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Are we Right to be optimistic about the UK Economy?

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Are we Right to be optimistic about the UK Economy?

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

Is the glass half full or half empty? It’s one of the oldest questions (and clichés) there is. But right now you could be forgiven for thinking that as far as the UK economy goes the glass is not just half full, it’s completely full. 

The last few weeks have brought us a steady stream of good news. Post-Brexit the UK has agreed – or is very close to agreeing – trade deals with Norway, Iceland and Australia. According to recent reports International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is aiming to sign a free trade deal with New Zealand ‘by August.’ 

Manufacturing growth is at a 30 year high and even car sales – which were hit so hard by the pandemic – have recovered. The UK “optimism index” is at a six year high, and recent figures showed the average price of a house in the UK rising to record levels. 

Optimistic forecasts abound, with the CBI predicting that the UK economy will grow by 8.2% this year, up from a previous forecast of 6% and taking the economy back to pre-Covid levels. The economy will grow by a further 6.1% in 2022, the CBI forecasts, up from a previous figure of 5.2%. 

Still not convinced? The UK is now officially home to 100 “unicorns” – new tech firms with a valuation of more than $1bn (£721m). Tractable, an artificial intelligence start-up building computer vision tools became the latest, joining companies such as Skyscanner (from Scotland), Durham-based challenger bank Atom Bank and Darktrace, based in Cambridge, which uses AI to develop cyber-security solutions.

There are, of course, areas for concern. All is looking up, apart from the fact that ‘Freedom Day’ – originally scheduled for June 21st – has been pushed back. Apart from the fact that the UK could well face a third wave of the virus as the seemingly more infectious Delta variant holds sway. Apart from the fact that many UK businesses – especially in the hospitality sector – are struggling to re-open because of a shortage of staff.

The simple fact is that there is likely to be a mixture of good and bad news for the foreseeable future. This good and bad news will be reflected in stock markets, not just in the UK but around the world. So the only certainty is that regular contact with your financial advisers will be essential – and that your financial planning will need to be flexible and regularly reviewed. 

Yes, there is an increasing amount of good news but no economy – either in the UK or anywhere else – is out of the woods. We will continue to keep you up to date with developments and keep your financial plans under regular review. 

Will Biden’s stimulus package work?

Wednesday, July 7th, 2021

When Joe Biden was inaugurated as President back in January there was much talk of his proposed stimulus package for the US economy. The figure generally talked about was $1.9tn (£1.36tn), an eye-watering sum of money. To give you a comparison, the National Audit Office in the UK is currently saying that the Government has spent £372bn on Covid-19, with £150bn of that going towards support for businesses. 

By May, however, $1.9tn was looking like small change: when Joe Biden presented his Budget he revealed $6tn (£4.3tn) of spending commitments, largely funded by tax rises for wealthy Americans and business. Unsurprisingly the spending plans were condemned by the Republicans as “insanely expensive,” with claims that they would lead to record levels of debt. 

So what is the President planning to spend the money on? How will he pay for it? And, most importantly, will the huge level of spending work? 

Joe Biden’s budget is aimed at growing the US economy “from the bottom up and the middle out.” It includes more than $800bn for the fight against climate change, free school places for all three and four year olds, two years of community college for all Americans and massive investments in both physical and digital infrastructure. 

As we have noted above the plans have been fiercely criticised, and there is a chance that some members of the President’s own party may side with the Republicans over some of the proposals. The chief criticism, though, has centred on debt, with estimates that the proposals could add $14.5tn of debt over the next decade, taking US Government debt to 117% of GDP by 2031 – a level not even reached during the Second World War. 

Will the plans work? Your opinion on that almost certainly depends on your view of Joe Biden. Republicans are fiercely critical of something they see as taking US debt to a whole new level and – very possibly – driving up inflation. The Biden administration argues that inflation will stabilise at around 2% and that the higher taxes will see the whole programme paid for within 15 years. 

In 1996 Bill Clinton famously said that the “era of big Government is over.” Joe Biden appears to have brought it back. While his plans still have to go through Congress and the Senate, it seems certain that enough of his spending commitments will remain to make the fiscal hawks in both parties wince.

Is cash too safe?

Wednesday, July 7th, 2021

One of the great themes of the past 15 months has been accidental savings: the amount people in the UK have “saved” by the simple expedient of not being able to go out and spend. 

“Thrifty Brits stash the cash in lockdown” has been a typical headline, quickly followed by an estimate of how much cash we might have “stashed” through not going to the pub, eating out or buying new clothes. One estimate put the figure at £160bn, with the Bank of England suggesting that up to 5% of this could be spent, and hence boost the UK recovery, as lockdown eases. Economists at Deutsche Bank went further, suggesting that around 10% could be spent on nights out, holidays, cars and more. 

“Would I be shocked by £20bn of extra spending? No,” said economist Sanjay Raja. Spending on this scale would comfortably add between 0.5% to 1% to UK GDP. 

But however much is spent, that still leaves a huge amount of money that is not spent – a huge amount of money that remains “accidentally saved.” According to Peter Flavel, the CEO of Coutts, however, we are not saving wisely. 

Looking at it from the point of view of an Australian who has lived and worked in several countries, and is now in the UK, Flavel makes a simple point. The UK’s Individual Savings Account (ISA) is “potentially the best medium term savings product globally.” But, he argues, “they are not used very well, [in fact] they are used badly.” 

As you may well know, a couple can invest £40,000 per year into ISAs. Junior ISAs have a limit of £9,000 per year. The products enjoy tax advantages and give immediate access to your cash if it is needed. Small wonder that Flavel describes the ISA as a “World Champion” amongst saving options.

According to recent statistics around 20% of the UK adult population have invested in an ISA – but what concerns Flavel is that the overwhelming majority of these ISAs (76%) are held in cash, meaning that with low interest rates and inflation, the real value of the ISA could actually fall over time. 

We take a balanced approach to financial planning. It’s often a good idea to keep some money in cash, after all none of us know when we will need access to our “emergency fund.” But Peter Flavel makes a very valid point: it is important that we don’t allow a disproportionate amount of our savings to accidentally accumulate in cash. It runs the risk of unbalancing your overall financial planning portfolio, giving you a more cautious approach than you might otherwise want or need, and, with low-interest rates likely to be the norm for some time, it also risks poor returns. Of course, where that balance lies is different from one individual to the next.

If you are interested in finding your own balance then do not hesitate to get in touch with us. While “I’ve accidentally got too much cash” doesn’t sound like a problem, in financial planning terms it very well could be.

June Market Commentary

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021

Introduction 

In some ways, May was a relatively quiet month. Although, it did bring us the marriage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first PM to marry in office since Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, in 1822. 

Having eaten a slice of wedding cake and gone straight back to the office, Boris Johnson will be relatively pleased with what he saw in May. There were plenty of optimistic forecasts for the UK economy and the stock market ended the month above the 7,000 mark. 

In the wider world, both China’s exports and imports surged in April as the first trade talks were held with the new Biden administration. The jobs figures in the US were disappointing, despite a recovery in the economy. However, Amazon, in the news as always, seems to be trying to tackle the jobs problem on its own. 

It was a good month for the stock markets we cover in the Bulletin, with most of the major markets making gains in the month. Those that didn’t make gains at least managed to hold their own. 

