more ethical, mutually beneficial approach to lending that fits within the new swathe of greener policies being enacted by governments around the world. Craig Calder, Director of Mortgages at Barclays, says that: “Green Mortgages need consistent support at the highest levels if they are to become the norm rather than a strand of alternative lending.”

With more and more companies seeking to improve their energy efficiency and their carbon footprint, financial opportunities such as green mortgages may become the norm. However, with such schemes still being relatively new, it seems that only time will tell.

July Market Commentary

Thursday, July 4th, 2019

Introduction

Many of you will know the old stock market adage: ‘Sell in May and go away, and come on back on St. Leger’s Day.’ 

The theory was that with everyone out of London for the summer season there was little business to be done and the stock market drifted lower. These days, of course, we live in a very different, very connected world where the London stock market is affected far more by relations between the US and China than it is by deals done at Royal Ascot and Henley. And if you had ‘sold in May and gone away’ then you’d have missed out on an excellent month: with just one exception, all the world’s leading stock markets rose in June, some of them by significant amounts. 

This was despite June being another month where the US/China trade tensions continued to simmer, where Chinese industrial output fell to a 17-year low and where India also faced tariffs from the US President – and inevitably responded in kind. Although there was a glimmer of light at the G20 summit at the end of the month, as the US and China agreed to a pause in hostilities, with talks on solving the trade dispute set to resume.

Stock markets also overcame gloomy news from the World Bank, which had opened the month by suggesting that the global economy was weakening. It was now predicting global growth of just 2.6% in 2019, and a very slight increase to 2.7% in 2020. Inevitably ‘international trade tensions’ were to blame. 

There was also a bleak long term forecast on jobs. Oxford Economics forecast that up to 20m manufacturing jobs around the world could be lost to robots and automation by 2030, with the people replaced by the robots finding that comparable roles in the service sector had also been squeezed by AI. 

One job up for grabs is, of course, that of the UK Prime Minister. The battle to succeed Theresa May has been fought down to two – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. We will have a decision by the end of July: whether the winner will be able to command a working majority in Parliament will be a different matter.

UK

For a change, the UK section of these notes is not awash with ‘retail gloom.’ No doubt that will return, for now let’s start with the good news…

Despite all the uncertainty, UK consumer confidence hit an eight month high in May, with unemployment continuing at a record low level and wages growing faster than expected in the three months from February to April. 

Wage growth for the period was 3.4% with official figures confirming wage growth of 1.4% after inflation had been taken into account. Despite this, though, many people continue to need more than one job to make ends meet, with estimates from the TUC released at the end of the month suggesting 1-in-3 people are now working in the ‘gig economy.’ 

…And if you like your glass half-empty, the rest of the month’s news would have been just what you were looking for. 

UK house prices slipped in May in a subdued market and – not helped by car plant shutdowns – figures showed that the UK economy had contracted by 0.4% in April. Car manufacturing fell by 24% in that month, with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders saying that production is now 45% down on a year ago. 

With the continued uncertainty over Brexit and the ongoing global trade tensions, audit firm KPMG forecast that UK GDP growth will be 1.4% in 2019, falling to 1.3% in 2020, with both figures 0.2% down on the firm’s forecasts in March. 

Hand in hand with the race to succeed Theresa May – covered below – went the ongoing debate on the future of HS2. Boris Johnson has admitted to ‘serious doubts’ but leading business groups (including the CBI and the IoD) have urged the Government to commit to the project, arguing it is vital for the UK’s infrastructure. 

By the end of the month the gloom-mongers had won the battle, with the consumer confidence that had been so high in May turning a complete 180 degrees. By the end of June consumers were feeling negative about both their personal finances and the general outlook for the UK. 

Fortunately this view was not shared by the FTSE 100 index of leading shares, which rose 4% in the month to close June at 7,426. The pound survived the buffeting of bad news to end the month unchanged in percentage terms, trading at $1.2696. 

Brexit 

As we mentioned in the introduction, the race to succeed Theresa May is now down to two – former Foreign Secretary and ex-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The final decision will be taken by Conservative Party members, with the result announced on Tuesday 23rd July. 

All the indications at the moment are that Boris Johnson will win – he is an overwhelming favourite with the bookmakers – so what does he have to say about Brexit?  

