Exorcisms, E-commerce Giants & Two Nuns in Dublin:

With Easter just around the corner, March is a month always more readily welcomed than February. Yet the latter was a good month for world stock markets this year! It saw virtually all of the major markets we follow in our financial commentary move in the right direction. 

It was also the month that ramped up the rollouts of various vaccines across the globe. The latest stats (courtesy of the Telegraph) report that over 20m people in the UK have now had their first dose of the vaccine. As ‘vaccines for over-40s’ start this month, we can expect to see that momentum continue throughout. 

In other news, we also saw interesting comments from two of the world’s more prominent bankers. First came, Daniel Pinto, Co-President of J P Morgan Chase & Co. He stated that the bank ‘will have to become involved’ in cryptocurrency in the not too distant future. The declaration came as Bitcoin broke through the $50,000 barrier. 

Not to be outdone, Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon then dismissed ‘working from home’ as ‘the new normal.’ Instead, he declared it a mere ‘aberration.’ 

Only time will tell if their predictions are correct. But, in the short term, let us turn our attention to the news from the markets we cover in this, our latest financial commentary.

UK 

As of 1st March, the UK economy was forecast to contract by 4.2% in the first three months of the year. That comes following a record slump of 9.9% in 2020. UK government borrowing hit a colossal £8.8bn in January – the highest figure for what has always been a key revenue-raising month since records began in 1993. 

Unsurprisingly, the month also saw grim company results. BP reported an annual loss of $5.7bn. Shell lost a cool $21.7bn. Then Barclays added icing to the already frosted cake. It announced it had set aside £4.8bn for loans that will not be repaid due to the pandemic. 

Inevitably, all this was reflected in job losses, with the unemployment rate soaring to 5.1%. Under-25s were the hardest hit, amidst revelations that over 2m people have not worked for more than six months. 

It wasn’t all gloom, though! The number of UK employers planning job cuts in January was the lowest seen since Covid began. Then came the news that more than half of UK firms plan to recruit new staff over the next quarter. All the while, the UK continues to do post-Brexit trade deals – and Rishi Sunak confirmed that ‘post-Brexit trade flows [were] relatively similar’ to the level he had expected. 

The FTSE-100 index of leading shares rose 1% in the month, closing at 6,483. The pound rose 2% against the dollar and ended February trading at $1.3931. 

Europe 

The month got off to a bad start for Ryanair. The airline suffered what it called “the most challenging year in its history” – aka a loss of €306m (£222m) for its third quarter. The company reported an albeit unsurprising 80% drop in passenger numbers.

British Airways owner IAG must have shrugged at the Ryanair figures, they duly said, ‘hold my beer’ before reporting a full-year loss of nearly €7bn (£6.03bn) in 2020. 

Meanwhile, the EU asked Apple for €13bn (£11.2bn) in back taxes. It stated that it ‘made a mistake’ when it abandoned an order for Apple to pay the money in Irish back taxes. 

Perhaps the biggest news of the month, though, came from China. It has now overtaken the US as the EU’s biggest trading partner. Trade between the EU and China totalled €586bn (£511bn) last year. That equated to roughly 5% more than trade between the EU and the US. 

February was a good month for European stock markets. Germany’s DAX index increased by 3% to 13,786. Meanwhile, the French stock market rose 6% to 5,703. 

US 

January’s financial commentary saw Joe Biden take over the White House from Donald Trump. And, February saw news of Andy Jassy planned takeover from Jeff Bezos at Amazon. So, 2021 looks to be a year of  change all around.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has seen Amazon sales boom. And in February, it was Google’s turn to report soaring revenues. Fourth-quarter sales were up 23% on a year ago to $57bn (£41bn)! 

In the wider economy, there was disappointing news on the job front. The US economy saw just 49,000 jobs created in January as Covid continued to hinder any recovery. As might be expected, the job losses were most heavily felt at retail stores, restaurants, casinos and hotels. 

Analysts said the numbers highlight the need for more economic relief and investment. Joe Biden was naturally quick to reaffirm his commitment to invest in the country’s infrastructure. As he so eloquently put it – not doing so would see China’ eat our lunch.’ It’s probably a wise move. Voters will not have forgotten that an integral part of Biden’s presidential campaign focussed on proposed spending of $2tn (£1.43tn) over four years to create jobs and invest in clean energy infrastructures. 