It was also a month in which a herd of cows brought British Rail to a standstill, and the UK was rocked by news of a devastating crisis for ice cream lovers. As always, let us look at all the details. 


UK 

The month started in the UK with our glass not so much half full or half empty, but having never been filled in the first place. Even as the lockdown restrictions were eased, thousands of businesses in the hospitality sector were unable to reopen, simply because they could not find any staff. It was a story echoed in other countries, thousands of staff have left the hospitality sector in the past year, leaving many pubs and restaurants desperate for someone to pull pints and serve food. 

More generally, UK job vacancies hit their highest level since the start of the pandemic, with 675,000 vacancies reported in the February to April quarter as the unemployment rate fell slightly to 4.8%. 

Sadly it looks like the ranks of the unemployed could soon be swelled by more retail staff, with many stores reported to be facing closure over unpaid rent. A moratorium was agreed at the start of the pandemic which stops landlords taking legal action over unpaid rent. That ends on June 30th, with two thirds of retailers have apparently been told that they will be subject to legal action. With shopper numbers reportedly still down 30% on pre-pandemic levels, good news for the high street was hard to find. 

Perhaps symbolically, the last Debenhams closed its doors in May. Equally symbolically, Amazon announced plans to take on 10,000 more staff. 

Away from the high street the news was mostly good for the UK, especially at the end of the month. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicted that the UK would grow at its fastest rate since the Second World War this year and next year. The OECD is forecasting growth of 7.2% this year and 5.5% in 2022, in contrast to a 9.8% contraction last year. 

Business optimism was reported to be at a five year high, with the CBI saying that optimism over the future of the service sector increased at the fastest pace on record in the three months to May. 

Car production, a tale of unremitting gloom last year, was also reported to have bounced back to near normal levels, with Nissan apparently in talks to build a huge electric car battery plant in the UK. The FT reported that Nissan wants the UK to be “its main hub outside Japan.” There were even rumours of a Tesla factory, following CEO Elon Musk’s two day visit to the UK. 

House prices increased by 10.2% in the year to March, the highest annual growth for 14 years according to official figures. With Nationwide reporting that ‘accidental savings’ had seen an extra £10.6bn added to them during the pandemic, it looks like we might be spending that money moving or improving. One slightly negative note was that inflation more than doubled to 1.5% in April. 

The Government announced the setting up of a “Brexit Opportunities” unit, and looks set to offer Australia a tariff free deal, despite the concerns of farmers. Trade and investment deals worth £1bn with India were announced which, according to our newlywed PM, would “create 6,000 jobs.” 

There was, therefore, plenty of positive news in May. The FTSE-100 index of leading shares took it all rather cautiously, gaining just 1% in the month to close at 7,023. The pound had a good month against the dollar, gaining 3% to finish May at $1.4233. 

Europe 

We commented last month on the rise of the Green Party in Germany. With the elections due in late September they continue to lead in the opinion polls, with the very real possibility that the Green candidate, 40 year old Annalena Baerbock, could take over from Angela Merkel as Chancellor. 

Should she win the election, one thing she, along with other EU leaders, will undoubtedly turn her attention to is the amount of tax paid by companies like Amazon. 

Amazon reportedly did not pay any corporation tax in Europe last year. The firm, which has its European headquarters in Luxembourg, recorded a sales income of €44bn (£38bn) last year, but did not pay any tax having apparently made a loss of €1.2bn (£1.03bn). Amazon’s European unit was also granted €56m (£48m) in tax credits and has €2.7bn (£2.3bn) of carried forward losses ready to be used against any future profits. 

A Green government in Germany would be set to commit to significant levels of spending, but it doesn’t look like Amazon will be contributing.

You may have heard about the shortage of specialised computer chips which is hampering car makers around the world. That hit home in May as Audi was forced to “idle” 10,000 staff for the second time this year due to the ongoing shortage. It has been suggested that the shortage of semiconductors will cost carmakers around the world more than $100bn (£70bn) this year. 

There was some good news as Greece announced that it was “putting the lockdown behind us” and opened up its tavernas and beaches to tourists. Not that the news boosted the Athens stock market, which was down 2% in May at 895. 

Fortunately the major European stock markets did rather better. Germany’s DAX index was up 2% to close the month at 15,421. The French market went one further, rising 3% to finish May at 6,447. 

US 

It was snakes and ladders at the beginning of the month in the US. All the expectations were that the payroll data would see another 1 million jobs added as the US recovered from the pandemic and the Dow Jones index climbed to a record high. Until it went swiftly down the snake as the jobless figures came in well below expectations. Just 266,000 jobs were added in April, a month which saw the Government send $1,400 (£1,000) cheques to most Americans, as the unemployment rate edged up to 6.1% with 9.8 million people remaining unemployed. 

Worse followed when the Colonial Pipeline, which carries 45% of the East Coast’s supply of diesel, petrol and jet fuel, was put out of action by a ransomware attack. The hackers, an organisation called DarkSide, cheerfully acknowledged the attack and apologised to the public. “Our goal is to make money,” they said, “Not creating problems for society.” They appear to have succeeded in their goals, with reports emerging a few days later that the pipeline had paid a ransom of $5m (£3.55m) to restore order. 

Back to Amazon, another organisation that has met a few goals, even if it hasn’t paid much tax, announced that it was set to hire a further 75,000 people in the US and Canada and then went one step further by agreeing to buy the historic MGM Studios for $8.45bn (£6bn). This will give Amazon’s streaming service access to a huge back catalogue, including all the James Bond movies and The Handmaid’s Tale series. This came in the same month that AT&T and Discovery announced plans to create another “streaming giant.”

The month ended with President Biden setting out spending plans for the trifling sum of $6tn (£4.23tn) which were not surprisingly criticised by Republicans as “insanely expensive.” The plans, which would mean steep tax rises for wealthier Americans, would include huge new social programmes and significant investment in the fight against climate change. 

We have, in the past, brought you news of many tech startups in the US that have excessive valuations (at least by conventional measures). May perhaps brought the biggest example yet, with news that electric truck startup Rivian is planning a stock market debut that will see it valued at $70bn (£49.3bn). How many trucks have so far rolled off Rivian’s production line? That would be none.

The Dow Jones index, perhaps remembering those conventional measures, was up just 2% in the month to close May at 34,529. The more broadly based S&P 500 index was up 1% at 4,204. 

Far East 

May was an unusually quiet month for news in the Far East section of the Bulletin. As regular readers know, there are months when there are as many stories in this section as in, say, the UK or US sections. 

The month started with good news for Chinese exports. As the US economy began to recover, and production in India stalled due to the pandemic, Chinese exports surged in April, up 32% from the previous year (admittedly during the Covid crisis) to almost $264bn (£186bn). April also saw imports rise at their fastest rate in more than a decade, up 43% on the previous year. 

The month ended with trade negotiators from the US and China holding “candid, pragmatic” talks to discuss the trade relationship between the two countries. Where did they meet? It was a virtual meeting, obviously. It’s not just parish councils that use Zoom.

Long working hours have been much in the news lately, and in May a study was released by the World Health Organisation, suggesting that long working hours are killing “hundreds of thousands”  of people a year. The WHO put the figure at 745,000 with anyone working more than 55 hours a week having a significantly increased risk of both strokes and heart disease. The report found that people living in South East Asia and the Western Pacific Region were the most affected. Some readers will remember a story from two years ago when Alibaba founder Jack Ma called for China to return to “996.” Working from 9am to 9pm six days a week, a 72 hour working week. 

