Tag: World News

Interest Rate Overview: Eurozone, United States, United Kingdom February 2024

As predicted by many commentators, the governing council of the ECB (European Central Bank), the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the United States Federal Reserve and the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England, all kept interest rates on hold. All three central banks cited the continuing fight against inflation as the reason for keeping interest rates on hold, but as many experts are predicting, interest rates will fall in 2024 in all three jurisdictions.

The Eurozone

On Thursday 25th January the Governing Council of the ECB announced for the third time in a row that interest rates were being held at a record high of 4%, reaffirming their fight against inflation. Many traders and analysts in the financial markets are betting on a rate reduction at the next Governing Council meeting on April 11th, 2024. 

However, Governor Christine Lagarde announced it was “premature to discuss rates”, though some unnamed members of the council have added that if upcoming data shows that inflation is beaten, then the April meeting could be dovish for a fall in interest rates at the June meeting. Despite these utterances, many in the financial markets believe the ECB have got it wrong and will be forced to cut interest rates in April.

The United States

On Wednesday January 31st, 2024, the Federal Reserve kept policy rates at a 22 year high of 5.25% – 5.50%, where the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell gave a massive endorsement on the economy’s strengths. He further advised that with the on-going expectation of falling inflation, coupled with economic growth, that rates had now peaked and would fall in the coming months. However, despite this pledge, Chairman Powell went on to say that he did not expect a rate cut at their next policy meeting in March, as they wish to see on-going positive data on the reduction of inflation to their figure of 2%. 

Interestingly, the Federal Reserve is hoping to accomplish beating inflation through tighter credit without putting the economy into recession, which historians suggest they only accomplished once in the last 100 years. But with inflation falling more quickly than expected, (2.6% as at close of business 2023), the Chairman is coming under political pressure to reduce rates in March. 

A massively divided country is going to the polls in November to elect a new president, and Chairman Powel received written requests to reduce interest rates from Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem, former presidential candidate), and Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (Dem). Some market experts are suggesting that there is a circa 63% chance that the Federal reserve will cut interest rates in March, but with seven weeks of economic data to come the markets will have much to mull over.

United Kingdom

On February 1st, 2024, the Bank of England’s MPC announced that it was holding interest rates steady at 5.25%, admitting that a rate cut had been part of their discussions. In the end there was a split decision in the MPC with six members in favour of holding, two members voting to increase rates and one member voting for a drop in interest rates. Interestingly, this is the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic that a rate-setter has voted for a cut in interest rates, and the first time since the global financial crisis of 2008, that there has been a three-way split in the MPC.

Following the announcement, The governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey announced that “the level of bank rate remains appropriate, and we are not yet at a point where we can lower rates”. He also pointed out that there is an upside risk to inflation due to continuing trade disruptions, and ambiguously advised how long policy remains restrictive depends on incoming data. However, experts suggest that the Bank of England is now warming to rate cuts in 2024, with officials believing that consumer price inflation will be at 2% in the second quarter, mainly due to falling energy prices., a year earlier than forecasted last November.

Market analysts mainly agree that whatever the statement that comes out of the above central banks, interest rates are set to fall in 2024. It would appear that the Bank of England is set to lag behind the ECB and the Federal Reserve when it comes to cutting interest rates. However, better than expected January US employment figures may delay a US interest rate cut beyond March, and as to whether or not they all fall at the same time, only time will tell.

China Snowball Derivatives and their Potential Losses

USD13 Billion worth of China Snowball Derivatives are approaching loss levels as the ongoing route of China’s stock market is pressurising these structured products, threatening to raise market volatility. Indeed, over the years snowballs have attracted China’s wealthy and institutional investors, but a rapid decline in the Chinese stock market is now exposing risks to these derivatives hitting loss-triggering levels. But what exactly are “Snowball” derivatives?

A Snowball product is a structured hybrid derivative which pays a bond-like coupon and consists of additional options on basic financial assets, which include underlying assets such as stocks or stock indexes. The word snowball derives from the fact that coupons can be rolled over and coupon pay-outs rely on the underlying asset trading within a certain range. 