Part of the reason he is such a firm favourite is that he has given a commitment that the UK will – deal or no deal – leave the EU on 31st. With so many top positions in the EU currently changing, and with many heads of government – Ireland’s Leo Varadkar is the latest – resolutely trumpeting the ‘no re-negotiation’ line, leaving without a deal is becoming a real possibility. Whether you see this as ‘crashing out’ or very sensibly moving to World Trade Organisation terms probably depends on whether you voted Remain or Leave. 

What a Johnson victory may well mean is an early Budget. At the moment the Budget is scheduled for November. However, Boris Johnson is reported to want to give the economy a real shot in the arm before the UK leaves the EU, so there could well be a tax cutting Budget in September, with cuts to both higher rate tax and stamp duty. 

Europe 

Among a media storm questioning her health after being seen shaking, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed that her coalition government will continue. This despite the surprise resignation of Andrea Nahles, leader of the coalition’s junior partner, the Social Democratic Party. 

If the political clouds are gathering over Mrs Merkel, the economic ones may be gathering over Germany as a whole following the release of more gloomy financial news. 

Industrial production in April was down by 1.9% compared to the previous month, with exports 0.5% lower than the same period in 2018. The Bundesbank – Germany’s central bank – is now predicting growth of just 0.6% this year, compared to a forecast of 1.6% growth it made in December. 

Clearly this is bad news not just for Germany but for the whole of Europe, as the slowdown in China and the US/China trade dispute continue to impact the German economy. 

There was more bad news in the car industry as Volkswagen announced plans to cut ‘thousands’ of jobs as part of a modernisation drive. Meanwhile BMW joined forces with Jaguar Land Rover to co-operate on electric cars as the traditional car makers continued to battle against new entrants to the market. 

There was more bad news on jobs as Deutsche Bank revealed plans to cut 15-20,000 jobs – although those would be worldwide cuts, not just in Germany. Meanwhile in the wider European economy the ECB said that it would keep interest rates on hold at the current record low levels until at least the middle of 2020, as it continues to try and spark some life into the Eurozone economy. 

And, as they say, all good things come to those who wait. After 20 years of negotiation it was finally announced that the EU had agreed a trade deal with Mercosur – the South American trade bloc which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro called it “one of the most important trade deals of all time.” Whether Irish beef farmers, suddenly facing competition from South American imports, will agree is another matter…

There was plenty of ‘beef’ in European stock markets in June, as both the German and French indices rose by 6% in the month, to close at 12,399 and 5,539 respectively. 

US 

The month did not get off to a good start in the US, as figures showed that the economy had only added 75,000 jobs in May, far fewer than the 180,000 analysts had been predicting. It is possible that another month of poor figures could see a cut in interest rates from the Federal Reserve – something the President has long called for. 

The figures showed that wage growth was also sluggish, although US unemployment remains at a 50 year low of 3.6%. 

Something that wasn’t sluggish – and hasn’t been sluggish through much of 2019 – was the performance of the virtual currency Bitcoin, which has risen from £3,133 at the end of March to £9,335 by the end of June. Bitcoin is, of course, a virtual (or crypto) currency and in June, Facebook announced that it would be launching a virtual currency of its own – the Libra – in 2020. 

This virtual currency already has the apparent backing of Uber, Spotify and Visa and with bank JP Morgan also creating its own currency – the JPM Coin – June 2019 may turn out to be the month when virtual currencies took a major step forward. 

Staying in cyberspace there was bad news for two US cities as Lake City in Florida followed Riviera Beach in paying a ransom (in Bitcoin, inevitably) to hackers after their computers had been offline for two weeks. According to reports, workers in Lake City disconnected computers within minutes of the attack but it was too late: they were locked out of email accounts and residents were unable to make payments and access online services. The ransom was reported as $500,000 (£394,000) and it is surely only a matter of time before the same thing happens to a local council in the UK. 

Fortunately Wall Street was not held to ransom and, in line with virtually every other major world stock market, the Dow Jones index enjoyed a good month, rising by 7% to close June at 26,600. 

