The defining image of August 2021 had little to do with the stock market on the surface, it was, of course, the withdrawal of British and American troops from Afghanistan. As some readers will know, Afghanistan has significant mineral reserves, which some estimates put at $1tn (£730bn). These reserves include lithium, so it will be no surprise if at some stage we see the China/Pakistan economic corridor extended into Afghanistan.
It was a less positive month for the blockchain site Poly Network, where hackers exploited a “vulnerability in its systems” and stole some $600m (£436m) in digital currency tokens. Following an appeal on Twitter the hackers duly returned some of the money in what was one of the largest reported thefts of digital currency.
There were signs from various purchasing managers’ indices around the world that the pace of recovery from the pandemic may be slowing down. These worries were not helped when China closed Ningbo-Zhoushan, the world’s third-busiest cargo port, due to an outbreak of Covid.
August ended with images of the last American troops leaving Afghanistan and with Hurricane Ida hitting New Orleans, leaving one million people in Louisiana without power.
August was a month when the news for the UK economy was mixed. Like many countries around the world the UK is recovering well from the pandemic, but there are worries that staff shortages may hamper the recovery, and that the Bank of England may need to tread a delicate path between stimulating the economy and keeping a lid on inflationary pressures.
Figures for the second quarter showed that UK GDP had grown by 4.8% between April and June, with the expected strong performance from the services sector. The rise in output leaves the economy 4.4% below where it was in the last quarter of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said that she expects to complete negotiations for the UK to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of next year, as business confidence jumped to a new four year high. According to the survey by Lloyds Bank employers in the North West are feeling particularly optimistic.
What does worry employers, however, is the shortage of staff. The Purchasing Managers’ Index for August hit a six month low of 55.3: while that still indicates optimism, it was significantly down on the 59.2 recorded in July.
Equally worrying was a YouGov poll, which suggested that as many as 354,000 small businesses may not be able to repay the Covid loans they have received from the Government, due to cash flow problems and hold-ups in their supply chain.
Any reader wanting their glass to be resolutely half-empty should, sadly, look no further than the UK car industry. We have written elsewhere about the impact the global shortage of microchips is having and, with staff still affected by the pingdemic, figures for July showed that just 53,438 cars were built in the UK, down 38% on July last year and the worst performance since 1956. Unsurprisingly, sales of second hand cars soared due to the shortage of new models.
What about jobs and the high street? In the US, Amazon is, apparently, about to go into the department store business. Here in the UK a story on the BBC stated that the UK has lost 83% of its “main department stores” in the five years since the collapse of the BHS chain. To confirm what may well be the changing face of our town centres in the future, trials of shared banking hubs in two towns where all the bank branches have closed, Cambuslang in South Lanarkshire and Rochford in Essex, are to be extended to April 2023.
If you would like other evidence of our changing shopping, and eating habits, then Greggs are to open 100 new stores, creating 500 new jobs, and Just Eat says it will create 1,500 new jobs in the North East.
Despite the boost provided by the Euros, though, the high street continues to struggle, with City AM reporting that footfall in July was 34% down on the same month in 2019, with shoppers seemingly still unwilling to return to town centres.
Online spending hit £10bn in July, the highest monthly spend in 2021 so far, bringing this year’s online total to £64.9bn – a massive increase of 56% on 2019.
The UK’s FTSE-100 index of leading shares had a relatively quiet month. It rose just 1% to close the month at 7,120. The pound was down by 1% against the dollar, and ended August trading at $1.3755.
August is, of course, the month when Europe traditionally goes on holiday, so news in this section of the Bulletin was in slightly short supply.
Tesla boss Elon Musk announced that he hopes to start making cars at the Gigafactory just outside Berlin in October, “or soon afterwards.” The planned start date has been pushed back after battles with local environmental campaigners and what Musk described as “German bureaucratic delays.”
Like many central banks the ECB has taken the first steps towards establishing a digital currency, beginning a two year investigation phase that could see a digital Euro by the middle of the decade. The ECB is worried that failing to implement a digital currency will undermine the Eurozone’s monetary autonomy, as foreign technology giants – and other digital currencies – gain ground.
We report below on measures taken by the South Korean central bank to curb rising prices, and the ECB could soon have similar problems. Rising prices, a spike in Covid infection numbers and a drop in vaccinations dented German consumer confidence as Europe’s biggest economy headed into September.
Despite this, August was a good month for the German stock market, which rose 2% to close at 15,835. The French stock market was up by just 1% to end the month at 6,680.
August was another month in the US that got off to a good start thanks to the jobs figures. With the US economy growing by 6.5% in the second quarter, figures for July showed that 943,000 jobs had been created, against a general consensus of 870,000. Job vacancies now stand at a record 10.1m as lay-offs fell to their lowest level in 21 years.