Currently, experts are advising that circa USD4.2 Billion (Yuan30 Billion) of snowballs that are tied to the CSI 1000 Index* are approaching levels that trigger losses at maturity, whilst another circa USD8.4 Billion (Yuan 60 Billion) are between 5 and 10% away from their knock-in** thresholds. This week on Wednesday 15th January, the CSI 1000 index closed at its lowest level since April 2022. 

*The CSI 1000 Stock Index – This index is composed of 1,000 small and liquid stocks of all A-shares, excluding the CSI 800 constituents (follows the 800 largest stocks by free-float market cap and represents large and mid-cap A-share stocks). It reflects the stock price performance of a group of small-cap companies in the Chinese A-share market. 

**Knock Ins – There are two types of knock-in options: down-and-in and up-and-in. The former (currently China’s problem) is triggered if the underlying asset price falls below a certain level and the latter is triggered if the underlying asset price rises to a certain level. 

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, snowballs gained in popularity among the wealthy Chinese and asset managers, with brokers typically offering such grand returns or coupon rates of between 12 and 20%. 

Between February and April 2023, many of the outstanding snowball derivatives were issued, and since then the CSI 1000 has fallen by circa 22%, and for those who bought a one year contract with an 80% knock in last February, if there is no rebound in the market, next month they may be holding some serious losses. 

Despite government efforts to kick-start the stock markets by halving stamp duty on stock trades (August 2023), or their own exchanges launching new blue chip benchmarks where sectors such as chip manufacturing or renewables are granted greater weightings, sadly for snowball holders such small measures have failed to work with many investors now looking elsewhere. Unless the government engages in the type of quantitative easing as seen in the past in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, there is little else the government can do to stop the pessimism that is sweeping through the stock markets, signalling losses for many snowball holders.

What is the forecast for China in 2024?

China, the world’s second largest economy, kicks off 2024 with a much weaker economy, raising doubts about the underlying foundations on which its decades of amazing growth is built. Once China’s draconian Covid-19 pandemic laws were revoked, their leaders expected it would be business as usual for their economy. However, instead of consumers returning to malls, increases in land auctions and home sales, and factories tooling up for increases in demand, foreign firms have pulled money out, factories are facing waning demand, consumers are saving not spending, two of the largest properties companies along others have defaulted on their loans and local government finances are in a complete mess.

Reforms have always been particularly difficult in China, but the leaders are now presented with some tough choices if things are to improve in 2024. However, it has been an inauspicious start as Hong Kong’s flagship, the Hang Seng Index, started 1.5% down on 2nd January 2024. Mainland China’s CSI 300, which measures the top 300 stocks listed in Shenzhen and Shanghai, also dropped 1.3% and in excess of 43% since its peak in 2021. Both indexes were two of the worst performers in 2023 with a slowdown in production activity, lukewarm consumption, a prolonged property slump and concerns over Beijing’s crackdown on the tech sector.

However it is not all doom and gloom for the Chinese stock markets. Experts say that the trends in the Hang Seng Index are closely related to the number of IPO’s (Initial Public Offerings), and the same experts are predicting that HK$100 Billion (Circa £10 Billion and $7.8 Billion) will be raised in Hong Kong in 2024, just over double of that raised in 2023. A number of analysts have gone on to say that today the risk premium of Chinese stocks has reached a level that, in the past, has led to returns nothing short of spectacular. Indeed, the yield gap between stocks and bonds has now reached circa 5.5% and has rarely been this big, in fact the dividend yield of the stock benchmark has risen above the dividend yield of the long term bond benchmark for the first time since 2005. Adding to this optimism for Chinese stocks in 2024, a well-known emerging markets equity fund in the United States boosted its equity holdings of China and Hong Kong stocks in one of their funds to 33% of its portfolio. This confirmed that, in their view, the relentless selling is just about over and 2024 will be a good year. 

