The excitement surrounding Brexit continued to build this week (narrator’s voice: “It didn’t really”). Members of Parliament embarked upon a series of eight “indicative votes” on Wednesday on what form Brexit should take. Each of the alternatives – a second referendum, revocation of Article 50, No Deal, Customs Union and four more – were rejected. Summing up the night’s events, newspaper headlines seemed to be channelling nineties Belgian dance act 2 Unlimited: “Parliament finally has its say: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.”
Theresa May, UK prime minister (at the time of writing) has promised to leave 10 Downing Street if her twice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement is passed at the third attempt. That looks like a tall order; markets may be complacent in assigning a lower probability to a No Deal scenario than is merited.
Equity markets appeared inured to the confusing messages emanating from Westminster, and the FTSE 100 finished the week to Thursday’s close 0.4% ahead. Meanwhile, the FTSE World Europe was up 0.3%, and the S&P 500 rose 0.6%.
The yield turned upside down
At the end of last week, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury note fell below the yield on three-month paper – the first time this has happened since mid-2007. This means the three-month bond is priced higher than the 10-year; the reverse relationship is the norm.
This phenomenon is described by economists as an “inverted yield curve”. The yield curve plots yields from shortest maturity to highest, and is keenly scrutinised as a barometer of economic sentiment. Investors have been buying longer-dated bonds for a combination of reasons, including concerns about Eurozone growth and signs that the US Federal Reserve will push back interest rate hikes until at least next year. This has depressed yields at the long end, changing the slope of the curve. An inverted yield curve is commonly regarded as a leading indicator of recession, signalling an end to the economic cycle. Typically, the lag between inversion and recession is 15 to 18 months.
Uber buy in Dubai
Uber, the US ride-hailing company, purchased Middle Eastern rival Careem for $3.1 billion in its biggest acquisition to date. It’s the first time Uber has bought one of its regional competitors. Dubai-headquartered Careem has more than a million drivers and 33 million registered users in nearly 100 cities. It is Uber’s strongest competitor in the region, vying for market share in passenger transport and food delivery across the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia. The deal, which is subject to regulatory approval, follows hard on the heels of reports that Uber plans to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. With Lyft having overtaken Uber in the race to have the first IPO, an issue valuing Uber in excess of $100 billion would put Lyft’s $24 billion firmly in the backseat.
A big sell-off in the Turkish lira has brought back disturbing memories of last year’s currency collapse. That crisis, which erupted in the summer after an altercation between strongman President Tayyip Erdogan and US President Trump, sparked fears of contagion across emerging market currencies. Turkey has spent more than a third of its foreign reserves during March – roughly $10 billion – in an effort to shore up its currency, but to little avail. The lira fell 5% on Thursday. The country’s monetary authorities are laying the blame at the door of international banks – notably JP Morgan, which published a research note that advised selling the lira against the dollar. Erdogan warned bankers of a “heavy price” to pay following local elections at the end of March, which are seen by many as a referendum on his 16 years in charge. Indeed, a heavy price so far for offshore investors looking to short-sell the lira, forcing them to pay a UK payday lender-style 1,350% interest rate in the overnight swap market, before settling back to a more reasonable 25%. Like the US, the Turkish yield curve is inverted; however, the reasons are markedly different.
Majestic laid bare
It was “Time, gentlemen, please” for Majestic Wines this week, in a move that further emphasises the shift from bricks-and-mortar retailers to the Internet. The off-licence wine retailer has announced that it is to close stores and instead focus on its online business. Majestic bought Naked Wines, an online subscription-based business, four years ago; since then, sales growth at Naked has far outstripped that of its parent company.
A spring clean for Baltic banks
The Baltic money-laundering scandal was ratcheted up a notch this week. US regulators launched a series of wide-ranging inquiries into Swedbank, amid allegations that it handled billions from high-risk – mostly Russian – clients through its Estonian operation. That followed a raid by Sweden’s Economic Crime Authority on Swedbank’s Stockholm head office. A number of banks are already embroiled in the dirty money scandal, including Danske Bank, ABLV of Latvia, and Ukio of Lithuania. Russian oligarchs are believed to have used the Baltic operations of Nordic banks to move huge sums into the western banking system. Birgitte Bonnesen, Swedbank’s chief executive, vowed to do “everything in my power” to deal with the situation. Sadly for Ms Bonnesen, her powers have now been curtailed; she was ousted by Swedbank’s board on Thursday, minutes before the bank’s annual meeting in Stockholm.
America’s reputation as the a global superpower has never been in question over the past 50 years. But a newly-published report analysing the health of the US economy will only serve to burnish its credentials. A paragraph buried deep within the Economic Report of the President has lifted the lid on the quality and depth of resources available to President Trump. Page 624 lists the student interns who helped with research projects, day-to-day operations and fact-checking. Most were real-life interns, but the list also included Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) and Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter-ego). Marvel-lous, and a testament to the DC workpool. More curious – but nonetheless impressive – inclusions were JT Hutt (Jabba to his friends); Aunt May (Spiderman’s adoptive mother) and John Cleese, of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame.