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UK loses triple-A credit rating after Brexit vote

Standard & Poors issues downgrade and pound hits 31-year low despite chancellors attempts to soothe markets

The UK has been stripped of its last AAA rating as credit agency Standard & Poors warned of the economic, fiscal and constitutional risks the country now faces as a result of the EU referendum result.

The two-notch downgrade came with a warning that S&P could slash its rating again. It described the result of the vote as a seminal event that would lead to a less predictable stable and effective policy framework in the UK.

The agency added that the vote to remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland creates wider constitutional issues for the country as a whole.

S&P was the last of the big three ratings agencies to have a blue-chip rating on the UKs credit-worthiness. Moodys, which stripped the UK of its top notch rating amid the austerity cuts of 2013, said last week it might further cut its view of the UK.

Rating agency moves have the potential to make it more expensive for the government to borrow.

The S&P move came after another torrid day on the financial markets. The pound hit fresh 31-year lows and 40bn was wiped off the value of the UKs biggest companies on Monday, despite efforts by George Osborne to quell investors concerns about the economic and political ramifications of the Brexit vote.

After three days of silence, the chancellor made a statement on Monday morning to try to calm the markets. However, sterling remained under sustained pressure on the foreign exchange markets as economists slashed their forecasts for UK economic growth. Wall Street was also weaker while continental bourses sold off sharply after Fridays record $2tn of losses on global stock markets.

Expectations are mounting that the Bank of England will cut interest rates possibly to zero from their historic low 0.5% to stimulate the economy, and yields on government bonds fell below 1% for the first time, which could spell cheaper mortgage rates.

In a live broadcast just after 7am, as dealers in London braced for another day of turmoil, Osborne insisted: Our economy is about as strong as it could be to confront the challenge our country now faces.

But moderate losses on the FTSE 100quickly deepened and at one point sterling was down 3.5% against the dollar, at $1.3122, its lowest level since 1985. Against the euro, the pound was down 2.4% at 1.19.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in China, Nouriel Roubini, economist at New York University, described Brexit as a major significant financial shock that would create a whole bunch of economic, financial, political and also geopolitical uncertainties.

By the end of trading, the FTSE 100 index was down 2.6%, or 156.5 points, and below 6,000. The FTSE 250, the next tier of companies and more closely tied to the UK economy, was down 7%, coming on top of a 7% fall on Friday.

Its been another dramatic day of trading on the UK stock market, said Laith Khalaf, senior analyst at the financial firm Hargreaves Lansdown.

Companies likely to be impacted by a Brexit-induced recession were hit hard. In two days, about 40bn has been wiped off the value of banking stocks and 8bn off housebuilders. At one point, shares in the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland plunged 25%, while housebuilders such as Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey have lost more than 40% in just two trading days.

Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets, said while Osbornes statement had been measured his comments were unable to prevent the feeling that UK politics remains in a state of paralysis, with no clear contingencies in place to deal with the fallout of a leave vote.

The biggest faller in the FTSE 100 was short-haul airline easyjet, which plunged by 22% after warning that wary consumers would now rethink their travel plans. Exchange rate movements, the carrier added, would add 25m to costs.

Another profit warning came from the London-focused estate agent Foxtons. Its shares dived 25% after it said Brexit would hit sales for the rest of the year. Shares in so-called challenger banks such as Virgin Money were also pummelled.

Osborne spoke after it emerged that the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, had cancelled a trip to Portugal to remain in the UK to oversee any response from Threadneedle Street.

The Banks financial policy committee, set in the aftermath of the financial crisis to look for threats to stability, will meet on Tuesday, when the Bank of England will again offer emergency loans to banks as part of its Brexit planning.

The fallout from the vote is being felt around the world. Italys main index fell 4%, extending Fridays record losses of 12.5%. In Germany and France there were losses of 3%. At the time of the London close, on Wall Street the main share indices were all down more than 1%.

The chancellor may have taken some comfort from the fall in yields on 10-year government bonds. Yields on these gilts, which move inversely to prices, fell below 1% for the first time. This fall in gilt yields will keep government borrowing costs down and lead to lower mortgage rates. However, they also mean pension companies have started cutting the amount paid to the newly retired.

Osborne refused to repeat his pre-vote warning of a Brexit recession, saying only that the economy would face adjustments. But analysts started to cut their forecasts for UK growth. Goldman Sachs, forecasts just 0.2% growth in 2017, down from 2% predicted previously.

The consultancy Oxford Economics said interest rates could be slashed to 0% within weeks. Morgan Stanley analysts said European and UK stocks would fall up to 10% over the coming months and sterling would fall to between $1.25 and $1.30.

Much of the markets focus has been on the pound, particularly after the speculator George Soros, who made $1bn when sterling fell out of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, had warned of a black Friday in the event of Brexit. His spokesman stressed that he had not bet against the pound last week.

