First the good news. None of the leading world stock markets on which we report in this Bulletin fell in April. With just one exception – China – all the markets made gains, with the German DAX index leading the way.
Generally the world breathed a sigh of relief as relations between the US and China continued to thaw and by the end of the month formal trade talks between US trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He had begun.
Bad news? Very clearly everything will not suddenly be sweetness and light between the two countries: technology will continue to be a major battleground and the US took a dim view of the UK Government’s decision to allow Chinese telecoms company Huawei to play a key part in building our 5G infrastructure.
Globally the IMF projected growth for this year of 3.3%, saying that the global economy was at a ‘delicate point.’ That will not have been helped by oil prices reaching a new high for the year of $74.50 (£57) a barrel as the US tightened sanctions on Iran.
April ended with the Norwegian authorities claiming that a beluga whale found with a ‘harness’ by local fishermen was in fact spying for Russia. There were claims that the whale had been trained by the Russian navy – a reminder that while stock markets may rise and fall, global tensions will always be with us.
Boots warned of possible stores closures and Debenhams announced 24 stores that would close next year – which you suspect will not be the last of their closures.
Against that Tesco lifted its dividend to shareholders as profits rose 30%, and sales surged at Primark. The Sainsburys/Asda merger was blocked on competition grounds and shopper numbers for March were up on last year – although March last year was the month of the ‘Beast from the East.’ However, shoppers remained cautious with their spending: it will be interesting to see what the figures for a late, very warm Easter reveal about high street spending.
Away from the shops and in the factories UK manufacturing hit a 13 month high, largely on companies stockpiling to protect against a no-deal Brexit – which seems to be looking increasingly unlikely.
Aside from retail closures the month brought some bad news: UK car manufacturing was down for the 10th straight month, mirroring the problems which the car industry is having in Europe. House price growth was also at a six year low and London’s Crossrail project could now be delayed until 2021.
But there was plenty of good news as well, with unemployment falling by a further 27,000 in the three months to February and the economy beating expectations to grow at 0.5% in the first quarter of 2019.
Perhaps the most encouraging news came from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which confirmed that the UK is the leading destination for foreign investment in Europe, and the third most significant in the world behind the US and China. According to the OECD the UK held more inward investment stock at the end of 2018 than Germany, Spain and Poland combined.
So was the FTSE-100 index of leading shares cheered by this news? Yes it was. The FTSE ended April up 2% at 7,418. The pound was virtually unchanged against the dollar, and closed the month at $1.3041.
Just when we had got used to writing ‘Brexit has been postponed for another month…’ April brought us the news that Brexit has been delayed perhaps until 31st October – which is, of course, Hallowe’en and was a predictable gift for the headline writers.
With the original deadline of 29th March having been pushed back to 12th April the longer delay was agreed after Theresa May once more failed to get her Withdrawal Agreement through parliament. As we write she is – to the fury of the Conservative grassroots – in discussions with the Labour Party in the hope of an even more watered down Withdrawal Agreement being passed by the Commons.
Quite what will happen to the Conservative Party following the local council elections and – if they take place – the elections for the European Parliament scheduled for 23rd May, is anyone’s guess. With Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party riding high in the polls and apparently set to fight the next General Election, we could even be set for a fundamental realignment of British politics.
We will know a lot more by this time next month but – as always with Brexit – it is almost impossible to predict what we will know.
As we will see below, both the major European stock markets enjoyed good months in April. But look below the surface and the month which brought the Notre Dame fire also brought some worrying straws in the wind for the French and German economies.
French President Emmanuel Macron has finally agreed to cut taxes in response to the Yellow Vest protests but, worryingly, France is very firmly on course to overtake Italy as the world’s fourth most indebted country, with its public debt now just a whisker behind its southern neighbour.
Meanwhile the forecast for German growth in 2019 has been slashed to just 0.5% – roughly a quarter of the level the German Government was predicting a year ago. As Europe’s car crisis continues to worsen in the face of driverless vehicles and the end of the internal combustion engine, these are nervous times for the economy which effectively powers Europe.
On the political front, Spain held its third election in four years, which resulted in victory for the Socialist party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. However they only polled 29% and will need partners to form an effective coalition government. The most significant development was the 24 seats won by the right wing, anti-immigration party Vox – the first time a far-right party has won seats for decades.
Away from the ballot box and on the stock markets the German DAX index was up 7% in April to end the month at 12,344. The French stock market was up by 4% to 5,586.
April in the US got off to what now seems to be the normal start to the month, as Facebook reported another ‘data breach.’ Only ‘millions of user records’ though, so nothing to worry about…
Speaking of big numbers, Jeff Bezos, boss of Amazon and the world’s richest man, got divorced. The settlement to his ex-wife was an eye-watering $35bn (roughly $27bn). It says much for how Amazon has performed recently that this still leaves Jeff Bezos holding his title as his modest little company comfortably announced record figures. Net income for the first three months of 2019 more than doubled to $3.6bn (£2.76bn).
