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September Market Commentary

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September Market Commentary

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

Introduction 

August is traditionally known as the ‘silly season’. The great and the good are on holiday. Nothing is happening: there are no world events. So the newspapers have to resort to any number of peripheral and not-at-all-serious subjects to fill their columns. 

Not this year. 

Most of the headlines in the UK concerned Brexit. This Commentary is written on 1st September with no idea what will have happened by the end of the week, never mind by 31st October when the UK is – currently – scheduled to leave the European Union. 

But the big story of the month was not Brexit, but the continuing trade war between the US and China. The President didn’t mince his words: 

“Our country has lost, stupidly [sic], trillions of dollars to China over many years. They have stolen our intellectual property […] and they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far better off without them. […] Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies home and making your products in the USA.” 

China was not slow to respond as these words went hand-in-hand with another raft of tariffs. China has hit back against the Trump administration with a drastic exchange rate devaluation, almost guaranteeing a superpower showdown and a lurch towards a full trade war. The yuan blew through the symbolic line of seven to the dollar for the first time since the global financial crisis. […] The calculated action by the People’s Bank threatens to unleash a wave of deflation across the world and risks pushing East Asian countries and much of Europe into recession. It is certain to provoke a furious response from the White House. 

Capital Economics commented rather more succinctly that Beijing had taken the fateful step of ‘weaponising’ its currency. 

It is therefore hardly surprising that Reuters described the world economy as ‘probably being in recession with most business indicators flat or falling.’ And this was reflected on world stock markets, as none of the major markets we cover managed to gain ground in August. 

UK 

Boris Johnson ‘enjoyed’ his first full month as Prime Minister with Brexit dominating the agenda: as always there is a special Brexit section below, so let’s push it to one side for the moment. 

Figures released in the middle of the month showed that the UK economy had contracted for the first time since 2012, shrinking by 0.2% between April and June. However new Chancellor Sajid Javid has said that he does not expect the UK to slide into recession. 

There’s plenty of gloom on the UK’s high streets. July 2019 was the worst month on record for retail sales growth as consumer spending fell to a record low. Unsurprisingly this will result in job losses – Tesco is to cut 4,500 jobs at its Metro stores – and store closures. Shoe retailer Office is to close half its UK stores and empty shops are at their highest level for four years. 

There was one ray of sunshine – literally – as the good weather saw pubs and restaurants post modest monthly growth, although those with the beer glass half empty will point out that restaurant closures are continuing to rise. 

There was, though, plenty of news for those who prefer to see their glass as half full. 

Figures for June confirmed that wage growth had reached an 11 year high at 3.9% and that the employment rate was at its highest since 1971. The rate is estimated to be 76.1% with 32.81m people in employment – 425,000 more than a year ago. 

There was plenty more good news: Derby train maker Bombardier won a £2.34bn contract to make trains for the Cairo monorail, beating off ‘pharaoh-cious’ competition from Chinese and Malaysian firms. Overall, exports from the UK were up by 4.5% in June, the best performance since October 2016. 

There was also news of booming investment in the UK tech sector, especially from the US and Asia, as tech start-ups attracted a record $6.7bn (£5.58bn) in funding in the first seven months of this year. 

Mortgage lending also jumped to a two-year high as figures for July confirmed the approval of 67,306 mortgages, up from 66,506 in June. 

It wasn’t just the high street where there was bad news. Belfast ship maker Harland and Wolff – the firm best known for building the Titanic – called in the administrators, putting 120 jobs at risk. Optimism in the UK services sector also fell sharply and – in line with the rest of Europe – output was down in the UK car industry. 

Unsurprisingly, the FTSE 100 index of leading shares – along with the world’s other markets – had a difficult time in August, falling by 5% to 7,207. The pound was unchanged in percentage terms, ending the month at $1.2165. 

Brexit planning 

This section could be out of date within a matter of hours. 

Over the last month we have Boris Johnson in talks with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. One of his key demands has been the removal of the Irish backstop: do that, he has said, and then we can talk about the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement. 

His threat has always been that the UK would otherwise leave the European Union with ‘no deal.’ There seems to be a growing number of MPs getting ready to fight the Government and oppose a ‘no deal’ by seizing control of the House of Commons agenda – possibly aided by the Speaker – and making ‘no deal’ illegal. The Government hints that if this happens they will simply ignore the legislation. 

All this is, of course, set against the background of the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue parliament (ending what has been a very long sitting) in readiness for a Queen’s Speech. Depending on your view, this is either a ‘coup against democracy’ or a perfectly normal decision by the Executive. 

As of early September, the country faces a possible General Election on 14th October, with the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn trying to outwit each other. As we said earlier, there’s every possibility this is old news by the time you read this. 

Europe 

It was hard to find much good news in Europe. The month opened with the news that growth in the Eurozone economy had slowed as German output fell to a six-year low and the manufacturing sector continued to struggle. Germany’s overall Purchasing Managers’ Index was down to a 73-month low of 50.9 as the economy dealt with the US/China trade tensions, the overall global slowdown, weak demand from China and the uncertainty over Brexit. 

Against this, the service sector did well and wages rose, as the Eurozone reflected what is now a familiar pattern for so many developed economies. 

Figures in the middle of the month confirmed that the overall German economy had shrunk by 0.1% in the three months to June. A similar story in the three months to September would see Europe’s biggest economy officially in recession. 

August saw the return of political uncertainty in Italy – inevitably leading to a sell-off of Italian bonds and a fall in the stock market – as Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, called for a snap election. 

By the end of the month a new government had been formed without Mr Salvini, as the anti-establishment Five Star movement formed a new coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). “We consider it worthwhile to try the experience,” said Nicola Zingaretti of the PD. We shall see…

Despite the gloom it was a relatively quiet month on Europe’s major stock markets. In keeping with the majority of world markets both Germany and France were down, but not significantly. The German DAX index dropped 2% to 11,939 while the French stock market fell just 1% to end the month at 5,480.  

US 

Given its impact on the wider world economy it seemed sensible to cover the US/China trade dispute in the Introduction, so this section deals purely with matters domestic. 

August started with a spat between the President and the Federal Reserve, as the Fed – as expected – cut US rates by 0.25% to a range of 2% to 2.25% and the President – as expected – said that it wasn’t enough. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell described the cut as a ‘mid-cycle adjustment to policy.’ His boss demanded ‘an aggressive rate-cutting cycle that will keep pace with China, the EU and other countries around the world.’ 

A few days later it was announced that the US had added 164,000 jobs in July – well down on the 224,000 jobs created in June but broadly in line with expectations. Unemployment remained flat at 3.7% and hourly earnings were 3.2% up on the same period last year. 

