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UK public borrowing dropped more than expected in December thanks to improved tax revenues and savings in public spending as the economy recovered.
Public sector net borrowing was estimated to have been £16.8bn last month, £7.6bn less than in December 2020 when most of the country was under tight restrictions, data from the Office for National Statistics showed on Tuesday.
Borrowing was lower than the £18.5bn expected by economists polled by Reuters and in line with last October’s forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Central government receipts were £68.5bn last month, up 10 per cent compared with December 2020, boosted by stronger tax receipts as the economy recovered.
At the same time, the government spent £86.7bn, down £1bn from the same month the previous year, reflecting savings from the job retention scheme that ended in October.
However, some of the savings were offset by higher spending on the NHS Test and Trace programme and the cost of vaccines. Interest payments were also up compared with December 2020 due to high retail price inflation to which index-linked gilts are pegged.
In the year to December, borrowing was £147bn, nearly half that in the same period the previous year.
Public debt — borrowing accumulated over time — rose to about 96 per cent of gross domestic product, a level not seen since the early 1960s.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, said: “Risks to the public finances, including from inflation, make it even more important that we avoid burdening future generations with high debt repayments.”
“No matter what you may be selling, your business in China should be enormous, if the Chinese who should buy your goods would only do so.”
Never did an “if only” clause carry more weight. In the 85 years since Carl Crow, a Shanghai-based American advertising executive, wrote these words in his book Four Hundred Million Customers, China’s population has grown by 1bn people. Their combined spending power is now second only to that of Americans.
Yet the gulf between promise and reality in China’s fabled market haunts foreign corporations as much today as when Crow was trying to market American lipstick and French brandy to the emerging middle class of the 1930s. A host of political and regulatory issues — exacerbated by Xi Jinping’s strict Covid policies and his stance over Russia’s war in Ukraine — are conspiring to eviscerate the dreams of many multinationals.
The result is that direct investment into China by foreign companies is falling off a cliff. Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, says the unpredictability is prompting the European business community to put investments into China “on hold”. “Many of our members are now taking a wait-and-see approach to investments in China,” he adds, citing an attitudes survey this month of the chamber’s 1,800 members. “Twenty-three per cent of our members are now considering shifting current or planned investments out of China, the highest level on record. And 77 per cent report that China’s attractiveness as a future investment destination has decreased.”
Pessimism has infected the US business community, too. Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, warns that the travel hassles encountered by foreign executives seeking to visit their Chinese operations — including flight cancellations, visa complications and lengthy quarantines on arrival — will lead to a “massive decline” in investment “two, three, four years from now”.
The despair and anguish of expat families locked down in their apartments for weeks in Shanghai and elsewhere is persuading many to bolt for the departure gates as soon as they can. A survey by the German Chamber of Commerce found that nearly 30 per cent of foreign employees had plans to leave China.
“Did you see the video of the guy in Shanghai shouting ‘I want to die’?” asked one British teacher based in the city, who declined to be further identified. “Well, that has done the rounds here as well. A lot of people are suffering from mental health issues. It is really hard to be cooped up at home for weeks, especially with young children.”
All of this may portend a fundamental shift in how the global economy works. For decades China has been one of the hottest destinations for western multinationals seeking to offshore manufacturing operations or ramp up sales in the world’s biggest emerging market.
In 2020 it passed a milestone, overtaking the US as the world’s leading destination for new foreign direct investment, according to UN data. Now a reversal seems to be underway. A tally of greenfield foreign investment projects — which includes new factories and other plans announced by foreign companies — showed the lowest quarterly total in the first quarter of this year since records began in 2003, according to fDi Markets, an FT database.
Data collected by Rhodium Group, a consultancy, shows a similar trend. The headline FDI number for EU companies was boosted by one long-planned corporate acquisition, but the value of new greenfield projects slipped to its lowest level in years. “The bloom is coming off the rose,” said Mark Witzke, an analyst at Rhodium, who notes that China’s official FDI figures are inflated by factors such as counting multinationals’ earnings in China as investments.