In the wider US economy the month had got off to a good start as 196,000 jobs were added in March – ahead of expectations and well up on the disappointing 33,000 jobs in February. And there was more good news later in the month as the US trade deficit continued to shrink as exports to China rose, and it was confirmed that the US economy had grown more quickly than expected in the first quarter of the year, growing at an annualised rate of 3.2% which was well ahead of analysts’ forecasts.
On Wall Street the Dow Jones index enjoyed a good month, rising by 3% to close April at 26,593. All eyes now turn to the eagerly-awaited stock market debut of Uber, which will begin trading in May. Expectations are that the company will be valued at around $90bn (approximately £70bn) although the company is now warning that it ‘may never make a profit.’
April got off to a good start in the Far East with the news that Chinese factory output had picked up in March, perhaps reflecting the steps which the Chinese Government had previously taken to boost the economy.
The Chinese equivalent of our Purchasing Managers’ Index rose to 50.8 in March from 49.9 in February – with any figure above 50 indicating that the economy is expanding. Official manufacturing figures also pointed to a jump in activity, and the positive news was confirmed in mid-month as figures showed that the Chinese economy had grown by 6.4% in the first three months of the year, ahead of expectations of 6.3%.
We have written previously about China’s massive ‘Belt and Road’ project which will see it extend trade and influence through much of Asia and the developing world. The infrastructure project aims to boost China’s global trade links and it was being heavily promoted to developing world leaders at a summit in the last week of April. It is fair to say that the $1tn (£775bn) project is not without its detractors – with the US in particular critical of China’s ‘debt diplomacy’ – but as long as Xi Jinping is in power we can expect the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative to hold sway.
Despite all this China’s Shanghai Composite index was the one market that barely moved during April. It dropped back just 13 points in April to 3,078. There was though, more positive news from the other major Far Eastern markets. The Hong Kong index rose by 2% to 29,699 while the market in South Korea was up 3% to 2,204. But it was Japan’s Nikkei Dow index that led the way, posting a 5% rise to end the month at 22.259.
In what may well be a sign of things to come our first story in the Emerging Markets section of the Bulletin comes from Africa. April saw Jumia – dubbed Nigeria’s version of Amazon – become the first tech start-up from Africa to float on Wall Street, with the company valued at $1bn (£770m).
Meanwhile voting is underway in India, the world’s biggest democracy. The polls opened on 11th April and the final votes will not be cast until 19th May, with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely to win again. The campaign has been dominated by jobs, as India’s unemployment rate continues to rise: some estimates suggest that the country needs to create 8-10m new jobs a year to tackle the problem. Whether this is possible in an age of AI and increasing automation must be open to doubt.
Also open to doubt is whether anyone in Russia will be able to go online without Vladimir Putin’s permission. All the stages have now been passed for Putin to sign the controversial ‘sovereign internet’ bill into law, which will give the Kremlin wider control of the internet and which critics describe as a form of censorship.
As far their stock markets went, all three major Emerging Markets saw very slight gains in April. Both the Indian and Brazilian markets rose by 1% to 39,032 and 96,353 respectively. The Russian market was up by 2%, closing the month at 2,559.
We have been writing this Bulletin for a long time and April 2019 has broken all the records. Looking at the number of notes we have for this section – one – it appears to have been the most serious month since records began.
However, there is one piece of important news, and it is news which will have parents up and down the land jumping for joy. A Japanese firm has invented a robot which tidies a child’s bedroom.
We are not experts in artificial intelligence, but it appears that tidying your son or daughter’s bedroom is a much more difficult job than navigating a driverless car around a busy city.
Robots are good at repetitive jobs – and they never get bored. So if you take a job like welding a car chassis in a factory, doing the same job day after day after day, a robot will be far superior to a human. But where robots struggle is with chaos – patterns that are not orderly. And what could be more disorderly than your child’s bedroom?
But in a basement in Tokyo, a tech start-up is trying to fix that. Preferred Networks are applying machine learning and AI to ‘disorderly situations.’ Essentially, it is the same technology that will be in driverless cars – but what the robots have to do here is identify every object. Is that really just a piece of crumpled paper, or is it your child’s latest masterpiece? Are those underpants meant to be on the floor? And what about all these discarded sweet wrappers…
Quite clearly, if Preferred Networks get this right, there will not be a bank big enough to store their cash – and a certain title might change hands…
“Jeff Bezos? Not any more. Some chap in Japan worked out how to tidy children’s bedrooms.”