Can Market Forces Tame a 'Hard Brexit'?
Alan is travelling this morning, so forgive me for dragging your attention across the Atlantic to where the realities of Brexit are starting to hit home in increasingly ugly fashion.
Sterling has hit a new 31-year low again versus the dollar today, the fourth straight trading day on which we’ve been able to trot out that headline. Markets are finally absorbing the implications of a divorce settlement that will leave the U.K. needing to negotiate its trading relations with the EU from scratch, and from a very weak position. CFTC data last week showed a big rise in the number of “short” positions in sterling, reflecting expectations of further declines.
Senior ministers, from Theresa May downwards, have indicated over the last week that they will leave the Single Market, raising the prospect of tariffs and customs barriers that cannot help but do profound harm to the welfare of both U.K. and European workers (the dollar has made tidy, if less spectacular gains against the euro too as the narrative unfolds.
The sell-off has gone beyond what could normally be attributed to the classic “shock absorber” effect of the exchange rate: U.K. government bonds still served as a safe haven in the aftermath of the referendum, have started to fall sharply, as investors price in higher inflation (not least through rebounding energy prices) that could stop the Bank of England from supporting the economy with another interest rate cut.
The latest leg down has been caused by the high-handed way in which May and her Brexiteer ministers have rejected calls this week for parliament to be allowed to scrutinize the settlement she agrees with the EU–in sharp contrast to the Brexiteers’ emotional attachment to the sovereignty of parliament before June 23rd.
But it would be unwise to see this week’s government position as set in stone. It is more likely the case that May rode to power pledging to deliver the referendum mandate: and while no-one knows how sincere her pledge was (she campaigned half-heartedly for Remain under David Cameron), she cannot be seen to be undermining the vote–yet.
A few more months–or even only weeks–of carnage in the markets would, however, give her cover to retreat from this position (should she so desire), and give the pie-eyed optimists of the Hard Brexit camp enough rope with which to hang themselves, politically speaking.
This particular member of the nation of shopkeepers still trusts his compatriots to reverse their first decision of June 23rd, when it dawns on them that a hard Brexit is only making the country poorer. But it will take the full power of the foreign exchange and bond markets to make it happen. The markets were always “Project Fear”‘s most potent weapons, and it’s tempting to blame their complacency for allowing the vote to go the way it did. Such is their power that–like the U.S. after Pearl Harbor–they can be seriously late to the war and still swing it their way.
More news below.
• Oil Off Highs As IEA Outlook Undermines Putin’s Spin
U.S. crude oil futures hit their highest level in 15 months after Vladimir Putin said Russia was “ready to join collective steps to freeze production.” If you look at it closely enough, the statement puts responsibility for such a step back at the doors of Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Saudi is making ever more cooperative noises (not least to help get its massive bond offering away at the best possible), Iran is still far from keen. Russia’s output traditionally slips a bit during the winter anyway, so the idea of it consciously reducing its own supply is comical—a point rammed home by the powerful Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who told Reuters today he disagreed with the whole idea. Separately, the International Energy Agency said that, because OPEC members’ current output rose to a new high in September, it will have to make bigger actual cuts just to reach the top end of the tentative target that ministers mooted last month. With all that in mind, futures have come off the boil a little in Europe Tuesday, dipping below $51 a barrel. Reuters
• The Galaxy Note 7 Goes up in Smoke for Good
Investors wiped nearly $19 billion off the value of Samsung Electronics shares Tuesday after the company told owners of its ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 smartphone to stop using them immediately. Samsung confirmed after the market close in Seoul that it will permanently withdraw the latest iteration of its flagship product from sale, leaving a massive hole in its reputation and and even bigger one in this year’s income statement (analysts expect a $17 billion hit to sales). Shares fell 8% in Seoul in the biggest one-day loss for the company since 2008. The timing could hardly be worse for the Korean company, with both Apple and now Google launching new models ahead of the key U.S. holiday season. Not by coincidence, Apple’s shares hit a new high for 2016 yesterday, rising 1.7% to $116.05. They’re indicated to open higher again in pre-market trading. Fortune
• Fiat Chrysler Averts Canadian Strike
