Another trillion-dollar milestone

Garry White looks at the events that have shaped equity markets this week (13 – 17 January 2020).

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  1. Garry White

Washington and Beijing finally signed an interim trade agreement, but the deal did not tackle some of the most contentious issues such as cyber espionage. The pause in tension came as growth in China’s economy hit a new 30-year low, but this negative news was tempered by some positive data from December that hinted the worst may have passed in the world’s second-largest economy.  

Markets have stepped up bets on a UK interest-rate cut sooner rather than later after Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said there is plenty of room to act if necessary and a number of members of the rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee said that they supported a cut. Inflation also fell further away from the central bank’s target.

Google-owner Alphabet became the fourth US-listed company to hit the $1 trillion market cap level – and the UK saw profit warnings from Hays, McBride, Hastings, Elementis and The City Pub Group.

The FTSE 100 rose 0.8% over the week by mid-session on Friday and the FTSE 250 rose 1.1%

Important cybersecurity update

Our cybersecurity team has informed me that Microsoft, which makes the popular Windows software, announced this week that it no longer supports Windows 7. In this context ‘support’ is fixing security flaws. New defects will remain, which is good news for cybercriminals who will use these weaknesses to attack vulnerable computers. Consider protecting yourself by upgrading your existing computer to Windows 10, buying a new computer with Windows 10 installed, or by switching to an Apple or an Android device.

Trade

The long-awaited trade deal between the US and China was signed in Washington, but the market reaction was muted. The deal offered much more open access to China’s financial services and banking markets, with specific pledges to allow US electronic payments companies, US credit rating companies and agencies and US asset managers better access to the Chinese market. The US also reversed its decision to brand China a currency manipulator. The deal is also easy to break – requiring just 60 days’ notice to terminate.

China's economy weakened to its slowest growth rate in almost three decades over the course of 2019, as weaker domestic demand and trade tensions took their toll. The world's second-largest economy grew by 6.1% last year, its worst performance since 1990. However, there was some positive data released to temper this bad news, with Chinese retail spending and industrial output both jumping in December.

US farmers are probably not impressed with the deal. Soybean prices fell to a one-month low after the details were published. Wheat and corn prices also moved lower. The deal failed to include a specific dollar amount for China's purchases of US soybean – just a few months before planting season when decisions have to be made.

An editorial in the China’s state-owned Global Times, a tabloid run by the People’s Daily, dismissed concerns that China had not got much out of the deal, arguing that debating about who had lost or gained is shallow. “We urge individuals and forces to exercise some restraint in their nit-picking of the agreement and bad-mouthing future trade negotiations,” the editorial said.

Rating agency Moody’s gave the Phase One trade deal a modest welcome but warned that relations between Washington and Beijing could flare up again. The agreement could help boost bilateral exports by the two economies and lead to an improvement in business confidence as well as investment, Moody’s Michael Taylor said. “But the details of the agreement suggest that there remains considerable scope for friction between the two sides.”

EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said that the agreement will need to be checked to make sure if it is compliant with global rules. "The devil is in the detail," Mr Hogan said. “We will have to assess whether it is WTO compliant."

To read the full 86-page agreement between the US and China click here.

Mr Hogan also said that the race was on to avert an escalation in transatlantic tensions as a result of US objections to a French digital-services tax. He said that the coming days could determine whether the EU succeeded in helping broker an international agreement on the taxation of digital businesses through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It was also revealed that the US threatened to impose 25% tariffs on cars to push Europeans to initiate proceedings against Iran for violating the nuclear deal.

Economics

Markets have stepped up bets on a UK interest-rate cut sooner rather than later after Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said there is plenty of room to act if necessary, and policymakers Silvana Tenreyro and Gertjan Vlieghe warned they could join colleagues calling for lower rates. Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Michael Saunders also said he was sticking to his view that borrowing costs should be cut because of weakness in Britain’s labour market and its broader economy. “It probably will be appropriate to maintain an expansionary monetary policy stance and possibly to cut rates further, in order to reduce risks of a sustained undershoot of the 2% inflation target,” Mr Saunders said. The news prompted a fall in sterling.

