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This week, the US market put the Halloween horrors behind it. By Thursday’s close, the S&P 500 had gained 3.1%, and October’s steep slump seemed a thing of the past. The surge came as investors digested the results of the US mid-term elections. These proceeded largely as pollsters predicted, with the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and the Republicans strengthening their position in the Senate.
Investors may have been heartened by some ameliorative noises from the White House. President Trump indicated that he was willing to work with a Democratic House. “From a deal-making standpoint, we are all much better off the way it turned out”, he said.
Sessions over – but gridlock is good
The mid-terms were swiftly followed by some political fireworks within the administration. Shortly after the results were in, President Trump fired his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. This was widely seen as a step towards derailing Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the president’s campaign team and Russia.
This Machiavellian manoeuvring had little impact on investors’ spirits. Instead, they were content to contemplate a balance of power in Congress that could curb the sort of policy extremes that cause disquiet in markets. “Gridlock is good” appeared to be the prevailing sentiment.
Other global markets shared some of Wall Street’s exuberance. The FTSE World Europe ex UK index was up 0.6% at Thursday’s close. European shares were helped by some strong results from banks, including Germany’s Commerzbank, France’s Société Générale and Italy’s Banco BPM. Good third-quarter numbers also boosted shares in French catering company Sodexo and German brick-maker Wienerberger.
In the UK, the FTSE 100 had a bumpier ride but still ended the week in the black. Although shares fell sharply on Tuesday, they rallied on Wednesday as the improvement in US sentiment proved infectious. This left the index up 0.7% at Thursday’s close.
Besides piggy-backing on the effects of the US mid-terms, UK investors were cheered by some solid corporate results. Among these were those of J Sainsbury, which announced a 20% rise in pre-tax profits from the previous year, along with a 3.5% rise in sales. This helped to offset concerns about Sainsbury’s supermarket peer Wm Morrison, which disappointed investors by reporting a slowdown in sales from the two preceding quarters. Its shares slumped after the announcement.
Persimmon boss fired
One FTSE 100 constituent to have a particularly newsworthy week was Persimmon. Shares in the housebuilder have performed very well in recent years, thanks in large part to the UK government’s Help to Buy scheme. But because the company’s long-term incentive plan was uncapped, this resulted in eye-watering bonus awards to senior executives, with the CEO, Jeff Fairburn, initially due to receive more than £100 million. The subsequent outcry – and substantial shareholder revolt – has now led to Mr Fairburn’s exit: a push by the company’s board rather than a jump. He will still leave with a cool £75 million in bonus payments. Persimmon’s share price had been languishing earlier in the week, but bounced back into the black on the news of Mr Fairburn’s departure.
China still chilly
Along with the upturn in the stock markets of the developed world, there was some respite for emerging markets. In aggregate, emerging-market shares hit their highest level in over a month, on hopes that the rebalancing of power in the US will constrain the strength of the dollar.
One notable exception was China, where shares prolonged their 2018 plunge. The Shanghai 180 was down more than 2% by Thursday’s close. There was some relief at the end of the week, however, as October’s export and import data came in ahead of expectations.
And finally …
What goes around comes around – even if it’s cigar-shaped. Last year, we brought you news of Oumuamua, the elongated interstellar object that was puzzling astronomers. Well, Oumuamua – “messenger from the distant past” in Hawaiian – has hit the headlines again.
This week, scientists from the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics published a paper postulating that Oumuamua, also known as 1I/2017 U1, might be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization”. The authors of the paper contend that the long, lean lump might act as sort of solar sail, harnessing energy from stars to power its progress. Other scientists have suggested that the object might be debris from a larger spaceship.
Not everyone is convinced, however. According to astrophysicist Katie Mack, “The thing you have to understand is: scientists are perfectly happy to publish an outlandish idea if it has even the tiniest sliver of a chance of not being wrong”.
Whatever Oumuamua actually is, it appears to be heading out of our solar system for now. Perhaps we should recall the immortal words of Calvin (of Hobbes fame): “the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us”.
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