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UK Elections: Markets May Be Too Complacent

Macro 5 minutes to read
Charu Chanana 400x400
Charu Chanana

Head of FX Strategy

Key points:

  • The July 4 UK elections is tilting in favor of a likely Labour majority, after a 14-year Conservative rule characterized by Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis.
  • With limited fiscal space, Labour is expected to focus on supply-side reforms and cautious fiscal policies, likely promoting long-term economic growth and stability.
  • Markets remain complacent with policy stability remaining the base case. UK assets have also attracted some safe-haven flows amid the election risks elsewhere in the US and Europe.
  • UK’s stock index FTSE 100 still trades at a significant valuation discount to global stocks, and offers a good dividend yield as well as scope for portfolio diversification.
  • Sterling could weaken if Labour’s victory is not as strong as anticipated, and if the Bank of England tilts more toward policy easing than is currently expected post-election. However, sterling's recent strength may persist on improving fiscal dynamics and political stability despite what promises to be a dramatic change in the composition of the government.

The UK is gearing up for another significant election on 4 July 2024. The political landscape has been shaped by key events such as Brexit and the pandemic, which have left lasting impacts on the nation's priorities. Currently, the political climate is charged with debates over economic policies, healthcare, immigration, and climate change. The main political parties are putting forth their platforms, each aiming to address these critical issues.

Labour maintains a commanding lead of over 20% against the Conservatives. Prime Minister Sunak's Conservative Party has struggled to gain traction, with some of their supporters shifting to Nigel Farage's Reform Party. This shift has allowed Labour to secure a substantial double-digit lead in the polls.

28_FX_UK polls
Source: Bloomberg

Lack of Fiscal Firepower

Drawing parallels to the 1997 election, when Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown emphasized fiscal prudence in the early years, is relevant. More recently, Liz Truss’s short and tumultuous tenure as prime minister highlighted how bond markets can effectively curtail politicians' fiscal ambitions.

The Labour manifesto lacks radical spending plans, suggesting that its leader, Keir Starmer, and his shadow finance minister, Rachel Reeves will likely maintain fiscal conservatism with debt levels running high.

 

What Can Labour Majority Mean for the Economy?

A potential Labour majority in the upcoming election could mark the end of a 14-year Conservative rule characterized by Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis. However, with limited fiscal room to maneuver, immediate changes may be modest even with a Labour majority.

Nevertheless, signs suggest the UK economy is stabilizing following a brief recession last year. Forward-looking indicators such as the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) and consumer confidence are improving, while monthly GDP shows positive trends. Although services inflation remains high, easing goods inflation is lowering headline inflation, possibly prompting the Bank of England to consider cutting interest rates, possibly earlier than the US Federal Reserve.

A stable policy stance under a Labour government would likely sustain this economic trajectory, bolstered by long-term tailwinds. With immediate fiscal options constrained, the focus is expected to shift towards supply-side reforms, potentially supporting the UK economy's recovery from Brexit over the long term. Labour may also aim to reduce some post-Brexit trade barriers, reflecting its stance on improving relations with the EU, though such changes would likely take time to materialize. Additionally, Labour plans to increase investments in green projects.

A more commanding lead for the Labour party could, however, leave room for some bold policy moves. The economy remains in need for more significant tax increases to keep its fiscal position sustainable, but significant tax increases may be avoided in the short-run.

 

UK Equities: Structural Tailwinds

The anticipation of a stable political and policy landscape has kept UK markets resilient amid election uncertainties. Any potential market retreat could present a favorable opportunity to position for the UK economy's ongoing rebound from the challenges of Brexit, Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the instability under Liz Truss's government, which triggered significant outflows from equities and bonds.

The UK markets are also seeing some safe-haven flows amid the election risks elsewhere in the US and Europe. A favourable policy environment, along with the potential for BOE rate cuts, may offer investors an opportunity to reassess UK equities, where valuations are attractive and return prospects look strong.

The following factors could be key for long-term investors:

  • Valuation discount: This has led to MSCI UK trading at a significant discount to MSCI World or other developed markets ex-US as reflected by the MSCI EAFE index.
  • High dividend: UK equities offer the highest dividend yield among all the key markets
  • Sector composition: The index has a balanced mix of defensive and commodity exposures. While oil and gas companies could feel some pain from the Labour’s green transition plan, they still remain a good hedge against geopolitical risks.
  • Low beta: UK equities have a low beta to global equities, suggesting they can enhance portfolio diversification.
  • Domestic focus: The FTSE 250 Index has a more domestic focus compared to the FTSE 100. The FTSE 250 comprises mid-cap companies that are generally more oriented towards the UK economy, making it more reflective of domestic economic conditions. In contrast, the FTSE 100 is made up of larger companies that tend to have significant international exposure.
28_FX_MSCI UK
Source: Bloomberg. Note: Past performance does not guarantee future performance.

GBP: staying strong post-election?

Sterling has strengthened since the spring as the currency sports a relatively higher interest of 5.25%, the economy is stabilizing, and politics are seen quite stable despite the massive shift in relative power of the two main parties expected at this election. Looking forward, the Bank of England seems to lack any urgency in lowering the interest rate, though it is expected to do so gently over the coming months, perhaps to 4.75% by its January policy meeting. However, this sense of complacency might be challenged if Labour's victory isn't as strong as anticipated. Notably, the Reform UK party has been gaining in the polls. A weaker Labour majority could lead to the market that is a bit more concerned about the UK policy environment, which could weaken sterling.

 

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