Indeed, inflation continues to undershoot. UK inflation slowed more than expected in December, moving further away from the Bank of England’s 2% target thus increasing the likelihood of an interest rate cut.  Consumer prices rose 1.3% over the month, below expectations of 1.5% and the lowest reading since November 2016. The MPC next meets on 30 January and interest rate futures have now priced in a 62% chance of a 25-basis-point cut at this meeting. This hit the share price of major banks including Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays.

Adding to expectations that a rate cut is in prospect, UK consumers failed to increase their spending in December for a record fifth month in a row. Monthly sales volumes fell by 0.6% from November, defying expectations of a 0.5% rise. Sales in monthly terms have not risen since July, the longest such run since records began in 1996, the Office for National Statistics said.

The UK economy unexpectedly shrank ahead of the general election, casting doubt over whether there was any growth at all in the fourth quarter. GDP fell 0.3% in November, the Office for National Statistics said Monday. Economists had expected the figure to be unchanged. It means growth of 0.1% to 0.2% was needed in December to prevent the economy contracting in the fourth quarter. However, the three-month figure showed the economy grew by 0.1% between the start of September and the end of November – better than the 0.1% fall expected.

German growth for 2019 fell to 0.6% — down from the 1.5% growth rate logged in 2018 and significantly lower than the 2.5% rate in 2017. Despite the drop, the German economy grew for the tenth year in a row — the longest period of growth since German reunification. In 2019, Germany's surplus amounted to 1.5% of its GDP, slightly down from 2018's 1.9%.

According to Germany’s powerful BDI industry association, German economic growth is seen at 0.5% in 2020. German industry is stuck in recession and there are no signs for bottoming out in the sector, the trade body added.

Geopolitics

There was no further escalation of tension between Tehran and Washington. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani dismissed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call for a new "Trump deal" to replace the 2015 nuclear agreement. Mr Johnson said he recognised that Mr Trump saw the accord as "flawed" and suggested he could renegotiate it. Mr Rouhani warned that "all Trump has done is break promises".

The 100 senators were sworn in on Thursday as jurors for the impending impeachment trial of President Trump. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, administered the oath to the senators to "do impartial justice" – but the vote is expected to split along partisan lines, saving Mr Trump from removal from office. The trial is scheduled to begin on 21 January.

Economic damage from the Hong Kong protests is now becoming visible. Chow Tai Fook Jewellery said it plans to shut about 15 of its Hong Kong stores after their leases expire this year – a sign that major retailers are starting to withdraw from the city’s economy. This represents the first significant pullback by a luxury retailer in the territory.

Russia’s government unexpectedly resigned after President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes that could allow him to extend his rule. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he was stepping down to give Putin room to carry out the changes, which, if implemented, would shift power to parliament and the prime minister – and might, therefore, allow Mr Putin to rule on in another capacity after his current term ends in 2024.

Leo Varadkar called a snap general election in Ireland on 8 February, setting up a short campaign in which the prime minister will seek his own mandate after taking over in 2017 from Enda Kenny, one year into the minority government’s term.

Talks to end Libya’s civil war broke down after the commander leading the assault on the capital, Khalifa Haftar, rejected a proposed truce agreement, throwing open the door to a possible renewal of fighting and deeper foreign intervention in the oil-rich nation.

Profit warnings

Recruiter Hays cut its guidance blaming a 4% drop in fees in the UK and Ireland, with demand for permanent workers down sharply. It blamed “economic and political uncertainty”. Management also blamed protests in France and the bushfire disaster in Australia.

Mid-cap cleaning products maker Hays warned that full-year profits would be below City expectations, blaming weak trading activity in its core household division and exit from aerosol manufacturing.

Insurer Hastings reduced guidance and said it would cut its dividend following elevated claims costs in the fourth quarter.

The City Pub Group warned that 2019 profit will fall short of expectations after “one-off factors” including political uncertainty and strikes on London commuter train services impacted performance over the Christmas trading period. The group owns 47 pubs across the southern half of England and Wales.

