Stock Take

September is often a tough month for markets. Data going back to 1945 shows that it is, on average, the worst month of the year for the S&P 500 Index.

After a disappointing August, investors are hoping this month will signal that the seemingly relentless rise in interest rates will end soon, offering respite for stocks and bonds. But there are plenty of risk events to contend with, including central bank meetings, crucial US inflation figures, and a G20 meeting.

It hasn’t got off to a great start. Shares in Apple, the world’s most valuable company, fell by more than 6% (or almost £160 billion) midweek on reports that Chinese government workers have been banned from using their iPhones at work. China accounted for nearly a fifth of the company’s total revenue last year, but has increasingly emphasised using locally made tech products, as technology has become a major national security issue for Beijing and Washington.

The news also weighed on the shares of Apple suppliers. Some analysts felt markets had overreacted amidst weak confidence overall, but the development could pose an additional challenge, as Apple’s revenues in China have already suffered due to the country’s macroeconomic struggles.

Optimism over China’s recovery ebbed and flowed over the week. News that embattled property developer Country Garden had won approval from creditors to extend repayments boosted markets at the start of the week, as did hopes that China’s steady drip feed of policy stimulus might stabilise the economy.

But later in the week came news that China’s services sector expanded at its slowest pace in eight months in August as weak demand continued to dog the world’s second-largest economy. Exports also dropped for the fourth month in a row, although the decline was not as bad as expected and an improvement on the previous month. A report by the US Census Bureau showed that China’s share of US good imports fell to the lowest level since 2006 in the year to the end of July.

Yet, China’s isn’t the only economy struggling. Global business activity slowed further last month as indebted consumers reined in their spending. The eurozone services industry dropped into contraction territory, with German factory orders falling at the fastest rate for 30 years (aside from the Covid pandemic).

“In particular, it appears that the German auto sector is struggling with competition from Asian producers, while a reliance on manufactured exports has exposed the economy to downside risks as activity in China stalls,” observed Mark Dowding of BlueBay Asset Management.

With progress on bringing down inflation likely to be very slow, this month’s interest rate decision by the European Central Bank (ECB) is a close call. Investors are overwhelmingly betting against a hike, but policymakers stressed the decision was still up in the air.

Activity in the UK services sector also fell in August, for the first time since January, although the drop was less than initially estimated. Consumer spending growth also slowed, partly due to the unusually wet summer weather as well as the broader cost-of-living squeeze.

“This is problematic given that the Bank of England (BoE) is poised to remain hawkish beyond when the Fed and even the ECB are expected to end rate hikes, which could cause more damage to the UK economy,” commented Kristina Hooper of Invesco. “However, that could change, especially if recent rapid declines in inflation continue.”

In a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, BoE governor Andrew Bailey suggested UK inflation was heading for a further marked fall by the end of the year, but made it clear that the pace of wage growth remains a big worry. Bailey said the BoE was “much nearer” to ending its run of interest rate increases; little different from the message he delivered in May when he said the BoE was “nearer” the peak, after which the base rate was increased in June and August. Markets expect borrowing costs to rise again later this month, taking interest rates to 5.5%.

The US economy continued to buck the trend, as its services sector unexpectedly gained steam in August, with new orders firming and businesses paying higher prices for inputs. Such signs of still-elevated inflation added to indicators that interest rates could remain higher for longer. Whilst other data has indicated a softening of the US labour market, news that the number of Americans seeking jobless benefits fell to its lowest level since February showed that it remains relatively robust, underscoring the view that US interest rates may need to stay higher for longer.

The combination of employment and inflation trends will govern Fed policy ahead, so this week’s consumer price index report will be closely watched.

Wealth Check

After your early-stage business has made some sales, it’s tempting to look at your bank balance and think you’re in a great position. But even with healthy customer numbers and revenue, in a small and growing company, things can quickly get bumpy if you don’t implement sound financial-management measures.

The key is to keep a continuous cash flow through those difficult early months and years until your business becomes more stable. Without such measures, many firms don’t make it past their first few years.

Here are four habits that any business should get into:

  • Cash flow forecasting

One reason SMEs fail around years two and three is that they grow too fast and over-trade. These firms don’t have too few customers, they have too many; they lack the cash to fulfil orders and buffer the gap between orders shipped and payments received.

  • Robust credit control

One of the biggest risks to start-ups is running out of cash while they wait for invoices to be paid. So, a key goal is to minimise days sales outstanding (DSO) – the time between shipping goods and receiving payment. You can do this in many ways, starting with prompt invoicing processes and a robust credit-collection function.

  • The right cover

Having comprehensive business insurance may feel like added expense, but it’s a key part of building a financially resilient company. Consider protection such as credit insurance against potential bad debts, and key person policies to cover the impact if you lose senior personnel.

  • Separating personal and business finances

Start-up owners can sometimes blur the boundaries between their personal and business finances, but it’s a risky practice.

One temptation for a successful start-up owner is to take too much cash out of the business early on. This can weaken it; for example, if you receive a large tax or supplier bill and find you don’t have enough cash to pay it, which can then have knock-on effects that quickly spiral.

During their due diligence, potential investors and buyers will see if you’ve crossed this boundary in previous years’ trading. If the transgression is serious, it could hinder your ability to raise finance or maximise your sale price. It could even scupper a sale completely. So it’s critical to start as you mean to go on by clearly separating your personal and business finances.

In The Picture

Pension Awareness Week is back. Regardless of where you are in life, it’s good to have an idea of just how much money you’ll need for a comfortable standard of living once you’ve finished working.

Source: Retirement Living Standards, Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, 2023.

The Last Word

“There needs to be accountability on this, and it needs to be done in an independent way.”

Birmingham City Council leader John Cotton discusses the aftermath of Birmingham Council declaring bankruptcy last week.

BlueBay Asset Management and Invesco are fund managers for St. James’s Place.

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

Source: London Stock Exchange Group plc and its group undertakings (collectively, the “LSE Group”). ©LSE Group 2023. FTSE Russell is a trading name of certain of the LSE Group companies.

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© S&P Dow Jones LLC 2023; all rights reserved

Source: MSCI. MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein. The MSCI data may not be further redistributed or used as a basis for other indices or any securities or financial products. This report is not approved, endorsed, reviewed or produced by MSCI. None of the MSCI data is intended to constitute investment advice or a recommendation to make (or refrain from making) any kind of investment decision and may not be relied on as such.

SJP Approved 11/09/2023

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