General Election 2015 – the story so far

Officially the UK general election campaign is about halfway done, unofficially of course it is ion the final stages of a marathon that kicked off with the 2014 March budget and its new pension freedoms. There are some signs that the electorate have “hit the wall” with regard to tolerance for political points-scoring.

For the last twelve months the poll ratings for both Conservatives and Labour have remained roughly equal at 30-35% apiece. UKIP consistently poll in third place but their support appears to have peaked at the European elections last May and since then have drifted back from the high teens to the low teens, the Lib Dems and the Greens split a further 15%. The most important change barely registers in the national opinion polls but the SNP has seen a strong surge in support throughout Scotland following the defeat of the referendum vote on independence.

In terms of parliamentary seats, the peculiarities of the constituency-based, ”first-past-the-post” system are making their mark. According to electionforecast.co.uk the SNP with about 4% of the overall UK vote will win 47 seats whilst the Lib Dems with about 7% of the vote look set for 24 seats, while UKIP with about 14% will win only 1 seat, and the Greens who generally poll above the Lib Dems will hold onto their 1 seat. The Conservatives look set to win more seats than Labour (283 to 271) with a similar share of the votes, due to Labour’s losses to the SNP..

This looks likely to leave the country in a position where not only will no single party win enough seats for a majority, but quite conceivably the only coalition outcomes that would secure a majority will be Conservative / Labour or Conservative / SNP. Neither of these seem remotely likely to occur. The most likely outcome now is in fact not a coalition, but a minority government supported by other parties on an issue-by-issue basis.

The parliamentary arithmetic will be keenly balanced between those smaller parties willing to support a Conservative minority government in a vote of confidence, and those willing to support a Labour minority government. Miliband may well be likely to win fewer seats than the Conservatives but be more able to win a vote of confidence within parliament.

For some time now the Conservatives have been expecting to pull ahead of Labour in the polls as the economic recovery has taken hold, but this has failed to occur. There is a belief in Conservative circles that the last few days of the campaign will see a surge in support for them, when voters finally decide who to vote for. Indeed polls show that a large number of investors have not yet definitively decided how to vote. It seems though that the image of the Conservatives as the “nasty party” as Theresa May famously remarked, has not disappeared from many voters’ minds, despite good economic news.

As in the 2010 campaign, no party is prepared to give details of precisely where the future austerity which their economic policies require will actually hit – it seems they fear the truth on this is too painful for the electorate to bear.

More remarkable is the recent narrowing of policy differences between the two major parties. Having trumpeted the positive effects of sticking to their “long term economic plan” for so long, in the campaign Cameron has been very quick to make new campaign pledges for more money for the NHS, subsidies for commuter rail fares and reductions in Inheritance Tax. None of these previously appeared in the long term plan or appear to have been funded by savings elsewhere. Similarly Labour, having criticised the policies of austerity over the last five years, has placed bearing down on the deficit at the heart of its manifesto, and has resolutely refused to embrace any unfunded campaign pledges in order to demonstrate its fiscal responsibility. Both parties are seeking to win over the centre ground of voters – the Conservatives by showing by spending more and Labour by spending less!

Perhaps the most important statistic in this campaign is that more than 60% of the electorate (and an even higher proportion of those who will actually vote) are over 55 years old. For most of these voters it is pensions, be they provided by the state or by private provision, which are their critical focus. This is now probably a more important issue than jobs for this age group and is perhaps a factor in why the rising number of jobs is not feeding through into Conservative voters.

With two weeks to go, this election remains too close to call. The UK financial markets have been happy to ignore the political uncertainty to date – a minority government of any sort may be seen as a negative development by the currency and gilt markets on the basis that it will be difficult for the government to implement its policies. On the other hand a weaker sterling is usually good news for UK stocks and politicians who are unable to do anything could be seen as good news in that they are unable to mess anything up!

Drifting towards constitutional chaos

Typically markets give little consideration to political events until they are right on top of them, so it may now be appropriate to give some thought to the possible outcomes of the UK general election. Nationally the poll ratings for Conservative and Labour have been very steady for well over a year now, though ibn Scotland Labour have been losing significant numbers of voters to the SNP. A parliament of 650 MPs made up of approximately 280 Conservative, 270 Labour, 30 Lib Dem, 50 SNP and 20 other (15 Unionist and UKIP on the right, 5 Green and Plaid Cymru on the left) is close to that implied by the political betting markets and current polls, and would leave the UK political scene in a very uncertain state.

