WeeklyWatch – The social-distancing debate intensifies

23 June 2020

Stock Take

Social distancing isn’t a new concept. Fifth-century Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder could certainly teach us a few things – he lived out his last 37 years in a home built on a wicker platform at the top of a 15-metre-high Syrian pillar!

Today’s social distancing measures are less ambitious, but nonetheless remained the subject of fierce debate last week, following complaints by UK shopkeepers and restaurateurs about the two-metre rule. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is now considering the economic impact of reducing the distance, which is larger than most (the US minimum is set at 1.8 metres; Germany, Austria and Italy’s at 1.5 metres; China, France, Singapore and Denmark’s at just one).

Shop, stop…shop?

The complaints are perhaps no surprise when we see the egregious financial impact of social distancing on high-volume outlets like Primark and TK Maxx (UK investors, take note!).

Indeed, shops with outdoor space and click-and-collect capabilities have been able to weather the COVID storm more easily. Philip Gadsden of Orchard Street, Manager of the St. James’s Place Property fund, commented:

“Food and convenience-style retailers located within the kind of retail park environments that are typically owned by St. James’s Place funds benefit from plenty of external space to accommodate social distancing and free car parking which makes it easy for consumers to visit to shop for essentials and perhaps ‘collect having clicked’. Evidence suggests that consumers often buy more goods when they visit a shop to collect goods ordered online, making a win-win for the retailer because no home delivery cost needs to be funded, and they sell a bit more from the physical store during each collecting visit.”

The ‘new normal’ for retail

The changes seen as we move into the ‘new normal’ show that COVID-19 has encouraged broader retail trends such as greener models and online shopping, giving some retail majors the potential to benefit. Luke Chappell, Head of UK Equity at BlackRock and manager of the St. James’s Place UK & General Progressive fund, said:

“The high street will continue to be impacted by COVID-19, but Next will be a winner in the process. I’ve met with [CEO] Simon Wolfson around 50 times in the 20 years I’ve held the stock, and the management team has been very thoughtful [in] repositioning the business away from reliance on the high street towards online, which is about two-thirds of the profits – or more like 100% this year.”

On the flip side, this may bring not just a reduction in floor-space but in employee numbers, too. Data last week showed that 612,000 UK employees lost their jobs between March and May, the sharpest quarterly increase since 2001. The Bank of England stepped in with a promise of support last week, saying it will raise its bond-buying plans by £100 billion, taking its total stock of asset purchases to £745 billion. UK public debt, meanwhile, last week struck 100% of GDP (see ‘In The Picture’).

In Frankfurt, the ECB’s balance sheet is approaching €6 trillion, with 742 European banks applying to borrow €1.3 trillion under its principal refinancing scheme – little surprise, with some rates as low as -1%! On Friday, the ECB said the eurozone economy would contract around 13% in the second quarter, but the disagreement with Germany over bond refinancing continued. Both the FTSE 100 and EURO STOXX 50 rose over the week. Notably, as of this year, Shell is no longer the biggest or even second-biggest listed European company. Those accolades now go to Unilever and AstraZeneca; the latter, a healthcare major, employs 46% of its staff in Europe.

BlackRock’s Chappell commented:

“There are times when the UK market misses some of the big NASDAQ technology names like Zoom. It’s striking that just about the largest company by market cap today is AstraZeneca, and it is still growing its top line with double-digit growth. We may not have the US West Coast companies, but, if you look hard enough, we still have some great companies in the UK.”

A record quarter for S&P 500

In US markets, animal spirits have returned – the S&P 500 had another positive week, putting the index on track for its best quarter in 20 years. Economic data certainly helped: the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (which measures the disparity between indicators and expectations) struck a new high; US retail sales saw their sharpest month-on-month improvement (17.7%); and industrial production, and US consumer, investment and jobs sentiment all rose. Fed largesse helps too – Morgan Stanley forecast that the Fed’s balance sheet will exceed $10 trillion by the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, the US President and Joe Biden, the Democrat nominee, each began their campaigns, but in very distinct modes. The (mask-less) President, always in his element on the campaign trail, spoke to an auditorium of supporters in Tulsa, Florida. Joe Biden, meanwhile, wore a mask and ensured that everyone present kept their social distance. No pillars, but Saint Simeon Stylites would no doubt have approved!

