Economics and politics often make uneasy bedfellows and so it was in August as the threatened US-led intervention in Syria depressed stock markets at the end of the month.
In the UK, David Cameron suffered defeat in the Commons, appearing to totally mis-judge the strength of backbench opposition. If there’s one thing the financial markets don’t like it’s uncertainty and in the last week of August the Prime Minister delivered precisely that.
Yet on the face of it August was a month when there was much to be cheerful about, particularly in the UK. By the end of the month, both The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the British Chambers of Commerce had published optimistic growth forecasts, significantly up on those published earlier in the year.
However, events in Syria conspired to pull most major stock markets lower and few markets recorded a rise during August.
Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England has generally had a favourable press in his first few weeks in charge as he unveiled a new, long term strategy of “forward guidance.”
Under the strategy, the Bank will promise to keep interest rates at a particular level until certain economic conditions are met. Early indications are that this will give the UK a sustained period of low rates, allowing banks and building societies to ‘lock-in’ customers on long-term low rates. The Bank clearly sees this strategy as a way of boosting long-term confidence.
As above, it was good news all round for the UK in August – unless of course, you were a rail passenger. Rail fare rises of 4.1% were confirmed from January 2014, although in some cases the cost of standing on an overcrowded train could rise by as much as 9%.
Safe in their offices, the CBI doubled the growth forecast for the UK economy: up to 1.2% this year and a heady 2.3% for 2014. The British Chamber of Commerce forecast similar figures, saying that the economy was “gaining momentum.”
Unemployment fell by 4,000 and demand for apprenticeships was up by a third. The UK housing market also joined in the party, with The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reporting that prices were rising at their fastest rate since 2006.
So on the surface, all good news for the UK. Despite this, the wider world economy and the situation in Syria meant that the FTSE-100 index finished the month down, just over 200 points at 6,413.
August was also a month of good news for Europe, with the Guardian cheerfully reporting that Germany was leading Europe out of its 18-month recession. Certainly the German economy was faring well, with a second quarter growth of 0.7% compared to zero growth for the first quarter.
Figures released for July showed that unemployment in Germany had fallen to 5.3%, the lowest figure for 20 years. August figures had inflation falling to 1.5%, down by 0.4% from the July figure.
Elsewhere in Europe, the economies in Spain and Italy continued to slow down, but at a much slower rate than previously. Perhaps this encouraged Real Madrid to spend €100m on Gareth Bale…
Sadly the news was not all good, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, was the latest politician to concede that Greece may need a third bailout, casting a shadow over the more cheerful news from elsewhere in the region.
The German DAX index fell 2% in August to close at 8,103. The French stock market was down just 60 points at 3,934 as France came out of recession with 0.5% growth in the economy in the second quarter of the year.
The US was another market to fall in August as the Dow Jones index declined 4% to finish the month at 14,810. Clearly events in Syria didn’t help; neither did a fall in US consumer confidence, which fell from 85.2 in July to 82.1, as measured by Thompson Reuters and the University of Michigan.
This translated into lower consumer spending, which always seems to depress the stock market. Reports suggested that ‘big ticket items’ such as cars and fridges saw the biggest fall in demand.
Elsewhere, an era ended at Microsoft as Steve Ballmer stepped down after 33 years. His retirement party may have been somewhat blighted as Microsoft shares leapt on the news with analysts believing that the company had been stagnating.
Another personality to the fore was Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who bought the Washington Post – of Watergate fame – for $250m.
The Japanese stock market has been the success story of 2013 – at least among major markets – but it fell back slightly in August, closing down 2% at 13,389. It wasn’t helped by the news that the trade deficit had soared to the third largest ever recorded, largely due to weakness in the Yen. Inflation also rose to the highest for five years, due to rises in fuel and transportation, which were made worse by the weakness in the Yen.
Figures reported for July showed that Chinese inflation remained steady, whilst the trade surplus narrowed due to a rise in imports. ‘Slower’ growth is apparently now acknowledged as a reality in China, but when ‘slower growth’ means only growing at 7.5% a year, the developed economies in the West can only look on in envy.
The Chinese stock market rose by 90 points to finish August at 2,098, whilst the market in Hong Kong was down 1% to 21,731. The rate of inflation in Hong Kong is now up to 6.9% – far higher than the prevailing rate for mainland China, which remains steady at 2.7%.
India’s economy grew by 4.4% in the 2nd quarter, but that was the worst quarterly performance since 2002 and is viewed as a worrying sign by analysts. Both manufacturing and mining – cornerstones of the Indian economy – saw downturns in the quarter. Inflation was also up to a five month high of 5.8%.
Economic growth also slowed in Russia and the country’s trade surplus narrowed. Brazil – the other major emerging economy – mercifully had a month without riots. With unemployment down and growth up, the signs are perhaps a little more encouraging.
The Brazilian and Russian stock markets also had gains in the month, finishing at 50,008 and 1,364. The Indian Sensex index was down 3% at 18,619.
It has been documented that the cost of raising a child has hit an all-time high, with a report revealing that it’s now approaching the £150,000 mark.
The exact figure is now £148,105 according to the Child Poverty Action Group, with the cost of children – inevitably – rising faster than both wages and inflation.
A sobering thought with only 16 weeks to go until Christmas…