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September market commentary

Posts Tagged ‘markets’

September market commentary

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Introduction

August used to be known as the ‘silly season’. Everyone who made the news was away on holiday, nothing happened and newspapers were desperate to fill their pages. So rather more obscure stories made it into print…

That, of course, was before Donald Trump. And Brexit. And Venezuela, Argentina and Greece. And…

In short, August is now just another month and this year it saw the world’s two most powerful economies, the USA and China, continuing their trade war as the US imposed an additional round of tariffs on Chinese imports and Beijing inevitably retaliated. Domestically, there were more woes for Donald Trump as more members of his former inner-circle decided they would rather do a deal with the prosecutors than the President. Could he be impeached? At this stage it would seem unlikely but the net is tightening.

At home, the Chancellor – as Chancellors do – floated the idea of a new tax. Abroad, two South American countries found themselves in deep trouble and Greece emerged from its bailout programme. For now, anyway…

UK

The month in the UK got off to a bad start for borrowers and – hopefully – a good start for savers as interest rates finally rose. The move – from a base rate of 0.5% to 0.75% – had been long expected, with the economy strengthening, consumer spending gradually rising and the Bank of England seeking to get inflation closer to its target rate of 2%.

He may be one of the least charismatic holders of his office, but Chancellor Philip Hammond was at the centre of one of the more interesting stories in August. The month started with news that Amazon’s UK profits had jumped from £24.3m to £72.3m. At this point the Chancellor must have been rubbing his hands in the expectation of some juicy tax receipts but no – Amazon’s tax bill came in at just £4.6m and it was able to defer £2.9m of that, meaning that the Chancellor could expect a cheque for just £1.7m.

As we will report below, August was a month which saw the familiar tale of gloom for UK retail and the Chancellor has often spoken of ‘levelling the playing field’ between online retailers and the traditional high street.

So August saw him float the idea of an ‘Amazon Tax’ – a specific tax on online sales platforms to help traditional retailers. “We want to ensure the high street remains resilient,” he said, “And make sure taxation is fair between businesses doing business the traditional way and those doing business online”.

Will it work? It seems doubtful. Rewind the clock to the beginning of the last century and Hammond would have slapped a special tax on cars to protect the horse and buggy economy. But France and Germany have already introduced their own version of the tax: do not be surprised to see it included when ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ delivers his Autumn Budget speech.

As we mentioned above, August was another poor month for the retail sector in the UK. House of Fraser went into administration and was bought by Sports Direct for £90m – around a tenth of the previous valuation. Marks and Spencer’s mooted more store closures and the month ended with the future of Homebase looking uncertain as 42 stores were closed. However, Coca Cola did give the high street – and the coffee business – a double espresso vote of confidence by agreeing to buy the Costa Coffee chain for £3.9bn.

The sun continued to shine in August and the Office for National Statistics reported the good weather had helped boost the UK’s Gross Domestic Product by 0.4% in the second quarter of the year. There was gloom for the housing market though, with August seeing house prices suffer their biggest month-on-month fall since July 2012. UK car manufacturing was also down in July and profitability in the service sector was at its lowest level for four years. But for those who like their glass half full there was yet another drop in unemployment, as it came down by 63,000 to 1.36m – the lowest level since 1975. The UK also recorded its biggest July surplus of income over expenditure for 18 years – so finally the Chancellor could get excited…

Sadly, the FTSE index of leading shares took its cue from the bad news rather than the good, finishing the month down 4% at 7,432. The pound was also down slightly against the dollar, closing down 1% at $1.3016.

Brexit

There were – inevitably – any number of stories about Brexit during August, the vast majority of them centring on the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, a fantastic opportunity for the UK or a potential disaster depending on your existing viewpoint. What did gradually emerge through the month was the realisation that ‘no deal’ holds as many terrors for the EU as it does for the UK. Perhaps the most relevant story came on the last day of the month, with City AM suggesting that leaders of the EU27 were preparing a ‘fudge’ agreement, allowing both sides to claim victory.

