In March, the coronavirus outbreak seemed to steal all the headlines, giving us almost hourly updates as it transformed our lives, and made the word ‘unprecedented’ feel like an understatement. Inevitably, there has been a serious impact on world stock markets, which have suffered their worst quarter since 1987.
The figures that follow will not make for pleasant reading: it is scant consolation that they would have looked much worse in the middle of the month, before governments around the word rushed to put stimulus packages in place to protect their economies and businesses. To give just one example, the US government passed a near $2tn (£1.62tn) aid package, described by one US Senator as a “wartime level of investment in the economy.”
It is worth noting that markets have always recovered over time. They recovered from the crash in 1987 and they recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.
Inevitably, the impact of the pandemic overshadows this Commentary. We have, therefore, added an extra section. Optimistically titled ‘Coronavirus: Fighting Back’, it details the economic and fiscal efforts governments are making in the face of the virus.
Coronavirus: Fighting Back
As we mentioned above, governments around the world have been launching stimulus packages to help their economies withstand the shock of the Covid-19 epidemic.
In the US, the Federal Reserve initially announced a $700bn (£565bn) package of aid, which was subsequently dwarfed by a near $2tn (£1.62tn) intervention. President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency, opening the way to yet more state aid and direct intervention in the economy. By the end of the month, he was talking of a $2tn programme of infrastructure investment to boost the US economy.
UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his Budget speech on 11th March – which now feels like several months ago – and initially announced a £30bn package of aid for business. “We will do whatever it takes,” he declared. A week later he was back, announcing a much larger package of aid which now covers small business grants, business interruption loans, help with wages, business rate reliefs and help for the self-employed.
The EU announced a €750bn (£700bn) aid package in the middle of the month and both the World Bank and the IMF pledged money to fight the outbreak and its economic impact.
Will all this be enough? The simple answer is that no one knows: as we have commented below, even with all this intervention some household names will be out of business by the time the dust finally settles. Hopefully the picture will look brighter by the end of April, otherwise we may see another raft of central bankers standing sombrely at lecterns while they deliver another round of aid packages.
In any normal month, Rishi Sunak’s first Budget – and his promise of massive investment in the UK’s infrastructure – would have taken up the bulk of this section of the Commentary. As we have seen, anything the Chancellor announced on 11th March was almost immediately superseded by events and – when this is finally over – another Budget seems inevitable. Like other countries, the UK will, one day, have to pay for the rescue package and the unprecedented increase in Government borrowing.
Whether there will be a UK high street to play its part in that recovery is currently looking questionable. There are always winners and losers from crises: currently the supermarkets (reportedly busier in March than at Christmas) and Amazon are the winners, while ‘ordinary’ shops are very much the losers. Pubs and restaurants up and down the land are going to close, irrespective of how much help the Chancellor gives them with business rates. The closure of the Carluccio’s chain – putting 2,000 jobs at risk – will not be the last by any means.
John Lewis has warned that stores could close, shopping centre operator Intu has said it could go bust and even before lockdown was introduced in the UK high street, footfall was down by 8%. Goodness only knows what the figure will be now.
Marks and Spencer, and several other household names in the fashion and retail sector, are warning of closures. As one analyst put it, “People do not buy a new outfit to stay at home”.
The rest of the UK news is, inevitably, dwarfed by the impact of the crisis. You won’t be surprised to hear that both consumer and business confidence fell during March, or that the UK’s credit rating was downgraded as a result of the pandemic. Credit rating agency Fitch dropped the UK from AA to AA- as it said that the country’s economic output would fall by almost 4% this year.
Was there any good news? At the beginning of the month, Nissan announced that it was investing £400m in its Sunderland plant to build the new Qashqai – and two days later the Chinese firm Jingye completed the takeover of British Steel, safeguarding 3,000 jobs. Then, on the morning of the Budget, the Bank of England cut base rates from 0.75% to 0.25%.
None of this, of course, could do anything to stop the stock market’s slide in March. The FTSE 100 index of leading shares fell 14% in the month to close at 5,672 and is down by 25% for the year as a whole. The pound fell 3% in the month to end March at $1.2415, down 6% against the dollar for the year to date.
