Commentary

Sunak’s summer election twist could boost UK equities

June 27, 2024

Union Jacks on Oxford Street for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee.

Some of our recent commentaries (December 7, 2023 and February 8, 2024) cover the 2024 election landscape. One of the biggest surprises so far was the decision of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call a general election for July 4. In this commentary, we look at the UK economy and markets as we approach this election.

Sunak’s decision caught everyone off guard and, on the face of it, the timing seems strange. A summer election during peak holiday season usually entails poor turn outs. The general thinking behind the decision is that momentum would be strongest after a stronger-than-expected GDP print in Q1 and inflation almost back to normal. A slowdown in growth is expected, and while the drop in inflation was welcomed, it was due to a decline in home energy bills and the base effect. Consensus estimates expected a larger fall, and as such, expectations for the first interest rate cut from the Bank of England have been pushed back to September from June, keeping mortgage costs higher for longer.

Labour’s lead and Conservative struggles

At the time of writing, the Labour Party has a 21-point lead, and the incumbent Conservatives are falling into a battle with Reform UK to be the official opposition party. The election campaign is well under way and Labour seem set for an overwhelming majority. This means they should be able to implement their policies, so let’s look at their manifesto and see what is likely to impact the economy and capital markets.

Labour’s strategic plans: No EU return, but stronger ties

First and foremost, there is no return to the EU on the cards, but Labour will continue to work on EU trade and investment relationships. The main points concern economic stability, defence, housing, infrastructure and clean energy. With geopolitical tensions continuing to run high, Labour will kick off their first year in government with a Strategic Defense Review, setting out a plan to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP.

Push for affordable housing

As expected, housing is at the forefront. Labour would like to build 1.5 million new homes over their term with an emphasis on increasing social and affordable housing. Brownfield development is the priority and approval of sites will be fast-tracked. New developments will be obligated to ensure more affordable homes.

No tax increases, but closing loopholes

For personal taxes, Labour has pledged to freeze National Insurance, the basic, higher, or additional rates of Income Tax, and VAT. There are some changes around the fringes that will be a source of income – ending the use of offshore trusts and closing some other loopholes to tackle tax avoidance. Corporate tax will also be unchanged for the term, keeping it at 25%, which is the lowest rate of the G7, and a promise to act if tax changes elsewhere hinder UK competitiveness.

Building for the future

Infrastructure investment has been low, so public investment will be used to support and attract additional private investment, whether domestic or foreign. An overhaul of the planning system would help here. In parallel to the usual spending on roads, railways and other important national infrastructure, investments will go into upgrading ports and improving the supply chain, new gigafactories to help the automotive industry, rebuilding the steel industry, accelerating the deployment of carbon capture and supporting green hydrogen manufacturing.

Wind, solar and job creation

The UK has some natural advantages that should help the transition to clean energy – a long coastline, high winds, shallow waters and access to a skilled workforce with extensive offshore and engineering capabilities. The Green Prosperity Plan aims to double onshore wind, triple solar power and quadruple offshore wind by 2030 while creating jobs. Labour does not intend to issue new licenses to explore new oil and gas fields in the North Sea. The same applies to new coal licenses and fracking will also be banned. Labour remains committed to the EV transition by restoring the phase-out date of 2030 for new cars with internal combustion engines and will accelerate the roll out of charge points.

Financial services as a boost for innovation and investment

There was some positive language around financial services, an undoubted strength of the UK economy. Labour wants to support innovation and growth in the sector, talking about a pro-innovation regulatory framework. Also concerning financial services is the ambition to increase investment from pension funds in UK markets. Domestic pension funds are mature and have reduced equity allocations in general and even more so UK equity allocations. The UK Office for National Statistics shows that domestic pension funds own 1.6% of the UK equity market from over 30% in the 1990s, low compared to similar developed markets. Theoretically this number could go lower, but with some new incentives, arguably risk is skewed to the upside, especially if a minimum level of UK equity exposure within pension portfolios is mandated. Increased demand could see a re-rating for UK equities.

UK equities poised for growth

The party in charge is ultimately not the most important factor. The last Labour government coincided with the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, and the Labour government before that (Tony Blair) was impacted by the dot-com bubble bursting and the subsequent recovery. What has been consistent over the past 60 years has been an average 10% gain for the FTSE All-Share index in the first year of an election when a change of power occurs.

The UK market looks attractive. Valuations are depressed and the discount is broad, having seen a pickup in bids from overseas competitors and private equity acquirers opportunistically seeking assets and market positions. Losing listed companies to M&A, a slow environment for IPOs and UK-based companies choosing a primary listing overseas means UK equities are in short supply. Finding solutions for the structural challenges facing the UK economy is essential to kickstarting growth and attracting investors. If execution is successful, UK equities could gain favour the way Japanese stocks have lately.

Global Alpha Capital Management Ltd.
June 27th, 2024