Far East 

We have covered the US/China trade row above – at least the month ended with a commitment to restart the talks aimed at ending the dispute. But in June it was the China/Hong Kong row that really made the headlines, as the Hong Kong legislature sought to allow extraditions to mainland China, arguing that it “would keep Hong Kong a safe city for residents and business.” 

This sparked huge protests and some of the worst violence seen in decades, with protesters worried ‘keeping the city safe’ will inevitably come to mean ‘not criticising the Chinese government.’ 

There are also worries that the proposed legislation might damage Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre. “The proposed legislation would undermine Hong Kong as a hub for multinational firms [and] as a global financial centre,” said a Washington-based think tank. Despite the protests, the legislation is likely to go ahead at some point. 

Another long term worry for China is the spread of its deserts, apparently caused by global warming, deforestation and overgrazing. At least in June it took comfort in the arms of Japan as Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping had what appeared to be a friendly meeting ahead of the G20 summit, with the US/China trade wars and tensions about North Korea seemingly bringing the two countries closer together. 

All the leading Far Eastern stock markets were up in the month. Despite the protests Hong Kong led the way, rising 6% to 28,543. The South Korean market was up by 4% to 2,131 while China’s Shanghai Composite Index and Japan’s Nikkei Dow were both up by 3%, to end the month at 2,979 and 21,276 respectively. 

Emerging Markets 

If the US economy got off to a bad start with the jobs figures, the Indian economy got off to an even worse start in June as it lost the ‘fastest growing economy’ title to China. 

Figures for the first quarter showed the economy growing at 5.8% – mightily impressive compared to economies in Western Europe, but below the 6.6% recorded in the previous quarter and below the 6.4% posted by China. 

Worse was to follow a few days later as the US imposed a 10% tariff on a series of Indian imports including imitation jewellery, building materials, solar cells and processed food. Inevitably this led to fears of job losses and – equally inevitably – India was quick to retaliate as it imposed tariffs on 28 US products, some as high as 70%. 

Will this mean a US/India trade dispute to mirror the US/China dispute? While it looks unlikely, India was the only one to fall in June, dropping 1% to end the month at 39,395. 

Meanwhile the markets in both Russia and Brazil moved up in the month: both markets were up by 4% in June, with the Russian market closing at 2,766 and the Brazilian market going through the 100,000 barrier to reach 100,967. 

There was clearly good news for the South American economy with the trade deal agreed with the EU which we have mentioned above. There was less good news for Argentina and Uruguay in the middle of the month. A massive power outage left both countries completely in the dark, wiping out power to tens of millions of people. Argentine President Mauricio Marci has promised a “full investigation.” As soon as he can find the light switch…

And finally…

We have mentioned cyber-attacks above and one company particularly badly hit was Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro, who saw 22,000 computers go offline in 170 locations around the world. The company refused to pay the ransom demanded and instead fought back against the hackers using the latest cutting edge technology: the pencil and paper. 

…And June really was nostalgia month as 1990s toys are apparently making a comeback on a wave of millennial nostalgia. If you were in a school playground in the 1990s – or your children were – you may remember Tamagotchi (digital pets) and they’re being re-joined on shelves by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and Polly Pocket. There is also, according to analysts, an increasing market for the films of the same era as grown-up millennials feel nostalgic for their childhood.

If you haven’t made your fortune from your own version of Cash in the Attic, perhaps the answer is to get serious about Crazy Golf. You may have thought Crazy Golf was just a game to play at the seaside, but now the ‘sport’ is dreaming of Olympic recognition and hosting a series of championships up and down the UK. 

While Tiger Woods was pocketing $2m (£1.6m) for winning the US Masters, near-namesake Mark Wood, a local council finance manager, won £50 as he was crowned UK Crazy Gold champion. The secret? According to the sport’s insiders, it is to keep your ball safely tucked inside a sock. That way, it keeps an even temperature and rolls consistently. 

Get out there! With that vital piece of inside information there’s nothing to stop you…

May markets in brief

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

The calm of the previous month ended sharply as May began, with Brexit arguments rolling on, the UK Prime Minister resigning, the European elections crushing the main parties, and Donald Trump imposing tariffs on Mexico and China. There was some positive light, however, from the emerging markets, with India, Russia and Brazil seeing economic gains.

