For stock market investors, 2017 has been a vintage year, thanks to ultra-low interest rates, strong and stable growth in many of the world’s leading economies, record low levels of volatility and, by and large, an absence of shocks.
But 2018 could be a lot trickier, according to Wall Street banking giant Morgan Stanley, which today publishes its forecasts for the coming year.
It predicts that, as 2018 progresses, “a number of factors that have provided the market with its oxygen in recent years will likely reverse” as interest rates start to rise around the world and both economic growth and company profits growth peak.
Morgan Stanley is particularly uncomfortable about the UK stock market.
It warns that “the UK is in the midst of a double whammy of uncertainty in the shape of Brexit and a fragile domestic political situation” and forecasts that the UK economy will grow by just 1.1% in 2018 and by a mere 0.6% in 2019 – predictions even more pessimistic than those released last week by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
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The bank thinks there is a two in three chance of another general election in 2018, in which it predicts both Labour and the Conservatives have a 50:50 chance. In other words, the bank thinks there is a one in three chance of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister next year.
The bank’s European Equity Strategy team told clients today: “From a UK investor perspective, we believe that the domestic political situation is at least as significant as Brexit, given the fragile state of the current government and the perceived risks of an incoming Labour administration that could potentially embark on a radical change in policy direction.
“Against this backdrop, even if we see good progress in the Brexit negotiations, the scope for UK sensitive assets to rally may be muted, unless we also see an improvement in the government’s position in opinion polls.”
Accordingly, it is predicting that the FTSE-100 will finish 2018 at 7,780, up just 5% on current levels.
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Morgan Stanley has also provided a list of the companies and sectors that, it thinks, could have most to lose from a Labour government being elected and has identified three themes.
The first is Labour’s threat to nationalise water and electricity transmission companies, postal services, telecoms and bus and rail companies.
The second is Labour’s pledge to hike corporation tax from the current 19% to 26%, with potentially higher taxes still for companies operating in the financial services sector.
The third is a change in spending priorities to the public sector and away from defence companies and changes to employment laws.
The team adds: “A Labour government could be expected to try to rebalance the economy in favour of labour over capital. Labour have pledged…to make a number of changes to employment legislation, including raising the minimum wage, ending the public sector pay cap and rolling out sectoral collective bargaining.
“If enacted, those policies could increase companies labour expenses over time and those companies with a combination of low margins and a high number of employees could be most affected.”
The bank’s analysis of companies whose shares could be most at risk if a Labour government makes such changes to employment legislation – those whose sales largely are generated in the UK and which have large numbers of employees relative to their sales and which have low profit margins – is headed by Ocado, the online grocer; JD Wetherspoon, the pub operator; Go-Ahead, the bus and train operator and three more retailers – Halfords, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.
Sectorally, the bank regards commercial property companies, retailers (both food and non-food) and transport companies having the most to lose.
Those companies Morgan Stanley’s team regards as relatively safe, on the grounds that they make most of their sales overseas and have high profit margins and low employee numbers relative to their sales, include Tullow Oil, the drug company Indivior, miners BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Fresnillo and Victrex, the polymer manufacturer.
So where should stock market investors nervous about the UK put their money? In a word, Europe, which Morgan Stanley’s experts say has been ‘oversold’ and which is less vulnerable to wobbles in corporate debt markets.