May, otherwise, was a story of the Chinese government cracking down. Shares in food delivery giant Meituan fell sharply after its billionaire CEO Wang Xing posted a thousand year old poem online. The Book Burning Pit was widely seen as a criticism of Xi Jinping and his government, with the company one of many under investigation, like Alibaba last month, for abusing a dominant position in a particular market. 

May was a very bad month for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which was down 37% for the month as a whole. It fell 10% after carmaker Tesla said it would no longer accept it as payment, a position which worsened significantly when the Chinese government banned banks and payment firms from providing services related to cryptocurrency transactions. It also warned investors against speculative trading in cryptocurrencies. 

Fortunately there were no 37% falls on Far Eastern stock markets during the month. China led the way, the Shanghai Composite index rising 5% in the month to close at 3,615. The markets in both Hong Kong and South Korea rose 2%, to end May at 29,144 and 3,204 respectively. Japan’s Nikkei Down index was unchanged in percentage terms, closing the month at 28,860. 

Emerging Markets 

April was, of course, dominated by the surge in Covid cases in India. Mercifully the rate of infection appeared to be slowing in May, although that did not stop calls from opposition parties for a full national lockdown, something Prime Minister Nerendra Modi resisted due to the economic impact. 

We have written previously about tensions between India and China, and the misgivings many countries have had about Chinese companies being involved in their 5G networks. It was therefore no surprise to see India’s telecoms ministry leave Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE out of its 5G network trials. The ministry granted permission to a dozen firms, but the Chinese companies were notable absentees. 

All the three major stock markets we cover in this section had good months in May. Perhaps in response to Nerendra Modi’s controversial decision the Indian market rose 6% to close at 51,937. The Brazilian market was up by the same amount to end the month at 126,216 while the Russian market did only slightly less well, finishing the month up 5% at 3,722. 

And finally…

May wasn’t a vintage month for the “And finally…” section of the commentary, although a herd of cows in Nuneaton gave it their best shot. Trains were unable to moo-ve (sorry) through the station as the herd of cows trotted through just before 11am one day. Sadly we have no information on which platform they arrived at or, indeed, whether they were on time. Network Rail duly halted trains while the cattle sauntered out of the station, and confirmed that they had spoken to a local farmer…

Regular readers will know of a rather larger traffic jam that we reported on recently. The giant container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal and was, along with the pandemic, duly blamed for the UK facing shortages of pet food pouches and garden gnomes among other essentials. 

Now we bring you news of a real essential. The UK and Ireland are apparently facing a shortage of Cadbury’s chocolate flakes this summer, due to a surge in demand. This would mean a summer without a ‘99 for ice cream lovers. Sundry chocolate bars were suggested as alternatives on social media, but surely there are some traditions that simply cannot be tampered with? 

One tried and trusted tradition is, of course, a gentleman getting down on one knee and proposing. Now one woman in the Punjab has taken Prince Harry to court for failing to do that, demanding a warrant for his immediate arrest. The court was not sympathetic, gently telling the plaintiff that she may have been the victim of an online scam. “There is every possibility that Prince Harry is in a cyber-café somewhere in the Punjab,” said the judge. Let’s hope Meghan doesn’t find out!

 

What to do about the ‘bulls’ and the ‘bears’

Thursday, May 20th, 2021

You have likely heard the terms ‘bull market’ and ‘bear market.’ A bull market is one where stock markets are rising and investors are feeling confident: a bear market is the opposite. ‘Bullish’ has even come to be used in a wider sense, meaning generally optimistic: ”I’m feeling bullish about our chances of beating United this afternoon.”

But what do the terms really mean? What have been the most pronounced bull and bear markets in history? And what are the implications of bull and bear markets for investors?

A bull market – sometimes termed a bull run in the US – is a long, extended period in the stock market when prices are rising. One common rule of thumb to define a bull market is prices increasing at least 20% from their most recent low, with signs (and investor confidence) suggesting that they will continue to rise. 

Again, a bear market is exactly the opposite. The rule of thumb is that prices are down 20% from recent highs and investors are generally pessimistic. Where a bull market might be underpinned by strong economic data on, for example, jobs and growth, a bear market will see bad news on the economy. 

The good or bad news might be confined to a single country or – in our increasingly interconnected world – relate to the wider global economy. We saw a good example of this last year, when the pandemic coincided with the trade tensions – and reciprocal sanctions and tariffs – between the US and China. 

2020 therefore saw a bear market in many countries – although it is worth pointing out that many of the world’s leading stock markets actually gained ground last year. The most famous bear market, of course, was during the late 1920s. Highlighted by the Wall Street Crash, the bear market lasted nearly three years and saw the US S&P index lose more than 80% of its value.

Generally it is accepted that there have been eight bear markets from 1926 up to the bear market of 2020, ranging in length from six months to almost three years, and seeing declines in stock market values from 21.4% to the 83.4% drop of the late 1920s. 

There have been half a dozen bull markets since the end of the Second World War, with the one starting in March 2009 (after the global financial crash) generally held to be the longest, arguably running for 11 years until Coronavirus brought it to an abrupt end. Could we see another bull market as the world ‘bounces back’ from the pandemic? Time will tell.

One thing is certain though: investor psychology plays an important part in bull and bear markets. In a bull market it is tempting to think that every penny you have should be invested – and invested as aggressively as possible – while in a bear market many investors simply want to sell everything. But no investor can time bull and bear markets perfectly: you may invest just as the market finally turns down: you may sell everything just as the market finally starts to climb again. 

Bull and bear markets are not times to abandon long-held financial plans. Rather they are times to remember that saving and investing is always a long term commitment – and to talk to your financial advisers if you have any concerns.

May Market Commentary

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

Introduction 

Some of the numbers in this month’s Bulletin are simply staggering. Whether it’s Amazon’s profits or the ‘investment’ (which could alternatively be considered ‘spending’, depending on your political viewpoint) announced by President Biden. 

There was a time where the ‘standard unit’ of currency we talked about was a million. Company profits and valuations were measured in millions: debt was in millions. If the pandemic has done one thing, it is to change our default unit of currency. Now we deal in billions – borrowing to deal with the pandemic is in billions, company profits – at least if you’re Amazon – are in billions and no self-respecting start-up seems to go anywhere near the stock market unless it’s worth at least a billion. 

After a billion, of course, comes a trillion. That’s a thousand billion. In April US President Joe Biden was dealing in trillions and, if Amazon profits keep rising, it surely cannot be long before the world has its first trillionaire. 

As you will see below, April was a relatively quiet month on the world’s stock markets. The FTSE did at one point go through the 7,000 barrier and although it ended the month just below that level  was one of the world’s better performers. It was certainly a good month in the US and the new President announced unprecedented levels of investment – or spending. 

The International Monetary Fund had started the month with an optimistic forecast, predicting that the UK will have growth of 5.3% this year and 5.1% next year. Forecasts for global growth were upgraded slightly, to 6% this year and 4.4% in 2022. 

The UK and Australia agreed the ‘vast majority’ of a trade deal as Australia stepped back from trade deals made with China. There was gloomy news for the Eurozone economy and a potential political earthquake started to seem possible in Germany. And finally, a record that we thought would never be beaten was comprehensively smashed. 