We have written previously about President Biden’s eye-watering $3.5tn (£2.55tn) budget proposals. In August they were approved by the US Congress and it now looks almost certain that the measures – which include significant packages for health, family support and climate schemes – will go ahead. The President also said that he wants 50% of all car sales to be electric by 2030.
What won’t be going ahead, at least not until 2022, is a return to the office for staff at Apple. The company, which gave CEO Tim Cook a $750m payday, has said that it will delay calling staff back to the office until January at the earliest, citing fears of a further Covid surge.
In other company news Amazon, having done so much to impact the traditional high street, is apparently considering opening department stores, with Ohio and California already earmarked as possible sites.
The month ended with the Federal Reserve hinting that it may start to withdraw post-Covid stimulus measures later this year as the US economy continues to recover. However there are currently no plans to increase interest rates, despite a recent spike in inflation.
In common with most of the markets we cover, August was a good month in the US. The Dow Jones index rose 1% to close the month at 35,361 while the more broadly based S&P 500 index was up 3% to 4,523.
We have devoted a lot of column inches in previous market commentaries to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the subsequent crackdowns by the Chinese authorities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, official figures released in August showed that Hong Kong’s population had shrunk by 87,100 in the year to June. 89,200 Hong Kong residents left the city, although this was partially offset by inflows from mainland China.
The Beijing authorities continued their crackdown on the tech companies in August. Tencent was the latest company to come under fire, with prosecutors filing legal action over claims its messaging app did not comply with laws protecting minors. With the authorities branding online games “electronic drugs” we can expect this tighter control of the tech sector to continue for some time.
There was good news in Japan with the economy rebounding more quickly than had been expected, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The country’s GDP grew by 1.3% in the second quarter of the year, roughly twice the rate that had been forecast.
There was less good news for Toyota, which announced plans to slash car production in September from 900,000 vehicles to 540,000 due to the global microchip shortage. At the end of the month the South Korean central bank became the first in the region to raise interest rates (from 0.5% to 0.75%) in a move aimed at curbing household debt and house prices, both of which have risen sharply in recent months.
On the region’s stock markets China’s Shanghai Composite index had a good month, rising 4% to close August at 3,544. The Japanese stock market was up 3% to 28,090 but the markets in Hong Kong and South Korea were unchanged in percentage terms, finishing at 25,879 and 3,199 respectively.
There was some interesting company news in the Emerging Markets section. Square, the digital payments platform owned by the co-founder of Twitter, agreed to pay £21bn for the Australian ‘buy now, pay later’ firm Afterpay. The company has more than 16m customers and is used by 100m businesses around the world, and was seen as a key indicator for the no-credit-checks online payments industry that boomed in the pandemic.
In a rather more conventional industry, Saudi Arabia’s oil giant Aramco saw its profits jump almost four times as the world recovered from the pandemic and demand for oil picked up. The world’s biggest oil producer said net income had risen to $25.5bn (£18.4bn) for the second quarter of the year.
On the stock markets August was an excellent month for India’s BSE Sensex index, which shot up 9% in the month to close at 57,552. The Russian market was up 4% to 3,919 but it was a disappointing month for the Brazilian stock market, which fell 2% to 118,781.
August was not a vintage month for the ‘And finally’ section of this commentary. The month used to be known as the “silly season:” parliament wasn’t sitting, everyone in Europe was on holiday and journalists scrambled furiously to find stories to fill their column inches. As we covered in the introduction, August 2021 was very far from the “silly season” – but was there anything to lighten the gloom?
Well, in this continuing summer of shortages McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes thanks to the shortage of lorry drivers.
Appropriately for August insurer Zurich warned against the increased risk of outdoor fires – up 16% since 2019. Not in the woods though, but in your garage. It is, apparently, the fault of lockdown, as we’ve now all rushed out and bought outdoor pizza ovens, converted our garages into gyms (or bars) and made the old garden shed into a “shoffice.” Perhaps we could point our fingers at former Prime Minister David Cameron, who famously spent £25,000 on what he described as a “shepherd’s hut,” which included a wood-burning stove, sofa bed and sheep’s wool insulation.
There’ll certainly be no problem for 12-year-old Benyamin Ahmed, from London, if he wants to put a shed/office at the bottom of the garden. He has made approximately £290,000 in his summer holidays, after creating a series of pixelated artworks called Weird Whales and selling non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which allow artwork to be ‘tokenised,’ creating a digital certificate of ownership that can be bought and sold.
If you have no idea what that last sentence meant then you are not alone: it’s clearly indicative of how quickly the world is changing. But let’s spare a thought for Benyamin’s teacher: any day now they will be struggling to understand an essay, entitled “What I did in my summer holidays…”