Let us invite you to travel back in time to June 2016, to the day after the Brexit referendum. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, campaigning in the US Presidential election is in full swing.
You are offered two glimpses into the future. The first is that two years on, the UK has apparently made no real progress in the Brexit negotiations. The second is that Donald Trump has been elected President and has had a successful meeting with Kim Jong-un. You would have dismissed both of them as ridiculous and yet that is exactly what June brought us, as Theresa May called yet another Brexit crisis meeting and President Trump met the leader of North Korea in Singapore.
…And then the President went on to announce a raft of tariffs on imported goods – from both China and Europe – which may well see the threatened global trade war develop. Both China and the EU were swift to announce retaliatory tariffs, and (unsurprisingly) June was a month in which none of the major stock markets we cover managed to gain any ground.
June was also another bad month for the virtual currency Bitcoin. The price has been in steady decline over the last two months and, over the weekend, stood at $6,369 (£4,822). There were two main reasons for the fall as the South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb revealed that it had lost 35bn won (£24m) in a cyber-attack, and governments and regulators around the world – the US Securities and Exchange Commission is the latest – made ominous noises about cutting down on Bitcoin fraud.
In what is surely a sign of things to come, the Canadian province of Quebec halted approvals for Bitcoin mining as it worried about being able to supply electricity to the province.
Sadly, the big story in the UK in June is one which has been written about often in recent times – the continuing decline of retail and the national high street. On the morning of Monday July 2nd, both the Mirror and the Daily Mail led with ‘the battle to save Britain’s high streets’.
Can anything be done? June brought us almost uninterrupted sunshine, and it may well be that the retail figures – like those for May – will show a rebound from the depressing figures disclosed in the Spring. The Mail is reporting that 50,000 retail jobs were lost over the last six months and is calling for an urgent review of ‘crippling business rates’.
Even that may not be enough: the simple fact is that it is easier, quicker, more convenient and cheaper to shop online. Even Costa is starting to struggle, reporting a 2% fall in like-for-like sales in the first three months of the year, which it blamed squarely on a lack of shoppers.
The long term trend was neatly captured by the problems of House of Fraser. On June 4th, it ‘rejected talk of a collapse’: three days later it was announcing that 31 of its stores would close. With M&S also planning a programme of store closures, Debenhams issuing constant profit warnings and 60 bank branches closing every month, the UK high street increasingly looks like it could be an idea whose time has passed.
But let us try and find some good news…
June was a good month for the economic numbers in the UK. Unemployment was down, falling by 38,000 between February and April, and the number of people in work rose to a record 32.4m – up 440,000 on the previous 12 months. That said, wage growth slowed again, so it is to be hoped that inflation does not also start to rise, otherwise we will be back in the realm of falling real wages.
The UK also earned the unofficial title of tech ‘unicorn’ capital of Europe. For those of you that don’t know the term, a ‘unicorn’ is a tech start-up valued at more than $1bn (£757m). The UK is home to 37% of the continent’s ‘unicorns’ and, according to a report for London Tech Week, is the number 1 destination for Europe’s top tech talent.
Rather more mundanely, the Bank of England voted to hold interest rates at their current level, but it is looking increasingly likely that base rates will rise to 0.75%, possibly as early as August.
The month ended with MPs voting overwhelmingly for the expansion of Heathrow airport – but do not expect the diggers to move in for a few years. The move will be widely challenged in the courts by local and environmental campaigners.
Finally, what of the UK stock market? The FTSE 100 index of leading shares had a quiet month. It started June at 7,678 and fell by just 41 points to end the month at 7,637. And it is down just 51 points for the year as a whole, having started 2018 at 7,688.
The pound was also down slightly against the dollar, falling from $1.3299 to $1.3211.
As noted in the introduction, June brought us the second anniversary of the vote to leave the EU but we remain no closer to knowing what the final shape of Brexit will be. Airbus and BMW made veiled warnings about the consequences of ‘no deal’ but with Theresa May’s cabinet still squabbling about the shape of the eventual customs partnership, that exact outcome appears to be looking ever more possible.
At the time of writing, the newspaper headlines are telling us that this month’s meetings will be ‘make or break for May’, although it would not be a surprise to see that, once again, a last minute compromise will be cobbled together and that this time next month we will still be no further forward.
The Italian coalition government has survived its first month in office, even giving an impression of normality as new finance minister Giovanni Tria said that the government was “clear and unanimous” in its decision to remain in the Eurozone.
The main news in Europe was the decision of the ECB to end its huge programme of bond-buying which was introduced in a bid to stimulate the economy of the Eurozone. In a statement, the ECB said that it would halve the current scheme – worth €30bn (£26.6bn) a month – after September “as long as the data remained favourable” and end it completely in December. ECB President, Mario Draghi, acknowledged that Eurozone growth had stuttered recently, but was adamant that the underlying growth “remained strong”.