As always, let’s look at all the details…

UK 

As mentioned above, the IMF duly delivered its growth forecast for the UK. There were other, rather more anecdotal predictions of economic recovery this year. Bank of England deputy governor Ben Broadbent said the UK would see ‘very rapid growth’ over the next two quarters as people rush to spend the money they have saved during lockdown. Barclays boss Jes Staley went even further, saying that ‘we estimate the UK economy will grow at its fastest rate since 1948’ as the bank unveiled profits more than doubling to £2.4bn for the first three months of the year. 

That will certainly be the case if International Trade Secretary Liz Truss gets her way. April saw the announcement that the ‘vast majority’ of a trade deal with Australia has been agreed with the deal expected to be concluded by June. It is believed that this deal could be a springboard for the UK to join the CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes countries such Mexico, Japan and Canada in addition to Australia) within the next 12 months. 

In the domestic economy it was the construction sector leading the recovery. Figures for February showed that the UK economy edged up 0.4% in the month, driven by a 1.6% rise in the construction sector with both new builds and repair and maintenance doing well. At the end of the month Nationwide reported that house prices were 7.1% higher than a year ago, with the average property now costing £238,831. One analyst said the housing market was ‘on the boil’ and a story on the BBC reported particularly strong demand for property on the south coast, and on the coast of Wales as people looked to move away from cities. 

Inevitably there was some gloom amid the positive noises about the recovery, principally centring on Government borrowing. Measures taken to combat the pandemic have pushed government borrowing to its highest level since the end of the Second World War. Borrowing hit £303.1bn in the year to March – nearly £250bn higher than the previous year. The only consolation was that the figure is £24.3bn less than the £327.4bn expected by the Office for Budget Responsibility in its economic and fiscal outlook. 

What of jobs, the high street and – sadly – the companies still making significant redundancies? 

Defence giant Babcock announced that it would cut 1,000 jobs and Asda – thanks to us all baking at home – is to make 1,200 of its bakers redundant. At the end of the month it was reported that ‘time was running out’ to save 5,000 jobs at Liberty Steel, and the BBC reported that 1 in 7 shops is empty post-lockdown. 

More optimistically it was widely reported that shoppers had ‘rushed back’ to the national high street as it re-opened, with shoppers said to be making ‘revenge purchases’ – treating themselves to what they had always wanted as lockdown finally eased. As will be covered below in the US section, the high street has a huge amount of ground to make up and Hammerson – owner of Birmingham’s Bull Ring – will not be the only shopping centre owner to cut rents (by up to 30% in this case) in a bid for survival. Ominously, the month ended with online retailer Boohoo set to announce ‘soaring’ lockdown sales when it updates shareholders on May 5th. 

…But overall April was a positive month for the UK economy, and the FTSE-100 index of leading shares reflected it. The market rose 4% in the month to close at 6,970. The pound was virtually unchanged against the dollar in percentage terms, and closed April trading at $1.3817. 

Europe 

The month did not get off to the best of starts in Europe as France began its third period of lockdown, with schools closing and people being banned from travelling more than 10km (just over six miles) ‘without good reason.’ 

German’s Commerzbank did little to lift the gloom when it announced a $3.3bn (£2.4bn) loss as it continued to deal with the impact of the pandemic. The bank has said it will cut up to 10,000 jobs and close ‘hundreds’ of branches as it looks to return to profitability this year. In contrast Ryanair got off relatively lightly, saying that last year’s losses will ‘only’ be £732m. 

The Purchasing Managers’ Index which came out in the middle of the month seemed to confirm that the pace of recovery was lagging in Europe with the service sector in Spain and Italy particularly slow to recover. This was confirmed at the end of the month when figures for the first quarter showed that the Eurozone economy had fallen back into recession, shrinking by 0.6% in the first three months of the year, having been hit by a renewed surge in infections and the consequent restrictions and lockdowns. 

In roughly five months’ time Germany will be going to the polls. Could we see the first Green Chancellor? Currently the Greens are leading in the polls, pledging to spend €500bn (£435bn) on a ‘socioecological transformation’ of the economy, which would see increased welfare payments and wealth taxes, a doubling of carbon taxes, a ban on short-haul flights and increased income taxes – plus a 30 hour working week and the right to work from home. The Green candidate to replace Angela Merkel would be 40 year old Annalena Baerbock. 

Meanwhile on the opposite end of the political spectrum the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) appears close to embracing ‘Dexit.’ “We consider a withdrawal of Germany from the EU and the establishment of a new European Economic and Interest Community necessary” said the party. 

Away from the potential political upheaval April was a reasonably good month for Europe’s two leading stock markets. The German DAX index was up 1% to 15,136 while the French market was one of the month’s better performers, rising 3% to close April at 6,269. 

US 

The ‘simply staggering’ numbers referred to in the introduction are, of course – despite the best efforts of Commerzbank – a reference to this section. More of Amazon’s profits and the President’s ‘once in a generation’ plans below…

The month got off to an excellent start on the jobs front as the US economy added 900,000 jobs and the recovery continued. The impressive numbers were largely driven by re-openings at restaurants, bars, construction sites and schools. There was more good news when US medical authorities gave fully vaccinated Americans the go-ahead to begin travelling again, both at home and abroad. 

As will be covered ahead, April brought a trade spat between China and Australia, but the US also had its share of international tension in the month. Three companies and four branches of China’s National Supercomputing Centre were added to the US blacklist, meaning companies cannot export technology to the groups without prior approval. Sanctions were also imposed on Russia for what the Biden administration described as ‘harmful foreign activities’ – cyberattacks to you and me. 

…And so we come to the numbers. As we all know, there have been winners and losers from lockdown. A surge in iPhone sales – especially in China – has seen Apple’s profits double since the beginning of the pandemic. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, saw net profit jump by 162% to a record $17.9bn (£13bn) in the three months to March as advertising revenue grew by a third. Facebook revenues for the first quarter leapt from $17.7bn (£12.8bn) a year ago to $26.1bn (£18.9bn) this year. Tesla made $438m (£317m) in the first quarter of the year, although this was dented somewhat by paying CEO Elon Musk $299m (£216m) – part of the controversial compensation package agreed in 2018. 

It was Amazon’s figures, though, that really caught the eye, and illustrated just how much of a shift we have made to shopping online – and how much damage the pandemic must have done to high streets and shopping malls around the world. 

Although the profits were not as large as Alphabet’s, every aspect of Amazon’s business from video streaming to grocery delivery, has done well during the pandemic. Revenue for the January to March period rose from $75bn (£54bn) last year to $108.5bn (£78bn) this year, with profits of $8.1bn (£5.86bn) – more than treble what it was in the same period last year. City AM did the maths and reported that Amazon made $13,000 (£9,400) per second in sales during the quarter. 

With figures showing that the US economy grew at an annualised rate of 6.4% in the first quarter, one analyst said that Amazon could be on the verge of a ‘golden age.’ 

All the company figures, though, were dwarfed by the President’s announcement of a $4tn (trillion) “once in a generation investment in America itself.” Joe Biden unveiled the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan which would, he said, be paid for by rises in corporation tax and by taxes on the ‘wealthiest 1%.’ The plans were met with fierce opposition by the Republicans but, with the Democrats holding the balance of power in both the Senate and Congress, they are likely to ultimately get the go-ahead. 