This would leave the traditional right-of-centre parties at 295, the Labour, nationalist and Green parties at 325 and the Lib Dems in the centre with 30. The implication would be that the only two-party coalition majority that could get close to a majority would be a Labour/SNP coalition; however the price of such a coalition would very likely be the break-up of the UK itself. Alex Salmond would be the SNP leader in Westminster and he has shown himself to be a very effective political operator in the coalition politics of Holyrood.

Sadly no other outcome looks good for markets either:

  • Traditionally the best outcome for markets would be a majority for a stable right-of-centre government. A Conservative majority, while looking extremely unlikely at the current juncture would however be one fraught with political and constitutional risk as the Conservative manifesto will commit to holding a referendum in the UK’s continued membership of the EU. The uncertainty that such a referendum would engender in the minds of business leaders would be very negative for investment in the UK, and a vote to withdraw is likely to be viewed very negatively by the UK financial markets.
  • A continuation of the present Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, is also not likely on the current poll ratings. It would however be likely to feed continued Scottish disgruntlement, where neither of the UK governing parties is likely to have much representation north of the border. Further demands for more powers for the Scottish parliament are also likely to be met with stronger rhetoric for English-only MPs deciding English matters, bringing the very concept of the Union under deeper strain.
  • A minority Conservative government would find it very difficult to get its economic and budget policies through parliament, where a combination of Labour, Lib-Dem and SNP votes would block most of their plans.
  • A Labour/Lib Dem coalition looks unlikely to have enough support within parliament by itself, it would be dependent upon support from the SNP to pass legislation and that support would come at a price. The same would be true for a minority Labour government.
  • A Labour majority would not be welcomed by financial markets as Ed Miliband is perceived as one of the most anti-business Labour leaders since Michael Foot.

Weak government and constitutional uncertainty look to be the only sure thing to come out of the forthcoming election. Weakness in the euro is the current flavour of the month in the currency markets, following the ECB’s decision to (finally) implement QE. By the time May is here, it may be they are seeking a new trend – weak sterling on the back of political uncertainty could well be that new trend.

2015 – a double election year?

2015 looks set to be a particularly political year, with the possibility of there being two general elections looking increasingly plausible. In the last six months, the strong performance of UKIP in the European elections and the SNP in the referendum vote, have seen UK politics move from the three party affair thrown up by the 2010 election (itself a radical departure from the two party politics naturally favoured by a first-past-the post system) to one where the fortunes of five different parties need to be considered to determine the final outcome of the 2015 election. One could add the Green party as a sixth, given their existing one seat and recent improvement in the polls.

In a constituency system with just one vote, a candidate merely needs more votes than any other candidate, and does not need the support anything close to half the electorate to win. In a 4-way competition, just 25.1% could theoretically be sufficient to win the seat. Thus the impact of new parties drawing votes from existing parties can make predicting the winner of any individual constituency incredibly difficult.

UKIP are currently showing at 17% in the opinion polls, with their support being drawn approximately ¾ from former Conservative voters and ¼ from former Labour voters. This could be enough to win a handful of seats, but the more important national impact could be the split in the Conservative vote allowing Labour to win some individual constituencies where they would not otherwise expect to have sufficient support.

The interest and passion displayed by the Scottish electorate in the independence referendum has continued since then and the SNP has in recent polls been drawing huge support from former Labour voters in Scotland, where Labour currently holds 41 seats, which are now under threat.

Support for the Liberal Democrats collapsed from the 26% achieved in 2010, from the moment they reversed stance on student fees in the initial Coalition Agreement. Their 7% showing currently in the opinion polls is very poor but their MPs tend to have built large local support bases in their constituencies and they are likely to win more seats than their national support would suggest.

The two major parties have not between them garnered the support of more than 2/3 of the electorate since the last election campaign (in 1945 they took 95% of the vote, but have been in decline since then). The current distribution of constituencies favours Labour, who hold many inner city constituencies where the size of the electorate has shrunk over the years, whereas Conservative constituencies are more concentrated in the suburbs where electorates have been rising.  Until recently, most analysts believed that Labour could win a parliamentary majority with just 35% of the national vote, whereas the Conservatives needed to win about 40%.  The recent rise of UKIP and the SNP probably means that these estimates need to be increased.

On current YouGov forecasts, not only will neither Conservatives nor Labour win a majority of seats, a coalition of either party with the Liberal Democrats will also not produce a parliamentary majority. The most likely outcome of the May 2015 election is thus a second election in October/November next year.