There was big news for jobs in the steel industry as German industrial group Thyssenkrupp signed a deal with Tata Steel to combine the two companies’ European businesses. The new company will be headquartered in Amsterdam and will have a total workforce of 48,000 – but there are fears of up to 4,000 redundancies.
There could be one more redundancy as well… It is hard to escape the feeling that we are approaching the end of Angela Merkel’s time as German Chancellor as key ally Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, threatened to resign over her immigration policy. In Turkey, Recep Erdogan won a new five year term as president, with some commentators arguing that it effectively spelled the end of the country as a democracy.
On the stock markets, the German DAX index ended June down 2% at 12,306, while the French index was down just 1% at 5,324. At the halfway point in 2018, the German index is down by 5% for the year as a whole, while the French index has risen by just 11 points.
Threatened trade war or not, the US announced better than expected data on jobs as unemployment fell to an 18 year low. Forecasters had been expecting 190,000 jobs to be added in May, but that figure was comprehensively beaten as the economy added 223,000 jobs in the month.
As had been expected, the US Federal Reserve announced a rise in interest rates, moving the target rate up from 1.75% to 2%, and going so far as to forecast a further two rate rises this year, reflecting the strength of the US economy. It is the seventh time that rates have been increased since 2015 and takes them to their highest level since 2008.
In company news, there was more gloom for Facebook as it wrestled with yet another ‘privacy bug’ – this time affecting the data of 14m people. And there was bad news for Google as the EU announced that it would fine the company up to $11bn (£8.33bn) over the dominance of its Android system.
Tesla, Elon Musk’s car making company, announced that it would cut 9% of its workforce – mostly ‘salaried employees’ – as it bids to finally make a profit. The company employs 37,000 people and has never made a profit in the 15 years it has existed.
“Profit is not what motivates us,” Musk posted on Twitter. Wall Street does occasionally like to see companies making a profit, but it was a quiet month for the Dow Jones index, which drifted down 1% to close the month at 24,271. Looking at the year as a whole, it is down 2% from its opening level of 24,719.
China seems well on course to become the world’s most influential economy as the One Belt, One Road infrastructure project continues to extend its influence through Africa and towards Europe, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping committed to creating ‘a paradigm of globalisation that favours China’. The country is now the world’s second largest consumer of crude oil, with 25% of the imports coming from Sudan and the Gulf of Guinea.
For this month though, it was a disappointing performance from China’s Shanghai Composite Index which fell 8% to close at 2,847. Hong Kong followed Shanghai’s example, falling 5% to 28,955 and the South Korean market was down by 4% to 2,326. The Japanese market was more or less unchanged in the month, moving up very slightly to 22,304.
Unsurprisingly, given the threat of a trade war, all four markets are down over the first six months of the year. The Chinese market leads the way with a fall of 14%: South Korea is down 6% and the Hong Kong and Japanese stock markets are down by 3% and 2% respectively.
Could North Korea one day feature in this section of our report? It seems that these days the only way to predict the future is to think the previously unthinkable. Kim Jong-un is 34 (or 36, depending on which ‘official’ source you believe) and it is not hard to see him one day taking North Korea down a similar road to China while maintaining rigid state control of the economy.
For now, though, we will look at only the usual suspects – India, Russia and Brazil. The first two saw their stock markets largely unchanged in June, closing at 35,423 and 2,296 respectively. The Brazilian market was down 5% at 72,763. For the first six months of the year, Russia – with future tourism surely buoyed by a successful World Cup – has seen its market rise by 9%, the Indian stock market is up 4% but the Brazilian index is down by the 5% it fell in June.
Sadly, the high street seems to be taking a further thumping from consumers as newspapers report that supermarket groups are ‘losing millions’ as ‘cunning shoppers’ buy expensive items such as avocados and put them through the self-service tills as cheaper items like carrots.
It sounds like there is a gap in the market for an app which tells you how many 60p per kg. carrots weigh the same as a £1.50 ready-to-eat avocado…
New shopping techniques aside, a shortage of CO2 (carbon dioxide) was also making the news. It turns out that CO2 is not just something you vaguely remember from school, but a vital component in the food and drink industry.
It is used to add the ‘fizz’ in beer and fizzy drinks, and to extend the shelf life of meat and other food products. Scotland’s biggest abattoir has closed and Asda rationed the supply of fizzy drinks to online customers.
There are also real fears that there could be a beer shortage this summer as Europe continues to struggle with the CO2 shortage and “beer crazy football fans” threaten to drink Russia dry during the World Cup.
But things can always get worse – and back in the UK we could now be facing a shortage of… lettuce. The heatwave has apparently boosted demand for lettuce but – according to the brilliantly-named British Leafy Salad Growers Association – the soaring temperatures have stopped the crop growing. Broccoli and cauliflower crops have also been affected and the shortage could hit the supermarket shelves as early as this week.
Expect the Iceberg Lettuce to replace Bitcoin as the new default currency of the internet. Maybe it’s time to get out there and plant lettuce in the back garden… or perhaps instead you should be considering a crop of avocados…