Week in review: pigs in muck

Pigs in muck

China’s Year of the Pig arrived this week – a year symbolising good fortune, wealth and prosperity – all of which have abounded in the first few weeks of the Gregorian calendar year. Investors were certainly glad to say farewell to the year of the dog. Although equities in the UK and Japan remained high on the hog, indices elsewhere succumbed to a styful of familiar economic and political woes.

In the US, President Trump’s State of the Union address did little to heal the divide that caused last month’s prolonged government shutdown. Although the president appealed for unity, he condemned “ridiculous partisan investigations” and renewed his call for a Mexican border wall. He also pledged to send 3,750 additional US troops to the border. The president announced a new summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam toward the end of this month. Investors showed little reaction to the address but instead focused on corporate earnings. These were mixed, and the S&P 500 was fractionally down by Thursday’s close.

Disney brings home the bacon

Among the most eye-catching results were those from Walt Disney, which exceeded expectations by a substantial margin. Investors were particularly excited by the inclusion of a new results line for “direct to consumer and international”. This heralds the company’s forthcoming streaming service, which will be launched later this year to challenge the likes of Netflix. Although the shares rose sharply on the announcement, a Thursday sell-off erased the gains.

More concerning were quarterly results came from Alphabet, the owner of Google. Although the company beat analysts’ expectations in its revenues and earnings per share, investors were discomfited by the scale of its capital expenditure in 2018 – some US$25 billion. Alphabet’s share price slid in response.

Tusks bared

With the Article 50 deadline drawing ever closer, there was no end in sight to the Brexit deadlock. Nor was rhetoric toned down as UK prime minister Theresa May sought to sweeten her deal through negotiations with European Union officials. According to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Commission, there is a “special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely".

Although Mr Tusk emphasised that the Withdrawal Agreement was not up for negotiation, this didn’t seem to alarm investors in the UK. The FTSE 100 was up 1.0% by Thursday’s close. Despite mood music being pessimistic in Brussels and Dublin, it is interesting to note that sterling barely budged – a hard Brexit is certainly not reflected in this price. Banks, however, have been preparing for the worst. This week, UBS was cleared to move €36.5 billion of its assets from the UK to Germany in response to the “external shock of Brexit”. Barclays has already received similar dispensation to move business to Dublin.

Bristling like boars

Some might say that the UK has made a pig’s breakfast of Brexit. But even putting that aside, we’re hardly living through a golden age of European diplomacy. This week, relations between France and Italy took a sharp turn for the worse. The spat came after Luigi di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the leader of the Five Star Movement, met gilets jaunes protesters in France. The meeting followed the French parliament’s passing of a law to curb the protests and caused a furious reaction from Emmanuel Macron’s government. France recalled its ambassador from Rome, saying that hostile remarks from Italy’s leaders were “without precedent since world war two”.

European investors were unimpressed by the quarrel. The FTSE World Europe ex UK index had lost 0.2% by Thursday’s close. Gloomy economic data didn’t help. German factory orders were reported to have fallen by 1.6% in December, contributing to a larger-than-expected annual decline of 7%.

Pigging out

In China, markets were closed this week. While Chinese investors celebrated the Year of the Pig with dumplings and firecrackers, their Japanese counterparts were in a cheerful mood too. Despite continuing worries over the US - China trade war, the Topix made a reasonable start to the Lunar New Year, gaining 0.3%.

And finally …

It’s not only people who’ve been celebrating the Chinese New Year. In Hong Kong, wild boar also appear to be revelling in the occasion. The snouted scavengers are an increasingly common sight in the densely populated territory, drawn by the detritus on its streets. While some welcome the animals as a good omen in the Year of the Pig, others have more concrete concerns – such as the dangers posed by 100-kg animals with razor-sharp tusks.

Nor is this porcine phenomenon confined to Hong Kong. Thanks to the opportunities afforded by infrequent rubbish collection, wild pigs have become a regular feature on the streets of Rome too. Denmark is now building a 42-km fence along its border with Germany to keep wild boar away from its pig farms – an altogether less controversial border barrier than Donald Trump’s wall.

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