Bitcoin – The Bull that refuses to back into its cage

Bitcoin is now trading above the ceiling predicted to be its cap – it is the bull that remains uncontrollably volatile but unashamedly confident.

bitcoin-2643159__340  In a previous post, I explored how Bitcoin worked and explained the functionality of the centralized ledger. This week I have a new question. Why do people have faith in a currency that has no tangible resource backing it? Traditional currencies use gold, what does Bitcoin have? Hope? I will supply two reasons I find particularly compelling that may explain sudden interest for Bitcoin, however bear in mind that there a multitude of factors, and there is no monocausal reason for the sudden growth of Bitcoin.

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Firstly, financial commentators have commented on the magnitude of growth Bitcoin would experience if it were to be backed by a finite resource like gold. Bitcoin is a currency that has no tangible resource dictating its value. Its value is based precisely in what people think it is worth (or will be worth). Currently, Bitcoin is not backed by gold, or any other finite resource, but what if it were?

Standpoint Research’s Ronnie Moas reported that there is $200 T tied to cash, stocks and bonds. He stated:

“I am not excited about putting my money into any of those – If 1% of that $200 trillion finds its way into crypto in the next 10 years, you will be looking at a 2 trillion-dollar valuation – 10 times what it is today”

A theme common with cryptocurrencies. People are investing on the whim that it “could be” massive.

Secondly, trading Bitcoin may become safer – and hence attract attention from more conservative hedge fund managers. The more investors, the more Bitcoin will grow. Last week, the world’s largest exchange operator by market value (CME Group) has announced it is readying plans to offer futures on Bitcoin.

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This will give momentum to cryptocurrencies’ move away from the fringes of finance. But more importantly, the Chicago–based trading venue said it intended to add Bitcoin to its stable of futures on interest rates, stock indices, commodities, and currencies by the end of the year.

If hedge fund managers can long and short different prices, they can hedge against volatility. Currently, Bitcoin does not allow this. If it were to, which the CME have suggested, then Bitcoin becomes more attractive to less risky investors – once again increasing the amount of investment, and the “normativity” of the currency.

These two points share something. Both signpost to us that Bitcoin is doing well because people think it will do even better in the future. The potentiality for the currency is very high. And, although now there is little tangibility to Bitcoin besides hope and (somewhat) empty prediction, it seems that in the near future Bitcoin could become a global phenomenon.

What can we learn from companies shutting down online stores?

Starbucks has recently shut down its online stores. As a pioneer in sales and marketing strategy, Starbucks may be telling us something about the way businesses will have to operate soon. Since jumping onto the Central Perk culture from hit TV-series – Friends, they have revolutionized food and beverage in the last few years by making customers pay and pre-order using their smartphones. Their culture of fast coffee purchases using smartphones was influential enough to inspire credit card companies to produce cards the contactless cards we all have today. Starbucks are always ahead of the game.

 

Starbucks has been a innovator of trends for the last decade
Starbucks has been a innovator of trends for the last decade

 

In the last few years, companies have shifted from high-street retailers to online websites, selling their goods using only their web-client as a means to interact. It is easier for the client, it is cheaper for the company, and it means that people have better access to goods and services. So why have Starbucks shut down their site and discontinued online selling?

Starbucks’ new campaign strives to get people to leave their houses and come into their stores as opposed to surfing their products at home. Their CEO stated that he wants Starbucks to be an “experiential destination.” Customers can surf the net and check out their products using the app, but cannot buy anything without entering a store. This means you can order a coffee on the app and pop in and grab it, but you cannot have anything sent to your house. There must always be some physical interaction with the brand.

This is an interesting move. Why is it that we are seeing this shift back to high street retailers? What is it that companies value in such strategic shifts? Firstly, it allows companies to compete with giants like Amazon, who have a large market share, and sell the products of others. When we think about it, Starbucks would be extinct if Amazon found a way to sell their coffee online. This revolution would hit Amazon hard if Starbucks managed to make a trend of “experiential destinations,” as Amazon do not have a place where customers can come in. If this becomes a trend, it will make companies with a physical presence shine.