To be sure, some multinationals still do good business in China, but increasingly tales of sudden ruptures capture the headlines. Boeing’s biggest customer in China announced the removal this month of more than 100 of the US manufacturer’s 737 MAX jets from its planned purchases.
US sportswear group Nike and Swedish fashion retailer H&M were among brands targeted by Chinese consumer boycotts last year after they made comments about forced labour in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities run internment camps for Uyghurs and other minority peoples. Friction deriving from the US-China trade war has swelled the number of multinationals shifting manufacturing capacity out of China to Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries in south-east Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe.
Added to this are concerns over China’s loyalty to Russia as it inflicts slaughter upon Ukraine, prompting fears that Beijing too will one day become the west’s military adversary. Wuttke says businesses in China are being forced to “seriously consider how to mitigate the risks of any potential deterioration of EU-China relations”.
George Magnus, author of Red Flags, a book about China’s vulnerabilities, perceives an inflection point. “I think China’s support for Putin and the government’s zero-Covid response to its own citizens are watershed moments that are forcing people now to review and reconsider consequences and meaning for the business operating environment in China,” he says.
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Good morning. By recent market standards, yesterday was a snoozer. But we did notice that existing home sales fell for the third month in a row in April. Higher rates are hitting the economy, fast. Today, we dive into this week’s retail earnings massacre and ask how sticky inflation really is. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
First-quarter earnings from two big American retailers scared the daylights out of markets this week. Walmart and Target are down 20 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively, since they reported earnings.
These two companies are very important for investors because — as nation-spanning sellers of food, clothes, home goods and much else — they provide a window into the health of the American consumer, who drives the American economy and the world’s. So it is not totally illogical that in the wake of the box stores’ poor results, all sorts of consumer staples companies, usually a safe haven in a storm, took a whipping.
But one consistent feature of bear markets is that during them, the news that sparks a brutal sell-off on a given day often turns out, on close examination, not to be particularly significant. A bear market is one that looks for an excuse to go down. Was that the case with this week’s news? What did we really learn from the results?
The headline, in both cases, was that while revenue was fine, margins collapsed. In an inflationary environment, one might have expected this. Walmart and Target have to pay more for what they sell. Perhaps they can’t pass on the costs entirely. If so, margins must tighten. And if that is true of these huge, powerful retailers, just imagine what is coming for smaller companies.
As it turns out, though, this is not what happened. Or not exactly what happened. The striking number on both balance sheets was inventory levels. At Walmart, sales were up 2 per cent from last year’s first quarter. Inventories were up 32 per cent. That is to say: there was $15bn in extra inventory sitting around at Walmart at the end of the quarter. At Target, it was 4 per cent and 43 per cent — $5bn in extra inventory. And what happens when you’ve ordered several billions worth more stuff than your customers want? You mark prices down to get rid of it all. And down go margins.
Here is how one Target exec laid it out:
As we developed our plans for the quarter, our task was to anticipate how spending would change under circumstances no one had ever seen before . . . we relied on numerous forecasts and estimates, both internal and external, to help determine our view for the quarter. Despite this careful approach, the mix of actual demand materialized differently than we had anticipated . . . as supply grew and demand shifted away from bigger, bulkier products like furniture, TVs and more, we needed to make difficult trade-off decisions. We could keep this product knowing it would sell over time, or we can make room for fast-growing categories like Food & Beverage, Beauty, and personal care and Household Essentials . . . we chose the latter, leading to incremental markdowns that reduced our gross margin
How did these well-run companies miscalculate their ordering so badly? I put this question to Rahul Sharma of Neev Capital, Unhedged’s retail guru. He noted that during the pandemic both Walmart and Target had used their global muscle to secure products lesser companies simply couldn’t get. They used the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to use their immense scale to take still more share from smaller players. And it worked. But Sharma thinks that both companies got too enthusiastic about this approach, just as the extraordinary demand for goods that characterised the pandemic (especially “bigger, bulkier products like furniture and TVs”) started to fall away.