Specialty chemicals group Elementis reduced its 2019 operating profit guidance after the final quarter of the year had been “somewhat subdued”.

US retail titan Target reduced its guidance after a difficult November and December. Management said that its comparable holiday sales rose 1.4%, well below the 3% to 4% the company had expected.

IPOs

The number of companies floating on the London Stock Exchange fell to its lowest in 10 years, according to EY’s IPO tracker. Only 35 companies launched an IPO in 2019, less than half of the 79 listings during 2018. Advisory group EY blamed that on global economic uncertainty but predicted an increase in activity now the general election Tory landslide has brought some certainty.

Pfizer is planning an IPO of its consumer-health joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline in three to four years, as the two drug groups focus back on the laboratory. Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla discussed the time frame for the IPO at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. However, GSK’s chief strategy officer David Redfern said the UK pharma group had made no firm plans for a flotation.

Online mattress seller Casper plans to list shares stock on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “CSPR.” The company is loss-making. It lost $92.1m in 2018 and $73.4m in 2017, according to its stock registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Casper calls itself a “pioneer of the sleep economy” and values the global market at $432bn.

Funds

Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, will put environmental sustainability at the core of its investment strategy, after criticism the asset management giant has failed to use its power to combat climate change. “Climate change is different. Even if only a fraction of the projected impact is realised, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis,” chief executive Larry Fink said. “Companies, investors, and governments must prepare for a significant reallocation of capital.”

US earnings

JPMorgan Chase posted the best year for any US bank in history. Boosted by a rebound in trading, especially in fixed income, the company said profit jumped 21% in the fourth quarter, pushing annual earnings to a record $36.4bn.

Citigroup’s earnings beat Wall Street expectations in its fourth-quarter numbers, driven by strong fixed-income trading revenues along with growing sales from the bank’s consumer business.

Morgan Stanley shares rose after the investment bank exceeded analysts’ profit estimates and each of its three main businesses produced more revenue than expected.

Goldman Sachs reported quarterly profit that missed analysts' estimates by a wide margin, hurt by weakness in its investment banking business and higher operating costs. Litigation provisions wiped $1.24bn off the bank’s bottom line.

Wells Fargo reported a 55% slump in fourth-quarter profit, as the fallout from a sales scandal that erupted in 2016 drove the bank to set aside another $1.5bn toward legal expenses.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch's fourth-quarter earnings beat Wall Street's expectations, but revenues were slightly below expectations.

Delta Air Lines posted strong fourth-quarter results, beating expectations, on high demand and lower fuel costs. Delta is the only major US carrier without a 737 Max in its fleet.

Technology

There was some positive news on technology investment in the UK, which grew faster than in the US and China. More than £10bn was invested into British technology start-ups last year, a 44% year-on-year rise. That’s according to data from Government-backed group Tech Nation and Dealroom, which also noted that investment into start-ups in the US and China dropped by 20% and 65% respectively. However, total tech investment in the US was $116bn, in China it was $39.8bn and in the UK it was $13.2bn. To read the full report and see the slide deck click here.

Donald Trump took aim at Apple for refusing to allow the US government access to the iPhones “used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” In a tweet, President Trump said the tech giant “will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country.” Mr Trump's tweet came hours after Apple declined requests from US Attorney General William Barr and the FBI to unlock two iPhones believed to have been used by a 21-year-old man who killed three sailors in a shooting last month at a Florida Air Force base. Chief executive Tim Cook has repeatedly called privacy a fundamental human right.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, hit a landmark stock market valuation of $1 trillion for the first time – only the fourth listed US company to do so. The others are Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

Amazon plans to invest $1bn in digitising small and medium-sized businesses in India and expects to export $10bn worth of Indian-made goods by 2025, founder Jeff Bezos said in Delhi.

Amazon will ask a federal court to temporarily block Microsoft from working on a $10bn cloud computing contract for the military. Microsoft is scheduled to begin its work on the contract on 11 February. The request is part of Amazon's ongoing challenge to the Trump administration over the way the contract was awarded, which it argues was influenced by President Donald Trump's dislike of Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, which Mr Bezos owns.

