April was not a good month for world stock markets. We report on a dozen major markets in the Bulletin and they were all down in the month, except for the UK’s FTSE-100 index, which managed a gain of just twenty-nine points.
This was largely due to the war in Ukraine, along with Covid lockdowns in China, which led to ship jams and supply chain problems. The markets were also hit by worries about inflation, Amazon’s first quarterly loss since 2015 and a contraction in the US economy.
This month began with a warning from Russia, that it would cut off gas supplies to any country that did not pay in roubles, which was met with general derision at the time. The World Bank warned that the Ukraine war would cut global growth in half, revising its earlier forecast of 4.7 per cent growth for the year down to 2.5 per cent.
Russian oil continued to flow to India and China, but, China had more than its share of problems, as lockdowns continued in Shanghai and other major cities. One consequence of the lockdowns was that wait times for semiconductor chips increased, which will have an impact on the motor industry, among others.
Russia and China committed to ever deeper strategic ties, with one commentator suggesting Beijing would continue to support Moscow, even if it used tactical nuclear weapons.
The month started with the planned National Insurance increases kicking in for millions of people, and with bank rate rises planned in a bid to keep a lid on inflation, the cost of living crisis is not going to end any time soon.
UK economic growth in February was down to 0.1 per cent, from the 0.8 per cent recorded in January. Inflation in March was up to seven per cent, the highest rate for thirty years and up from the 6.2 per cent recorded in February. According to a forecast from bankers J P Morgan, the Bank of England will raise interest rates a further four times this year to try to dampen down inflation. To compound the misery, a forecast from the IMF suggested that the UK will see the slowest growth of the G7 countries in 2023.
Inevitably, this gloom was reflected on the UK’s high streets as shop sales slowed, with the British Retail Consortium conceding that spending would come under increased pressure from the cost of living crisis. Susan Barratt, Chief Executive of grocery insights firm IGD, said that consumer confidence was now lower than that recorded in December 2013, in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
Tesco announced that profits had more than trebled from the previous year, but the analysts’ glass was very much half-empty, as the company’s warning about inflationary pressures, saw more than £1 billion wiped off the stock market values of the nation’s supermarkets.
It was a poor start to the year for the UK car manufacturing industry, as companies continued to struggle with global supply chain problems. Almost one hundred thousand fewer cars were built in the first quarter, compared to the same period last year.
Meanwhile, government borrowing in the last financial year more than halved compared to the previous year, as pandemic schemes, such as furlough, came to an end. Borrowing was £151.8 billion, compared to £317.6 billion in the previous year.
The FTSE-100 index of leading shares, was the only major stock market that did not fall in the month. Having closed March at 7,516, it managed a gain of twenty-nine points, to end April at 7,545. The pound was down by four per cent against the dollar, ending the month trading at $1.2573.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, and we are now into the third month of the war. There are plenty of predictions that it will continue well into next year, with the US pledging to support Ukraine with aid and weapons “until the fight is done”.
The focus of the fighting has shifted to the east, as Russian forces advance in the Donbas region.
What is becoming increasingly clear, is the impact the war will have on the economy of Ukraine, on wider Western economies and on world food production. We have mentioned economic forecasts from the World Bank and others elsewhere in the Bulletin but, as all readers will know, Ukraine was formerly a major producer of grain and similar products. With Russian forces blockading Ukrainian ports, World Bank President David Malpass has said the world is facing a “human catastrophe”, with the Bank forecasting a thirty-seven per cent jump in food prices, which will hit the poor and the poorest countries the hardest. The BBC said that the war will cause the biggest commodity price shock since the 1970s.
Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as French President, winning sixty-six per cent of the vote, with a turnout of seventy-two per cent.
Otherwise, April in Europe was much the same as the rest of the world, with supply chain problems forcing up prices and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Eurozone inflation in March was initially expected to be around 7.5 per cent. In the event, it came in at 7.4 per cent, up from the 5.9 per cent recorded in February. City AM reported that business confidence in the Eurozone, had slumped in the face of inflationary pressures.
The other continuing worry remains Europe’s dependence on Russia’s oil and gas. The month had started with the CEO of German company BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, warning of a total collapse if supplies of Russian gas were cut. This was followed by Robert Habeck, the German Minister for Economic Affairs, warning that an “immediate embargo on Russian natural gas would threaten social peace in Germany”.
A few days later, Germany ruled out an immediate ban on Russian oil, with Finance Minister Christian Lindner saying the country was moving as fast as possible but, “we have to be patient”. The month ended with Germany risking the wrath of G7 and other European leaders, by agreeing to Vladimir Putin’s demands to pay for Russian gas in roubles.
On the stock markets, both the German and French indices were down by two per cent in the month. Germany’s DAX index ended April at 14,098. The French market closed the month at 6,534.
Figures for March showed that the US economy had added 431,000 jobs. That was below estimates of 490,000 and well below the upwardly revised figure of 750,000 for February. In total, 1.7 million jobs were added in the first quarter as the unemployment rate decreased to 3.6 per cent.
