October Market Commentary

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe

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

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

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

US

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far East

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

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

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

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

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

Emerging Markets

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

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

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