On economic growth, top Chinese officials have pledged to put this at the forefront of their economic plans. However, the hole in this plan is the lack of measures to boost consumer spending, which may end up making it hard to deliver on this statement. The tone for economic development for the following year is usually set at the CEWC (Central Economic Work Conference) which finished on the 9th of December 2023. This closely watched conference announced that policy would focus on “the central task of economic development and the primary task of high quality development”. Analysts have suggested that this conference was more pro-growth than in previous conferences, however they went on to say that potential growth levels of circa 5% would be hard to achieve without stimulus measures directly targeting consumer spending. Indeed, there was a complete silence on increasing household income and consumption support policies, and many analysts agree that weak consumption is a major drag on the economy.

On the deflation front, China has been fighting this for most of 2023 due to weak spending and the property slump, and finally policymakers have indicated that they will address this problem, which up to now, has been studiously ignored. Deflation is not good for the economy as falling prices are a major concern, and companies and consumers may put off investments and purchases anticipating a further fall in prices, which in turn can further slow the economy. Acknowledging this problem a quote from the 2023 CEWC said “Total social financing and money supply should be in line with economic growth and the price target”, which basically refers to the amount of financing needed for the real economy. Analysts noted that this was the first time the Price Target had been alluded to, indicating a more accommodating monetary policy. This suggests there will be interest rate cuts in 2024 acting as a stimulus to the economy. It should be noted that the CPI (Consumer Price Index) fell 0.5% in November 2023, the biggest since the Covid-19 Pandemic, marking an acceleration in the rate of deflation. 

The property market has been a major headache for Chinese policy makers and the economy, with experts advising that property market stabilisation should be very near the top of economic priorities. This is because there are signs that the crisis within the property market is spilling over into the broader economy, including consumer confidence and financial markets. The CEWC confirmed that Chinese policymakers will meet this problem head-on by announcing the importance of resolving risks in “real estate, local government debt, and small and medium sized financial institutions”. They went on to say that the government, with regard to three major areas, will accelerate construction in public infrastructure facilities, affordable housing and urban village redevelopment. The property industry accounts for circa 30% of Chinese Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the real estate slump has accounted for many of China’s current economic problems. House sales have gone south dramatically with developers’ debt problems spilling over into the shadow banking system*.

*China’s Shadow Banking System – This refers to financing outside of the formal Chinese Banking System and is conservatively estimated by experts to be in the region of USD3 Trillion. Such financing is made by banks through off-balance sheet activities or by non-bank financial institutions such as Chinese Trust firms. These trust companies sell investment products to qualified investors and the funds are used to invest in a wide range of financial assets, plus they are used to lend to property developers and their project companies and to local government financing vehicles who in turn lend to property companies. 

Politically, experts suggest that China’s leaders will look to thaw relations with the United States and Europe, if only for economic purposes. Indeed, President Xi Jinping met with President Joe Biden in San Francisco back in November 2023 and recently met with EU Commission officials in Beijing in an effort to keep the European Union close for trade purposes and to get access to technology. However, any perceived thaw will be down to economic expediency and nothing more. In fact, for the first time President Xi Jinping announced in his New Year speech that the economy is facing troubles in such areas as employment, with many finding it difficult to fund basic needs and enterprises having a tough time. He went on to say that we will consolidate and strengthen the momentum of economic recovery. 

Outside influences may have a direct impact on the Chinese economy in 2024. President Xi’s desire to control or unify Taiwan could put China in direct conflict with the United States. The looming presidential election in Taiwan has three candidates, the Beijing sceptic William Lei (Democratic Progressive Party), the Beijing friendly Hou You-Yi (Kuomintang)  and the third candidate Ko Wen-je who will follow the outgoing president’s approach. Beijing will look at this election as a litmus test for a non-violent unification. The possibility of a second Donald Trump term could end up being a real wild card for China/ United States relations, and could well impact some of China’s geopolitical goals. The preferred candidate for China, according to experts, would be anyone showing weakness towards NATO, Ukraine and Taiwan.