That would be entirely in line with the way the negotiations have preceded so far, and there is still plenty of scope for a last minute decision to extend the UK’s two year notice period beyond 29th March next year. There is a French saying which roughly translates as ‘only the temporary endures’. You would not bet against reading our monthly market commentary in August 2028 and seeing a comment on the UK’s ‘temporary agreement’ with the EU…

There have also been attacks on the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposals both from within her own party and from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The Conservative Party Conference takes place at the end of this month, but the PM’s speech will not be until 3rd October. So it looks like we are in for another month of uncertainty. Keeping with French phrases, ‘Plus ça change…’

Europe

In Europe, the Greek bailout finally ended. On the surface this is good news: Greece is no longer borrowing from the EU, and the government is finally running a surplus. Dig a little deeper though and it is much less cheery – Greece has been left with severe debts which will take generations to repay. A fifth of the population – and a quarter of Greek children – live in severe material deprivation. The unemployment rate remains around 20% with youth unemployment twice that: half a million Greeks have left the country and the financial crisis has wiped out a fifth of the economy. As the old saying goes, only death and taxes are certain, but we can be fairly sure that sooner or later the headlines will be saying ‘Greek Crisis’ again.

Italy, one of the other teetering European economies, set itself on collision course with the EU by announcing a massive €80bn investment in the nation’s infrastructure. The populist government seized on the collapse of the Genoa bridge to announce the plan, hoping that the financial stimulus can boost Italy’s flagging economy. It is a high risk gamble, but Italy’s economy has been virtually stagnant for two decades: the only surprise is that it has taken this long…

Like so many other leading indices, both the major European stock markets were down in August, with the German DAX index dropping 3% to 12,364 and the French stock market falling back by 2% 5,407. At the other end of the stability league table the Greek stock market was down 4% at 730.

US

Let us start off the US section with a success story. At the beginning of the month Apple won the race to become the first trillion dollar company. Better than expected figures, confirming strong sales growth for the more expensive iPhone models, sent the shares to a new high of $207, enough to see Apple beat Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet (the parent company of Google) to the trillion dollar valuation.

There was, though, some gloomy news for the wider economy at the start of the month as US jobs growth slowed in July. Just 157,000 new jobs were created in the month, 33,000 below expectations and well down on the 248,000 created in June. Figures also confirmed that the US service sector had expanded at its slowest rate for 11 months.

As the month progressed, the President continued his high-profile initiatives and interventions, doubling the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium – and sending the Turkish lira plummeting as a result – and doing what he described as an ‘incredible’ trade deal with Mexico and threatening to pull the US out of the World Trade Organisation.

Whatever you think of the President’s actions, by the end of the month the US was awash with good economic news, as figures released for the second quarter showed the US economy had grown at an annualised rate of 4.2%.

Not surprisingly Wall Street liked what it saw, and the Dow Jones index ended August up 2% at 25,965.

Far East

We have covered the China/US trade war above and there was little good news to report for China in August as the stock market fell and there were worrying signs for the Hong Kong property market as monetary tightening by the US federal Reserve forced Hong Kong’s authorities to restrict credit.

There was better news on the other side of the Sea of Japan, with figures for the second quarter showing the Japanese economy returning to growth, as it increased at an annualised rate of 1.9%. Car giant Toyota added to the good news as it posted a 7.2% rise in quarterly net profits, beating expectations and surprising analysts.

On the region’s stock markets, China’s Shanghai Composite index was down 5% on the continuing worries about a trade war with the US, ending the month at 2,725. Hong Kong did only marginally better, falling 2% to 27,889. The other major Far Eastern markets were both up by 1% with the Japanese market closing the month at 22,856 and the South Korean index ending august at 2,323.

Emerging Markets

August was a busy month for the Emerging Markets section of the commentary, beginning with two tales of woe from South America.

Venezuela is in crisis: the country with the highest oil reserves in the world has been brought to its knees by the current government and is now seeing the largest exodus of people in South American history. Meanwhile, Argentina has once again had to go to the International Monetary Fund with the begging bowl and, as we write, interest rates have increased to an eye-watering 60% as the Government attempts to prop up the peso.

