We started last month’s bulletin in the Crimea, with Russian troops in de facto control of the peninsula. Well, the Crimea is now part of Russia again and the collected denunciations and threatened sanctions of William Hague, John Kerry and the European foreign ministers will do nothing to change that.
The question now is what happens in the Eastern Ukraine? The area has a clear majority of Russian speakers and supporters and no doubt looks rather attractive to Mr Putin. Cue more denunciations and threats of sanctions…
Not that the rest of the world was peaceful in March. North and South Korea once again exchanged fire, this time over a disputed sea boundary. The North has warned that it may carry out a ‘new kind’ of nuclear test and seems to be becoming increasingly unpredictable as Kim Jong-un tightens his grip on power.
In the UK, the big event was George Osborne’s Budget speech on Wednesday, March 19th. The Chancellor confounded those who had been expecting a ‘steady as you go Budget’ with a series of far reaching reforms to pensions and savings. It was easy to see the Chancellor setting out not only the battle lines for next year’s General Election, but also his own leadership manifesto in the event of a defeat for David Cameron.
World stock markets generally had a disappointing month in March, with none of the major markets showing significant gains. Among the emerging markets, India and Brazil both made good progress, gaining 6% and 7% respectively.
As noted above, the most important event in March was the Budget. The Chancellor declared that it would be a Budget for “makers, do-ers and savers” and proposed significant changes to the rules governing defined contribution pension schemes, allowing people much greater control over their own pensions and much more flexibility. The Chancellor was, he said: “Prepared to trust the British people.”
There were also major changes to the Individual Savings Account (ISA) regime, with the annual limit raised to £15,000 and the limit on what can go into a cash ISA removed. They will now be called ‘New ISAs’ – so it was goodbye ISA, hello NISA.
Meanwhile, the debate on Scottish devolution rumbled on. The opinion polls currently have the ‘No’ vote on 52% compared to ‘Yes’ at 37%. For those who prefer a more reliable guide, the bookmakers are convinced that independence won’t happen, and are betting accordingly. Bad news for the ‘yes’ campaign came when one in three firms polled confirmed that they would consider re-locating head offices in the event of independence. The Government continues to rule out any prospect of a currency union with an independent Scotland. For anyone who can’t wait, the poll is on 18th September.
Two pieces of contrasting news in March illustrated the way the UK economy may be moving. Supermarket group Morrison’s issued its second profits warning as it struggled to maintain market share, squeezed by Aldi and Lidl on one side and Tesco and Sainsburys on the other.
Meanwhile King Digital (a company that very few readers of this bulletin will have heard of) became Britain’s most valuable publicly listed internet company, when it floated on the New York stock exchange with a valuation of $7.6bn. What does King Digital do? It makes Candy Crush, a game which 144m people play on their mobiles every day. That’s right, a hundred and forty-four million!
The FTSE-100 index had a disappointing month, falling by 3% to finish March at 6,598. At the end of the first quarter of 2014 it is down 2% on a year to date basis.
March saw contrasting fortunes for France and Italy, the second and third biggest Eurozone economies. In France, the central bank predicted growth of just 0.2% for the first quarter – unchanged from an earlier estimate and down on the 0.3% growth in the final quarter of 2013. French industrial production also fell by 0.2% against expectations of 0.2% growth.
Meanwhile, Italy posted its biggest rise in industrial production for two years, up 1% in January and comfortably ahead of all the forecasts. This confirmed a slow but gradual recovery in Italy, which finally came out of its longest post-war recession in the final quarter of 2013. That said, industrial production remains 24% lower than in 2008, so there is still some way to go…
Figures released for January showed that Germany had a €15bn trade surplus in January (up from a revised figure of €13.9bn for the previous month). The German inflation rate fell to 1% in March, a 3½ year low and down from 1.2% in February. There was also good news on unemployment which fell more than expected in March, as the German economy was boosted by relatively mild winter weather. The number unemployed fell by 12,000 – against analysts’ predictions of 7,500.
On the stock markets, the German DAX index ended March 1% down at 9,556, while the French CAC-40 index was virtually unchanged at 4,391.
In the US the news was less good – the University of Michigan’s index of consumer sentiment fell, even though personal spending rose in February.
GDP growth was revised up to 2.6% for the final quarter of 2013 and jobless claims were down to a four month low. But manufacturing slowed in March and figures for February confirmed another near $40bn trade deficit – a figure the US Government seems powerless to do anything about.
For now President Obama appears to have won his battle with Congress, but the race to succeed him is gradually cranking up (with Hilary Clinton still the favourite).
Meanwhile, good news to report in the Zuckerberg household where Mark (not yet 30) has seen his fortune rise by $15bn over the past two years due to the strong performance of the shares.
The Dow Jones index managed to stagger up by 1% in March, with the index closing at 16,458 – fractionally down on a year-to-date basis.
Despite the Chinese Government announcing a target of 7.5% growth for the next 12 months, several indicators released in March suggested that the Chinese economy is slowing down. Industrial production for the first two months of 2014 was 8.6% up on the same period in 2013, but the expectation had been for 9.5% growth. This was the worst performance since 2009 and was partly due to strikes and industrial unrest in factories across China.
Consumer spending also appears to be running out of steam, with the growth in retail sales in January and February the slowest for three years. That said it was up by 11.8% (a figure the West can’t even dream about) but expectations had been for 13.5%. With investment in fixed assets by business also down, these are worrying signs for the Chinese economy, which will have a “drag” effect on the rest of region.
President Li Keqiang spoke of “severe challenges” and there were suggestions that the Central Bank could announce a series of measures to inject some impetus into the economy.
Japan’s economy also grew more slowly than expected in the fourth quarter of 2013, and again, both business investment and consumer spending fell below expectations.
No such worries in South Korea where the trade surplus for March improved to $4.19bn, up from $933m the previous month. Exports jumped to the second-highest figure on record due to higher demand from the USA and Europe.
The South Korean and Japanese stock markets were virtually unchanged at the end of March, with China falling by just 1% in the month to 2,033. The Hong Kong market declined by 3% to 22,151 and is now down by 5% for the year as a whole.
It’s hardly surprising that the Russian market fell significantly in March, given the threat of economic sanctions. The main index ended the month down 5% at 1,369 – down 9% on a year-to-date basis.
However, figures for the last quarter of 2013 confirmed that the Russian economy was doing better than expected: it grew by 2% for the final three months of last year, against expectations of 1.3%.
As indicated above, there were much better returns from the other major emerging markets, with the Indian index up 6% in the month at 22,386 and the Brazilian index up 7% to 50,415 (although it is still down overall in 2014).
Many London estate agents experienced acute excitement when a study was published suggesting that the average central London flat will cost £36m by the year 2050. London Central Portfolio launched a £100m fund to buy flats in ‘prime’ areas of London (that is, the area surrounding Hyde Park, from Notting Hill to Pimlico) confident that its prediction of 9% a year annual growth would become a reality, with or without the help of Russian oligarchs.