There was worse news later in the month as inflation rose to 1.8% (from a previous 1.6%) thanks to rises in gasoline and housing costs. This, of course, means that the Federal Reserve are likely to be more cautious about future rate cuts, which will presumably not do much for the President’s temper. 

In company news, Uber’s shares dropped 13% as it unveiled what were coyly termed ‘disappointing profit figures’ but which were really a thumping record loss of over $5bn (more than £4bn) for the three months to June 2019. Meanwhile co-working space provider WeWork unveiled a loss of $900m (£750m) in the first six months of the year and announced that it would seek a stock market listing. Whatever happened to that quaint notion of companies making a profit and paying a dividend to shareholders? 

By the end of the month the President was back on the attack, confirming that he was planning a new, temporary cut in payroll tax in a bid to further boost the US economy. “A lot of people would like to see it,” said the President. 

Wall Street generally likes to see news of tax cuts, but in August there were just too many worries about the trade war with China for the Dow Jones index to make any headway. It was down 2% in the month, closing at 26,403. 

Far East 

All roads in the Far East led to Hong Kong in August as the pro-democracy protests continued and the authorities became more and more determined to quash them. The month ended with tear gas, water cannons and threats of five-year jail sentences for anyone taking part in the protests. 

Throw in the continuing trade war between the US and China and August was inevitably a difficult month for the region’s stock markets, as we will see below. 

The month had also started with another trade row, albeit on a much smaller scale. Japan has removed South Korea from its list of ‘trusted trading partners,’ citing security concerns and poor export controls. Unsurprisingly, Japanese car sales in South Korea duly slumped. 

There are now growing fears that the US/China trade war and general worries about the global economy will push some of the smaller, ‘innocent bystanders’ in the Far East – such as Hong Kong and Singapore – into recession. 

In the region’s company news Samsung launched a range of new phones – but Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, along with disgraced former President Park Geun-hye, now faces a retrial on bribery charges. Meanwhile China’s leading specialist facial recognition company Megvii decided to seek a stock market listing. 

Inevitably the pro-democracy problems and general unrest in Hong Kong had to impact economic growth at some point. Figures for the second quarter of the year showed that the economy had grown at just 0.5% year-on-year, which was below expectations. So it was no surprise to see the Hong Kong stock market down by 7% in the month, as it closed August at 25,725. 

China’s Shanghai Composite index was down 2% at 2,886 and the South Korean market fell 3% to 1,968. Japan completed a miserable month for the region’s stock markets as it dropped 4% to close August at 20,704. 

Emerging Markets 

It is easy to think that the big story in Emerging Markets was the fires in the Amazon rainforest. The G7 offered Brazil money to combat the fires – which President Jair Bolsonaro immediately rejected as he traded insults with French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Of greater long term significance to the financial markets – and the wider economy of South America – might well be the political and economic developments in Argentina. Both the peso and the Argentinian stock market plunged after a shock defeat for President Mauricio Macri in mid-month primary elections. The peso fell 15% against the dollar, while some of Argentina’s leading stocks lost 50% of their value. 

In early September, the Argentine Central Bank imposed currency controls as the crisis deepens, with the country also looking to suspend debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund. 

Fortunately, it was a much more sober month for the three major emerging stock markets we cover. The Russian market barely moved at all, rising just one point in the month to 2,740. The Indian market was also unchanged in percentage terms, closing August at 37,333 and, despite all the controversy and criticism of the government’s response to the fires, the Brazilian stock market was down just 1% in the month at 101,135. 

And finally…

All too often, the news was depressing. That is especially true if you are one of the directors of that well-known financial institution the Bank of Mum and Dad, now one of the biggest mortgage lenders in the UK. 

According to recent figures from L&G the Bank of Mum and Dad lent (or gave) a total of £6.3bn last year to help its children get on the housing ladder. The UK’s 10th biggest mortgage lender, the Clydesdale Bank, lent just £5bn. 

The average amount lent by the Bank of Mum and Dad is £24,100 – up by £6,000 on the previous year. But not content with running a bank, it appears that Mum and Dad have decided to diversify – and the Hotel of Mum and Dad is doing record business. 

According to the Office for National Statistics a quarter of the young adults in the UK – those aged 20 to 34 – live at home, with the number growing steadily over the past 15 years. According to a survey by MoneySuperMarket of 500 adults living at home and 500 parents who had adult children living with them, the ‘kidults’ were at home for an average 9.7 months and cost Mum and Dad £895 as they emptied the fridge, had their washing done for them and demanded that the old people open a Netflix account. 

This year the stay has extended to more than 10 months and the cost has escalated to more than £1,600 as water, heating and electricity costs have risen at the hotel. 

Apparently many of the guests are also demanding a steady stream of takeaways. A welcome distraction, perhaps, from reading the latest Brexit updates.

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. 

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.

April Market Commentary

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

Introduction

We have commented before on the difficulty of ‘hitting a moving target.’ Sometimes in writing this commentary you run the risk of what you write being overtaken by events, and that has never been more true than this month. In the short time between us publishing notes and you reading them it is possible that the Brexit section will be different.

Given the fact that Brexit continues to dominate the news headlines it’s tempting to think it is the only important story. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were clear signs that the US/China trade dispute might be moving to an end, and it was an interesting month in the US with clear pointers to a sea-change in the car industry – something that has worldwide implications.

In the UK we had Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Spring Statement, the usual gloom from the high street and continuing good news on employment.

World stock markets had a reasonably good month, buoyed by hopes of an agreement between the US and China. We have also taken a look at the performance of all the major markets in the first quarter of 2019. Let’s look at all the detail…

UK

There was, of course, the usual round of gloom from the UK retail sector. Debenhams issued a profit warning – failing to meet forecasts it made just two months ago – and Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley duly contemplated a £61m bid for the company. As of April 1st, the Debenhams board appears to have secured refinancing to fend off Mr Ashley’s amorous advances, but you suspect it is only a matter of time…

More widely the high street suffered its worst February for ten years with sales down 3.7% and John Lewis paid its lowest bonus to staff since the 1950s. What was once Staples and is now Office Outlet went into administration. There was also a very clear sign of things to come from the traditional high street travel agent as Thomas Cook announced plans to close 21 shops and cut 300 jobs.

Elsewhere in the UK there was the usual mixture of good and bad news…

Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered his Spring Statement: he made his opposition to a ‘no deal’ Brexit very clear, promising a £26bn ‘deal dividend’ if agreement was reached with the EU.

But despite the undeniable uncertainty, the UK economy continued to turn in some impressive figures as unemployment fell to its lowest level for 45 years and 32.7m people were in work. Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the economy had grown by 0.5% during January – more than double economists’ predictions of 0.2% – with the important services sector up by 0.3%.

