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The Brexit saga has taken so many twists and turns since the 2016 referendum that you could be forgiven for tuning out entirely. Doubtless, many of us have. But this week’s developments were extraordinary enough to make anyone sit up.
On Tuesday, Theresa May’s government suffered the biggest defeat that any government has endured since the nineteenth century. The Withdrawal Bill, which set out Mrs May’s deal with the European Union, was defeated by 432 votes to 230. But on Wednesday, the government comfortably defeated a no-confidence motion that would have resulted in a general election. The government’s deal can’t get through Parliament, but Parliament has just endorsed the government.
Back on the see-saw
So what does all this mean? Well, the financial markets reacted in various ways, as well they might. In the currency markets, the pound hit a two-month high against the euro. This occurred as investors decided that a softer Brexit or even a second referendum was now more likely. Cross-party talks on a compromise deal have begun, although the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has refused to take part unless Mrs May rules out a no-deal departure.
The stock market fared less well, however. By Thursday’s close, the FTSE 100 was down 1.2%. Sterling’s renewed strength was a factor in this, as many FTSE 100 companies earn the bulk of their earnings abroad and so benefit from a weaker pound. European shares performed better; the FTSE World Europe ex UK index gained 0.5%.
from a (trade) war zone
Although most global markets performed well, news from China caused both alarm and reassurance. On Wednesday, the People’s Bank of China injected US$83 billion into the domestic banking system. The measure is designed to encourage bank lending and thus boost a slowing economy. The official gross domestic product figures for the fourth quarter are due on Monday, and expectations are that they will have fallen to the lowest level since the global financial crisis.
Trade figures had already struck a worrying note. Chinese exports were reported to have decreased by 4.4% over the year to December, and imports were down by 7.6%. Both figures were well below expectations. The trade war with the US appears to be having a real impact. After this week’s stimulus announcement, expectations are that further measures will follow.
China’s domestic investors appear to be more excited by the prospect of stimulus than alarmed by the signs of a slowdown. The Shanghai–Shenzhen CSI 300 was up 0.5% by Thursday’s close.
Shutdown shut out as investors back banks
In the US, meanwhile, there was no sign of an end to the government shutdown. President Trump signed a bill to ensure that federal workers are compensated for lost wages – although this will not be implemented until the shutdown is resolved.
Investors in US companies, however, were in optimistic mood. Robust earnings reports from Goldman Sachs and Bank of America helped to send the S&P 500 to its highest level for a month, with the index up 1.5% by Thursday’s close. Financials were by far the strongest sector over the week.
Although it lagged well behind financials, the technology sector showed some renewed signs of life. Shares in Netflix surged by 7% on Tuesday after the company announced that it would increase its subscription fees. A lacklustre fourth-quarter earnings report took some of the shine off this, but the stock and its sector were still comfortably up for the week.
And finally …
Who says romance is dead?
It must have seemed that way, though, for Romeo, a Sehueneca water frog who has been living alone in a Bolivian aquarium for the past 10 years. Poor Romeo was believed to be the last of his kind, and his species looked destined to die when he did.
But thanks to a discovery deep in Bolivia’s cloud forests, his less-than-splendid isolation is at an end. Intrepid herpetologists from Global Wildlife Conservation and the Alcide d’Orbigny Natural History Museum came across five Sehueneca frogs. One of these has been selected as a potential mate for Romeo and – inevitably – dubbed Juliet.
But in contrast to Juliet’s ebullient personality, Romeo is, apparently, somewhat shy. Whether the forlorn frog will at long last become an amorous amphibian remains to be seen. We’re keeping our webbed fingers crossed …