Meanwhile, Facebook scored the ‘Own Goal of the Month’ amidst arguments with the Australian government. Policy changes in Australia mean tech giants now need to pay for linked news content on their platforms. Google duly announced a long-term deal with News Corp. But Facebook chose to call the government’s bluff. They duly blocked Australians from sharing or viewing all news content. This meant they also inadvertently blocked health news during a pandemic. We can only wince at how this will likely be reflected in their advertising revenue.

Thankfully, the US stock market was rather more Google than Facebook. The Dow Jones index increased by 3% to 30,932. Meanwhile, the more broadly-based S&P 500 index was up to 3,811. 

Far East 

February was a good month for Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. The firm posted strong results for the last quarter of 2020, with revenue up 37% against prior year.

However, China’s regulators also introduced new anti-monopoly legislation in February. These are widely seen as a bid to stop Alibaba and JD.com from abusing their dominant market position. 

Meanwhile, China’s version of the short-form video app Tik-Tok was heartily welcomed on its debut on the Hong Kong stock market. Its shares immediately tripled in value. 

In other news, figures released for the last quarter of 2020 showed that the Japanese economy increased by 3%. Sadly, this was not enough to offset the earlier falls due to Covid, and the economy shrank by 4.8% for the year. Investors were clearly unperturbed by the figures, though. Japan’s Nikkei Dow index grew 5% and closed February at 28,966. 

As for China’s Shanghai Composite index, that rose 1% to 3,509. The South Korean market increased to 3,013, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 2%, closing the month at 28,980. 

Emerging Markets 

Tensions between India and China are by no means unheard of in our financial commentary. But this did not stop China from overtaking the US in 2020 to regain its position as India’s biggest trading partner. Two-way trade between the countries stood at $77.7bn (£55.2bn) in 2020. 

Staying with India, Amazon came under criticism for circumventing rules designed to prevent small retailers from getting ‘crushed’ by the e-commerce giant. 

The month also saw grim news for the oil-producing states. Think-tank Carbon Tracker issued a report suggesting the cumulative loss of revenue for oil states as the world embraces ‘sustainability.’ It is expected to be in the region of an eye-watering $13tn (£9.3tn) by 2040.

As for the ‘Emerging markets’ stats, the Indian stock market rose 6% to 49,100. The Russian market increased 2% to 3,347, and Brazil’s index fell 4% to 110,035. 

And finally…

What pearls did February have for the ‘And finally…’ section of our commentary? 

Well, there were the typical stories of lockdown breaches. Mostly these were the typical parties and nights-out. So, we confess to being a little surprised to hear that two Dublin two nuns had been caught breaking lockdown rules. 

They weren’t organising a party (per se) though. No! Mother Irene Gibson and Sister Ann-Marie were performing an exorcism that somehow managed to attract 70 people – well over the 15 permitted for an outdoor gathering. The nuns made no attempt to find a quiet, secluded location. Instead, they chose to conduct the exorcism in front of the Irish parliament building.

Meanwhile, Barbie enjoyed her best year since 2014, with sales hitting $1.35bn (£940m). And, Mr and Mrs Potato Head lost their titles! Potato Head extraordinaire firm Hasbro decided it was time to gender-neutralise the brand. So, our beloved toy story friends, will henceforth, be known simply as… ‘Potato Heads.’ 

Whether potatoes were in any way responsible for the next story is a moot point. Perhaps it was having to make one too many chips that sparked Mrs Chen seeking to divorce her husband and claiming for all the housework she had done during the marriage? Whatever the catalyst, a Beijing court found in her favour. The result? Mrs Chen was awarded 50,000 yuan (£5,460) for five years of her husband’s laziness. We sense many of our readers may now be mentally totting up how much housework they’ve done over the years…

And on that note (and hopefully before our spouses get any ideas), we shall draw our financial commentary to a close. So until next time, keep on top of your finances, stay safe, and (as always) if you need us, do get in touch!

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