Our vulnerabilities have been laid bare over the last year, as the pandemic took hold of all our lives, and continues to present challenges on a variety of levels. Economic frailties have been exposed but, as we enter 2021, hope hangs in the air with the prospect of recovery in the New Year and beyond.
Slowly but surely
A fitting portrayal of the situation was coined in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) final 2020 assessment of global economic prospects, entitled ‘A Long and Difficult Ascent’. The Fund predicts a moderate rebound this year with a continuing gradual recovery over the following few years, with the economic path ahead remaining challenging.
Reasons for optimism
Although the IMF forecast highlights ongoing uncertainties and risks, primarily centring on the future path of the pandemic, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Continuing progress in the rollout of vaccination programmes and the economic stimuli promised by Joe Biden, should both have a positive impact on market sentiment throughout the course of the year.
The linchpin to successful investing, whatever the future holds, inexorably remains embracing a long-term philosophy, based on sound financial planning principles. Maintaining a diversified investment portfolio which suits your attitude to risk and resisting any urge to panic trade, are essential elements. Looking forwards and focusing on future key trends and longer-term investment themes will stand us all in good stead too.
Advice reigns supreme
Given the heightened uncertainty and market turbulence, it has arguably never been more important to obtain professional financial advice. We can construct a tailored plan, setting out realistic and achievable financial goals, and help you navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as the New Year unfurls.
The ‘scientific cavalry’, as Boris Johnson likes to put it, has arrived. The UK became the first western country to implement a COVID vaccine for mass use, and authorities are wasting no time rolling it out. 800,000 doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s celebrated vaccine are expected to be started, with the world’s first, 91 year old Margaret Keenan, gaining world wide media coverage. The most vulnerable are first, before the remaining 40 million ordered doses are injected into the population over the next year. The government’s scientific advisers stress that the virus is still ever-present, and restrictions will have to remain tight for several months, although the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Van-Tam also said that once all on the priority list had been vaccinated (over 50s and vulnerable groups), 99% of fatalities could be prevented. News of the vaccine roll-out undoubtedly brings respite, and hope that Britain’s epidemic will fade as the winter months do.
The good news was certainly needed. Along with being one of the worst-hit countries in the world in virus terms, Britain’s economy has shrunk by the biggest margin in the G7. And, according to the latest report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), things are hardly looking up from here. By the end of 2021, the only major economy expected to have worse growth numbers is Argentina. OECD forecasters expect Britain’s economy to be 6% smaller at the end of 2021 than it was at the end of 2019. This fall is down to a predicted 11.2% GDP contraction this year, compared with a 10.1% contraction forecast back in September.
If expected growth figures were not sobering enough, this week we had a visceral reminder of COVID’s economic fallout. On Monday, Phillip Green’s Arcadia Group – owner of fashion retailers Topshop, Burton, Evans and more – went into administration. Hours later, Debenhams followed suit, bringing its 200-year history to an abrupt end. The liquidations close another act in Britain’s ‘Death of the High street’ drama. Few will shed a tear for the scandal-ridden almost-billionaire Phillip Green, but the wider economic impact should not be understated. The Arcadia Group alone has over 400 stores, and the collapse of both companies could lead to around 25,000 job losses. This is not good news for an economy which is still effectively under national restrictions.
COVID will get some of the blame here, but the struggles of both predate the pandemic. ‘Bricks and mortar’ retailers have been under immense pressure for years, faced with fierce online competition, stagnant consumer demand and bloated rental costs. Debenhams is a prime example. After being gobbled up by private equity, the high street chain was saddled with debts and had much of its freehold property portfolio sold then leased back. According to its administrator, Debenhams went into administration with £700 million of secured debt and £200 million of trade creditors.
Whatever hope the company had of finding its feet were dashed once the virus emptied Britain’s streets. “There was a salvageable business in there” said previous Debenhams chair Ian Cheshire. “Then the pandemic blew a hole in the side of it.”
Aside from the hit to employment, the fall of household-name retailers has had a big effect on Britain’s property market. We wrote recently that signs are positive for UK residential property, backed by regulatory changes and easy lending standards from the country’s banks. Commercial property, however, is a different story. With restrictions set to remain for the foreseeable future (and psychological ‘scarring’ likely to last much longer) it is hard to be positive about retailing real estate, even if tiered restrictions ease off in 2021. Some of the physical spaces once occupied by Debenhams and Arcadia will be snapped up by competitors, but it is likely many stores will just be left empty. “They’re just too big,” according to one commercial real estate agent. “Most will need rethinking and repurposing once a new normal resumes”.