Secondly, it makes their product more valuable. Nike and other fashion companies have saturated the market with their goods, they are no longer seen as special. The consumer engagement is lower and people care less and less about high-quality Nike products. They are also available on Amazon. It is more than likely that Nike will swiftly follow suit, and emulate the synthesis of internet marketing and in-store experience. This could be the future for all big companies that sell goods online.

If successful, this business model will have a significant impact any company whose business model is focused in online sales. It will give power back to retailers, and will hinder “middle men” like Amazon. But before all this, they are going to have to convince the world that experiential destinations are successful.

 

 

Starbucks is a place we can work in or relax
Starbucks is a place we can work in or relax

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in: Amazon, Nike, or Starbucks. Henry James International does not currently own a position in: Amazon, Nike, or Starbucks)

 

The Rise and Fall of Big Names in Sportswear

Constant changes in consumers’ shopping habits and the development of e-commerce has left marks on sports brands, with several growing in popularity and others dropping in sales and buyer interest.

Going public in 1980 sportswear brand Nike rapidly grew in popularity. An investment of £1,000 in 1980 would have grown to over $700,000 in 2015. However, recent developments in the markets have impacted negatively on the company with shares dropping 16% to $52 since 2015. This fall has been attributed, partially, to a rise in e-commerce shopping as the brand’s major distributors, such as Foot Locker, have been negatively impacted by growing preferences for online shopping. Another contributing factor has been the growing success of rival company’s such as Adidas, whose currency neutral sales increased at a rate between 17% and 19% and gross margins increased 0.8pp to 50.0% while Nike’s sales remained flat. Market analysts have forecast that Nike stock prices could decline by a further 10% to $2.41 per share with a possible drop of 6.6% in earnings to $3.96 billion in 2017.

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Another company that has responded to a recent lag in customer activity is clothing company Under Armour. Shares have dropped by 8% and as a result plans have been put underway to reduce the company’s workforce by 2% to cut costs. In this quarter revenue grew by only 8%, compared to the same period in 2016 when revenue grew by 28%. In an attempt to increase consumer traffic Under Armour will be directing more of it’s efforts towards direct-to-consumer channels.

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While several well-established brands have been impacted by changes in consumer attitudes and the rise of multiple competitors, one company that has rallied is the athletic apparel company Lululemon. In 2014 the business experienced a dramatic drop in share prices, from $81 to $39 following a recall of 17% of stock due to faults. However, in following years stocks have begun to appreciate again, increasing by 33.4%, currently valuing at $61 per share.

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As buying habits change, moving towards e-commerce and certain brands, companies will need to innovate to remain relevant in the market. Although Nike has recently declined in value the introduction of their new shoe line, VaporMax has been met with positive results, implying that the company could rally. As the market becomes saturated with more companies some will rise in popularity, leading to higher profits, while others will fall behind and command a smaller portion of the industry.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Nike, Foot Locker, Under Armour, or Lululemon. Henry James International does not currently own a position Nike, Foot Locker, Under Armour, or Lululemon).

(Please note: James O’Leary currently holds a position in Adidas. Henry James International currently holds a position in Adidas). 

Developments as the Travel Sector Takes Off

International travel is more popular today than ever before, with the International Air Transport Association stating that airline passenger demand grew by 7.8% in June 2017. To keep up with this growing demand, travel companies have to continuously adapt and develop to stay competitive.

In 2015 the travel company Expedia bought over HomeAway, an accommodation rental site, in an attempt to rival Airbnb. Work is now under way to better integrate the two platforms, making it easier for customers to find holiday homes as well as flights all on one same site. In the current quarter the number of rentals available on the main Expedia site was increased from 20,000 to 60,000. The investment in HomeAway has so far yielded positive results for Expedia, with revenue increasing by 31% relative to the level of revenue in the same time period of 2016. Overall earnings were higher than predicted, boosting investor confidence. As a result the price of Expedia shares was up 3.4% on the 28th of July.