UK

The British high street took a hit this month with the loss of Jamie Oliver’s chain of Italian restaurants, Boots’ decision to review the future of 200 stores and Marks and Spencer’s decision to close an as yet unspecified number of stores. Thomas Cook also revealed a loss of £1.45bn, seeing its shares fall 40%. Overall, retail shop vacancies are at a four year high.

There was better news away from the high street with the UK economy growing 0.5% in the first quarter and the Bank of England raising its growth forecast for the year from 1.2% to 1.5%. However, it also warned that interest rate rises might become more frequent.

The FTSE 100 Index closed down 3% at 7,162 while the pound was down against the dollar, closing the month at $1.2633.

Europe

Much of the continent’s news in May covered the European elections which saw the ‘Grand Coalition’ – the Centre-Right and Centre-Left groupings – lose significant numbers to more radical parties. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party defeated Emmanuel Macron by 24% to 22.5%. While in Italy, Matteo Salvini is reportedly preparing a new ‘parallel currency’, announcing ‘I do not govern a country on its knees’. Could this be the first step in taking Italy out of the EU?

Overall, the Eurozone economy grew in the first three quarters by 0.4%, though business confidence was said to have ‘crumbled’ according to a survey of more than 1,400 chief financial officers by Deloittes. Across the Eurozone, 65% reported the level of uncertainty as ‘high’ or ‘very high,’ with the US/China trade dispute and Brexit cited as the main reasons. Both major European markets fell in May. The German DAX index was down 5% to 11,727 while the French index fell by 7% to close the month at 5,208.

US

Strong labour data convinced the Fed to keep rates on hold as the US economy added 263,000 more jobs in April, with the unemployment rate now at its lowest since 1969. In company news, Facebook announced plans to launch a cryptocurrency to rival Bitcoin, and Ford said that it would need to shed 7,000 jobs as it looked to cut costs. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones index fell in the month, ending May down 7% at 24,815.

Far East

The trade war between the US and China intensified as the US re-imposed tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods. China retaliated on 1st June by imposing tariffs of up to 25% on $60bn of US goods.

To add to the worries of a slowdown, analysts have started to ask if ‘winter is coming’ to the booming Chinese tech sector, with electric vehicles, industrial robots and microchip production all slowing down recently. In addition, big companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu have all cut jobs, with one in five Chinese tech companies now planning staff cuts.

All the major stock markets in the region were down due to the trade war. Hong Kong was the worst affected, falling 9% to 26,901. The Japanese and South Korean markets were both down by 7% to 20,601 and 2,042 respectively, while China’s Shanghai Composite Index was down by 6% to end May at 2,899.

Emerging Markets

India saw the world’s largest democratic vote with 600m voting for a new Prime Minister – the victory went to the incumbent Narenda Modi by a landslide. One of the big questions is how Modi will handle the Indian economy. In his first term, India became the world’s fastest growing economy as he cut red tape and reformed the bankruptcy laws. But his biggest gamble, banning more than three-quarters of the notes in circulation in a bid to tackle corruption, backfired badly and delivered a significant blow to economic growth.

Brazil’s economy fell by 0.2% in the first three months of the year, the first decline since 2016. Despite this bad news, the Brazilian market still managed a gain of 1% in the month, closing May at 97,030. The Indian stock market rose 2% to 39,714 but the star performer this month was the Russian market, which rose 4% to finish the month at 2,665.

We hope you have great June and are preparing for a warm summer. If you have any questions about the latest stock market news, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Gifting rules and inheritance tax

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Following an in depth study conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), it has been discovered that only one in four people making financial gifts are aware of the risks of inheritance tax. Further to this, they found that only 45% of gifters reported being aware of inheritance tax rules and exemptions when they gave their largest gift.

A staggeringly low 8% of respondents considered tax rules before making a financial gift and most did not associate gifting with inheritance tax. When compared with the fact that over half of respondents said that they planned to leave inheritance, it’s obvious that there seems to be a gap in gifter’s knowledge.

For those who were aware of the rules surrounding inheritance tax, 54% said this influenced the value of their largest gift. This was most prevalent amongst affluent taxpayers who had assets of £500,000 or more. Respondents below this threshold had more limited knowledge of the long-term effects of inheritance tax, the seven-year rule or the annual limit on gifts.