Toyota announced that it would build its new hybrid car in Derbyshire – a welcome shot-in-the-arm for the UK car industry which saw manufacturing fall for the 9th month in a row. The BBC also reported that UK manufacturers were cutting jobs at a ‘record pace thanks to Brexit uncertainty’ as companies stockpiled raw materials ‘at a record pace’.

There was also bad news in the housing market, with prices in England falling by 0.7% in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period last year. This was the first fall since 2012, but Nationwide’s survey showed that rises in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland meant that the average price of a house across the whole UK was still increasing. UK inflation in February inched backed up to 1.9%, with increases in the cost of food and wine contributing.

What did the UK’s FTSE 100 index of leading shares make of all this confusion? It had a good month, rising by 3% to 7,279 where it is up by 8% for the first quarter of 2019. The pound fell slightly, ending March 2% down at $1.3036 – however, it is up by 2% for the first quarter of the year.

Brexit

Yet again, all the really important news regarding Brexit came at the end of the month as Theresa May brought her Withdrawal Agreement back to Parliament for a third time on 29th March – the day on which the UK should have left the EU – only to see it defeated yet again. The margin this time was 58 votes, with the DUP once again refusing to support it.

There were plenty of high profile Brexit supporters, such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who did support the WA. They feared the only option left was to accept a bad deal or risk losing Brexit altogether – but in truth the Prime Minister never looked likely to do enough to convince either the DUP or 25 die-hard Brexit MPs.

So where does that leave us now? On Monday 1st April there will be another series of indicative votes as MPs look for something they can agree on. The Prime Minister has no control over this and – having promised to stand down if her deal passed – she will face plenty more calls for her immediate resignation as her deal lies in ruins.

If nothing is agreed – such as a further extension to Brexit – then the UK will leave the EU on 12th April. Depending on your point of view we will ‘crash out’ with no deal, or we will move to trading on World Trade Organisation terms. The situation is further complicated by European elections, due to be held in late May: if the UK is still in the EU then it must send MEPs to Brussels.

Europe

The news in Europe was not good. March began with the revelation that EU manufacturing was facing its worst downturn for six years. The European Central Bank was once again forced to act, offering banks cheap loans to try and revive the Eurozone economy.

But will it get any better? For decades there have been three basic facts of life about cars: cars were driven by people, they were owned by people (or the companies that employed those people) and they were powered by internal combustion engines. Now all of those are under threat and the implications are serious and wide-ranging. The German economy has been the engine powering Europe for the last 10 to 20 years. As countries like Italy have had a decade of virtually no growth, Germany has produced a remorseless balance of payments surplus.

The German car industry employs more than 800,000 people: it accounts for around 20% of the country’s exports. If car production switches to driverless cars made in the Far East and/or California, then the implications for Europe are severe.

So, given their less than cordial relationship with the EU of late, it was no surprise to see Italy roll out the red carpet for Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. We have written previously about China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and – with worries about the German car industry and the French economy stagnating – why wouldn’t the populist government in Italy look to closer ties with China? Despite the concerns of her European neighbours the upside for Italy is clear – a flood of Chinese investment and greater access to Chinese markets and raw materials.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands a new populist, anti-immigration party led by Thierry Baudet – inevitably dubbed the ‘Dutch Donald Trump’ – became the largest party in the Dutch Senate. With European elections due in May we can certainly expect to see far more Eurosceptic MEPs returned – which perhaps explains why the EU would prefer the UK not to take part in those elections…

On European stock markets the German DAX index had a very quiet month, rising just 10 points to 11,526. The French market did better, rising 2% in March to 5,351 where it is up by an impressive 13% for the year to date. The German index is up by 9% for the first three months of 2019.

US

It’s interesting to note that as the German car industry faces its biggest-ever threat, most of my notes for the US section of the Bulletin also concern their car industry. But it is not the traditional players like Ford and Chrysler – rather it’s the new kids on the block: Tesla, Uber and Lyft.

March got off to a bad start in the US as figures showed that the US had created just 20,000 jobs in February, well below expectations of 180,000 and the lowest figure since September 2017 when employment was impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It was therefore little surprise later in the month when the Federal Reserve announced that it does not expect to raise interest rates for the rest of this year, voting unanimously to keep the US interest rate range between 2.25% and 2.5%.

Facebook suffered its longest ‘down’ time for more than ten years as the company’s main social network plus Instagram and message-sharing were all down for 14 hours. Meanwhile Levi’s – a company that has been around for rather longer than Facebook – returned to the US stock market and saw its shares leap by 32% on the first day of trading.

But the really interesting news was in the car industry as ride-sharing app Lyft made its stock market debut valued at $24bn (£18.5bn), making it the biggest IPO since China’s Alibaba. However, that figure will be dwarfed when Uber comes to the market, with early indications that the ride-sharing company – which is still losing billions of dollars – will be valued at around $120bn (£92bn). With the news that Tesla is also on course to outsell BMW and Mercedes in the US, there are very clear warning signs for the traditional car industry – and for the places it is based and the people it employs.

On Wall Street the Dow Jones index had a quiet month: it finished March up just 13 points at 25,929. It is, though, another market which has done really well in the first three months of the year, rising by 11% since 1st January.

Far East

March ended with real optimism about the US/China trade talks, so it was no surprise to see China’s stock market up by 5% in the month.

At the beginning of March there was much less optimism, and some continuing tension as China temporarily stopped customs clearance for Tesla’s new M3 car.

The trade dispute had certainly taken its toll as figures revealed that Chinese exports in February suffered their biggest fall for three years – down nearly 21% on the previous year.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government looked to domestic demand to counter this, unveiling a raft of tax cuts. China’s de facto number two, Li Keqiang, warned that the country faced “a tough struggle” as he laid out plans to bolster the economy. Opening the annual session of China’s parliament, he forecast slower growth of 6% to 6.5% this year, down from the 2018 target of 6.5%. He duly unveiled plans to boost spending with tax cuts totally $298bn (£229bn).

Meanwhile the soap opera around Chinese telecoms company Huawei rumbled on as the US told Germany to drop the company, warning that any deal to let Huawei participate in the German 5G network could ‘harm intelligence sharing.’ Huawei continued to deny that their products posed any security threat, and had the last laugh as figures for 2018 showed that their sales had passed $100bn. Total revenues were 720bn yuan ($107bn £82bn) with profits up by 25%.

The Shanghai Composite Index’s 5% rise meant that it closed March at 3,091 where it is up by an impressive 24% for the year to date. The Hong Kong Market was only up 1% in the month to 29,051 but is up by 12% for the first quarter of the year. The Japanese and South Korean markets turned in much more subdued performances, falling by 1% and 2% to end the month at 21,206 and 2,141 respectively. For the first three months of the year Japan is up by 6% and South Korea by 5%.