March began with the UK saying it would take a ‘hard bargain’ in trade talks with the US as the Government pursued trade deals around the world in the wake of leaving the EU. The first round of trade talks with the EU was held at the beginning of the month, with the intention of reaching an agreement by the end of the year. That first round of trade talks threw up ‘clear differences’ – but that was always going to be the case.
Then, in the middle of the month, came the news that the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. A week later it was Boris Johnson’s turn, swiftly followed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the UK’s Chief Medical Officer.
Predictably, talks with the EU are now on hold. Equally predictably, reactions to that news depend on your original viewpoint. The two sides are either saying that a deal by 31st December is now impossible or muttering, “Have they never heard of Zoom?”
Hopefully, the situation will be clearer by the end of April. We will, as always, report back…
March was the month that Europe went into lockdown. It had started with the normal corporate news we have come to expect, with the IFO Business Climate survey saying that the German car industry ‘would face significant challenges’ over the months ahead.
A week later the whole of Europe was facing a very different challenge as Italy went into lockdown and Angela Merkel predicted that up to 70% of Germans could be infected by Covid-19.
Factories rapidly started closing all over Europe, free movement was forgotten as individual countries closed their borders and the ECB raced to implement a rescue package, scrapping its budget rules to fight the virus.
The impact of Covid-19 on Europe could be severe and long lasting. The blow to Italy’s economy – to take just one country – could be catastrophic, especially with several Italian banks long having been widely seen as vulnerable. If the outbreak is prolonged then the fragile economies of Spain, Greece and Portugal are going to compound the problem. The German taxpayer may ultimately decide that their own country is the only priority.
In keeping with the rest of the world, March was not a happy month for European stock markets. The German DAX index fell 16% to 9,936 while the French market fell 17% to 4,396. For the year as a whole, the two markets are respectively down by 25% and 26%.
Illustrating how vulnerable some of the smaller markets might be, the Greek stock market fell 22% to 558 in March, and is down by 39% since the start of the year.
Total ‘non-farm payroll employment’ in the US rose by 273,000 in February, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that the unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.5%.
The difference in March was that the figures were out of date almost as soon as they were announced. As the figures came out, the US Federal Reserve was implementing the first emergency cut to interest rates since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. As one report put it, ‘the world’s biggest economy is running scared’. Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, said that the cut would be a ‘meaningful boost’ to the US economy.
A fortnight later, the Fed had to act again – effectively cutting US rates to zero and announcing a stimulus package worth $700bn (£565bn). This was subsequently dwarfed by the near $2tn package which the US administration approved by the end of the month.
But, as the old saying goes, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no good’. No one will be surprised to hear that Amazon has gone on a hiring spree as the demand for home deliveries rockets.
Away from the economy, it is looking almost certain that the US Presidential Election in November will be between Donald Trump and Joe Biden – formerly Barack Obama’s Vice President. March saw Biden defeat Bernie Sanders in a string of primaries and go a long way to clinching the nomination.
When Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the Dow Jones index stood at 19,732. To the President’s horror, the Dow slipped below that level at one point in March, falling to 18,917. By the end of the month, it had recovered to 21,917 where it was down 14% for the month and 23% for the year as a whole.
Meanwhile, the economic news continued to worsen, with 3.28m Americans – an unprecedented number – seeking jobless benefits and American Airlines saying that it will need $12bn (£9.7bn) in state aid. The remark of UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak – “we will not be able to protect every business and every job” – will apply just as much in the US as it will in the UK. By the end of this crisis, it may well be that many household names have ceased to exist.
The newspapers are already full of demands for there to be ‘a reckoning’ with China when the Coronavirus is over. Everyone reading this will have their own views on whether the Chinese Communist Party lied about and/or covered up the true extent of Covid-19 in the early days of the outbreak.
Whatever the truth, countries will continue to trade with China and so, for the purpose of this Commentary, the country’s economic performance remains important to both the Far East and wider world trade.