India was hit by the floods in Kerala, but the country has seen its fastest quarterly growth in two years as the rupee falls, with the country’s GDP expanding by 8.2% in the second quarter of the year, compared to 7.7% in the first quarter and 5.5% in the same period last year. Unsurprisingly, the stock market was up by 3% in August to close the month at 38,645.

The Russian currency was also hit as the US imposed sanctions in the wake of the Skripal affair, but the stock market still managed a 1% rise to 2,346. No such joy for the other major emerging market we cover, as the Brazilian index declined 3% in August to 76,678.

And finally

Or ‘rather more obscure stories’ as we should perhaps call them this month.

We’ll start ‘and finally’ in the dangerous waters of dating, where a divorcee looking for a wealthy boyfriend won £13,100 in damages from a dating agency after it failed to introduce her to the man of her dreams. Tereza Burki had paid the Seven Thirty agency – based in Knightsbridge – £12,600 but sued for ‘deceit and misrepresentation’. The judge ruled that the dating agency had ‘made promises but failed to produce the goods’.

Not so much ‘plenty of fish in the sea’ as not enough. Poor old Ms Burki spent £12,600 to catch a mackerel but obviously only dated sprats…

Also not having much luck are the UK’s farmers, who are increasingly the victim of rural crime, with villains reportedly enjoying a day out in the countryside and then finishing it by going home on a farmer’s quad bike. Rural crime is now a £44.5m a year problem and while some farmers are fighting back with CCTV and infra-red motion sensors, others are apparently using medieval fortifications, with earth banks, ditches and moats making a comeback.

Farmers, of course, have plenty of land, but the land everyone wants today is in cyberspace, with the BBC reporting that people are spending real money to buy virtual land in a new city called Decentraland. When we say ‘real money’ we obviously mean a virtual currency – Ethereum in this case – but we assume the virtual currency has to be bought with ‘real money’. So you invest money that only exists online buying land in a city that also only exists online. Sometimes, the world seems it’s just getting too complicated…

July market commentary

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Introduction
Let us invite you to travel back in time to June 2016, to the day after the Brexit referendum. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, campaigning in the US Presidential election is in full swing.

You are offered two glimpses into the future. The first is that two years on, the UK has apparently made no real progress in the Brexit negotiations. The second is that Donald Trump has been elected President and has had a successful meeting with Kim Jong-un. You would have dismissed both of them as ridiculous and yet that is exactly what June brought us, as Theresa May called yet another Brexit crisis meeting and President Trump met the leader of North Korea in Singapore.

…And then the President went on to announce a raft of tariffs on imported goods – from both China and Europe – which may well see the threatened global trade war develop. Both China and the EU were swift to announce retaliatory tariffs, and (unsurprisingly) June was a month in which none of the major stock markets we cover managed to gain any ground.

June was also another bad month for the virtual currency Bitcoin. The price has been in steady decline over the last two months and, over the weekend, stood at $6,369 (£4,822). There were two main reasons for the fall as the South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb revealed that it had lost 35bn won (£24m) in a cyber-attack, and governments and regulators around the world – the US Securities and Exchange Commission is the latest – made ominous noises about cutting down on Bitcoin fraud.

In what is surely a sign of things to come, the Canadian province of Quebec halted approvals for Bitcoin mining as it worried about being able to supply electricity to the province.

UK
Sadly, the big story in the UK in June is one which has been written about often in recent times – the continuing decline of retail and the national high street. On the morning of Monday July 2nd, both the Mirror and the Daily Mail led with ‘the battle to save Britain’s high streets’.

Can anything be done? June brought us almost uninterrupted sunshine, and it may well be that the retail figures – like those for May – will show a rebound from the depressing figures disclosed in the Spring. The Mail is reporting that 50,000 retail jobs were lost over the last six months and is calling for an urgent review of ‘crippling business rates’.

Even that may not be enough: the simple fact is that it is easier, quicker, more convenient and cheaper to shop online. Even Costa is starting to struggle, reporting a 2% fall in like-for-like sales in the first three months of the year, which it blamed squarely on a lack of shoppers.