Emerging Markets

March was a relatively quiet month for the Emerging Markets section of the Bulletin with two of the major markets we cover unchanged in percentage terms. The Brazilian stock market closed the month down just 169 points at 95,415 while the Russian market managed a gain of just 12 points to 2,497. However both markets have done well in the first quarter of the year, with the Brazilian market up by 9% and Russia up by 5%.

It was a much better month for the Indian stock market, which rose 8% to close March at 38,673. It is up by 7% for the first quarter of the year.

And finally…

Gloucestershire pensioner Stephen Mckears was baffled. Every night he left a few things out on his workbench (in his garden shed, where else) and every morning they were neatly back in their plastic tub.

It wasn’t Mrs Mckears doing some late night cleaning and neither was it a friendly neighbourhood ghost. So what was it? Questioning his own sanity, Stephen set up a camera in his garden shed with the help of a neighbour.

He discovered that a mouse was tidying his workbench. Whatever Stephen left out, the mouse duly tidied away in the plastic tub. “I’ve started calling him Brexit Mouse,” quipped Stephen, “As he’s stockpiling things for Brexit!”

Sadly, all too many of us are addicted to the occasional McDonald’s and, to help us with our choice, the chain has just spent $300m (£227m) on an Israeli technology company that specialises in artificial intelligence. According to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook “It [the AI] can know the time of day and it can know the weather” thereby helping the chain serve the right food for both the time of day and the weather.

Now call us old-fashioned but we wonder whether you really need to spend over £200m to know that you should take the breakfast menu off at three in the afternoon.

Maybe we’re wrong…

December Market Commentary

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Introduction

It is always difficult writing a report like this, as you are always trying to ‘hit a moving target.’ While you can record the stock market levels at the close of business on, say,  30th November, there is always the risk that the commentary is overtaken by events.

That has never been more true than this month: we wrote these notes on Monday 3rd December and, of course, you have to press ‘publish’ at some stage. However, we are very conscious that the situation regarding Brexit – and perhaps also the civil unrest in France – may have moved on by the time you read this.

That said, on to business, and the majority of the stock markets on which we report in this commentary enjoyed a good, if unspectacular, November. There were also some signs at the end of the month that the trade war between the US and China might at least be thawing. Following a meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina, the two countries agreed not to impose any further tariffs for 90 days, to allow talks to take place.

Away from stock markets the oil price fell below $70 a barrel for the first time since April – leading to calls for a reduction in the price of petrol – and those of you who keep an eye on the performance of cryptocurrencies will have seen that Bitcoin had a disastrous month. The price of the virtual currency fell by 37% in the month, and – when we checked the price over the weekend – stood at £3,107.

UK

Despite the political chaos in the UK there was plenty of good news for the economy in November with figures for the third quarter (July to September) confirming that it had grown at 0.6%, three times faster than the equivalent rate in Europe.

There was more good news as figures showed that wages rose by 3.2% in the same three month period, the fastest rate of wage growth for almost a decade. However, people did not appear to be spending the money on the high street, which once again lost out to online shopping in the Black Friday/Cyber Monday bonanza. And there was more gloom for town centres as Thomas Cook issued its second profit warning in two months, blaming the record-breaking summer.

The retail picture did not improve when Marks and Spencer reported falling sales for food and clothing, and a report from management consultants PwC said that retailers were facing their ‘toughest trading conditions for five years’ with 14 shops closing every day.

New car sales were also down and 850 jobs were lost as Michelin closed its factory in Dundee.

But against that, profits at the UK’s publicly listed companies jumped nearly 14% in the third quarter of the year, pushing total profits over the last 12 months to a record £217.9bn.

Sadly, the FT-SE 100 index of leading shares sided with shop closures not record profits and closed November down 2% at 6,980. The pound had a relatively quiet month – despite the continuing uncertainty over Brexit – and ended the month trading at $1.2748.

Brexit

In 1942, as the tide of World War II finally began to turn in the Allies’ favour, Winston Churchill said, “It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Is that where we are now with Brexit? Theresa May has done a deal with the European Union. According to the campaign group Leave Means Leave, it is ‘the worst deal in history’ seeing the UK paying £39bn and getting nothing in return.

According to Downing Street, it is the best possible deal and a triumph for the Prime Minister’s dogged diplomacy. It is vastly superior to a Canada or Norway-style deal,  the dreaded ‘no deal,’ or staying in the EU. It is a deal that ‘delivers on the result of the referendum’ and the full Government publicity machine has been wheeled out to support it.

Well, we shall see next week, when the MPs vote on the deal. At the moment it looks likely to be defeated, as Conservative MPs and ex-ministers line up to criticise it.

Quite possibly it will be heavily defeated and the Opposition will table a motion of no confidence in the government, leading to a General Election. Quite possibly there will be more late night meetings and trips to Brussels and a new deal will come back to parliament. Quite possibly Theresa May will be replaced as Prime Minister. Quite possibly we could have a second referendum – the so-called ‘People’s Vote.’

So no, it does not look like we have reached the beginning of the end, or even the end of the beginning. The picture may be a little less murky by the end of December, if only because some options – almost certainly the current deal – will have been ruled out.

At the moment, we are still due to leave the European Union on 29th March next year: We have written previously that we could see that date being pushed back to allow ‘more time for constructive talks with our European partners.’

Europe

The big story in Europe came at the end of the month as the worst civil unrest since 1968 broke out in France.

The headlines had French President Emmanuel Macron threatening to impose a state of emergency and demanding new police powers as he struggled to contain the unrest, with 75,000 people estimated to have taken part in the action over the weekend.

The Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Jackets/Vests) movement began three weeks ago as a protest against Macron’s climate change inspired fuel tax rises. But in reality it goes deeper than that as protesters claim that Macron is a ‘president of the rich’ who does not care about the concerns of ordinary French people and the higher living costs they are facing.

A recent poll showed that Macron had broken new ground by becoming the most unpopular French President ever at this stage of a Presidency – he is roughly 1½ years into a five-year term – with populist leader Marine le Pen (whom he beat in the Presidential election) now more popular.

Quite where Macron goes from here is anyone’s guess. It is not just the fuel protests: growth in the Eurozone has slowed to a four year low, and France still has a high level of unemployment – 9.3% in August, which is far closer to the 9.7% of Italy than it is to the 3.4% in Germany.

In other news, the government in Italy continued to defy the EU over its proposed Budget – although there were no such budgetary worries for France and Germany as they agreed a new budget for the whole Eurozone.

In company news, Volkswagen became the latest company to plough huge sums of money into electric cars as it committed to spending $50bn (£39bn) and announced plans to become the world’s most profitable manufacturer of electric vehicles. Given that the emissions scandal is reported to have cost the company $30bn (£23.6bn), it probably has some catching up to do…

Neither of Europe’s major stock markets enjoyed a good month. The German DAX index was down by 2% to 11,257 and the French index fell by a similar amount, ending November at 5,004.