America’s top competition watchdog has defended the Silicon Valley tech titans from global calls for a crackdown, saying “we don’t break companies up just because they are big”. Joe Simons, chairman of the US Federal Trade Commission, said the regulator will not penalise businesses for their success and took aim at Brussels laws designed to keep them in check.

Energy

The oil price bounced from lows on optimism a more conciliatory approach on trade from the US will help revive growth, but still edged lower amid persistent demand concerns. Brent crude futures fell 0.3% over the week by mid-session on Friday to trade at about $64.75 a barrel.

Oil supplies from Iraq, the Middle East’s second-biggest producer, are “potentially vulnerable” amid rising political risks in the country and the broader region, the International Energy Agency warned.

Tullow Oil took a $1.5bn charge after lowering its long-term oil price outlook. The energy company cut its longer-term oil price assumptions by $10 to $65 a barrel, with underwhelming well exploration and a reduction in Ghanian reserves also contributing to the writedown.

Lekoil requested that its shares be suspended from trading on Aim in London after the validity of a loan was questioned. At the start of January, Lekoil agreed a $184m loan from the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) for drilling and development at the Ogo field off the coast of Nigeria. Lekoil paid $600,000 to an intermediary called Seawave Invest Limited, which introduced the company to representative purportedly from the QIA. It now appears that this could be a rather embarrassing fraud and the shares fell 70% on return from suspension.  

Mining

China’s assurances this week that it will not cut subsidies for electric vehicles any further led to a rally in lithium producers such as China’s Ganfeng, a supplier to Tesla, and Chile’s SQM. Prices of lithium carbonate were in oversupply last year, resulting in a 30% fall in its price. Sales of electric and hybrid cars fell 4% in China last year, after a more than 50% cut in subsidies in June.  

Canada’s Endeavour Mining has ended takeover talks with Centamin and will not make a formal offer for the FTSE 250 listed Egyptian goldminer.  Endeavour said that the information provided by Centamin was “insufficient”.

Media

Investors sent Pearson’s share price down to its lowest level since 2008 after the education publisher warned its painful shift to digital would drag into 2020. Pearson’s legacy print textbook business sank another 12 % over 2019 and it tightened guidance on annual profit of £590m to the bottom range of its guidance. This means operating profits are expected to fall this year.

Yet again ITV was mentioned as the most likely takeover candidate in the UK and Europe this year in a Bloomberg survey of 20 M&A/event-driven desks, analysts, brokers and fund managers. The broadcaster was also the most mentioned in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 surveys.

US toy group Hasbro's $4bn acquisition of Peppa Pig owner Entertainment One was been given the go-ahead by the Competition and Markets Authority.

Retail

Primark-owner Associated British Foods saw sales rise 3% year-on-year over the Christmas trading period, but this was largely down to an increase in its retail selling space. The company reported an improvement in like-for-like sales across the whole Primark group but didn't provide exact figures for this. It explained its European markets were the main growth driver, though there also was a like-for-like improvement in the US. An increase in European Union sugar prices helped AB Sugar revenue climb 5% year-on-year, or 7% at constant currency.

Online fashion group Boohoo raised its full-year guidance after sales jumped in the final quarter of last year. Management now expects group revenue growth for the year to 29 February will be up between 40% and 42% year-on-year, ahead of previous expectations of between 33% and 38%. Aim-listed Boohoo’s market capitalisation is now greater than that of Marks & Spencer.

Another British retail success is Games Workshop, with its shares continuing to hit new record highs. Its shares jumped after it reported record sales and profits over the past half-year. Pre-tax profits increased by 44% to £58.6m over the six months to 1 December.

Halfords said it was on track to meet profits forecasts after strong sales of bicycles over the last three months. Bike sales rose 5.9% and the company’s auto centres also "performed strongly". For the full-year 2020, the company said underlying pre-tax profit would come in the range of £50m to £55m, in line with expectations.