However, despite the gloomy headlines, the wider UK retail equity market actually saw a significant rally this week. As the chart below shows, the FTSE 350 General Retailers index spiked around the same time as the Debenhams and Arcadia news. Perhaps the demise of these two ‘names’ makes things easier for the rest – particularly if they can capitalise on resurgent demand from a freshly-vaccinated population.
Back to dire pronouncements on the UK economy. The OECD noted that Britain’s slowness to react to the pandemic meant harsh lockdown measures came in more abruptly – and lasted longer – than other nations in Europe and Asia. A failure to agree a Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), or an early fiscal retrenchment were mentioned as other potential negatives.
The OECD has a mixed record as a forecaster, and its predictions may have slight, if inadvertent, political dimensions. It may be right about the lasting virus impacts, but the probability of a Brexit deal is rising, in our opinion (and was high last week). We also think the UK government is not about to revert to austerity.
And in itself, Brexit can bring advantages, even if those advantages (e.g. a greater flexibility and potential speed of policy implementation) may struggle to counterbalance the drawbacks. To make actual gains from the potential offered by Brexit, we need an agile government, and a responsive private sector.
One area where the UK can be a real leader is in climate change, sustainability, ethical investing, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. The UK’s investment managers are awash with liquidity looking for the right assets. There are UK universities and companies’ research groups with ideas waiting. There is a huge demand globally for viable solutions, and that will be increased substantially if US President-elect Joe Biden gets his policies underway and the US re-joins the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The UK will host the postponed COP26 summit next year. Ahead of that, on 12 December (and on the fifth anniversary of the forging of the Paris Agreement) a ‘climate ambition summit’ will be hosted by Boris Johnson and United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres. Beforehand, Johnson has taken the opportunity to announce an ambitious national target for cutting emissions substantially by 2030. He has the opportunity to encourage UK businesses to take the (much needed) lead in this area.
CEO Tatton Investment Management Limited
CIO Tatton Asset Management
With the number of coronavirus cases rising across the UK, the Prime Minister was back on the Downing Street podium last Wednesday to announce new measures. As we enter the autumn, with the country at a critical moment and the average rate of new infection four times higher than in mid-July, the government announced the introduction of the rule of six. From Monday (14 September) social gatherings of more than six people (of all ages) are banned in England. This limit applies to indoor and outside settings and is enforceable by police, who will issue fines or make arrests.
A support bubble or single household larger than six, will still be able to gather and COVID-secure venues such as gyms, restaurants and places of worship, can still hold more than six in total. The rules do not affect education and work settings.
Boris Johnson said, “we must act” to avoid another lockdown, adding, “Let me be clear – these measures are not a second national lockdown – the whole point of them is to avoid a second national lockdown… I wish that we did not have to take this step, but, as your Prime Minister, I must do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives… it is so important that we take these tough measures now.” Matt Hancock said the new rules will not be kept in place “any longer than we have to.”
During the briefing, the Prime Minister also outlined ‘Operation Moonshot’, an expansion of testing to ten million a day by early 2021. Frequent testing of the population would allow people without the virus to conduct their lives as normal, allowing the economy and society to remain open despite the virus being in circulation. Boris Johnson said the government was “working hard” to increase testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
Quarantine list additions: Last week, in a change of policy for the government, England introduced island-specific quarantine, rather than restrictions applying to an entire country. Travellers arriving in England from seven Greek islands needed to self-isolate from 4am last Wednesday. Mainland Portugal was placed back on the quarantine list last week, effective from Saturday (12 September) morning. Meanwhile, Sweden has been added to England, Scotland and Wales’ safe lists.
Economic growth and trade talk wrangling’s: According to official figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK economy grew by 6.6% in July, the third month in a row of economic expansion. Despite this, output remains below prepandemic levels and the ONS outlined the UK ‘has still only recovered just over half of the lost output caused by the coronavirus.’ The UK’s economy is 11.7% smaller than it was in February.
Despite subdued trading, the FTSE 100 ended higher last week. Trade deal negotiations between the UK’s Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier continued last week. The UK has published a bill to rewrite parts of the withdrawal agreement it signed in January, but the EU is demanding the UK drops plans to alter it. Lord Frost said, “Challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant”, but UK negotiators “remain committed” to reaching a deal by the middle of October.
Here to help: Financial advice is key, so please do not hesitate to get in contact with any questions or concerns you may have.
As Storm Francis lashed the UK last week, another storm was brewing as the government took a late U-turn regarding the use of face coverings in schools in England. From the beginning of September, secondary pupils and adults in local lockdown areas of England and in areas facing extra government restrictions, will be required to wear face coverings when moving around the school, in corridors and communal areas.