So, where does the money go?

80% of gifters gave to individuals, with charities coming in second at around 10%. The most common beneficiaries were adult children, followed by 15% giving to parents or other family members and 14% making gifts to friends. The most popular reasons were presents for birthdays and weddings.

The data also suggested that even when individuals considered inheritance tax rulings, it did not deter them from giving the gift.

The rules

Gifts of £250 or less, totalling below £3,000 per year, are exempt from inheritance tax. Most gifts, in fact, made from one individual to another during their lifetime are exempt, unless the donor dies within seven years of making the gift. These gifts are referred to as potentially exempt transfers (PETs).

The current starting threshold for inheritance tax for a single person is set at £325,000. This amount is then doubled for married couples and civil partners, who also have the additional benefit of the residential nil-rate band, which allows for a further £150,000 of tax-free, property-based inheritance per person. This particular allowance is set to rise to £175,000 as of the 20th of April 2020.

An unsuccessful PET is taxed depending on how long the gifter has lived following the giving of the gift and is referred to as ‘taper relief.’ If a gift is given less than three years before death, the full rate of 40% is applied to the gift, tapering off to 8% if the gift was given between six to seven years before death.

However, this is not the case when it comes to transactions with a reservation of benefit. For example, if you give away your home to your children and continue to occupy it rent-free, the property is still considered as forming part of your estate immediately if the worst were to happen. An individual cannot retain possession of a chattel or property whilst making a PET.

Though it may be difficult to plan for the worst, knowing how to best mitigate the tax surrounding gifts and inheritance can help you make key financial decisions at the most opportune moments, and prevent any avoidable losses when it comes to sharing your assets with the people and organisations that matter most to you.

Make the most of diversification.

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Diversification is a word that seems to get tossed around a lot in conversations around savings and investment. We hear it often, but what does it mean?

Put simply, diversification is a risk management strategy that mixes a variety of investments within a portfolio. Through having different kinds of assets in a portfolio, the goal is to obtain higher long-term returns and lower the risk of any sole holding. Essentially, you are hedging your bets.

By smoothing out the risk of each investment within your portfolio, you’re aiming to neutralise the negative performance of some investments with the positive performance of others. Though your investments will only benefit when the different investments are not perfectly correlated, you want them to respond differently, often in opposition to one another, to market influences.

One drawback to be aware of, though, is that by limiting portfolio risk through diversification, you could potentially be mitigating performance in the short term.

Types of investment

Most fund managers and advisers diversify investments across asset classes and determine what percentage of the portfolio to allocate to each. Such asset classes include:

  • Stocks – shares or equity in a publicly traded company.
  • Fixed-interest securities – also known as bonds, fixed-interest securities represent a loan made by an investor or a borrower and are often used by companies, states and sovereign governments to finance various projects.
  • Real estate – buildings, land, natural resources, agriculture, livestock and water or mineral deposits.
  • Commodities – basic goods necessary for the production of other products or services.
  • Cash and short-term cash equivalents – savings, cash ISAs, savings bonds and premium bonds.

How do you make the most of it?

The unfortunate nature of investment is that all winning streaks end. It’s human nature to be drawn to winners and avoid losers. But investing is much more fluid, with no particular investment reigning as champion for long. By investing only in what’s doing well currently, you might miss out on any rising stars beginning their ascent to success. You may want to jump from top performer to top performer, however more often than not, the best gains will have been and gone by the time you invest. You may even be investing prior to the asset reducing in return.

In an ideal world, you’d get high returns from your savings and investments with no risk. However, reality dictates that there must be a trade-off – high risk often leads to higher returns.

Though it is sensible to hold part of your assets in low-risk investments, such as Cash ISAs, some see value in investigating more high risk investments in order to acquire those lucrative higher returns. However, you need to make sure that you’d be happy with running the risk of making a loss.

A general rule of thumb is that the older you are, the less you’ll want to expose your investments to market risk – meaning that diversifying into more low risk investments may be the ideal approach for you in order to keep your investments secure.

There are also many ways to diversify within a single kind of investment. For example, with shares, you can spread your investments between large and small companies, UK and overseas markets and within different sectors like technology, financials or raw materials.

