Budget reflections

As this month’s budget fades into memory, its various measures and implications are perhaps more prescient than some recognise. It was delivered against a difficult backdrop and stands at an important juncture regarding how policy makers globally are reacting to economic events and at a point when the health of the UK stock market is being questioned. Meanwhile, perhaps in part reflecting this uncertainty, some investment trust discounts are presenting good opportunities for long-term investors.

The UK stock market

Despite the difficult financial backdrop, the Budget contained many good measures such as extending the fuel duty freeze, the Energy Price Guarantee and finally expanding free childcare. However, the hard work lies ahead. The fastest economic growth among the G7 since 2010, strong inward investment and an unemployment rate nearly half the EU average needs to translate into higher living standards. While various other challenges, if not addressed adequately, will continue to restrain the long-term potential of the economy.

The Chancellor rightly included financial services among his five key growth areas. The City of London generates more than 10% of the UK’s GDP. Yet it is under threat and there is concern the ‘Edinburgh Reforms’ do not go far enough to address the problem. The stock market is only part of the Square Mile. But it acts as a ‘gateway’ for other financial services such as trading, derivatives, legal services and insurance. Many symbiotic relationships are not always clear to the eye. A healthy stock market is essential for the good of the whole.

Yet it is ailing. Recent news has included the computer-chip designer ARM and the building-materials giant CRH shunning the City to list in the US. These companies are worth £80bn in total. The exodus across the Atlantic is the latest threat to the stock market. The total market value of London-listed equities has fallen by a third since its peak in 2007, whereas the US market has more than doubled. If there is any doubt, the Government should ask itself why so many of our promising Green and technology growth companies were banking with SVB.

A key part of the problem has been the reaction of the regulators and Government to the financial crisis of 2008, which encouraged a more risk-averse approach to investment by our pension funds among others. This response was not replicated by every G7 country. These funds are the big beasts among our institutional investors and have traditionally been strong advocates of equity investment, and especially UK equities. Yet their equity weightings have reduced significantly since the crisis, some estimates suggesting by 90%.

The Government needs to think outside the box. The tax penalties associated with equity financing should be ended, tax incentives to encourage longer-term investment to help foster investment in our growth companies should be considered, many of the recommendations of the two-year old Hill Review should be adopted. Policy makers and pension funds should better recognize a low-risk approach will beget lower returns over time, besides causing problems when not achieving adequate diversification.

Investment and productivity

This issue is of course linked to that of investment and productivity. The stock market is not the economy, but investors require growth which in turn requires investment. Certainly, inward investment has far exceeded the sceptics’ expectations following Brexit. However, there is no room for complacency. There is a real risk of the UK being squeezed between the US and the EU given the scale of their attempts to encourage investment and onshoring by way of investment tax incentives and subsidies.

To better encourage energy security and the energy transition while safeguarding key technologies, the US is committing over £300bn by way of its Inflation Reduction Act while the EU is not far behind via its Green Deal Industrial Plan. These are large sums. The Budget’s response was to increase the Annual Investment Allowance to £1m for smaller businesses, while allowing all investments in IT equipment, plant and machinery to be deducted (in full) from taxable profits for the next three years.

The Chancellor’s response is encouraging but a close eye will need to be kept on whether it is enough to compensate for the measures introduced elsewhere. The spending of upwards of £150bn on HS2 to save perhaps 30 minutes when travelling to Manchester reminds us such matters are usually a question of priorities. At the moment there are many companies looking to relocate elements of their manufacturing process and technology to the US in particular.

For those who don’t believe that such incentives and subsidies can influence outcomes should look at renewable energy. In 2010 less than 10% of our electricity came from renewable sources. Helped by the introduction of Government subsidies, this figure today exceeds 55% and continues to rise. We are world leaders in many areas across the Green technology spectrum and need to ensure this is retained. The extension of the three-year tax break should be considered in good time so businesses can plan.

Regulation and taxes

Another issue that needs to better addressed if the potential of the UK economy is to be better realized is that of burdensome regulation. This is especially the case for smaller companies which are the lifeblood of our economy, where most of the entrepreneurial talent resides, and which certainly employs most people in the private sector. UK financial services is a case in point, given small firms are having to labour under a costly regulatory burden.

For example, 50 regulatory submissions to the regulator in a year is not unusual. The burden is not proportionate to their size or complexity. The Government should consider a greater focus on a Small Firms Regime which would oversee a simplified set of regulatory requirements and provide guidance. Instead, we have a regulatory framework which is applied to all companies, irrespective of size. This disadvantages smaller companies despite their greater enterprise.

Meanwhile, the OBR has confirmed that that we have the highest tax burden since WW2. The evidence shows that lower taxes foster greater prosperity over time – as the Laffer curve helps to illustrate. Despite economic growth and low unemployment, high taxes act as a constraint on living standards. The Government needs to lower both personal and corporate taxes as soon as the public finances allow. The best way of helping the vulnerable in society is by creating more prosperity, not more dependents on state aid.

Away from high-profile taxes, there are irregularities elsewhere which do not encourage the flow of capital to where it is best utilized. Investment trusts are ideal vehicles for long-term investment because their close-ended structure means their price is traded instead of their assets (unlike unit trusts). They have accordingly raised £100bns for sectors which governments wish to support – renewable energy, infrastructure, social housing, etc. Yet the Government insists on charging investors Stamp Duty on purchases (unlike unit trusts).

Policy makers’ mismanagement

Regular readers are aware of my caution regarding policy makers’ grasp of matters. Interest rates remained too low for too long. This ‘free money’ environment has distorted asset prices, created too many ‘zombie’ companies and exacerbated the debt problem. Belatedly, QE has morphed into QT but the road to ‘sound money’ was never going to be easy. A need for liquidity has quickly emerged. The Fed discount window saw a record $150bn borrowed in the week to 15 March – well ahead of the c.$110bn during the financial crisis in 2008.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of policy makers is their woeful record on inflation. Despite money supply figures going through the roof and clear evidence of pockets of inflation in the economy, we were initially told inflation was not an issue. When it became evident it was, we were told it would be transitory. As this has become evidently wrong, we have now been told that it will fall away to more normal levels by the year-end. Previous columns have explained why inflation is set to remain higher and more volatile than policy makers forecast.

We now have a scenario whereby despite four bank failures and the rescue of Credit Suisse, OBR inflation forecasts of 2.9% by year-end and wage growth falling faster than thought, the Bank of England has raised interest rates again, this time to 4.25% – despite rate rises usually taking up to nine months before impacting. Galbraith’s quip that the only benefit of forecasting is to make astrologers look respectable is either valid, or policy makers know something we do not – yet. The latest monthly increase in inflation will certainly focus minds.

Market implications

An injection of liquidity could help markets over the short-term, with those markets looking undervalued relative to others perhaps benefitting most. The UK market stands ready. Rising interest rates will continue to increase strain on highly indebted companies, so ensuring borrowing costs can withstand the pressure will be important. This is perhaps particularly true for commercial property REITs. But perhaps the biggest implication is for those companies most impacted by inflation, of which the renewable energy and infrastructure companies are preeminent – courtesy of changes in discount rates, power price forecasts and inflation-linked revenues. In part because the consensus is expecting inflation to fall dramatically and to stay low, many of these companies now stand on historically wide discounts. The expectation being that lower inflation will ultimately necessitate a downwards revision in forecast earnings. And therein now appears the opportunity for long-term investors.

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