US

Barely two months ago Apple won the race to be the first company valued at a trillion dollars (£780bn), but throughout November the shares slid as investors worried about declining iPhone sales and the company’s vulnerability to a protracted dispute between the US and China.

As we have written elsewhere, those fears may now be receding but Apple has now been overtaken by Huawei as the world’s second largest manufacturer of smart phones (and by Microsoft as the world’s most valuable company). There are mutterings that the innovation and attention to detail of former CEO Steve Jobs is being missed.

There was better news for the wider US economy, which added 250,000 new jobs in October, saw wages rise by 3.1% and unemployment down to 3.7%. “Wow! Incredible numbers. Keep it going,” tweeted the Commander-in-Chief.

But there was less good news for Donald Trump as the US mid-term elections saw the Democrats gain 40 seats in Congress and regain a measure of control. Previously, the President had benefited from Republican control of both the Senate and Congress, and this may make it more difficult to get some of his more contentious proposals approved.

In other company news, Amazon finally announced the location of its second HQ – and went for both New York and Virginia. Uber may be struggling to afford even one HQ: it lost a cool $1.07bn (£821m) in the three months to September, as it prepares for a public share offering next year.

Fortunately, the Dow Jones index does contain some companies that cling to the hopelessly outdated notion that the profit and loss account should be in the black, and rose 2% in November to end the month at 25,538.

Far East

The month began with Chinese leader Xi Jinping promising to cut import tariffs and open up the Chinese economy, amid continuing criticism that its trade practices are ‘unfair.’ Xi was speaking at a Shanghai trade expo and also made a robust defence of the global free trade system, widely seen as an attack on the US as the tariff war continued.

However, there was perhaps a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel by the end of the month following the G20 summit in Argentina: as we noted in the introduction, the two countries agreed not to increase tariffs any further for 90 days to allow time for talks.

A week after Xi’s speech and China turned its attention to the annual shopping bonanza which is Singles Day (on 11th November) which far outstrips Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Once again all online records were broken as Alibaba – roughly China’s equivalent of Amazon – took $1bn (£780m) in just 85 seconds of trading.

Over in Japan, it was a very different picture as the economy contracted by an annualised rate of 1.2% in the third quarter, with the blame placed on natural disasters. Japan has been hit by both a typhoon and an earthquake this year, which have significantly impacted the economy.

Also ‘significantly impacted’ were the shares of Nissan which slumped after boss Carlos Ghosn was arrested, for under-reporting his income by the small matter of £34.5m over the last five years.

There were also problems for Huawei, as New Zealand became the latest country to ban purchases of mobile networks from the company, as it expressed security concerns, following similar action in Australia.

It was a better month on the region’s stock markets, with only China’s Shanghai Composite Index falling in November. That was down by 1% to 2,588, but the other three major markets in the region all rose. Hong Kong led the way with a rise of 6% to 26,507 whilst South Korea was up 3% to 2,097. Despite the gloomy news on the economy the Japanese market also rose, finishing November up 2% at 22,351.

Emerging Markets

It was a quiet month for the emerging markets which we cover, with no major news stories, although clearly the continuing tension between Russia and the Ukraine looks as though it has the potential to flare up at any moment.

On the stock markets India led the way with a rise of 5% in the month, ending November at 36,194. The markets in Russia and Brazil both rose by 2%, to close at 2,392 and 89,504 respectively.

And finally…

The month kicked off in good style as Bradley Stoke Town FC of the Bristol and District League signed a player called… Bradley Stokes. It would certainly make it easier for the fans if teams only signed players with a similar name…

Meanwhile in Holland, Emile Ratelband – presumably unable to find a team called FC Ratelband – contented himself with bringing a lawsuit to lower his age. “We live in an age where you can change your name and change your gender,” said 69 year old Emile, “So why can’t I change my age?” Being 69 is, apparently, harming Emile’s chances on the dating app Tinder.

Still young, but clearly with plenty to worry about, are the students of Leeds Trinity University. Lecturers there have been told to avoid capital letters in their handouts as they can ALARM STUDENTS and ‘scare them into failure.’

Fortunately, the students do not live in North Korea where they would be alarmed to find that only fifteen haircuts for men and women are approved by the state. And no, you are not allowed to sit in the chair and say “I’ll have a trim Jong-un, please.” No-one is allowed to have a haircut like the beloved leader…

Finally, a nod of acknowledgement to the state broadcasting corporation in China which has introduced virtual reality newsreaders powered by artificial intelligence. Our sources tell us that the BBC will not be following suit. We can understand that: after all, there’d be no-one left to appear on Strictly…

November Markets in brief

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

November was an average, if unspectacular, month for global markets. This will be welcome news for many investors – it followed an October that investors described using language ranging from ‘slightly worrying’ to ‘catastrophic’ depending on where their money was invested, and events were interpreted on a scale of ‘massive fall’ to ‘temporary speed bump’ or a ‘natural rebalancing of markets’.

UK

In spite of the political turmoil around Brexit, there was some good news for the British economy, with figures for the third quarter (July to September) confirming that it had grown at 0.6%, three times faster than the equivalent rate in Europe. Over the same period, wages rose by 3.2%. Great news for now. However, as political events around Brexit run their course, the potential for widespread economic disruption remains.

The FTSE 100 fell by 2%, to close November down at 6,980, with anxiety about the ability of the US and China to end their trade dispute at the G20 summit hanging over the market like a dark cloud.

Europe

France suffered its worst period of civil unrest since 1968, with widespread protests against Macron’s heavy taxation of fuel gripping the country. He is currently the most unpopular president at this early stage of his presidency; just 18 months into a 5 year term.

Elsewhere on the continent, Italy’s right-wing government continue to defy the EU over their proposed budget. This saw an iffy month for Europe’s major markets. The German DAX and the French index both fell by 2%, down to 11,256 and 5,004 respectively.

US

There was good news for the US economy, which added 250,000 new jobs in October, saw wages rise by 3.1% and unemployment down to 3.7%. A strong showing to say the least.

The stock markets performed intermediately with the Dow Jones rising 2% in November to 25,538 and the NASDAQ fell slightly to 7,330.

Far East

There is possibly a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel in the US-China trade war. At the G20 summit, the two nations agreed not to increase tariffs for 90 days to allow time for talks. Supported by a retail boost on Singles Day, the Chinese annual shopping bonanza, the country’s stock markets had a ‘less bad’ month than the last few, with the Shanghai Composite Index falling just 1% to 2,588.

Elsewhere in the region, Hong Kong led the way with a rise of 6% to 26,507 whilst South Korea was up 3% to 2,097. Japan also rose, despite its economy contracting by 1.2% in the last quarter, finishing the month at 22,351, up 2%.

The next month looks to be unsettled, with Brexit chaos likely to crescendo over the next few weeks.