The long term trend was neatly captured by the problems of House of Fraser. On June 4th, it ‘rejected talk of a collapse’: three days later it was announcing that 31 of its stores would close. With M&S also planning a programme of store closures, Debenhams issuing constant profit warnings and 60 bank branches closing every month, the UK high street increasingly looks like it could be an idea whose time has passed.

But let us try and find some good news…

June was a good month for the economic numbers in the UK. Unemployment was down, falling by 38,000 between February and April, and the number of people in work rose to a record 32.4m – up 440,000 on the previous 12 months. That said, wage growth slowed again, so it is to be hoped that inflation does not also start to rise, otherwise we will be back in the realm of falling real wages.

The UK also earned the unofficial title of tech ‘unicorn’ capital of Europe. For those of you that don’t know the term, a ‘unicorn’ is a tech start-up valued at more than $1bn (£757m). The UK is home to 37% of the continent’s ‘unicorns’ and, according to a report for London Tech Week, is the number 1 destination for Europe’s top tech talent.

Rather more mundanely, the Bank of England voted to hold interest rates at their current level, but it is looking increasingly likely that base rates will rise to 0.75%, possibly as early as August.

The month ended with MPs voting overwhelmingly for the expansion of Heathrow airport – but do not expect the diggers to move in for a few years. The move will be widely challenged in the courts by local and environmental campaigners.

Finally, what of the UK stock market? The FTSE 100 index of leading shares had a quiet month. It started June at 7,678 and fell by just 41 points to end the month at 7,637. And it is down just 51 points for the year as a whole, having started 2018 at 7,688.

The pound was also down slightly against the dollar, falling from $1.3299 to $1.3211.

Brexit
As noted in the introduction, June brought us the second anniversary of the vote to leave the EU but we remain no closer to knowing what the final shape of Brexit will be. Airbus and BMW made veiled warnings about the consequences of ‘no deal’ but with Theresa May’s cabinet still squabbling about the shape of the eventual customs partnership, that exact outcome appears to be looking ever more possible.

At the time of writing, the newspaper headlines are telling us that this month’s meetings will be ‘make or break for May’, although it would not be a surprise to see that, once again, a last minute compromise will be cobbled together and that this time next month we will still be no further forward.

Europe
The Italian coalition government has survived its first month in office, even giving an impression of normality as new finance minister Giovanni Tria said that the government was “clear and unanimous” in its decision to remain in the Eurozone.

The main news in Europe was the decision of the ECB to end its huge programme of bond-buying which was introduced in a bid to stimulate the economy of the Eurozone. In a statement, the ECB said that it would halve the current scheme – worth €30bn (£26.6bn) a month – after September “as long as the data remained favourable” and end it completely in December. ECB President, Mario Draghi, acknowledged that Eurozone growth had stuttered recently, but was adamant that the underlying growth “remained strong”.

There was big news for jobs in the steel industry as German industrial group Thyssenkrupp signed a deal with Tata Steel to combine the two companies’ European businesses. The new company will be headquartered in Amsterdam and will have a total workforce of 48,000 – but there are fears of up to 4,000 redundancies.

There could be one more redundancy as well… It is hard to escape the feeling that we are approaching the end of Angela Merkel’s time as German Chancellor as key ally Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, threatened to resign over her immigration policy. In Turkey, Recep Erdogan won a new five year term as president, with some commentators arguing that it effectively spelled the end of the country as a democracy.

On the stock markets, the German DAX index ended June down 2% at 12,306, while the French index was down just 1% at 5,324. At the halfway point in 2018, the German index is down by 5% for the year as a whole, while the French index has risen by just 11 points.

US
Threatened trade war or not, the US announced better than expected data on jobs as unemployment fell to an 18 year low. Forecasters had been expecting 190,000 jobs to be added in May, but that figure was comprehensively beaten as the economy added 223,000 jobs in the month.