Finally, remember that the value of investments, and the income from them, may fall or rise and you might get back less than you invested. Always proceed with caution – diversification helps mitigate the risks but won’t remove them entirely.

“UK Tax system is unfair,” say small businesses

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

The British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) conducted a tax survey throughout January and February of 2019 that produced some interesting findings. The survey covered more than 1,000 businesses across the UK, 96 per cent of which were SMEs with fewer than 250 employees; 68 per cent of the businesses were in the service sector and 32 per cent in manufacturing.

Undertaken to discover how fair respondents believed the UK tax system to be in a number of different situations, the results show that faith in the integrity of the system aren’t exactly high. 58 per cent of respondents felt that businesses like theirs were not treated fairly by the tax regime. 6 per cent of respondents did not believe that tax rules are applied fairly across all sizes of business by HMRC. Smaller businesses are more likely to hold that view, at 70 per cent, but it’s still the view held by the majority of medium and large businesses, at 59 per cent.

When asked whether they agree that HMRC applies tax rules fairly regardless of where a business is based geographically, 64 per cent of respondents did not agree. The trend of smaller businesses being more likely to feel this way continues, with 67 per cent of small businesses believing this, as opposed to 59 per cent of medium and large.

It isn’t just how fairly the rules were applied that come under fire in the results of this survey, however. The quality of service that the HMRC provides, and the support they offer to ensure that businesses remain compliant, is considered insufficient by 51 per cent of small businesses. This figure still sits at 42 per cent for medium and larger companies, with an overall average of 49 per cent of respondents finding it unsatisfactory.

As the tax system becomes ever more complex, firms are suggesting that sufficient support needs to be provided to ensure that they can keep up with regulations and remain compliant. The BCC are taking this call one step further, and pushing for the HMRC to take action by providing the same level of investment into support and tax advice for businesses as it puts into tax avoidance work.

Head of Economics at the BCC, Suren Thiru, sees it like this; “HMRC must step up efforts to provide better support to smaller businesses to get their tax right, rather than simply pursuing and enforcing penalties. This should include matching investment in frontline HMRC help towards SMEs, with their work on non-compliance and tax evasion. More also needs to be done to address the escalating burden of upfront costs and taxes to provide firms with much-needed headroom to get on and invest, train their staff, and compete on the global stage.”

Auto-Enrolment changes put pressure on SMBs

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

April 2019 saw the increase of minimum contributions to auto-enrolment pensions from 5 per cent of wages to 8 per cent. With employers now required to contribute 3 per cent, rather than their previous 1 per cent, the Federation for Small Businesses (FSB) has warned that this could put “substantial” pressure on small businesses.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has reported an increase of workplace pension participation amongst small business employees of around 45% as a result of auto-enrolment. That means that businesses who employ between 2 and 29 workers will be seeing a significant extra cost towards pension schemes. These costs aren’t necessarily as daunting for larger businesses, but in the words of Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the FSB, “The costs involved for smaller employers are substantial, in terms of both expenditure and indeed their time, as they have grappled with finding a good provider and setting up whole new systems. Now that the 3 per cent rate has hit, the burden will be greater still.”

But with 70 per cent of UK workers employed by small businesses now on workplace pensions as a direct result of auto-enrolment (first introduced in 2012), employees seem to consider it as an attractive prospect. They too have seen an increase in their minimum contributions, from 3 per cent to 5, and so sacrificing a higher portion of their monthly wages has been accepted as a move that does come with its own benefits. Predictions from investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown state that in real terms, the average employer will see £30 of their monthly wages go towards their pension pot which, on average, results in total pension savings increasing by around £55,000.

Employers, on average, are predicted to now contribute £55 a month to the average employee’s pension pot, an increase from the pre-April figure of £37. These increases aren’t all bad news for employers however; Guy Opperman, Minister of Pensions, sees them as the opposite. “Automatic enrolment has been an extraordinary success, transforming pension saving and improving the retirement prospects of more than 10 million workers already. The increased cost on employers has been phased in over time so firms have had the opportunity to adapt. Pension contributions are a valuable employee benefit which firms use to attract and retain good people. This is true of small and large firms alike.”