With the economy accelerating, companies posting record profits and the President announcing that level of investment it was no surprise that April was a good month for US stock markets. The Dow Jones index rose 3% to 33,875 while the more broadly based S&P 500 index was up 5% to end the month at 4,181. 

Far East 

China was one of the very few countries to see its economy grow in 2020. As the major Western economies all contracted, China reported growth of 2.3%. It was therefore no surprise when the Forbes annual rich list revealed that Beijing had overtaken New York as the city with the most billionaires, adding 33 last year to take its total to a nice, round 100. 

…And there could be more next year, as figures showed the Chinese economy up 18.3% on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter as it continued to recover from the pandemic. 

That said, the Chinese regulators are flexing their muscles and no-one – not even Jack Ma, boss of Alibaba and generally reckoned to be China’s richest man – is outside their reach. The regulators slapped a huge fine on Alibaba – equivalent to just over £2bn – saying the company had ‘abused its dominant market position’ for several years. The company accepted the fine, and duly vowed to change its ways. Meanwhile in Hong Kong Jimmy Lai, billionaire owner of the Apple Daily tabloid, was sentenced to 14 months in jail for his part in the pro-democracy protests. 

Away from China, Samsung pushed its profits to the highest level since the pandemic began. First quarter profits were the best since 2018 at $6.4bn (£4.6bn) on the back of strong mobile sales. There was also strong demand for TVs and home appliances – just as in the UK, if you’re going to be trapped at home, you have to spend the money on something…

On the political front tensions between Australia and China continued to escalate. The Australian government used new powers to rip up deals made between the state of Victoria and China as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. The government said it was backing out of the agreements to ‘protect Australia’s national interest.’ The Chinese government called the move ‘provocative.’ 

Of the region’s stock markets South Korea had the best month – the market there rising 3% to 3,148. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 1% to 28,675, while China’s Shanghai Composite index managed a gain of just five points, closing the month at 3,447. The Japanese market was down 1% at 28,813. 

Emerging Markets 

The main story in the Emerging Markets section of the Bulletin was, of course, the surge in Covid cases in India. 

The middle of the month had seen huge crowds gather to bathe in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela religious festival, even as a second wave of the virus swept through the country. We will all have seen the tragic scenes from India on various news bulletins, and the month ended with the daily number of cases passing 400,000 for the first time as the second wave worsened. 

Meanwhile in Russia thousands of people joined unauthorised rallies to protest against the continuing detention of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, amid demands that he receive proper medical care. Navalny finally ended his hunger strike and was described as a ‘gaunt skeleton’ for his latest court appearance. Unsurprisingly, the verdict did not go in his favour.  

It was a relatively quiet month for the three major stock markets we cover in this section. The Indian market drifted down 1% to end the month at 48,782: Russia’s stock market managed to gain just two points in the month to close at 3,544, while the market in Brazil rose 2%, to close April at 118,894. 

And finally…

Last month’s ‘And finally…’ was not one of the best. For some reason the world seemed to be in a disappointingly sensible place in March. Fortunately the natural order of things was restored in April. 

Having recently written that pet food pouches were expected to be in short supply we must, sadly, start the month with even worse news. There is a shortage of garden gnomes. With garden centres being open during lockdown there has, apparently, been a ‘massive upswing’ in sales of garden gnomes. Well, yes, when you’ve only been able to talk to your household for three months, a new face might be appealing.

The situation has not been helped by a shortage of raw materials which – inevitably, has been made worse by our old friend, the Suez Canal blockage. 

April looks like it was a good month for our learned friends. Marks and Spencer has begun legal action against Aldi, arguing that their Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake infringes its Colin the Caterpillar trademark. They duly lodged an intellectual property claim in the High Court – and a very expensive Queen’s Counsel will shortly be arguing the merits of a cake being intellectual property. No doubt other barristers will be queuing up for a slice of the action…

You may remember Spanish civil servant Joaquin Garcia, who failed to turn up for work – but was still paid – for six years, and was only caught after becoming eligible for a long service award.  There was a record you thought would never be beaten. But April brought news of a – sadly unnamed – Italian hospital employee who appears to have skipped work in the southern city of Catanzaro for 15 years. He was paid €538,000 (£464,000) in the time he was not working, and is now being investigated for fraud – along with six managers.

…And that’s it for this month. Except for the news that fund manager Standard Life Aberdeen is having a re-brand. Having no doubt paid design and brand consultants plenty, they are to re-emerge as abrdn. The almost vowel-less re-brand (the A is apparently from Standard) is described to be ‘modern’ and ‘dynamic.’ 

Of course it will – and not for one minute will we be left behind. We’ll be back this time next month, with our modern and dynamic MRKT CMMNTRY.

 

Major pension funds commit to net zero carbon by 2050

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

A new Net Zero Investment Framework has been launched by the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) which outlines a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The framework aims to encourage investors to develop an investment strategy that achieves net zero, and the framework is already being put into practical use.

At the time of writing, 36 investors collectively managing assets of over £6.1trillion have adopted the framework. Among these investors are a significant number of pension schemes: Scottish Widows, the Environment Agency Pension Fund, Royal London, National Grid UK Pension Scheme, the Church of England Pensions Board, Brunel Pension Partnership, Northern Local Government Pension Scheme, Lloyds Banking Group Pensions Trustees Limited and Nest. 

The investment framework is designed to deliver on the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, preferably below 1.5degrees. It’s built upon three specific types of target which will be used to measure success. These are portfolio level targets for decarbonisation and investment in climate solutions, timebound portfolio coverage targets for companies and assets to meet net zero or aligned criteria, and engagement coverage threshold ensuring intensive engagement to drive the transition. 

UK Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, had this to say about the framework: “Bringing climate change to the top of the agenda and ensuring that Britain’s pension investments act on managing climate change risk will not only help the UK reach net zero, but ensure a brighter future for all.”

“In the run up to COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference) more countries than ever are signing up for net zero. This creates huge opportunities, but also risks, for institutional investors such as pension schemes. That is why we’re the first major economy to legislate to require pension schemes to set targets to manage their own climate risks.”

“I therefore welcome both the ambition and hugely practical guidance contained in this framework, which will help even more institutional investors aim for net zero.” 

 

Can Investing in one Company make you a Millionaire?

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

We all know that investments can rise and fall in value. That a prudent investor spreads their risk across different sectors and across different markets. And we all remember our very first financial adviser, our Grandma, who told us not to put all our eggs in one basket. 

But between Christmas and New Year there was a story on the BBC about the soaring share price of electric car maker Tesla which has created what it described as an ‘army of millionaires’ – the so-called ‘Teslanaires.’ 

Shares in Elon Musk’s company soared more than 700% in 2020, making Tesla the world’s most valuable car company, Elon Musk the world’s richest man (overtaking Jeff Bezos of Amazon) and making many investors in the company millionaires. 

But as the article rightly points out, it has been a bumpy road for Tesla. In May of last year Elon Musk wiped $14bn (£10.2bn) off the company’s value when he carelessly tweeted that, in his opinion, the Tesla share price was too high. 

We all need to remember that for every Tesla there is a Sirius. Sirius Minerals was a mining company, granted the right to mine potash in the North Yorkshire Moors near Whitby. Many local investors, swayed by stories of the potential returns, invested heavily, putting their life savings and pension lump sums into the company. But the shares steadily dropped, the company was eventually taken over with the shares trading at 5.5p and the local investors were left facing heavy losses. 