George Soros did not speculate against sterling while he was arguing for Britain to remain in the European Union, the spokesman told Reuters. However, because of his generally bearish outlook on world markets, Mr Soros did profit from other investments

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/27/property-and-financial-shares-slide-as-referendum-fallout-hits-stock-markets


Greece pushes fresh austerity drive through parliament

Alexis Tsipras gained approval by 152 of 153 of his deputies, despite many of them having previously rejected the proposals

The Greek parliament has approved a fresh round of austerity incorporating 1.8bn in tax increases and widely regarded as the most punitive yet amid hopes the move will lead to much-needed debt relief when eurozone finance ministers meet this week.

Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, mustered the support of 152 of his 153 deputies on Sunday to vote through policies that many have previously rejected.

Addressing the 300-seat house during the heated three-day debate that preceded the ballot, Giorgos Dimaras, an MP in Tsiprass leftwing party, said he was appalled at being forced to support measures he had spent a lifetime opposing.

I am in mourning, he said. This is what can only be called wretchedness.

As parliamentarians had prepared to vote, large crowds of protestors took to the streets with Panaghiotis Lafazanis, a former minister who broke ranks with Syriza to form the Popular Unity party, taking the demonstration to the foot of the building itself where he unfurled a giant banner proclaiming: The memorandum will not pass.

The belt-tightening legislation, outlined in a 7,500-page omnibus bill, includes measures that range from the taxation of coffee and luxury goods to the creation of a new privatisation fund in charge of real estate assets for the next 99 years. Under the stewardship of EU officials, the body will oversee the sale of about 71,500 pieces of prime public property in what will amount to collateral for the 250bn in bailout loans Greece has received since 2010.

They are with the exception of the Acropolis selling everything under the sun, said Anna Asimakopoulou, the shadow minister for development and competitiveness. We are giving up everything.

The multi-bill, which also foresees VAT being raised from 23% to 24%, is part of a package of increases in tax and excise duties expected to yield an extra 1.8bn in revenue. Earlier this month, Tsiprass leftist-led coalition endorsed pension cuts that were similarly part of an array reforms amounting to 5.4 bn, or 3% of GDP.

At the behest of the EU and International Monetary Fund, the government has agreed to adopt tighter austerity in the form of an automatic fiscal brake referred to as the cutter in the Greek media if fiscal targets are missed.

Despite official claims that goals will be achieved, there is a high degree of scepticism as to whether this is feasible. The Greek economy has seen a depression-era contraction of more than 25% since the outbreak of the debt crisis in late 2009, and with high taxes likely to repulse investment, economic fundamentals are also unlikely to improve.

We are talking about indirect taxes, property taxes and income taxes all going up, Asimakopoulou said. Nobody will be able to pay them, targets will be missed, more austerity will be imposed and of course public rage will have to be vented. People will not only feel angry, they will feel conned.

The measures the ultimate U-turn for a government that once pledged to eradicate austerity are the latest in a set of prior actions Athens must take to complete an economic review that will unlock desperately needed bailout funds to avert default. The country has to meet 3.5bn in debt repayments this summer, starting with a 300m loan instalment to the IMF on 7 June money the country simply does not have.

Eager to avoid more drama before next months in/out EU referendum in the UK, general elections in Spain and regional polls in Germany, lenders have indicated they will disburse the loans at Tuesdays Eurogroup meeting. Berlin, which has provided the bulk of Greeces emergency aid, signalled the instalment could be as much as 11bn more than twice the original 5.4bn, according to the German financial daily Handelsblatt.

But creditors are still fiercely divided over the red-button issue of tackling Athens staggering 321bn mountain of debt. Although the EU and IMF now both concede the load is unsustainable, member states reject outright the prospect of a debt writedown for fear of losses on bailout loans. Euro finance ministers insist that if it is ever to recover, Greece has to achieve a primary budget surplus of 3.5%, excluding debt repayments. They have hinted that at most, they will agree to discuss debt relief when the countrys current – and third bailout programme expires in 2018.

The quarrel deepened last week when the Washington-based IMF, which has openly questioned Athens ability to achieve such a high surplus, proposed that Greece defer all debt repayments until 2040 and extend its repayment period with maturities that would run through 2080 on a capped interest rate of 1.5%. The standoff is expected to intensify on Tuesday.

Addressing parliament on Sunday, Tsipras insisted it was a huge achievement that Greece had finally succeeded in putting the debt issue on the table. Previous governments had done little more than kowtow to creditors without ever dealing with the source of Athens financial woes, he said.