A week later, the inflation figures were released, showing that US inflation had climbed to 8.5 per cent, the highest rate since March 1981, as the Ukraine war pushed up energy costs. Further interest rate rises from the Federal Reserve are now all but guaranteed, and the expectation is that rates will rise by 0.5 per cent in May.
The month ended with the worrying news that the US economy had shrunk by 1.4 per cent in the first quarter of the year, the first contraction since the pandemic, and following the fastest year of growth since 1984. Business and consumer spending both remain strong, but there are obvious worries about a recession in the US.
There is, though, very clearly no recession at Tesla, where the company delivered a record number of vehicles in the first quarter, despite supply chain problems. The electric carmaker said it delivered 310,000 vehicles in the first three months of the year, seventy per cent higher than the same period last year. Profits for the first quarter were up to $3.3 billion, as customers proved willing to pay more for the cars.
Meanwhile, streaming service Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter, the first loss for ten years, and saw its shares drop. According to one report, the company expects to lose two million subscribers in the second quarter.
The big company news was Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. In the first week of the month, it was reported that the Tesla boss had become the social media platform’s biggest shareholder. By the end of the month, the deal was done, with Musk agreeing to pay $44 billion and unlock Twitter’s vast potential.
Amazon reported its first quarterly loss since 2015, as the boost to its business from the pandemic started to fade. That signalled a sharp sell-off in tech shares, and completed a miserable month for US stock markets. The Dow Jones index was down five per cent at 32,977. The more broadly based S&P500 index fared even worse, falling nine per cent to close the month at 4,132.
The continuing lockdown in Shanghai impacted both the national and global economies. Shanghai is the commercial heart of China, and the month began with the lockdown expanded to cover the whole city as Covid cases continued to climb, and China continued to pursue its zero Covid policy.
A week later, figures for March showed that China’s Purchasing Managers’ Index, for the services sector had crashed from 50.2 in February to 42.0 in March. This was the largest decline since February 2020. Tourism spending over the three day Qingming festival was reported to be thirty per cent lower than in 2021.
There have been suggestions that the lockdown in Shanghai could last until the middle of May, and many clients will have seen internet clips of wire fences being erected, and other confinement measures being taken. With other cities also in lockdown and fears about a Covid outbreak in Beijing, it was no surprise to see retail sales down by 3.5 per cent in March, with unemployment rising to 5.8 per cent, the highest level since May 2020.
However, official figures still showed that the Chinese economy grew by 4.8 per cent in the first three months of the year, a faster rate than had been widely expected.
In terms of container throughput, Shanghai is the biggest port in the world, and it has been forced to operate with significantly reduced numbers of staff, leading to what has been dubbed the Shanghai ship-jam, and inevitable supply chain problems around the world.
In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam announced that she would not be seeking a second term as Chief Executive. As yet, there is no successor in sight but we can expect him or her to be equally sympathetic to Beijing.
Over in Japan, Toyota was forced to shut down all fourteen of its factories, which account for about one-third of its worldwide production, following a possible cyber-attack. The attack was estimated to cost the world’s biggest carmaker thirteen thousand vehicles, a small fraction of the 8.5 million cars it expects to make this year, but still a worrying sign of what may be to come.
All the major stock market indices in the Far East were, unsurprisingly, down in April. China’s Shanghai Composite fell six per cent to 3,047, while the market in Hong Kong dropped four per cent to 21,089. Japan’s Nikkei index closed the month down three per cent at 26,848, and the South Korean market was down two per cent at 2,695.
The Emerging Markets section of the Bulletin is once again dominated by Russian news, with commentators speculating, that the country’s financial system was starting to stabilise despite the sanctions imposed. That said, City AM reported that inflation in Russia was above sixteen per cent. Clearly, ordinary Russian citizens will pay a high price for the war.
There has been much discussion about the possibility of a Russian default, but the month ended with the country making $649 million in interest payments. Having previously said that it would only make interest payments in roubles, Russia ultimately paid the money in US dollars, drawing on its foreign currency reserves.
One country that does look likely to default is Sri Lanka, with two of the world’s largest credit rating agencies saying that default was now a virtual certainty, as the country faces its worst economic crisis in more than 70 years.
Away from repayment struggles, the World Bank forecast that the war would cut the Ukrainian economy by half. The Bank said that Russia’s invasion, will cause more economic damage in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia than the pandemic.
The BBC reported on new analysis, suggesting that seventy-four per cent of all money made through ransomware attacks in 2021 went to Russian-linked hackers, with researchers claiming $400 million worth of crypto-currency payments, went to groups highly likely to be affiliated to Russia.
None of it found its way to the Russian stock market in April, which closed down ten per cent at 2,445. The Brazilian market was down by the same amount, ending the month at 107,876, while India’s stock market also fell, albeit by only three per cent, ending the month at 57,601.