Yes, shares like Apple, Nike and Starbucks may have produced spectacular returns for investors on their way to becoming household names, but many, many companies have gone in the opposite direction. April 2019 saw Debenhams go into administration and what could have been safer than the British high street? Surely people will always need to shop, they will always need new clothes… But that was before the pandemic when 2020 was the worst year for high street job losses and store closures in 25 years. 

There will always be winners and losers in investing and the good news stories, the ‘Teslanaires,’ will always receive plenty of publicity. After all, ‘Investor takes sensible long term decision with their financial adviser’ is hardly a headline story. 

But for our clients, it is the best course of action and always will be. A carefully constructed portfolio, in line with your financial planning goals and consistently monitored by your financial adviser: it may not make the headlines, but it will certainly let you sleep at night.

February Market Commentary

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

Introduction 

It might be appropriate to start January 2021 by looking back at last year. At the start of January 2020, we were fairly sure what we would be writing about, which included the run-up to Brexit on the 31st and a gradual thawing of US/China relations with a long-awaited trade deal due to be signed. 

China certainly grabbed the headlines but not for reasons of trade. By the end of January 2020 countries around the world were experiencing the initial impact of coronavirus, and the impact on world stock markets was starting to be felt. 

Ultimately 2020 was a year like no other but, as we reported last month, the majority of stock markets actually made gains in the year. 

So what did January 2021 bring us? The roll-out of more vaccines finally gave hope of an end to the pandemic but there was also some bad news, especially on the UK high street and in the US jobs market. January wasn’t a great month for world stock markets but, as last year very clearly showed, it is only one month. 

As always, let’s look at all the details…

UK 

January ended with reportedly around 600,000 people being vaccinated in one day and the month began with business leaders calling for help as the country went into its third lockdown, which now looks set to continue into March. 

By that time Chancellor Rishi Sunak will have presented his Budget. It is rumoured that the furlough scheme will be extended, but will there be more help for business in the Budget? Or will the Chancellor stick to his earlier mantra that he cannot save ‘every business and every job?’

The second part of that statement is becoming all too apparent. As we write (on the morning of February 1st) there is confirmation that Asos are buying the Topshop and Miss Selfridge brands. They are buying the brands and the customer base but they want nothing to do with the shops. Last week Boohoo bought Debenhams on exactly the same basis. 

When the Chancellor stands up on March 3rd he will need to give far more than a reduction in rates, or an online sales tax, if he is to breathe new life into our high streets. 

Perhaps the only consolation for the high street is that it is not the UK car industry. 2020 saw new car registrations down to a 30 year low, with Mike Hawes of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders describing it as “the worst in a generation.” 

On the other side of the coin, Nissan reaffirmed its commitment to car production in Sunderland, with COO Ashwani Gupta describing Brexit as a positive for the industry, saying it would allow Nissan to ‘improve its competitiveness.’ 

In the wider economy, UK GDP was down by 2.6% in November, thanks to another period of lockdown. Inflation doubled in December to 0.6% due to a rise in transport costs and, to no-one’s surprise, Government borrowing in December set a new record. At £34.1bn borrowing in the month was the highest December figure on record, and the third-highest for any month since records began in 1993. 

Fortunately there was some light amid the gloom. Bank of England boss; Andrew Bailey; told City AM that he expected a ‘pronounced recovery’ as the vaccination roll-out continued. 

Perhaps even more encouraging is that the entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well. More than 29,000 new companies were registered in the UK in September, the highest number since October 2007 and the third-highest monthly figure since records began in the late 1980s. Confidence among more established businesses appears to be returning not just in the UK but around the world. City AM reported that companies raised $400bn (£292bn) in the first three weeks of the year as central governments continued to stimulate their economies. 

What about the FTSE-100 index of leading shares in January? Sadly it fell back 1% in the month to close at 6,407. The pound was unchanged against the dollar in percentage terms, ending the month at $1.3700. 

Europe 

The month in Europe began with shareholders approving the merger between Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA group, which will create the world’s fourth biggest carmaker. 

It was also a successful start to 2021 for Europe’s police forces, as an international operation led by Europol took down what it claimed was the world’s largest illegal platform on the ‘dark web.’ Dark Market had more than 2,400 people selling drugs, counterfeit money and anonymous sim cards; in total worth more than €140m (£124m). German authorities arrested an Australian citizen near the German-Danish border. 

At one point in the month it looked as though Germany might close its borders over worries about possible Covid-19 mutations. There are certainly plenty of worried faces in the country, with Reuters reporting that German business morale had ‘slumped.’ 

There are also concerns about who will replace Angela Merkel. Germany is due to elect a new Chancellor in eight months’ time and as yet the ruling CDU party has failed to come up with a viable successor to Merkel. 

One European leader who wasn’t waiting eight months was Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who resigned over criticism of his handling of the pandemic. Reportedly almost half of Italian voters want Conte to remain as PM, but with the political parties divided over spending as a way out of the consequent economic downturn; it is not clear if he will be able to form a new coalition government. 

Like most of the major Western stock markets; the German and French indices both drifted downwards in January. Germany’s DAX index was down 2% at 13,433 while the French stock market fell 3% to 5,399. 

US 

January was, of course, the month when ‘45’ gave way to ’46.’ Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. 

Biden immediately signed a swathe of executive orders. The US will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and 11m illegal immigrants were granted an amnesty. Other measures followed as he started to unpick Trump’s legislation. 

Will we see a more conciliatory attitude to China from the new administration? The US/China tensions continued right up to Trump’s last days in office as he banned eight Chinese apps including popular payment platforms Alipay, QQ Wallet and WeChat Pay. 

As we all now know, the pandemic has been good for billionaires. January saw a change at the top of the leaderboard, with the soaring share price of Tesla allowing Elon Musk to overtake Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and claim the ‘world’s richest man’ title. 

January was a month which underlined, if it needed underlining, the pace of change in the American economy. Tesla is now the world’s most valuable car company and set a record for delivery of new vehicles. It also moved closer to launching in India and recorded its first quarter of $10bn (£7.3bn) in sales. 

Apple duly reported sales of $111bn (£81bn) for the fourth quarter, which was up 21% on the previous year. Facebook revenue was up to $28bn (£20.4bn) in the fourth quarter (up 25% on last year) and Netflix went past 200m subscribers. 

…But there was bad news for the wider US economy which lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first fall since April, as rising Covid-19 cases and the cold weather took their toll, especially on restaurants and bars. 

One analyst described the figures as being “so bad, they’re good”, meaning that they would force the incoming Biden administration to introduce stimulus measures. The new President duly unveiled a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan for the economy, including a direct payment of $1,400 (£1,020) to all Americans. The package also included $415bn (£303bn) to fight the virus and $440bn (£321bn) for small businesses. 

The Dow Jones index fell 2% and through the 30,000 barrier to end the month at 29,983. The more broadly-based S&P 500 index was down 1% to 3,714. 

Far East 

Official figures have revealed that the Chinese economy grew by 2.3% in 2020. That may be its slowest rate of growth, but China will be the only major economy to have grown at all last year and growth in the final quarter was an impressive 6.5%. 

January started with more mass arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and it ended on a similarly bellicose note with Beijing warning Taiwan that any attempt to seek independence ‘would mean war.’ 