No other party but the left could pass such measures, said Nikos Athanasiou, who has watched the crisis unfold from the kiosks he runs facing parliament in Syntagma square. If the right were in power Athens would be in flames.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/22/greece-to-unveil-fresh-round-of-austerity-to-unlock-bailout-funds


Zimbabwes trillion-dollar note: from worthless paper to hot investment

The central bank of Zimbabwe issued $100,000,000,000,000 notes during the last days of hyperinflation in 2009, and they barely paid for a loaf of bread. But their value has shot up

Whats been one of the best-performing investments of the past seven years? Shares in Facebook? London property? Bitcoin? Up there with the best, believe it or not, are Zimbabwean 100 trillion dollar notes.

A trillion, by the way, is a million million. There are 12 zeros in a trillion. Add another two to reach the total on the Zimbabwean 100 trillion dollar bill, the note with the most zeroes of any legal tender in all recorded history. The bills circulated for a few months in 2009 at the zenith or, more precisely, the nadir of one of the most terrible instances of hyperinflation in history, before Harare finally abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in favour of the South African rand, the US dollar and several other foreign currencies.

At one stage a hundred trillion dollar note would not even cover a bus fare. You needed a bale of notes just to buy a few household essentials. However, its thought that only a few million of them were ever printed.

I remember buying one on eBay. It is on the wall in my office. John Wolstencroft, a private investor, bought a batch of them to give away. I always found they were a good conversation starter, he says.

In 2010-11, Wolstencroft was living in New Zealand where he joined an investment club, made up mostly of locals and US expats. At the time, the great central banking experiment of quantitative easing and a 0% interest rate policy was making a lot of people nervous. He brought a handful of the Zimbabwean notes along to his first meeting to give out as a way of saying thank you for letting him join the club, but there were more people there than he was expecting.

I didnt have enough notes to go round, he says. People started offering me money for them. I tried to explain they were just a gift, but they just upped their offer. I realised then these notes were going to become a collectors item.

John
John (left) and Vishal Wolstencroft sell trillion dollar notes from the defunct Zimbabwean currency to collectors

Wolstencroft went away and bought several hundred more notes. The price had already risen since his first purchase; they were 1.50 each. He gave some out to members of the club, as promised, and kept the rest. When he returned to Britain he gave some to a financial company he works with. One of the independent financial advisers used to give the notes out to prospective clients to show why they should invest away from cash in a diverse range of assets, such as real estate, gold, stocks and shares, he says. Over the long term, cash loses its value.

Wolstencroft wasnt alone in seeing the potential of trillion dollar notes. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that David Laties, owner of the Educational Coin Company in New York, had speculated about $150,000 (104,000) importing the notes from Zimbabwe, sensing they would become the best notes ever. Frank Templeton, a retired Wall Street equities trader, bought quintillions of Zimbabwe dollars (thats thousands of trillions) for between $1 and $2 each, via a broker from the Zimbabwe central bank. He would then sell them on for several times the price.

Vishal Wolstencroft, Johns 12-year-old son, noticed late last year that these same 100 trillion dollar notes were now changing hands on eBay for as much as 40 each. He talked his father into a joint venture. Vishal is responsible for the listing, photographs, posting, packing and advertising, while father John supplies the goods. Their profits are shared 50:50. Business is good. According to Vishal, its quite a step up from his previous venture selling old toys at a local market stall. Most 100 trillion dollar notes fetch close to 20-25 on eBay, but set against the 1.50 paid by Wolstencroft in 2011 it is a striking return. In percentage terms, it is close to 1,500%, compared with the miserable 5% rise in the FTSE 100 over the same period.

In an extraordinary irony, the 100trillion dollar note a symbol of financial mismanagement on a colossal scale has turned into one of the best-performing asset classes of recent years.

The disappearing currency

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A Zimbabwean lady with a basketful of cash Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

When the Zimbabwean dollar first came into existence in 1980 it had a similar value to the US dollar, writes Patrick Collinson. But by 2009, $1 was worth Z$2,621,984,228, 675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228. TheBank of England worries if inflation in the UK goes over 2% a year; in Zimbabwe it hit 79.6 billion per cent.

The countrys central bank could not even afford the paper on which to print its worthless trillion-dollar notes. President Mugabe issued edicts to ban price rises, of comedic value were it not for the devastation that hyperinflation wrought upon the people. The miserably low savings and incomes of the impoverished population were wiped out; shopkeepers would frequently double prices between the morning and afternoon, leaving workers pay almost valueless by the end of the day.

In 2009 the government scrapped the currency, leaving US dollars and South African rand as the main notes and coins in circulation. To this day, Zimbabwe still has no currency of its own, although the government last year offered to swap old deposit accounts into US dollars, giving savers $5 for each 175 quadrillion (175,000,000,000,000,000) Zimbabwean dollars.

In an extraordinary irony, Zimbabwe now suffers among the worlds worst deflation, currently at -2.3%.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/may/14/zimbabwe-trillion-dollar-note-hyerinflation-investment


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