The rhetoric coming out of Beijing is setting the tone for 2024 with their ambition for progress, development and global cooperation (with the United States? We will have to wait and see) focusing on growth, sustainability and innovation, paying particular attention to the property sector. The policymakers are looking to promote long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong as a vibrant financial sector, as this is also essential in the rehabilitation of China’s economy. However, the property sector could really make or break China’s economy in 2024. There are many failed real estate projects in China and the crisis has also enveloped the once untouchable real estate developer Country Garden, considered by many to be a safe investment. The real worry for Beijing is a dip in housing prices, as roughly 70% of all Chinese household assets are invested in property. The government has continually fiddled with economic data, which they will have to stop in order to get more outside investment, but whilst official figures show housing prices remaining static, it is estimated that house prices have fallen by 15% in many cities and by circa 30% in Beijing.

If indeed the authorities start releasing proper economic data, and can show a credible effort at solving the property sector crisis, then according to many experts FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) will pick up as will the economy. There are many doom mongers who are saying it will be the same old China, all talk and dodgy economic data, but if those who predict a rise in the stock markets are to be believed, in 2024 China will not only talk the talk but walk the walk as well. 

 2023 Closes with Global Equities Charting Big Gains

As the financial curtain came down, marking the end of 2023, a heart-stopping rally in the last two months of the year showed global stock markets with strong annual gains due to investors betting on the fact that major central banks have finally stopped their monetary tightening policies and will indeed cut interest rates 2024. The MSCI World Index* has, since late October 2023, surged by 16%, and, with a flurry of late trading on the 29th of December, showed an annual gain of 22% . This was reflected in recent data showing that in western economies inflation is falling faster than expected, which, as mentioned above, dramatically changed the perception of interest rate changes. Indeed, Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, fanned the flames of an equity rally in December by announcing that borrowing cost may have peaked.

*MSCI World Index – This is a stock index maintained by Morgan Stanley International (MSCI) and is designed to track broad global equity-market performance. This index is composed of stocks belonging to circa 3.000 companies from 23 developed countries and 25 emerging markets. 

The rise in global equities as reflected in the MSCI World Index is the best run on an annual basis since 2019, when a similar run reflected a 25% gain. The S&P 500 finished the year up by circa 24% which was mainly due to a massive rally in megacap tech stocks.  European markets, after a lacklustre 2022, posted positive gains in 2023 with Italy’s FTSE MIB charting gains of circa 30% and Germany’s DAX coming in with an impressive 20% increase. The overall increase for European equities was reflected on the STOXX 600* charting a gain of 12.6%. Elsewhere all three indexes in Japan posted hefty gains in 2023 with the Nikkei Stock average finishing the year up 28%, this being the best rally since 2013 which reflected a rise of 57%. 

*STOXX 600  Index – This index tracks 600 of the largest stock exchange listed companies from 17 countries in Europe. The countries represented are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The big omission from the global rally in stock markets is China, where the world’s second largest economy has suffered from problems in their property sector. As a result, the expected recovery has faltered. Indeed, China’s CSI 300, which measures the largest companies listed in Shenzhen and Shanghai, fell by 11.38%. Their flagship financial centre, Hong Kong, has suffered over the years and in 2023 stocks were particularly hard hit, with experts advising the Hang Seng index is the worst performer of 2023. 

Sadly, in the United Kingdom the FTSE lagged behind their counterparts in the United States and Europe by posting a gain of 4% in 2023. Experts suggest that this is down to a stubborn inflation rate, energy companies that are oil-price exposed, and a preponderance of mining companies that are overexposed to and rely on a slowing Chinese economy.