As the Trump Presidency entered its final days, the spat between China and the US continued. China brought in new laws that will allow courts to punish firms that comply with ‘unjustified’ foreign laws. The US accused China of falling short on its commitment to buy an extra $200bn (£146bn) of US goods in 2020 and 2021. 

Tellingly, figures released by the United Nations showed that China overtook the US as the world’s top destination for foreign investment last year. New investments in the US halved last year, whilst direct investment into China rose by 4%, allowing it to overtake the US. 

The Shanghai Composite index had a quiet month and was up just 10 points, unchanged in percentage terms at 3,483. The Hong Kong market was up 4% to close January at 28,284; while the market in South Korea was also up 4% at 2,976. Japan’s Nikkei Dow index rose a rather more sedate 1% to close at 27,663. 

Emerging Markets 

‘May you live in interesting times, Mr Bond,’ as countless villains have said to the hero. It appears that Vladimir Putin has said much the same to his arch-critic Alexei Navalny who flew back to Russia for the first time after allegedly being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. 

Navalny was immediately arrested, as were 1,500 of his supporters who took to the streets in protest. The final Sunday of the month saw more protests, with reports suggesting up to 5,000 people had been detained across the country. 

With rumours circulating of Putin supposedly owning a ‘Black Sea palace’, which Navalny alleges was paid for with ‘the biggest bribe in history’, this may be one of the longer stories of the New Year. 

Rumours also continue to swirl around Vladimir Putin’s health, so Russia could be in for an ‘interesting’ year in 2021. 

The Russian stock market remained stoically unmoved by the unrest and speculation, dropping back just 12 points in the month to end unchanged in percentage terms at 3,277. 

There was bad news in Brazil, with Ford announcing the closure of its last three factories in the country, putting an end to decades of manufacturing in the country, with 5,000 people expected to lose their jobs. 

The company, which is undertaking a global restructuring, blamed ‘significant losses’ in the region. January was a disappointing month for the Brazilian stock market, which fell back 3% to close at 115,068. 

The Indian market was down by a similar amount, ending the month at 46,286. 

And finally 

With millions of children facing the ordeal of Zoom lessons with their teachers and, presumably, tiresome questions, one boy managed to avoid the interrogation. The young whippersnapper changed his name to ‘Reconnecting’. Apparently it took his teacher several weeks to twig that she hadn’t heard from him for a while…

Meanwhile the world’s elite tennis players were flying down under for the Australian Open tennis, only to be quarantined in their hotels for 14 days. Obviously they still needed to practice, so several of the players took to training in their bedrooms. We have all heard noises we’d prefer not to hear from the next bedroom, but perhaps not 400 backhand volleys hitting the wall at three in the morning. A clear case of game, set and mattress…

Finally, some clients may worry that we are living in an increasingly ‘Big Brother,’ tech dominated world, particularly as facial recognition becomes ever more prevalent. 

Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, you may soon have more to worry about than just your face being recognised. One Chinese technology company gave all its staff cushions, supposedly for their wellbeing. The staff were told that the cushions would monitor vital signs such as heart rate and breathing and even pick up on poor posture. 

If only that were true. One employee got an angry message from HR demanding to know why she had not been at her desk between 10.00 and 10.30am, followed by a threat to cut her bonus. 

“I felt like I was being spied on,” said Ms Wang. 

Quite so. And if you’re reading this, Big Brother, some of us in the office are not as young as we once were. If you’re thinking of spying on us, our faces may be a better bet after all…

December Market Commentary

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

Introduction 

Is the end of November a time to celebrate? All the stock markets we cover in the Bulletin made significant gains in the month; the UK’s second national lockdown ends this week and, as we write, Christmas is a little over three weeks away. 

Or is the glass half-empty? We’re going to come out of lockdown into far harsher tiers than we’ve previously experienced. There are already dark mutterings of the tiers extending well into the New Year and, for many families, Christmas is going to be very different this year. 

A lot happened in November. It brought us the Chancellor’s Spending Review and perhaps the clearest indication yet of the impact the pandemic has had on the national high street, as the Arcadia group slid inexorably towards collapse and the potential loss of 13,000 jobs. 

November also, of course, brought us the US Presidential Election and – despite the threat of endless lawsuits – the almost certain inauguration of Democrat Joe Biden on Wednesday January 20th. But could Vladimir Putin be on his way out as Joe Biden comes in? There were plenty of rumours circulating about the Russian President’s health, with suggestions that he might even stand down in January. 

Meanwhile the Bulletin’s longest running saga rumbled on. With just a month to go to the end of the transition period there is still no agreement between the UK and the EU, with fishing proving to be the latest stumbling block. Did anyone ever doubt that the negotiations would go right down to the wire? No, neither did we.

Most significantly though, November brought hopes of an anti-Covid vaccine in many countries, with claims that the vaccine developed in the UK is 90% effective. If you’re looking for a reason why stock markets did so well in November, look no further. 

As always, let’s delve into the details. 

UK 

The big news story of the month in the UK was the Chancellor’s Spending Review. Rishi Sunak had long since cancelled the Autumn Budget because of the economic uncertainty, instead presenting a 30 minute outline of the Government’s spending plans for next year. 

Despite the continuing costs of the pandemic – and despite Government borrowing for October being the highest on record – he outlined some lavish commitments, including what he described as a £100bn “once in a generation” investment in the nation’s infrastructure, including a £15bn commitment to research and development.

This came despite a forecast of Government borrowing reaching £394bn this year, with the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting that the economy will contract by 11.3%. Unemployment is forecast to reach 7.5% next year, with 2.6m people out of work. 

The Chancellor – as Chancellors must – remained optimistic in his speech. But November brought the usual mixture of good and bad news. 

Having mentioned Arcadia in the introduction, which we wrote on November 30th, this morning brings news that last-ditch rescue talks have failed, and Debenhams is set to close with the potential loss of 12,000 jobs. Coming on top of the earlier news about the collapse of Peacocks and Jaeger – which has put 4,700 jobs at risk – this all adds up to a devastating month for traditional UK retail. Quite what these closures will mean to some town centres hardly bears thinking about. 

2020 has also been a very bad year for the UK car industry. Figures released for October showed that production was down again, with production in the month just 20% of that recorded in October 2019. November also brought the news that the Government is bringing forward its ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars, which will now be effective from 2030. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the UK economy had grown by 15.5% in the third quarter. On the face of it that is good news, but there are worries that the rate of growth is slowing down. The UK economy was 9.7% lower in the third quarter of 2020 than in the same quarter in 2019, and some commentators fear that it could shrink again in the fourth quarter. The ONS also revealed that Government borrowing had soared in October, reaching £22.3bn for the month, the highest October figure since records began in 1993. 

Whether you consider this next item to be good news will depend on where you are on the housing ladder. UK house prices grew at an annual rate of 6.5% in November, the fastest rate since January 2015 as the stamp duty holiday continued to boost the market. 

Despite the overall gloom – especially in the retail sector – the FTSE-100 index of leading shares had a good month. As we have mentioned in the introduction, the reason was simple: hopes of an effective vaccine. November delivered news of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, with claims that it could prevent up to 90% of people from becoming ill. 

Boosted by this news the FTSE had one of the best months in its history: having started the month at 5,577 the FTSE ended November up 12% at 6,266. The pound was up 3% against the dollar and ended November trading at $1.3352. 

