Global Investing

from MacroScope:

Rip-off Britain or the cost of cheaper sterling?

Inflation is plunging faster than analysts are forecasting just about everywhere in the developed world. Except for Britain. Those accustomed to high prices and inflation-busting increases in tube and rail fares at the start of every year were probably not surprised.

A tiny decrease in January inflation to 3.0 percent from 3.1 percent, left plenty of City analysts scratching their heads and talking of a blip in the data that is sure to be followed by significant drops in months ahead.

The puny move is all the more puzzling given the fact that forecasters have been suprised by the speed inflation has been falling elsewhere. In the euro zone, inflation has already tumbled to just 1.1 percent.

Until you consider the huge drop in sterling. The pound has collapsed over the past several months -- so much so that droves of continental Europeans rushed to London over the Christmas sales for bargains when sterling fell so far it was nearly on par with the euro. But it takes time for exporters to adjust their prices. Recent data show sharp rises in the cost of non-oil imports, which make up about half of retail goods in the UK.

Visitors to Britain often grumble about bad weather and high prices. For Britons, whose currency is now worth a lot less than it used to be, the weather is still bad and prices are still high. 

And the next Iceland is…

If there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s the next Iceland.

Since its currency, colossally indebted banking sector and economy collapsed in spectacular fashion in October, the country has become a byword for an economy that has truly hit the rocks.

Within weeks, banking problems and currency falls meant Hungary was being hyped as a “second Iceland”, at least until a joint International Monetary Fund and European Union rescue package restored some stability.

To spend, or not to spend?

A day after Britain unveiled a multi-billion-pound fiscal stimulus package to spend its way out of recession, market analysts have been busy figuring out what it all means, in the context of a sharply slowing economy.

Nick Parsons, head of market strategy at nabCapital, has come to this conclusion:

“People need to spend less, not more, and though little Johnny’s Xbox is indeed 4 quid cheaper, his Dad’s house is worth £3.97 less every hour,”he wrote in his daily note.

Banks: what price freedom?

What price freedom? Or at least freedom from government interference?

Barclays needs to answer that question after selling big stakes to Middle East investors rather than tap taxpayer funds. The bank is effectively paying 13 percent annual interest for at least a decade, whereas it could have paid the UK Treasury 12 percent for a few years. Add in a whopping 300 million pounds in fees and the deal could cost shareholders as much as 3.2 billion pounds extra, Merrill Lynch reckons.

 

Barclays shares have lost almost 20 percent in two days and many investors aren’t happy about the cost and the bank riding roughshod over shareholders.

 

But it looks like a price worth paying. Sure, it’s more than Barclays had expected to pay, but sovereign wealth funds are in the box seat. All banks want SWF money so the investors can get good long-term deals. “Long-term” works both ways as well, and the deal should leave Barclays with a commercial advantage over rivals. Not constrained by government it can poach top staff, pick-up asset bargains and lend how and where it wants. Shareholders should start getting dividends by Q3 2009, long before semi-nationalised rivals.

Rug pulled away on UK bank funding

rtx6jie.jpg Britain’s banks may have borrowed over 200 billion pounds from the Bank of England, four times the amount they were expected to take under an emergency liquidity scheme. It leaves them facing a sharp funding strain next month when the rug gets pulled away.

Alastair Ryan, analyst at UBS, reckons banks have taken over 200 billion pounds under the BoE’s Special Liquidity Scheme since it was offered in April. They had been expected to borrow about 50 billion pounds, although estimates were lifted to near 100 billion as wholesale markets stayed closed. The scheme allows banks to exchange hard-to-trade mortgage assets for government bills.

The problem is the BoE isn’t planning to extend the funding beyond a Oct. 20 deadline . If the borrowing from UK banks has been as high as Ryan estimates, it will have eased a short-term problem but shows how much the liquidity is needed. It also leaves even more medium and long-term funding that the banks will need to replace at some point.

EDF fails to push Britain’s nuclear button

british-energys-heysham-nuclear-power-station.jpgA dramatic last-minute hitch to plans for France’s EDF to buy British Energy leaves managements, shareholders and especially the British government in a quandary.

It was a 12 billion pounds ($24 billion) deal that was supposed to relaunch Britain’s nuclear energy programme. Everyone had been told to expect it. In fact, the collapse of talks came too late for French newspapers, several of which had been briefed on the deal and splashed it prominently on their front pages on Friday.

In end, however, big insitutional investors persuaded British Energy to reject EDF’s offer as low-ball, despite the best endeavours of the British government, with a 35-percent stake.