October market commentary

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Introduction

On Tuesday, 3rd November 2020 the United States will go to the polls to elect its next President. All the indications are that Donald Trump will stand for a second term and if the words of Bill Clinton – “It’s the economy, stupid” – are to be believed, he will win.

While not wanting to make a political comment or endorse his policies in any way that be welcome to some extent – he does provide plenty of news and entertainment for these commentaries, after all. September was no exception, as he ramped up the trade war with China, ordering tariffs on a further $200bn (£154bn) of Chinese imports, which will include electronic products and consumer goods such as handbags.

These tariffs will see the cost of the Chinese imports rise by as much as 25% and – not surprisingly – Beijing was quick to respond, slapping tariffs of between 5% and 10% on a range of US products. Especially targeted were agricultural products, which largely come from states which have strong Republican majorities – a point which the President duly made on Twitter.

It is interesting to look at the relative stock market performance in the two countries. Despite the trade war, the US stock market is up by 7% this year. Although tech stocks were hit by the latest round of tariffs, the US stock market loves Donald Trump. The Dow was below 20,000 on his Inauguration Day in January 2017: it closed September above 26,000.

What happened in the rest of the world? There was the usual mixed news in the UK and – as we shall see – absolutely no progress on Brexit. In the US, Amazon became the second company to be valued at a trillion dollars – roughly £770bn. The country was hit by Hurricane Florence, but far more damage was done in the Far East by Typhoon Mangkhut, which hit the Philippines, Hong Kong and Southern China.

On the world’s stock markets it was generally a good month: India was the only major economy on which we report to see a significant fall during September. More worryingly, however, the oil price hit a four year high of around $81 a barrel, as both Saudi Arabia and Russia rejected President Trump’s calls to increase production.

UK

As with every month this year, September brought more gloom for the beleaguered UK high street, as Debenhams called in advisers from KPMG amid suggestions that it may close up to 80 stores. There were no ‘suggestions’ from RBS, who announced that it would be closing a further 54 branches and John Lewis – long held out as the one bright spot among department stores – saw its profits crash by 99% when the latest results were announced.

Tesco, though, was in a more buoyant mood as it launched Jack’s, the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ arm of the company we wrote about recently. The aim is to wrest market share back from Aldi and Lidl: we shall see whether it succeeds or whether Tesco simply ends up competing with itself.

In the wider economy, there was some good news, as the UK benefitted from the warm weather and the World Cup. Figures for July showed that the UK economy had grown at its fastest pace for a year, and the Office for National Statistics announced that the economy had grown by 0.5% in the last three months of 2017, compared to the previously announced 0.4%.

Unemployment came down by a further 3,000 to 1.44m: that means that the UK has an unemployment rate of 4.3% – the lowest for more than 40 years. However, inflation did edge back up to 2.7%, the highest level for six months.

…But no doubt, Chancellor Philip Hammond, will soon have that under control. Having given every indication that he would deliver his Budget speech in November, he has brought it forward to 29th October. He had apparently intended to deliver the speech on 31st October until it was pointed out to him that the Budget would coincide with Hallowe’en and that the headline writers would have a field day with ‘Hammond’s House of Horrors.’ So Monday 29th it is…

In construction news, it was announced that London’s Crossrail project will open nine months behind schedule and HS2 – latest projected cost £56bn – promised to deliver between 15,000 and 30,000 new jobs.

The FT-SE 100 index of leading shares had a quiet month in September but at least it moved in the right direction, rising by 1% to 7,510. The pound was more or less unchanged against the dollar and ended the month at $1.3031.

Brexit

So here we are: less than six months to go until 29th March 2019 when the UK will – in theory – exit the EU. The countdown has begun – although the word ‘countdown’ rather implies that something definite is going to happen. Right now any option still appears to be possible: in fact, a new option seems to crop up every day.

We left this section last month with Prime Minister Theresa May having presented her ‘Chequers’ plan for Brexit. September started with Tory MPs from all sides of the party rubbishing the plan and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier dismissing it as unworkable. ‘Barnier Rubble’ was the neat summary in one newspaper’s headline.

Throughout the month there were increasingly dire warnings of the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Both BMW and Jaguar warned of factory closures and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said that house prices could fall by 35% over 3 years in the event of ‘no deal’ – although if you, or your children, are struggling to get on the housing ladder you may regard that as no bad thing.

Theresa May duly trooped off to Salzburg to meet the other European leaders and according to your viewpoint, was either ‘ambushed’ or got exactly what the UK’s negotiating position deserved. ‘EU Dirty Rats’ proclaimed the pro-Brexit Sun.

So another month has passed and once again we are no further forward. The Prime Minister danced on to the stage at the Conservative party conference and in her speech dismissed calls for a second referendum – defending her plan for a free trade deal that would provide ‘frictionless trade in goods’.

Meanwhile, there will be calls for a ‘Canada-style’ deal, Boris Johnson will continue to promote ‘Super Canada’ and pro-Remain MPs will still call for a People’s vote.

Europe

Perhaps the big story in Europe came in Sweden, where both main parties saw a sharp decline in their votes as the nationalist, anti-immigration Swedish Democrats won nearly 18% of the vote. The country’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was ousted after losing a no-confidence motion and the country now faces a period of uncertainty as the politicians try to form a workable coalition.

The politics of Naples have, traditionally, been rather simpler. It has a tradition for pizza and the Mafia. But now the city – like so many in Europe – is seeking to re-invent itself as a tech capital, with both Apple and Cisco setting up academies in the Southern Italian city. Hopefully, this will reverse the brain-drain which has seem so many of Southern Italy’s young graduates leave for jobs abroad, or in the north of the country.

On Europe’s stock markets the two major indices went in opposite directions in September. The French index was up by 2% to end the month at 5,493 but the German DAX index slipped back by 1% to close at 12,247.

US

In September, Donald Trump tied up a US/South Korea trade deal and has just negotiated a ‘modernised’ trade deal with Canada to replace the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Away from the Oval Office, it was generally a good month for the US economy, which added 201,000 jobs in August as unemployment remained low at 3.9% and wage growth rose by its fastest pace for nine years, reaching an annualised rate of 2.9%.

However, this did prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates by a further 0.25% taking them to a range of 2% to 2.25%. This was the eighth rate increase since 2015 – with another one expected later this year – as the Fed maintains its policy of gradual rate rises.

As we noted in the introduction, Amazon followed Apple in being valued at more than a trillion dollars as its share price reached $2,050 (£1,577). Not to be outdone Apple unveiled a raft of new products including yet another version of the iPhone: it’s called the XS if you want to upgrade.

There was less good news at Tesla as Elon Musk’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and the month ended with him being accused of fraud and removed as the company’s chair, after he reached a deal with US regulatory authorities over a tweet saying he planned to take the company private. Quite what the future now holds for him and the loss-making company is anyone’s guess.

