Column: Bracing for the UK economy’s dark winter and beyond

If Britain’s brewing economic storm looks like an outlier, UK markets have yet to reflect that fully – but investors may yet balk at the winter ahead.

Against the backdrop of a generally lousy year for most major markets and eye-popping inflation and recession forecasts, UK assets have held up better than you might think.

With the unenviable record of becoming the first G7 economy to see inflation top 10% amid the current global price spike, the Bank of England has already spooked everyone by forecasting a peak in the rate above 13% this autumn followed by the longest recession since the global financial crisis 14 years ago.

If Britain’s brewing economic storm looks like an outlier, UK markets have yet to reflect that fully – but investors may yet balk at the winter ahead.

Against the backdrop of a generally lousy year for most major markets and eye-popping inflation and recession forecasts, UK assets have held up better than you might think.

With the unenviable record of becoming the first G7 economy to see inflation top 10% amid the current global price spike, the Bank of England has already spooked everyone by forecasting a peak in the rate above 13% this autumn followed by the longest recession since the global financial crisis 14 years ago.

Multiple hits from swingeing household energy bills over the coming six months, deep real wage cuts and rising borrowing costs all point to the lengthy freeze in demand the BoE is flagging following this summer of drought and political vacuum.

“The path is set for a scorching summer of price rises to merge into a pretty awful autumn and a winter of woe as households struggle against this tide of inflation,” Hargreaves Lansdown’s Susannah Streeter said this week.

Commuters walk over London Bridge during warm weather in London

Commuters walk over London Bridge during warm weather in London, Britain, June 17, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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LONDON, Aug 19 (Reuters) – If Britain’s brewing economic storm looks like an outlier, UK markets have yet to reflect that fully – but investors may yet balk at the winter ahead.

Against the backdrop of a generally lousy year for most major markets and eye-popping inflation and recession forecasts, UK assets have held up better than you might think.

With the unenviable record of becoming the first G7 economy to see inflation top 10% amid the current global price spike, the Bank of England has already spooked everyone by forecasting a peak in the rate above 13% this autumn followed by the longest recession since the global financial crisis 14 years ago.

The country is still in a leadership hiatus and won’t have a new prime minister until next month. The favorite to take over, foreign minister Liz Truss, has promised some 30 billion pounds worth of largely unfunded tax cuts – but that just heaps more pressure on the BoE to double interest rates into next year to reign in inflation, dampening the half percentage point or so lift to GDP expected from the tax moves.
Multiple hits from swingeing household energy bills over the coming six months, deep real wage cuts and rising borrowing costs all point to the lengthy freeze in demand the BoE is flagging following this summer of drought and political vacuum.

“The path is set for a scorching summer of price rises to merge into a pretty awful autumn and a winter of woe as households struggle against this tide of inflation,” Hargreaves Lansdown’s Susannah Streeter said this week.
All sounds quite apocalyptic – and that’s before you read the British press.

So presumably markets have seen this one coming?

Well yes and no.

Sterling has lost more than 10% against a rampant dollar so far this year, UK government bond funds are down at least as much and domestically-facing UK midcap stocks (.FTMC) are down almost 25% in dollar terms – underperforming even the euro zone blue chips.

And yet the picture is not a wholly exceptional one – not yet at least.

NO PLAN
Flattered by the weaker pound and big weightings in UK-listed commodity and cyclical or ‘value’ stocks like Big Oil, miners and banks, the FTSE100 index has actually outperformed many of its peers.

WIth losses of just 9% in dollar terms so far this year, that beats the S&P500, Japan’s Nikkei225 and the euro zone’s Stoxx600 – as well as MSCI’s global index.

Sterling has felt the heat, but only marginally more than the euro and much less than Japan’s yen – which has been exposed by the Bank of Japan being one of the few major central banks not to tighten the monetary reins this year. Speculative positions in the pound are still net negative – but much less so than the May trough.

Bank of America’s worldwide fund survey showed an overall net 15% of funds underweight UK equities in August – and the biggest one-month drop in allocations among all the major regions and more negative than positioning in Japan, emerging markets and the United States, where investors are overweight.

But even then, the UK underweight was substantially less than the whopping net 34% of negative positions in wider European stocks – a reading that’s two standard deviations below long term averages.

Yet again, the big offset for many asset managers is the sectoral mix of UK equity indices and FTSE100 in particular – heavy in neglected so-called ‘value’ stocks such as banks that gain from higher interest rates and also commodity-rich oil and mining firms boosted by geopolitical shocks and supply-chain squeezes.

That’s how Lombard Odier’s Chief Investment Officer Stephane Monier explains why his firm has retained its overweight in UK equities since early last year. “It had nothing to do with anticipation of the secular performance of the UK economy,” he said.

But he thinks that may change now.

“At this stage I’m becoming more cautious on the UK. We are thinking about reducing that overweight to at least a neutral position,” Monier said, adding this was a long-term rethink about the direction of the economy post-Brexit and may well be executed in the coming weeks and months.

Beyond the relative ebbs and flows of inflation, growth and interest rates in the months ahead, Monier said what unnerves him most is the lack of a coherent political plan to offset the losses to UK trade and competitiveness from leaving the European Union – especially now that geopolitics is dictating a less open world and potential deglobalization.

“Regardless of the merits of Brexit, you have to make sure you have a really good plan to compensate for what you’ve lost from leaving the EU – and I fail to see that plan.”
Source: Reuters (by Mike Dolan)

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