Any secondary school in England will have discretion to introduce the use of face coverings in communal areas, where social distancing is not possible, a move which has prompted criticism from some teachers, with the announcement last Tuesday being made just hours before schools reopened in Leicestershire. The guidance does not include the use of face coverings in the classroom during lessons, where the government says they could ‘inhibit learning.’ The guidance extends to further education colleges but not to primary schools. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the new policy follows updated advice from the World Health Organisation, “Our priority is to get children back to school safely. At each stage we have listened to the latest medical and scientific advice… I hope these steps will provide parents, pupils and teachers with further reassurance.”
Eat Out success prompts extension – Some restaurants are keen to continue offering discounted meals in September, following the success of the Eat Out to Help Out initiative in August. The scheme ended on 31 August, but nationwide chains including Prezzo, Harvester, Toby Carvery, Bill’s and Pizza Hut are amongst those due to take part, although the eateries will have to cover the costs themselves.
Support for those self-isolating on low incomes – From Tuesday (1 September), workers on low incomes living in parts of England where there are high coronavirus rates will be able to claim up to £182 if they have to self-isolate. Strict eligibility criteria mean people claiming Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit, who are unable to work from home, will qualify for the £13 per day payment. The benefit is initially being trialled in parts of North West England. Eligible individuals who test positive and are employed or self-employed, need to isolate for 10 days and will receive £130. Eligible members of the household, who would have to self-isolate for 14 days, will be entitled to a maximum of £182. In addition, anyone who is told to self-isolate by NHS contact tracers and meets the eligibility criteria will be entitled to £13 a day for the duration of self-isolation.
Renewed optimism US stocks hit record highs last week after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell outlined the central bank’s strategy for avoiding future crises and inflation control measures. During the week, stocks rose amid renewed optimism about US China trade tensions, with both Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin renewing their commitment to a trade deal.
Quarantine list additions – Due to a rise in infection rates, quarantine rules were implemented on Saturday morning for travellers returning to the UK from Jamaica, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Cuba has been added to the list of countries now exempt from quarantine.
In other news The government is preparing to launch a campaign this week aimed at encouraging employees back to their workplaces. Lockdown restrictions in parts of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire will be lifted on 2 September due to ‘positive progress’, the government has announced.
Here to help Financial advice is key, so please do not hesitate to get in contact with any questions or concerns you may have.
Tax receipts from Stamp Duty on property sales fell by £1bn over the last tax year, to a total of £11.9bn according to latest figures from HMRC.
However, Capital Gains Tax, which is payable when buy-to-let homes are sold, rose to £9.2bn, up from £7.8bn a year earlier.
The decline in Stamp Duty has been blamed on a decline in buy-to-let purchases and a slowdown in the higher end of the property market, in addition to the majority of first-time buyers having been removed from the tax.
Data from Landbay Rental Index shows the
average rent paid for a property in the UK is now £1,218 per month, up by 0.96%
in the 12 months to April 2019.
Excluding London, the average rent in the rest of the UK was £773 per month, with Scotland recording the highest annual growth at 1.78%; Edinburgh being Scotland’s rental hotspot with an annual increase of 5.44%.
John Goodall, CEO of Landbay said: “Landlords can rest assured that there is decent rental growth to be found across the UK, particularly if they look north of London”.
The UK economy benefited from a sharp one-off boost to growth in the first quarter of the year as manufacturers stockpiled ahead of a Brexit that never came.
Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 0.5% during the first three months of 2019; this compares with a growth rate of 0.2% in the final quarter of last year. While this clearly represents a strong rebound in growth, the ONS cautioned that the rise was driven by stockpiling as manufacturers rushed to deliver orders before the original 29 March Brexit deadline.
Indeed, the data revealed that manufacturing output jumped by 2.2% in the first quarter, the fastest rate of growth recorded in the last 20 years. This sharp expansion was not a surprise as business surveys had previously revealed how manufacturers had been building up stocks of goods in case the UK left the EU without a transition deal, which it was feared could result in chaos at the UK’s borders.
However, the fact that many businesses did bring activity forward in preparation for Brexit does mean that stocks of finished goods now stand at historically high levels. Stock levels are therefore likely to be run down over the coming months and data from the latest monthly Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Industrial Trends Survey suggests that this process has already begun.
The CBI survey showed that the monthly order book balance fell to -10 in May from -5 in April, its lowest level since October 2016. This suggests that British factories have geared down from their rush to stockpile before the Brexit deadline, a move that will inevitably have a negative impact on UK economic growth during the second quarter of