It was another good month on Wall Street: as we mentioned in the introduction, the threat of a trade war has seen the Chinese stock market fall 14% this year. In contrast the Dow Jones index is up by 7% for the year-to-date, and rose by 2% in September to end the month at 26,458.

Far East

Donald Trump was not the only one shaking hands and smiling for the cameras after making a deal. Also getting in on the act were Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the respective leaders of North and South Korea. President Moon made a historic trip to North Korea, and the meeting moved the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula significantly closer, as Kim promised to close one of his country’s main missile testing and launch sites.

Sadly, it wasn’t just Florida that was hit by hurricane season, as Typhoon Mangkhut, which killed dozens of people in the Philippines, moved on to batter Hong Kong and Southern China. The bill for the clean up is already estimated at $120bn (£92bn) and is likely to rise further.

We have commented below on the expected rise of the Indian economy over the next ten years: HSBC’s report also forecast that growth in China will continue to outstrip the West. A further report – from London based think tank Z/Yen – suggested that the growth in the Far East is going to put increasing pressure on London and New York as financial centres. Far Eastern cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing are surging and Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo have been long established among the world’s leading financial centres.

In company news, founder and CEO Jack Ma announced that he would step down from his position at e-commerce giant Alibaba next year, to let ‘younger, more talented people’ take on the leadership roles. Mr Ma has a net worth of around £28bn, so goodness knows what ‘more talented’ people will achieve.

September was a good month for Far Eastern stock markets. The Chinese Shanghai Composite index shrugged off the worries about a trade war with the US, rising 4% to 2,821 (although it remains down for the year as a whole). Pride of place went to Japan where the Nikkei Dow was up 6% to 24,142. The South Korean market was up 1% to 2,343 while the market in Hong Kong was virtually unchanged, closing September at 27,789.

Emerging Markets

As far as newspaper headlines went, the big story in September was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro being photographed eating steak cooked by Turkish celebrity chef Salt Bae – while at home millions are starving and the country sees the biggest mass migration of people in South America’s history.

In rather ‘harder’ news, economists at HSBC have forecast that India will overtake the UK, Germany, France and Japan to become the third largest economy in the world. The forecasters are expecting growth of 6% in India, with China’s growth slowing to 5% per annum. India will, however, lag a long way behind the world’s two biggest economies, with HSBC forecasting that by 2030 China’s GDP will be £26tn, ahead of the US on £25.2tn and India on £5.9tn.

So good news for India but there was far less good news for Argentina, which is fast becoming South America’s equivalent of Greece. The country’s GDP has fallen sharply, the government is implementing widespread austerity measures and the International Monetary Fund has had to increase its three year bailout programme to $57bn (£43bn) from the $50bn previously announced.

Despite the optimistic forecasts, the Indian stock market had a disappointing month, falling by 6% to end September at 36,227. In contrast, the other two major emerging markets we cover were both up, with Brazil rising 3% to 79,342 and the Russian market rising an impressive 5% to 2,475.

And finally…

At the beginning of this month, it was reported that the Coca Cola Company was buying Costa, the coffee chain which dominates the UK high street. It seems a ‘trip’ to town may be about to take on another meaning.

According to Canada’s BNN Bloomberg, Coke is in talks with a local producer – Aurora Cannabis – about developing marijuana-infused drinks. Before you dig out your flares and queue outside Costa, we should stress that the aim of the drinks is to relieve pain: Coke describes them as ‘functional wellness beverages.’ But who knows? A mix up in the bottling plant and suddenly your local high street might look a rather different place…

Already apparently ‘under the influence’ are the customers of Derby ice cream maker Gavin Murray, who faces a bill of £1,000 from his local council after not quite getting the balance right in his ‘rum n’ raisin’ flavour. Mr Murray started his business four months ago, but the killjoys at the council have decreed his ‘rum n’ raisin’ to be ‘too alcoholic.’ He now faces paying the council the money for the correct paperwork – or modifying his ice cream making to burn off the alcohol. And presumably disappointing a large queue…

Finally, this month there will be people – especially with the Christmas party season on the horizon – who find that their clothes have mysteriously shrunk. The traditional answer was to nip down to Weight Watchers – but not any more. The company has jumped on the re-branding wagon by shedding the ‘weight’ and will henceforth be known simply as ‘WW,’ which, the company says, reflects its focus on ‘overall health and wellness.’

There’s that ‘wellness’ word again. Perhaps WW could link up with Coke. And if that doesn’t work there’s always Mr Murray’s rum n’ raisin…

10 years on from Lehman: what have we learned?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

The financial crash after the Lehman Brothers collapse saw the biggest global monetary crisis since the end of WW2. It led to a lost economic decade for many – average incomes in the UK still languish far behind their 2008 peak.

15 September 2008, the fall of Lehman sent shockwaves around the world. It was (and still is) the largest bankruptcy of all time. The colossal investment bank fell with $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt.

Founded in Montgomery, Alabama by German immigrants in 1850, the firm grew towards the end of the 19th century as America became an economic powerhouse. For an investment bank that survived the railroad bankruptcies of the 1800s, the Great Depression of the 1930s and two World Wars, it was a reckless rush into the doomed subprime mortgage market that proved a fatal error.

What happened?

In the early 2000s, the US housing boom (read, bubble) was well underway. After the dotcom bubble burst around the year 2000, investors began to put their money in real estate, causing its value to rise. In addition to this, in order to widen their customer base, mortgage lenders began to offer riskier mortgages.

Interest rates plummeted and strict lending requirements were abandoned, meaning many Americans were buying homes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford under normal circumstances. There was a home-buying frenzy that drove prices up between 50 and 100 per cent, depending on the part of the country.

US bankers had developed the lucrative business of buying up subprime mortgages (high-risk mortgages offered to borrowers with low credit ratings), packaging them together with other mortgages using vastly complicated equations to create derivatives which obscured the actual level of risk present in the security.

It was in this environment that Lehman Brothers acquired five mortgage lenders in 2003 and 2004, including a lender that offered subprime mortgages. At first, Lehman reaped significant rewards from its foray into the mortgages market. Its mortgages business drove record growth – Lehman reported record profits every year from 2005 to 2007.

However, things were about to take a turn for the worse for this finance giant. In the first quarter of 2007, cracks in the housing market were becoming clear. Investors were quickly withdrawing and prices began to fall fast. It was clear that the high house prices were supported by speculators, rather than home-buyers themselves.

When prices started to decline, there was a mass sell-off of mortgage-backed securities. Concerns that problems in the mortgage arm of the business would spread through the rest of the firm caused its stock to suffer the largest one-day drop in five years on 14 March 2007.