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reached a tentative deal with unionized workers in Canada, with an agreement to make more than $300 million in investments in local operations. The investments will go to FCA’s operations in Brampton, Ontario, which makes the Chrysler 300, and Dodge’s Challenger and Charger models. It’s the second deal within weeks in which a major U.S. automaker has agreed with Canadian workers, who have rebelled this year at the slow hemorrhage of jobs from their country. With settlements now agreed with GM and FCA, the Unifor union that represents workers at all three companies now has to negotiate with Ford. The strike deadline with Ford is the end of the month. Fortune
• LVMH Leads the Revival of Luxury
Some hope at last for producers of luxury goods: LVMH, the diversified French group behind Hennessy cognac, Louis Vuitton bags and TAG Heuer watches, said organic sales had grown 6% on the year in the third quarter, accelerating from 4% growth in the first half. The figures suggest that there is a way to ride out the slowdown in Chinese luxury spending, if only you have the right product mix and distribution. Perfumes appear to have done very well, growing 10% (maybe because an anti-corruption cop in Guangzhou can’t recognize an expensive perfume as well as he can a top-of-the-range purse), but the core leather and fashion business also rose 5%. The company’s shares rose 5% in early trading, pulling up other names such as Burberry in the hope that the tide is finally turning for a battered sector. Reuters
Around the Water Cooler
• Buffett Calls Trump out Over Tax Claims
Another self-inflicted wound for Donald Trump. The shortcomings of a campaign built on generalizations and easily-disprovable claims were exposed Monday by Warren Buffett who, not unnaturally, took exception to Trump’s claim that he too had used deductions from carrying forward losses in prior years to depress his income tax liabilities. Buffett cited chapter and verse from his own tax returns to contradict the GOP nominee, saying he had “paid federal income tax every year since 1944,” and that none of the 72 returns he has filed used a carry-forward. Buffett, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, added for good measure that he has no problem in releasing his tax information while under audit by the IRS. “Neither would Mr. Trump—at least he would have no legal problem,” Buffett added. Fortune
• Investor Sues Theranos for Fraud
Partner Fund Management, an investor in the blood-testing train-wreck Theranos, is suing the company for securities fraud, accusing it of a “series of lies” to attract nearly $100 million in investment. The company said the suit, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, was “without merit” and would be contested. Theranos said only last week that it would shut down the labs at the center of the scandal around its core blood-testing operations, after a series of regulatory actions against it that lost it the support of core partners such as Walgreens. In total, the company had raised $800 million from investors before the scandal hit, which in theory leaves a lot of scope for other investors to join the suit. Fortune
• Tyson Foods Invests in Vegan Startup
No, really. The U.S. market leader in chicken, beef and pork has taken a 5% stake in the vegan-food startup Beyond Meat. For anyone old enough to remember BP’s attempts to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, that may jar a little, but the investment is far from illogical, and in keeping with the recent trend of Big Food buying into companies purveying an ostensibly healthier way of life. A meat company like Tyson is essentially a purveyor of protein, an area where plant-based substitutes are gaining ground on traditional animal sources. Circling back to the energy industry, the deal has echoes of French oil and gas giant Total’s investments in renewables, the makings of a hedge against a long-term decline in demand for its traditional product. Fortune
bs_bullet_primary] Singapore Shuts Another Swiss Bank Tied to 1MDB Scandal
The mills of God, it’s said, “grind slow but sure.” The mills of global bank regulators are a good deal slower, and nowhere near as sure, but they still grind down their targets sometimes. Singapore’s central bank Tuesday shut down a second Swiss bank, Falcon, in connection with the rampant fraud and money-laundering at Malaysian ‘development bank’ 1MDB–a scandal in which Goldman Sachs has figured prominently. Falcon is owned by one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, International Petroleum Investment Company, backed by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Singapore also fined UBS. The Department of Justice filed in July to seize dozens of properties tied to the fund, claiming that that over $3.5 billion had been misappropriated, largely by Malaysian officials. It stopped short of naming them, but investigators believe Prime Minister Najib Razak was the ultimate beneficiary of much of the money laundering. He denies it. Fortune