This mistake was compounded by consumers, who are seeing their real incomes eroded by inflation, spending a bit less. Walmart, for example, noted that more customers are shifting to store brands over name brand foods. There was not, however, a sharp drop-off in demand — just a bit of a downshift. The big problem was the inventory mistake. It will be very expensive, but is a one-time event. It does not signal a deep threat to the two companies’ business models.
Walmart and Target, who did so well at the beginning of the pandemic, got caught flat-footed by its end. Does this justify a violent sell-off? It does not. Unless, of course, the companies’ stock prices were driven beyond their long-term value by the speculative vapours of a long bull market, and needed an excuse to revert to reality.
That’s what happens in bear markets.
Here is some conventional wisdom. Inflation started as a one-off shock to pandemic-specific items, particularly durable goods, but has since crept into stickier areas such as shelter and services. And since much of services and shelter inflation depends on wages, it’ll be hard for the Federal Reserve to restore sub-2 per cent inflation without hitting labour markets hard. If they don’t, a wage-price spiral looms. The economist Jason Furman summed it up in a chart we showed you last week:
The standard story is, sadly, pretty accurate. But others are available. I spoke recently with Omair Sharif at Inflation Insights, who thinks core services (that is, excluding food and energy) inflation is less sticky than most expect.
He starts by noting how concentrated the recent acceleration in services inflation is. “Acceleration” is important here: inflation rates only increase if price levels are getting hotter, faster. So what caused the core consumer price index to go from 4 per cent late last year to over 6 per cent now? The post-Omicron rebound in transport costs is almost solely to blame. Sharif offers this chart comparing the acceleration in core services this year to the final four months of 2021:
This is likely a one-off price bump that should quickly fade from inflation indices over the next few prints, putting core inflation closer to 4 per cent on an annual basis — hot, but more manageable than what we have now.
Getting from 4 to the Fed’s target — 2 per cent — will still require the central bank to deal with shelter inflation, which, mercifully, has barely accelerated (just 1.5 basis points in the chart above). Slowing labour income growth is the main channel to do this. As Rob discussed last week, this is because shelter inflation indices are measures of rents, which in turn are paid with wages. Luckily for the Fed, wage growth is already coming down:
None of this means that a soft landing is likely, or that the Fed can easily get inflation back to target. But it does suggest 7-plus per cent CPI is not here to stay. (Ethan Wu)
Think China is uninvestable? “My answer to these people is: ‘You guys have to do better research.’”
Richard Thalheimer remembers the last time inflation was proving so challenging to US retailers: it was when he was trying to get The Sharper Image off the ground in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In 2006 he left the consumer gadgets chain he founded, selling his stake before its 2008 bankruptcy. Ever since, he has been investing the proceeds of the watches, massage chairs, iPods and Razor scooters he sold, building a portfolio worth up to $350mn with stocks including Amazon, RH and Home Depot.
“It’s been so much fun,” he said. “Until this year”.
As inflation races at levels last seen four decades ago, the retail sector that made Thalheimer wealthy is now making other investors poorer and stoking recession fears. This week, unexpectedly bad earnings announcements from Walmart and Target, two of its largest constituents, led to their steepest stock market falls since Black Monday in 1987.
Days earlier, analysts had been touting such companies as defensive shelters from the storm in tech stocks that had slashed the valuations of companies from Amazon to Netflix. Early this week, Baird named Walmart its top “recessionary playbook” idea.
But the shockwaves from Walmart and Target rippled through the wider retail sector and gave market bears a new concern: that inflation may now be biting consumers even before the Federal Reserve starts raising interest rates more aggressively.
Retailers were the biggest drivers of a broad market rout on Wednesday that pushed the S&P 500 stock index to its worst one-day fall in almost two years.
Until this week, the S&P 500’s consumer staples sub-index, which includes “big box” retailers such as Walmart along with businesses like pharmacies and food manufacturers, was still roughly unchanged for the year. The only other parts of the index that had avoided declines were energy and utility stocks, which had benefited from surging energy prices.