Opinion polls do fluctuate and there are still almost six months until the poll that matters, but the electoral arithmetic against a stable outcome looks difficult to overcome. For UK financial markets this may be troublesome in 2015.  This was always likely to be the case as a Conservative-led government would be committed to holding a referendum on EU membership in 2017, which would generate huge uncertainty in the minds of business with regard to investment in the UK, whilst a Labour-led government would be led by Ed Miliband, who would be seen as the most left-wing and anti-business Prime Minister that the UK has seen.

It is difficult to work out what a good election outcome would be for the financial markets.

A Stagnant Europe

The outlook for returns from European shares for the next few years is not exciting, though the level of dividend yields is likely to support current prices, thereby limiting the downside risk in these markets.   The investment implications are to remain VERY LIGHT in European equities, where domestic growth is expected to be disappointing and exports outside of the Eurozone are likely to remain under pressure from a strong Euro.

As in the US market, the earnings growth in the Eurozone for 2014 (that is already expected by analysts) is strong, despite the lack of revenue growth expected from most companies. Further, again as in the US, the valuations on these optimistic earnings forecasts are at the high end of the normal range. Core European bond yields are likely to remain low but risks certainly remain in peripheral bond markets.   Political developments need to be monitored closely for any indications that the rise of the anti-EU factions in the peripheral countries begins to change the current support within them to stay in the Euro.

The EU parliamentary elections – According to the opinion polls, the anti-EU, UK Independence Party (UKIP) could emerge with the most votes in the UK’s forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. This apparent rise in nationalist sentiment is not just a UK phenomenon, with the French National Front, Italy’s Forza Italia, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and the Freedom parties in Holland and Austria all scoring highly in opinion polls. Though these disparate parties do not all get on with each other, it is possible that they could, between them, win about 20% of the seats in the new Parliament. This is not likely to be enough to change the path towards greater integration within Europe, but is enough to be a very vocal nuisance within European politics.

Austerity – The peripheral economies (generally understood to be Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Italy) have undergone harsh austerity in recent years, leading to very high levels of unemployment (and youth unemployment in particular), in the cause of remaining in the Euro and receiving support from EU bailouts and the ECB. It is perhaps surprising that anti-EU sentiment is not even greater in these countries, but there appears to be a grudging acceptance that the German-prescribed policies of economic orthodoxy must be adopted. These are (i) lower government spending and (ii) smaller budget deficits together with (iii) lower wage levels to regain competitiveness. The stark alternative for these economies is to come out of the Euro and allow currency depreciation to ease their problems, by creating inflation and reducing living standards. Even France, led by a Socialist president, has now succumbed to German orthodoxy on its budget, acknowledging that its levels of taxation and budget deficit cannot be allowed to go any higher, and that spending cuts are necessary.

There are however, two problems with extending the German approach to economic policy to the whole of the Eurozone. First, most of the Eurozone’s exports are to other Eurozone countries, so reducing domestic demand through austerity in one part of the Eurozone merely reduces export demand for the rest of the Eurozone. Second, the peripheral countries’ greatest need is to regain competitiveness against Germany. This would be much easier to achieve if Germany were prepared to become a little less competitive, by having some price and wage inflation. A few years of German inflation at 4% with 0% inflation in the periphery would ease the Eurozone’s problems considerably. However, if German inflation remains at 2%, then inflation at –2% might be required in the periphery; economically such deflation is particularly harmful, keeping unemployment and budget deficits high.   There are few signs that Germany would be prepared to tolerate a 4% inflation rate.

Following the Japanese – The Eurozone is currently edging towards deflation, with the current inflation rate at 0.8%. With its other issues of ageing populations, high levels of government debt and high welfare spending, it shares many similarities with the Japanese economy of a decade ago. There, the economy has, until very recently, been mired in a long period of economic stagnation in which the nominal size of the economy has not changed – there has been some real growth, but this has been offset by falling prices and wages.

Stagnation – Our concern is very much that the Eurozone, following orthodox German policies, with an absence of stimulus from fiscal policy or from monetary policy and with an ECB extremely reluctant to implement QE, may have entered a period of structural economic stagnation, with high levels of unemployment, similar to the experience of Japan. This would be negative for economic activity and indeed for social cohesion in the weaker economies, and, in time, the support for the anti-EU parties may be strong enough to lead to more radical change than the forthcoming elections are likely to create. This might mean a change to policies that were incompatible with continued membership of the Euro.

Just as the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 and sharp fall in Sterling marked the start of a new period of growth in the economy and a new bull market in stocks, any country that did exit the Euro would be likely to derive the same benefits. However, for now, continued adherence to the orthodoxy of German economic policy ideas is expected to lead to a period of economic stagnation for the Eurozone economy.