Brexit and Trade 

The UK’s Referendum on leaving the EU was held on 23rd June 2016, with the UK ultimately leaving the European Union on January 31st this year. Ten months later – and nearly 4½ years after the Referendum – the negotiations rumble on. The transition period – the time agreed in order to reach a trade deal – ends on December 31st, less than a month from now. 

Effectively, it is much less than a month, given the Christmas holiday period and the need to get any agreement ratified by all the EU member states. 

In November the Governor of the Bank of England said that the long term effects of a ‘no deal’ Brexit would prove more damaging to the economy than the pandemic. He may or may not be right: what is undeniable is that, as we write, there are still a lot of points of disagreement, not the least of which is fishing rights. 

The UK apparently labelled the EU’s latest offer on fishing rights ‘derisory’ with Michel Barnier reportedly telling EU ambassadors he had offered a 15% to 18% reduction in the bloc’s fishing rights in British waters. 

With Christmas and Covid, could there be a chance that an extension to the transition period will be agreed? You wouldn’t bet against it. Meanwhile, with very little negotiation, the UK signed a rollover trade deal with Canada. 

Europe 

It looks as though EU leaders might be negotiating with Poland and Hungary as well…

Back in July EU states had agreed a €1.1tn (£980bn) budget for 2021-2027 and a €750bn (£671bn) Covid recovery fund. Now Hungary and Poland have blocked approval of that budget, vetoing it at a meeting in Brussels. 

The EU is already investigating both countries for supposedly violating the ‘democratic principles enshrined in the EU’s founding treaty.’ Violating that ‘rule of law’ could cost both countries billions of euros in EU funding, so it is hard not to see this as a tit-for-tat retaliation as tensions between Brussels and some of the former members of the Soviet bloc increase. 

In happier news many countries in Europe – including France, Germany and Spain – have eased Covid restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, although restrictions on large scale Christmas and New Year gatherings remain in place. 

From happier news to much happier news. Like all the markets we cover in the Bulletin the German and French stock markets performed strongly in November. Germany’s DAX index rose 15% to close the month at 13,291 while the French stock market did even better, closing up 20% at 5,519.

US 

It seems a long time ago now but November started with the US Presidential Election. The actual poll has almost been forgotten in the welter of claims and counter-claims that have followed it, and the debate on whether the 45th President will formally concede to the man who will be the 46th. 

According to the website RealClearPolitics Joe Biden now has 306 votes in the Electoral College to Donald Trump’s 232, having captured 51.1% of the popular vote. The conspiracy theories about electoral fraud will remain, but it will be Biden who will be inaugurated on January 20th. 

If the likely members of his Cabinet are any guide, then he will pursue policies very similar to the Clinton and Obama administrations: this morning brought the news that former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen will be his Treasury Secretary. 

We have mentioned the Spending Review above and Rishi Sunak’s commitment to a £15bn programme of research and development. To put that into perspective, Apple is reported to have spent £18.75bn (£14bn) on R&D in its 2020 fiscal year. Then again, the recent rise in the price of Apple shares did make it worth more than the combined value of all the companies in the FTSE-100 index. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic has been good to the FAANGs: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google who, between them, account for almost 15% of the value of the S&P500 index. 

We may soon need to add a T to that acronym. November’s rise in the share price of Tesla meant that Elon Musk overtook Bill Gates to become the 2nd richest man in the world – behind, of course, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. 

Unsurprisingly November was a good month for the stock indices in the US. The Dow Jones index broke through the 30,000 barrier at one point, closing at an all-time high of 30,046. By the end of the month it had slipped back to 29,639 for a gain of 12% in the month. The S&P 500 index was up 11% to 3,622. 

Far East 

November was a bad month for Chinese fintech giant Ant Group, as the Chinese authorities pulled the plug on its planned stock market flotation, which would have raised over $34bn (£25.6bn) and been the world’s biggest ever stock market debut. There are increasing signs that the authorities in Beijing are looking to stamp down on what they see as the excessive power of the country’s internet giants.

The big news in the Far East was the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which saw 15 countries – including Australia and New Zealand – form the world’s largest trading bloc, covering nearly a third of the global economy. 

Some commentators see the RCEP as an extension of China’s influence in the region, but speaking a few days later at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was at pains to stress that China would open up its ‘super-sized’ economy to more “high quality goods and services.” 

…Not, though, to Australian wine. As trade tensions between the two countries continued, China slapped duties ranging from 107% to 212% on Australian wine imports, citing ‘anti-dumping’ concerns. Perhaps McGuigans might like to dump their wines in the UK instead…

You suspect that trade tension between China and the UK may also increase, as the UK Government brought forward its ban on using Huawei equipment in the country’s 5G infrastructure. 

What of the stock markets? China’s Shanghai Composite index rose 5% in the month to end November at 3,392. The best performance in the region came in Japan, where the Nikkei Dow rose 15% to 26,434. The South Korean index was up 14% to 2,591 while the Hong Kong market rose 9% to 26,341. 

Emerging Markets 

A topic that has been discussed, and relatively recently, is that of Russian President Vladimir Putin cementing his hold on power in the country and paving the way to becoming ‘President for life.’ Now it appears that may not be the case: November saw rumours circulate about Putin’s health, with suggestions that he might step down in January. 

The Kremlin has denied claims that Putin is to quit, and that he might be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. State officials say that the President is in ‘excellent’ health, while the rumours insist his family have urged him to stand down in the New Year. We won’t have to wait long to find out…

The Russian stock market was far more influenced by claims about the effectiveness of the country’s new anti-Covid vaccine, the splendidly named Sputnik V, and was up 15% in November to close the month at 3,108. The Brazilian market did even better, rising 16% to 108,893 while the Indian stock market rose 11% to 44,150.

And finally 

Back in the mists of prehistory, when we first became interested in investment, there was one thing we couldn’t understand. How could, for example, the Chinese stock market be at 3,000 while the Japanese market was at 24,000? Did that mean Japan’s market was worth eight times China’s market? Surely not…

The answer, of course, was that it all depended on the base figure used when the index was first created. But thank goodness we never encountered the Venezuelan stock market in those early days. The Bursatil made some significant gains in November – and closed the month at 1,142,802…

The FTSE reaching Venezuelan levels aside, if we had a wish for this section it would be to turn back the clock. Drones have been much in the news this year and there can’t be many people who haven’t seen one flying. It is only a matter of time before the Amazon drone touches down in your back garden. 

But how did we miss this story? Back in January 2018 two brothers from Germany made a drone that could carry a person – surely the future of travel. They made the drone out of an old bathtub and successfully carried out a manned flight round a local gymnasium. Definitely one that goes in the ‘do not try this at home’ column.

The world has, though, generally been a serious and sombre place for these last few months – and while we’ve all come to know and love Zoom (astonishingly, Primark report that sales of pyjamas are up and sales of business suits are down) – there have still been some good news stories to put a smile on our faces. So let us end the November Bulletin by sending our congratulations to Tilly and Kieran, who married in Bath earlier in the month. 

Tilly and Kieran met at school when they were 12. And they’ve decided to hyphenate their surnames for their life together. We will be back to update you in the first week of January. Have a wonderful Christmas and may 2021 bring everything you would wish for. And in the meantime, please join us in a toast to the happy couple: Kieran White and Tilly Christmas…