Shares in sofa group DFS fell after sales fell 6% in the first half. However, management said that annual profits are “broadly” on track with expectations.

Fast fashion brand Quiz reported a “disappointing” drop in sales over the Christmas period, as both online and in-store revenue declined despite a strong Black Friday performance. Group revenue plunged 9.3%, dragged down by a 14.8% drop in online sales, the retailer said. Its shares are now down by about 90% since its July 2017 IPO.

Consumer

Bookmaker William Hill said it will beat expectations in its 2019 results due to “favourable sporting results”. Management said that its full-year, adjusted operating profit will be between £143m to £148m, ahead of both market and management expectations.

Ladbrokes owner GVC Holdings said full-year profit will be at the top end of guidance following strong growth in its online business.

However, the whole gaming sector was hit after the Gambling Commission's announced that betting using credit cards is to be banned. Flutter Entertainment, which owns Paddy Power, GVC and William Hill shares were all hit.

Premier Inn owner Whitbread said like-for-like sales at its hotels fell 2.1% during the quarter, while food and beverages rose 0.4%. The shares fell after management gave a downbeat outlook statement. “It remains difficult to predict business confidence in the short-term and its impact on the market,” the company said.

An exceedingly good performance from the Mr Kipling brand helped to boost sales at Premier Foods over the Christmas period. The company, which also owns Bisto gravy and Ambrosia custard, said group sales over the 13 weeks to 28 December rose 2.6%, with sales in the third quarter to date up 2.5%. Mr Kipling sales grew 10% in the third quarter.

Airlines & transport

Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, was saved from collapse by the UK government, a move that was heavily criticised by rivals. The bailout was criticised by Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways owner IAG. "Prior to the acquisition of Flybe by the consortium which includes Virgin/Delta, Flybe argued for taxpayers to fund its operations by subsidising regional routes,” Mr Walsh wrote in a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps. "Virgin/Delta now want the taxpayer to pick up the tab for their mismanagement of the airline. This is a blatant misuse of public funds.” Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary threatened legal action, arguing the rescue broke competition rules. Flybe dismissed the concerns noting it has agreed a payment plan with HMRC for debt of less than £10m, rather than the whole year of air passenger duty of £106m. “This agreement will only last a matter of months before all taxes and duties are paid in full,” Flybe said.

Former Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg left the company with $62m in compensation and pension benefits. Mr Muilenburg will not receive severance pay, according to a regulatory filing by Boeing. The aircraft maker fired Mr Muilenburg in December in an attempt to restore confidence in the aircraft maker after two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max planes.

For the first time in decades, Boeing’s commercial airplane business lost orders over the course of a year. For all of 2019, Boeing lost orders for 87 commercial airplanes, meaning it had more cancellations than new purchases. However, some of these cancellations came as the result of the collapse of India’s Jet Airways.

Boeing is facing a bill of more than $8bn in compensation for airlines whose 737 Max aircraft were grounded or undelivered, with the bill rising by $1bn every month. That is the conclusion in a paper prepared for the industry by Chris Tarry, a veteran aviation economist.

Andrew Tinkler, the former chief executive of Stobart Group dumped his near-5% stake in the owner of Southend, Carlisle and Teesside airports, raising an estimated £21m. This ends Mr Tinkler’s association with the business after a boardroom row. Stobart also owns part of Flybe.

Autos

Car sales in Europe actually rose in 2019, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. Full-year sales for the EU rose 1.2% in 2019 with exceptional gains seen in December, but UK sales fell 2.4%. However, part of the gain in continental Europe was probably due to buyers bringing forward purchases in France, Sweden and the Netherlands before 2020 tax increases kicked in. French sales jumped 28%. In both Sweden and the Netherlands, they more than doubled.

British electric van company Arrival is now officially a “unicorn”, which are start-ups valued at more than $1bn. South Korean car companies Hyundai and Kia handed it €100m of investment to start a strategic partnership that values the business at €3bn.

Toyota invested $394m in Joby Aviation, an electric air taxi service based in California. The money was part of a $590m funding round. To date, Joby has raised a total of $720m from various investors.