Over the next year, the firm remained on the rocks. Hedge fund managers began questioning the valuation of Lehman’s mortgage portfolio and Bear Stearns – the second-largest underwriter of mortgage-backed securities – nearly collapsed. By June 2008, the bank was reporting large losses. Over the summer, Lehman attempted negotiations to a number of potential partners, with the hope of attracting investments. All were unsuccessful.

In September 2008, worldwide equity markets began to plummet and Lehman’s stock plunged to new lows. The firm reported huge losses during the third quarter and Moody’s announced that Lehman Brothers would have to sell a majority stake to a strategic partner in order to avoid a ratings downgrade. These proved a fatal blow, on 11 September stock fell by 42% on a single day. Last ditch efforts to save the bank were unsuccessful and on 15 September the investment bank finally declared bankruptcy.

The financial crisis

Lehman Brothers’ collapse wasn’t the start of the financial crisis. Rather, the fall of the fourth largest US investment bank signalled just how bad things had become and caused US and international markets to roil for weeks afterwards.

For previous years, bank executives had been over-investing their profits (and bonuses) by running down their protective capital, making them increasingly vulnerable to deteriorating market conditions. They had a relatively low amount of stable assets or cash available to sustain them during difficult times. Lehman Brothers, for instance, was incredibly over-leveraged. Its ratio of total assets to shareholders equity was 31 in 2007.

As a whole, the global financial system had been under severe stress for over a year. While Lehman Brothers were allowed to fall, many others were bailed out. JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup and Wells Fargo & Co were bailed out to the tune of $25 billion by the US treasury and this side of the pond RBS received £45.5 billion from the British government. Money that Sir Howard Davies, Chairman of the bank, admits is “unlikely” the government will ever see again.

In the UK, every man, woman and child effectively underwrote the country’s financial sector by £19,271 each. While income inequality has decreased since the 2008 crash in the UK, in America things are worse than ever. In 2016, the median net worth of black families was 30% below pre-crisis levels, at $17,150. The financial crisis ushered in a legacy of poverty for the poorest American families. This begs the question: ten years on, what has the financial world done to prevent it happening again?

How much has global finance changed since 2008?

It is difficult to say…

On the whole, global financial markets haven’t changed greatly since the crash. But, some of the standout practices that caused the financial crash are prohibited or strictly regulated and banks are probably slightly safer than they once were.

Many critics cited a ‘greed is good’ culture, driven by a thirst for bonuses as integral to the financial crash. Bosses and traders were rewarded with cash bonuses for achieving short term goals. Bonuses in the UK have fallen year on year since they peaked at 34% of average total pay for finance workers in 2008. In 2016, they amounted to 22.7% – still a sizable sum – but a smaller sum nonetheless.

After the financial crash, in 2014 the EU introduced a cap on bankers’ bonuses at 100% fixed pay or 200% if they are agreed by shareholders. However, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney indicated in November 2017 that the UK will review a cap on banker bonuses after Britain leaves the EU. Just ten years after the financial crisis, we look set to return to a landscape of unrestricted bonuses.

Contrary to the expectations of many, McKinsey report that global debt has grown by $72 trillion since 2007. Many saw the crisis as a direct consequence of unrestricted borrowing and hoped that the pace of borrowing would decrease. However, much of this debt is from developing countries or corporations within them. Maybe, then, the West at least has begun to see that the pitfalls of unrestricted borrowing potentially outweigh the benefits.

Nowadays, banks may be more resilient to financial crises. International liquidity standards mean that banks must have a higher ratio of equity to debt. This has meant that banks have more capital to absorb temporary losses. As of 2017, US and European banks had on average a Tier 1 capital ratio of 15%, compared to 4% in 2007. Now, it is less likely that an economic downturn would result in widespread government bailouts for banks, as happened in 2008.

However, the financial sector is still voracious for high returns, delivered fast. Many of the senior bankers and bosses responsible for the crash faced little sanction. Most are either retired or in other senior roles. Despite his catastrophic mismanagement, Lehman Brothers’ final CEO Richard Fuld recently made a Wall Street comeback. He is now running a fund manager, Matrix Private Capital. Perhaps he has been forgiven and his past forgotten slightly too quickly. As for the rest of the financial sector, although it may be more resistant to financial crises of the future, there is little to suggest that the culture which caused the financial crisis has greatly changed.

September market briefing

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

September has a reputation for being the worst month for investing, something the figures confirm. Since 1950, the Dow Jones has declined by an average of 0.8% in September and similar results can be seen across a range of stock indexes. There are many theories to why this is the case, none of which offer much in the way of a concrete explanation. Thankfully, this year stock markets bucked the trend and, generally speaking, September saw the global markets perform strongly.

In London, the FTSE 100 had an unremarkable month, seeing a rise of 1% to 7,510. Ultimately, a rise is still a rise so this should be welcome. Elsewhere in the British economy, the news is a mixed bag. The high street had a ghastly month; Debenhams suggested that they may close up to 80 stores and RBS announced the closure of 55 branches. Even John Lewis, the ‘golden boy’ of British department stores, saw its profits crash by 99% this month.

Unemployment – at just 4.3% – is at its lowest for over 40 years. However, the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit would mean that unemployment will rise substantially. During the month, both Jaguar and BMW warned of factory closures in the event of ‘no deal’. What’s more, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said that house prices could fall by 35% over 3 years if the government and the EU can’t come to an agreement. So as well as the high mobile phone roaming charges which are thought to return after Brexit, you might also find yourself in negative equity.

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, the US stock markets love him. September was another good month on Wall Street. The Dow Jones rose by 2% during the month to end up at 26,458, a 7% total rise since the start of the year.

Otherwise, Trump continued his assault on Chinese trade. He announced during the month a that a further $200 billion worth of tariffs would come into effect later this year. China seems to be fairing much worse than the US in their ‘trade war’; its stock markets have fallen by 14% since January, though the Chinese Shanghai Composite index did rise by 4% during September.

Over the summer, the Japanese economy returned to growth after shrinking in Q1 of 2018. The Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo was up 6% to 24,142 at the end of the month. Elsewhere in the Far East, the South Korean market rose 1% to 2,343 and Hong Kong ended the month virtually unchanged at 27,789.

The big news in emerging markets was that HSBC economists have forecast that India will soon become the third largest economy, leaving the UK, Germany, France and Japan by the wayside. Following this good news… the Indian stock market had an awful month, falling by 6% to end September at 36,227.

October will be an interesting month. Chancellor Philip Hammond will announce the final budget before Brexit on 29 October, which should outline his answers to the following questions: a) What is the best way to bring down the country’s 2.7% inflation rate? b) How to fund £20bn extra for the NHS by 2023? c) Is raising taxes or borrowing the best way to fund public services? There have even been rumours of a new form of tax, although the details of this are unknown…