By the close of Thursday, however, the sub-index had fallen almost 9 per cent and was on track for its worst week since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
The retailers’ earnings flagged up not just one cause for concern, but three: that price increases may have reached the limit of what consumers will tolerate, that retailers are struggling to contain their own costs, and that unpredictable demand and new supply disruptions are forcing them to build up inventories.
The first of those three is being most closely watched for its broader economic resonance. “You’ve got a consumer that is starting to pull back,” said Steve Rogers, head of Deloitte’s consumer industry centre, whose surveys suggest that 81 per cent of Americans are concerned about rising prices.
Americans’ bank accounts may not have changed dramatically since last year, he said, but headlines about inflation have shaken their confidence. Some are trading down or holding off big purchases as a result, he added, particularly in discretionary categories such as clothing, personal care and home furnishings.
Walmart, long seen as a bellwether of the US consumer, noted that high inflation in food prices “pulled more dollars away from [general merchandise] than we expected as customers needed to pay for the inflation in food”.
Rogers and others, however, see retailers’ own cost pressures as a clearer driver of their changed fortunes than consumer pullback. At Walmart, for example, US fuel costs last quarter were over $160mn higher than it had expected — more than it could pass through to customers.
“We did not anticipate that transportation and freight costs would soar the way they have,” echoed Target’s chief executive Brian Cornell. Higher wages and costs for containers and warehouses are also weighing on retailers’ profit margins.
Some of those higher costs stem from the third force at work: a disrupted global supply chain that has left retailers scrambling to secure stock at a moment when demand for it is uncertain. “Their inventories are exploding,” Cathie Wood, chief investment officer at Ark Invest, wrote in a Twitter post on Walmart and Target.
The reason for carrying more inventory than usual is that “they lived through the stock-outs of the past two years and know what that cost them”, said Rogers.
Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon indicated that some of the build-up was deliberate, saying: “We like the fact that our inventory is up because so much of it is needed to be in stock.” Still, he admitted, “a 32 per cent increase is higher than we want”.
Target’s inventories rose even further, up 43 per cent from a year earlier, and it conceded that it had failed to anticipate consumer spending shifts in categories from televisions to toys.
“We aren’t where we want to be right now, for sure,” said Target chief operating officer John Mulligan, adding that “slowness in the supply chain” had forced it to carry more stock as a precaution.
Wayne Wicker, chief investment officer at pension plan manager MissionSquare Retirement, said it should not be surprising to see signs of consumers reining in some spending, but said this week’s results were nonetheless a “wake-up call” for some investors because many companies had until recently claimed they were handling inflation challenges well.
Walmart and Target both provided upbeat forecasts in their previous quarterly update, and did not pre-announce any changes before this week’s reports.
“Part of the price decline was reflecting the fact that the management of these large companies didn’t provide any indication that they were going to have such a miss,” Wicker said.
For Denise Chisholm, Fidelity’s director of quantitative strategy, this week’s reports did not provide convincing evidence that the economy is in trouble, but they spooked investors who were already nervous after earlier sell-offs.
Despite the visceral market reaction to Target’s results, for example, its new lower forecasts would only return profit margins to pre-pandemic levels.
“If there’s any differentiating factor compared with [previous bear markets], it has been the strength of earnings, so any kind of concern over earnings gives more volatility from a near-term perspective,” Chisholm said. But, she added, “despite a lot of the concern in the market, it is hard to reach an empirical conclusion that says recession is any more likely given what we’ve seen”.
Thalheimer, whose portfolio is down by about $50mn from its peak, thinks markets overreacted this week and is already wondering when it will be time to consider snapping up beaten-down retail stocks.
“During most of the big sell-offs of my lifetime — 2009, the [bust following the] dotcom bubble or 1987 — almost every one of these times within two years you [saw] very strong recoveries,” he said.
That will happen again, he believes, but with the combined uncertainties around supply chains, the war in Ukraine and historic inflation, “there are going to be some choppy waters ahead”.
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