Many expert strategists seem to be sitting on the fence when calling the outlook for 2024. This year will determine the fate of the political leadership for half the global economy, the final battle against inflation and the fate of the current business cycle. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has issued figures for world growth in 2024 as 2.9% with investors being excited as the IMF issued growth figures for the Asia Pacific region as 4.2%. Specifically in Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan, analysts suggest these countries could outperform in 2024 due to the potential upswing in global tech, as they have a high concentration of manufacturing and R&D facilities. All in all many experts are suggesting a wait and see policy, as we see how the US/China relationship unfolds, the on-going ramifications of the Russia/Ukraine war, where interest rates stand in June this year, and whether or not the USA economy enjoys a soft landing.

 Final Call for Interest Rates Going into the New Year

On Thursday 14th December 2023 at the final MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) of the year, after a vote of six to three, the Bank of England maintained the status quo and left interest rates unchanged holding steady at a 15 year high of 5.25%. However, the rhetoric remains unchanged as the Governor Mr Andrew Bailey advised “There is still a long way to go in the fight to control inflation”. 

The governor further acknowledged that despite financial markets expectations, he pushed back against an expected rate cut in May 2024, as the MPC warned they may tighten monetary policy if price pressures persist. The MPC were quick to point out that the two key indicators of price pressure which are service and pay inflation remain elevated, and the United Kingdom remains the only major economy where food price increases remain in double digits, with the UK’s inflation figure of 4.7% being the highest of the G7 countries.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States, on Wednesday 13th December 2023 the Federal reserve once again left interest rates unchanged. However, the Chairman Jerome Powell confirmed that the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) is still prepared to resume monetary tightening policies and increase interest rates should price pressures return. 

At the same time, in a more dovish stance,  the Federal Reserve leaned towards reversing their interest rate hike policies, by issuing forecasts that showed a number of rate cuts would be likely in 2024. However market experts pointed out that in November, increases in service-sector costs and in particular housing has kept inflation stubborn enough to counter any Federal Reserve interest rate cuts in the near future.

In Europe, the ECB (European Central Bank), along with their counterparts in the United Kingdom and the United States, kept interest rates on hold for the second meeting in succession. The deposit rate remains at a record high of 4%, even though inflation is heading south. The ECB confirmed that keeping interest rates high will make a substantial contribution to returning consumer price growth to the goal of 2% and they further advised that they will increase the speed of its exit from the pandemic era of stimulus which cost them Euros1.7 Trillion. 

The ECB will also increase the speed at which they are ending reinvestments under PEPP bond buying programme*, putting monetary policy tools into a tightening mode. Financial markets are expecting an interest rate cut in March 2024 despite Christine Lagardem, the ECB’s governors’, comments that policy rates will remain at sufficiently restrictive levels for as long as necessary. Markets noted with interest the wording “inflation is expected to remain high for too long” had disappeared from central bank rhetoric and was replaced with “inflation will gradually decline over the course of the next year”.

*PEPP Bond-Buying Programme – Otherwise known as the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme was an ECB instigated response to the Covid-19 crisis. Initiated on the 20th March 2020, it is a temporary asset purchase programme of public and private sector securities. These purchases cover sovereign debt, covered bonds (an investment debt comprising of loans that are backed by a separate group of assets), asset-backed securities and commercial paper. 

Elsewhere and outside of the major central banks, Norway increased interest rates for what is expected to be the final time with Russia also raising their cost of borrowing. Meanwhile, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Switzerland and Taiwan all maintained the status quo by keeping interest rates unchanged whilst Brazil, Peru and Ukraine all cut their borrowing rates. 

At the end of 2023, whilst the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the ECB all kept interest rates unchanged, it appears that the Bank of England will have a different policy to the other two central banks going forward in 2024. Whilst the ECB remains hawkish with an exit from the pandemic stimulus, there is still an anticipation of an interest rate cut in March of next year. The Federal Reserve has been more forthcoming issuing forecasts of interest rate cuts in 2024, with the most hawkish of them all being the Bank of England who are sticking by their statement that interest rates will remain high for as long as deemed necessary. However, recent data showing the UK GDP results being worse than expected may push the Bank of England into reassessing their monetary policy for 2024 forcing them into a small interest rate cut.