The beginning of March brought confirmation that Chinese manufacturing had fallen to a record low in February, with the Purchasing Managers’ Index down to 35.7 from the 50 it had recorded in January. At one point, exports were down by 17% as the virus had a bigger impact on Chinese manufacturing than the economic crisis of 2008.
Fast forward to the end of the month and those figures had been turned on their head, with the PMI soaring to 52 by the end of the month.
Despite this, the World Bank is predicting a year of ‘pain’ for Far Eastern economies. The Bank is now predicting that growth in China this year will be just 2.3% compared to a prediction of 6.1% made last year. This lower growth rate will inevitably impact the smaller Far Eastern economies, with the World Bank now projecting a best case scenario of 2.3% growth for the region this year, and a worst case of just 0.5%. This compares to the 5.8% growth forecast before the Covid-19 outbreak.
In the current circumstances, it is somewhat ironic that China’s Shanghai Composite Index delivered the ‘best’ monthly performance of those markets on which we report. It closed March at 2,750 from an opening level of 2,880, meaning that it was down just 5% in the month and 10% for the year as a whole.
The Hong Kong market fell 10% in the month to 23,603 (down by 16% since 1st January). The Japanese stock market fell 11% in March to close at 18,917 while the South Korean index fell 12% to 1,755. Both those markets are down by 20% for the year as a whole.
Back in 2018, Vladimir Putin won another six year term as Russian President and promptly laughed off suggestions that he would run again in 2024, when he will be 72.
But now it appears that Vladimir Vladimirovich has had second thoughts and – like his friend Xi Jinping – rather fancies being President for life. Before Covid-19 brought normal politics to an end, a Russian MP had proposed ‘resetting to zero’ the number of Presidential terms Mr Putin has served. In theory, the move will require the approval of the Russian Constitutional Court: you shouldn’t expect that to be a problem when normal service is resumed.
The Indian Premier, Narendra Modi, appears to be in rather more immediate need of reassurance. He has made a public appeal for forgiveness after making a very rapid decision to put 1.3bn people into lockdown. The situation is fast turning into a human tragedy as millions of the poorest migrant workers face walking hundreds of miles to get home, facing both rising temperatures and closed state borders.
Modi’s finance minister was also under attack after announcing an £18.8bn stimulus package for the economy: critics derided it as ‘not nearly enough.’
The Indian stock market ended the month down 23% (and 29% for the year as a whole) at 29,468. It was not, though, the worst performer in this section, as the Brazilian market fell to 73,020 – down 30% in the month and 37% for the first quarter. In relative terms, the Russian market did ‘well:’ it was down by just 10% in the month and, at 2,509, is down 18% for the year as a whole.
We debated long and hard as to whether to include the ‘And finally’ section in the Commentary this month. In the end we decided to keep it for two reasons. First, we’ve long suspected that it is the most widely read section of the Commentary. Secondly, it’s a symbol of normal life – and a reminder, despite the fact that amusing stories were hard to find in March 2020, that we will get back to normal life one day.
And what could be more normal than the British Wife Carrying Championship? Technically we should have reported on it last month as it was held on 29th February, but sometimes even the most interesting stories take a while to make the papers.
We must add our congratulations to David Threlfall and Cassie Yates, the winners of this year’s race. Should you wish to see it, a quick search on Google or YouTube will help your self-isolation or working from home.
The event’s website certainly pulled no punches: wife carrying can be a dangerous activity, which can lead to slipped discs, broken legs and arms, limb dislocation, spinal injuries and hernias.
Nevertheless the event appears to be gaining in popularity. For any clients who may feel like participating next year, please note that ‘wives’ (not necessarily your own) must weigh at least 50kg. There are also generous prizes for anyone who might see wife-carrying as a route to the professional sports career they have long wished for.
The winner this year received a barrel of ale, the oldest ‘carrier’ won a pot of Bovril and a tin of pilchards, while the carrier of the heaviest ‘wife’ was rightly rewarded with a pound of sausages.
On that upbeat note, we’ll leave this month’s Commentary. Let’s hope the world is a more positive place when we report again in May. Until then, take care, stay safe and remember that if you need to contact us we are never more than a phone call or an email away.