Tighter controls in Beijing

Many analysts highlight the performance of China (albeit after a hesitant start) and of Japan among the countries to have successfully quelled the virus. The economic indicators in China are encouraging: coal consumption and services sector data suggest GDP growth is healthy, while unemployment has started to fall. Global companies with exposure to China are outperforming on markets, and Chinese stocks are now positive for the year. Both the CSI 300 and Japan’s TOPIX rose last week.

In Japan, numbers on the Tokyo underground are now recovering, but the Economy Minister warned last week that they aren’t yet encouraging people to travel a lot. The Bank of Japan, meanwhile, has had a relatively quiet lockdown in terms of the scale of its support.

Capital Economics said:

“Recent activity, spending and labour market data [mean]…we are revising up our growth forecasts for the next few quarters because the economy is starting from a stronger position. We now expect the level of output to return to its pre-virus trend around the end of this year rather than the middle of 2021.”

But the fresh virus outbreak in Beijing has unnerved the administration and led to tighter controls in the capital. Moreover, politics across Asia is increasingly fraught. Last week, North Korea blew up the South’s de facto ‘embassy’ and demonstrators in India burnt Chinese flags over Kashmir.

Wealth Check

The COVID-19 pandemic has put our health and well-being firmly in the spotlight – whether it’s fear over contracting the virus, debates over the two-metre rule, or the use of facemasks and fitness programmes to reduce the risk. However, in spite of the increased awareness about the need for protection, the pandemic has also highlighted some stark differences in attitudes between the sexes.

Research by Ipsos MORI indicates that women are much more concerned about the virus¹, while World Health Organisation figures show higher death rates and ICU admission rates among men than women.² These findings tally with research on women conducted by Zurich before the pandemic. When asked about their views on protection, respondents tended to emphasise the importance of ‘peace of mind’, especially when it came to protecting children and other loved ones.

Yet, despite these heightened concerns about health, women still lag behind men when it comes to taking out protection. Research by LifeSearch with 2004 adults in 2019 found that 6% of women have income protection, compared to 10% of men. When it comes to critical illness insurance, 10% of women and 13% of men have cover. The sexes are more evenly matched when it comes to life insurance (30% of women have cover, against 31% of men), but women are taking out much lower levels of cover.

On life insurance, the average amount taken out by women is 53% lower than for men, while, on critical illness insurance, it’s a whopping 90% lower.³ As women increasingly take on the role of the main breadwinner, these figures underline a growing urgency for them to achieve the peace of mind and reassurance that adequate protection brings.

Don’t overlook it – no matter your relationship and work circumstances, protection and insurance are essential in safeguarding the transfer of your wealth, and more importantly, to protect your loved ones in the future.

¹ Ipsos MORI survey of 1,000 British adults aged 16-74 conducted between 11-14 June 2020
² World Health Organisation, 7 June 2020
³ Zurich, June 2020

In the picture

Extreme times bring extreme measures…and extreme outcomes. UK debt now exceeds 100% of GDP, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The Last Word

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

– The best-known lines of Dame Vera Lynn, who died last week, aged 103. Known as ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’, Lynn’s recordings shaped the national mood in wartime Britain. The song ‘We Will Meet Again’ gained new poignancy during this year’s VE Day 75th anniversary celebrations, as the nation faced the war on coronavirus.

The information contained is correct as at the date of the article.

BlackRock and Orchard Street are fund managers for St. James’s Place.

The information contained does not constitute investment advice and is not intended to state, indicate or imply that current or past results are indicative of future results or expectations. Where the opinions of third parties are offered, these may not necessarily reflect those of St. James’s Place or Wellesley Wealth Advisory.

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