As had been expected, the US Federal Reserve announced a rise in interest rates, moving the target rate up from 1.75% to 2%, and going so far as to forecast a further two rate rises this year, reflecting the strength of the US economy. It is the seventh time that rates have been increased since 2015 and takes them to their highest level since 2008.

In company news, there was more gloom for Facebook as it wrestled with yet another ‘privacy bug’ – this time affecting the data of 14m people. And there was bad news for Google as the EU announced that it would fine the company up to $11bn (£8.33bn) over the dominance of its Android system.

Tesla, Elon Musk’s car making company, announced that it would cut 9% of its workforce – mostly ‘salaried employees’ – as it bids to finally make a profit. The company employs 37,000 people and has never made a profit in the 15 years it has existed.

“Profit is not what motivates us,” Musk posted on Twitter. Wall Street does occasionally like to see companies making a profit, but it was a quiet month for the Dow Jones index, which drifted down 1% to close the month at 24,271. Looking at the year as a whole, it is down 2% from its opening level of 24,719.

Far East
China seems well on course to become the world’s most influential economy as the One Belt, One Road infrastructure project continues to extend its influence through Africa and towards Europe, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping committed to creating ‘a paradigm of globalisation that favours China’. The country is now the world’s second largest consumer of crude oil, with 25% of the imports coming from Sudan and the Gulf of Guinea.

For this month though, it was a disappointing performance from China’s Shanghai Composite Index which fell 8% to close at 2,847. Hong Kong followed Shanghai’s example, falling 5% to 28,955 and the South Korean market was down by 4% to 2,326. The Japanese market was more or less unchanged in the month, moving up very slightly to 22,304.

Unsurprisingly, given the threat of a trade war, all four markets are down over the first six months of the year. The Chinese market leads the way with a fall of 14%: South Korea is down 6% and the Hong Kong and Japanese stock markets are down by 3% and 2% respectively.

Emerging Markets
Could North Korea one day feature in this section of our report? It seems that these days the only way to predict the future is to think the previously unthinkable. Kim Jong-un is 34 (or 36, depending on which ‘official’ source you believe) and it is not hard to see him one day taking North Korea down a similar road to China while maintaining rigid state control of the economy.

For now, though, we will look at only the usual suspects – India, Russia and Brazil. The first two saw their stock markets largely unchanged in June, closing at 35,423 and 2,296 respectively. The Brazilian market was down 5% at 72,763. For the first six months of the year, Russia – with future tourism surely buoyed by a successful World Cup – has seen its market rise by 9%, the Indian stock market is up 4% but the Brazilian index is down by the 5% it fell in June.

And finally…
Sadly, the high street seems to be taking a further thumping from consumers as newspapers report that supermarket groups are ‘losing millions’ as ‘cunning shoppers’ buy expensive items such as avocados and put them through the self-service tills as cheaper items like carrots.

It sounds like there is a gap in the market for an app which tells you how many 60p per kg. carrots weigh the same as a £1.50 ready-to-eat avocado…

New shopping techniques aside, a shortage of CO2 (carbon dioxide) was also making the news. It turns out that CO2 is not just something you vaguely remember from school, but a vital component in the food and drink industry.

It is used to add the ‘fizz’ in beer and fizzy drinks, and to extend the shelf life of meat and other food products. Scotland’s biggest abattoir has closed and Asda rationed the supply of fizzy drinks to online customers.

There are also real fears that there could be a beer shortage this summer as Europe continues to struggle with the CO2 shortage and “beer crazy football fans” threaten to drink Russia dry during the World Cup.

But things can always get worse – and back in the UK we could now be facing a shortage of… lettuce. The heatwave has apparently boosted demand for lettuce but – according to the brilliantly-named British Leafy Salad Growers Association – the soaring temperatures have stopped the crop growing. Broccoli and cauliflower crops have also been affected and the shortage could hit the supermarket shelves as early as this week.

Expect the Iceberg Lettuce to replace Bitcoin as the new default currency of the internet. Maybe it’s time to get out there and plant lettuce in the back garden… or perhaps instead you should be considering a crop of avocados…