Bolt, the European challenger to ride-hailing giant Uber, secured €50m in debt financing from the lending arm of the EU, the European Investment Bank.

Aston Martin Lagonda is reportedly talking to two potential investors as it attempts to shore up its finances following a profit warning at the start of the year. Bloomberg reported that Chinese automaker Geely is holding talks about acquiring a stake and adding capital. The report also suggested that billionaire Lawrence Stroll is in advanced discussions to inject £200m into the company.

Despite the well-known travails of the sector, Germany’s Volkswagen posted record sales for last year, delivering 10.97 million vehicles in 2019. Sales were boosted by strong results in its home market in Germany, the US and in Brazil, but sales slipped in the Asia-Pacific region. However, German prosecutors also charged six Volkswagen executives with fraud, accusing them of “deliberately misleading” authorities in the diesel emissions scandal.

Nissan denied claims it is looking to end its partnership with Renault, with the Japanese carmaker stating it is “in no way considering dissolving the alliance”. Reports had suggested Nissan was stepping up contingency planning about a split, working through scenarios including how to separate manufacturing and engineering operations. The 20-year old tie-up between the French and Japanese car makers was created and overseen by Carlos Ghosn, who fled Tokyo to Lebanon last week.

Tesla’s share price continued its astonishing run. Chief executive Elon Musk is coming close to earning the first $346m tranche of options in a record-breaking pay package, after the electric vehicle maker’s stock more than doubled in the last three months. When Tesla’s stock market value hits $100bn – and is sustained at that level for both a one-month and six-month average - the first of his options will be vested. This is part of a potential $50bn incentive package, which would be the most generous in US corporate history. The shares crossed the $500 mark for the first time this week, valuing the company at $92.6bn. This compares with General Motors’ $50.8bn, Ford’s $36.5bn and Fiat Chryslers’ $19.4bn valuation.

Healthcare

AstraZeneca said it will take a $100m hit after trials of a heart disease drug showed it to be ineffective.

Veterinary medicine group Dechra Pharmaceuticals fell as it said the outlook for the full year was in line with management expectations, but the balance of trading will be more second-half weighted than is typical for the company.

Private healthcare group NMC Health said it has called upon a company founded by former US Federal Judge and FBI director Louis Freeh to review allegations made by short-selling business Muddy Waters. The US activist group said it was shorting the shares because of concerns about the company’s financial statements. You can read the Muddy Waters accusations, which NMC calls “baseless” here.

Property

The latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors showed that greater political clarity following December’s general election helped boost sentiment across the UK’s property market.

Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey says it saw "a good level of demand" for its homes last year despite a background of political and economic uncertainty. Its order book jumped 22% in 2019 to £2.18bn, helped by the government's Help to Buy scheme.

Persimmon reported a slide in revenue and housing completions, as the housebuilder focused on quality and its decision to “put customers before volume”. Revenues last year dipped 2.4% to £3.65bn.

Property advisor Savills said that underlying results for the year to the end of December will be at the upper end of the board’s expectations following an "excellent" performance in the UK.

Financials

Credit-checking company Experian reported a 7% jump in third-quarter organic revenue and maintained its full-year guidance. However, there was some weakness in Europe and the UK.

Payments group Visa will acquire financial-technology upstart Plaid for $5.3bn, including $4.9bn of cash. Plaid, valued at about $2.65bn in a late 2018 private funding round, allows individuals to connect their bank accounts with newer fintech platforms including Mint, Acorns, PayPal, Venmo and Betterment.

Subprime lender Provident Financial said its credit card business Vanquis Bank performed modestly above expectations in the fourth quarter, partly due to tight cost control.

Utilities

Shares in Pennon jumped after a report suggested bankers from Morgan Stanley and Barclays had been appointed to sell Viridor, which burns rubbish to generate energy. US private-equity group KKR made what it thought was a knockout bid for Viridor last year, but this was rejected. The move is understood to have shocked a slew of interested parties into queuing up to make offers for the unit, the report stated.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

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