At time of writing, pro-democracy protesters are occupying the streets of Hong Kong and a coalition of 40 countries is in the early stage of an attack on ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Neither of these confrontations looks likely to end any time soon. The elections in Hong Kong which are at the root of the protests are not due to be held until 2017 – and all the commentators expect what the tabloids have dubbed the ‘Third Gulf War’ to take “years, not months.”
You would have expected all this uncertainty to weigh heavily on the world’s stock markets, but September 2014 was perhaps the most mixed month for stock market performance. Two markets (Hong Kong and Brazil) were sharply down in the month: two others (China and Japan) made significant moves in the opposite direction.
Another turbulent month for the UK saw the Scottish Referendum question finally resolved with a comfortable victory for the ‘No campaign’. The pound had briefly slumped early in the month when it looked like the Yes vote was gaining ground, but in the event ‘Better Together’ prevailed with 55% of the votes cast.
And that was that… Well, it was for at least a couple of hours until David Cameron announced that extra powers for Scotland – promised at the eleventh hour as Alex Salmond scented victory – would be tied to more powers for England, with an end to the practice whereby Scottish MPs can vote on purely English matters, but not the other way round. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that all the politicians are making this one up as they go along, and you can expect ‘English votes for English laws’ to be a slogan that will feature heavily in the General Election campaign.
Meanwhile there was the party conference season to worry about. Ed Miliband managed an 80 minute speech without once mentioning the economy and David Cameron arrived in Birmingham to… well, yet more trouble. Another of his MPs had defected to UKIP and Brooks Newmark, the Minister for Civil Society, was forced to resign.
At least the Chancellor remained focused on the economy, announcing that the 55% ‘tax’ on transferring your pension to your beneficiaries would be ended. This builds on the measures introduced in his Budget speech and will – according to Treasury estimates – potentially benefit 320,000 people. George Osborne also confirmed that the Autumn Statement will be on December 3rd, when he’s likely to have more good news to report. The Office for National Statistics confirmed that UK growth in the second quarter has been revised upwards to 0.9% and the jobless figures to the end of July showed that UK unemployment had fallen to 6.2% – the lowest level since 2008.
Back in the real (or retail) world, September was not a good month for Tesco where four senior executives were suspended as profits were discovered to have been overstated by £250m – perhaps taking ‘every little helps’ a bit far. New Chief Executive Dave Lewis became clear favourite for the ‘Understatement of the Year Award’ when he said, “We have uncovered a serious issue.” ‘Shambles’ was the kindest word the financial press used as £2bn was wiped off the value of the company’s shares.
The housing market was again in the news, with worries that EU moves to severely restrict ‘buy to let’ mortgages could slow down the market and the Government floating plans to give a ‘first time buyer’s discount’ of 20% on new homes. To the consternation of parents everywhere, the Guardian confirmed that more and more young people were becoming dependant on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ for their first deposit.
Having closed August at 6,819 the FTSE slipped back in September, closing the month at 6,623 as worries about the long term cost of the conflict with ISIS and long term uncertainty over the political situation took their toll.
We’ve commented recently on fears of a serious slowdown in Europe, and September saw the Eurpoean Central Bank (ECB) cut its benchmark interest rate to 0.05% and launch a stimulus package – effectively stopping one step short of full-scale quantitative easing. BBC economics editor Robert Peston described the move as the ECB’s “last roll of the dice.”
But with Eurozone manufacturing slowing to a 13 month low in August, they clearly had to do something. New orders are dwindling and factory output is suffering as the EU continues its sanctions against Russia. As we have commented previously, the acid test of relations with Russia will come in the winter, with Mr Putin’s hand very firmly on Europe’s gas supply.
Almost inevitably the ray of light in the gloom was provided by Germany, with industrial production in July confirmed as the strongest for 2½ years. Production was up by 1.9% in the month, lifted by an increase in the manufacturing and construction output.
On the stock markets the German DAX index was largely unchanged in September, closing at 9,474 but it was a slightly better month in France, where the CAC-40 index rose by 1% to finish at 4,416.
Neatly spanning the EU and the USA, an EU investigation has finally decided that Apple’s long-debated Irish tax affairs are illegal, and that deals struck with the company by the Irish government have amounted to state aid.
Apple’s problems were by no means confined to Ireland as complaints about bugs in the new iOS8 operating software caused the shares to slide 3.5% and knocked 264 points off the value of the Dow Jones index. The fall took the shares through the psychologically important $100 barrier and cut $20bn off the value of the company. The bug in question meant that for some people their shiny, new iPhone couldn’t make calls: we may be old-fashioned, but isn’t that what phones are for?
Elsewhere in the US it was another month for big numbers as Minecraft was sold to Microsoft for $2.5bn and Alibaba became the world’s biggest ever Initial Public Offering (IPO), with the total amount raised by the Chinese internet giant and its selling shareholders reaching $25bn.
On the political front, Hilary Clinton dropped her biggest hint yet that she will run for the Democratic nomination in 2016. She did this not on prime-time television or in a scholarly article for the Washington Post, but in the traditional American manner – at an Iowa Steak Grill.
Determined not to be slimmed down despite the global uncertainty, the Dow Jones index finished the month at 17,043 – more or less unchanged in the month and still up 3% on a year-to-date basis.
All the news in the Far East paled into insignificance when set beside the potential troubles in Hong Kong, where the next leader is due to be elected in 2017. The protests have been sparked by a ruling that candidates must effectively be approved by Beijing. Current leader C Y Leung has urged the crowds to leave as large parts of Hong Kong are brought to a virtual standstill, but large crowds gathered again on October 1st, China’s National Day, and the pro-democracy campaigners will continue to make their protests heard.
Will Hong Kong get its Tiananmen Square moment? You would hope not, but you wouldn’t bet against it either.
Unsurprisingly the Hong Kong stock market fell sharply in September, down by 7% to close the month at 22,933. The Chinese and Japanese markets, however, went in precisely the opposite direction, with China up by 7% to close at 2,363 as (yet another) record trade surplus was confirmed for August. The figure was $49.8bn which comfortably beat all the forecasts.
The Japanese market also enjoyed a good month, with a gain of 5% taking it to 16,173 as the trade gap narrowed and both inflation and unemployment came down.
As we’ve noted above, the EU is committed to continuing its sanctions against Russia, but the Russian stock market held firm in September, ending the month virtually unchanged at 1,411. The big loser among the major emerging markets was Brazil, where the market tumbled 12% to close at 54,116 as the economy continued in recession with both investment and Government spending down.
The Indian SENSEX index was another market to have a quiet month and was down just eight points in the month, ending at 26,630.
September was a great month for Japanese couch potatoes – カウチポテト according to Google translate – as British firm Dyson unveiled a robot vacuum cleaner. Long the dream of many men whose plans to watch football and drink beer have been thwarted by a rising tide of dog hair, the Dyson is apparently ‘joining a crowded market’ in Japan but – according to the BBC’s technology news – the early trials are “compelling.”
There is also the prospect of being able to start the machine remotely using an iPhone or Android app whilst you’re on the golf course. The future really can’t get much brighter can it?