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As Expedia’s position in the travel sector gets stronger other, rival companies are struggling to keep up. Travel comparison site TripAdvisor has launched a campaign of television advertising in an attempt to reach a larger audience. The company aims for the television strategy to benefit its financial situation in the long term but has noted that, in the short term, profits could take a hit. Although the company’s second quarter earnings exceeded expectations, it may still fall behind other big name travel businesses such as Expedia and Priceline whose spending on advertising along is more than TripAdvisor’s revenue.

The increased demand for international travel has benefited aircraft companies as well. BOC Aviation, Asia’s largest aircraft operating leasing company, has grown its portfolio to 261 planes, from only 50 in 2004. With another 80 deliveries planned it is set to be the largest buyer of aircrafts in 2017. This increased demand for air transport has pushed shares of BOC Aviation up by 7% from last year while DBS Vickers analyst Paul Yong predicts that the company will see its net profit rise by 18% annually over the next five years. Major US airline Delta Air Lines has similarly benefited from the increased demand for flights. Shares have reached $50, which is around nine times its 2017 estimated earnings per share, with Andrew Bary of Barrons believing there is a possibility of Delta’s stock rising by a further 35% in the next couple of years.

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As travel becomes accessible to more people many companies in the sector will continue to benefit. However, with so many companies offering similar services, some are destined to fall behind in the market if they do not innovate.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Airbnb, Expedia, Trip Advisor, Priceline, or BOC Aviation. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Airbnb, Expedia, Trip Advisor, Priceline, or BOC Aviation.).

(Please note: James O’Leary currently holds a position in Delta Airlines. Henry James International currently owns a position in Delta Airlines).

The Impact of a Global Shift to Renewable Energy

As fossil fuel reserves are depleted companies have been looking for alternative sources of energy. However, does this mean that renewable energy companies are performing better than suppliers of traditional energy sources? At the end of 2016 over 24% of global electricity was produced from renewable sources, with hydropower being the leading source. Wind power accounted for 4% of this and 1.5% was from solar energy. These numbers, however, were still heavily overshadowed by energy from fossil fuels.

Hydroelectricity, which is the current frontrunner in the renewable energy sector, seems to be holding stable within its position. Brookfield Renewable Partners, which owns 215 hydroelectric facilities across North America, Latin America, and Europe, finished 2016 with revenue of $2.45 billion, a massive increase on the 2015 revenue of $1.63 billion.

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Increased interest in solar energy had seen huge advancements in the field, with solar power becoming increasingly cheap to generate. However, this in turn has meant that over the past year, solar stocks have experienced large declines in value, with some of the top companies being down by 50%. This slump may be caused by decrease in demand for solar panels in China, as well as a glut of panels, forcing prices down. Despite the current downward trend the outlook for solar energy companies is still positive, as the cost of generating power from the sun appears to be lower than the cost of generating it from fossil fuels. As more people are turning to this alternative energy source 2016 saw solar energy make up nearly 40% of all new energy installations, and companies seem to be recovering lost ground. First Solar Inc. saw first quarter revenue of $891 million, far beyond the $691 million consensus estimate.

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Companies working in wind power could also be set for increases in stock value. In the last year wind energy made up only 5% of total energy produced, but the American Wind Energy Association estimates that in the next ten years this figure could rise to 20%. As of the 10th of July the company Vestas Wind Systems A/S saw its stocks trading at $31.63, an increase of around 44% over the last 12 months. General Electric is also making a name for itself as a worldwide leader in the wind power sector, with the announcement of a planned acquisition of LM Wind Power for $1.7 billion.

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While some renewable energy companies are experiencing lulls in their revenue, it may be short-lived as, according to the Energy Information Administration, the costs of generating power from renewable sources is much less that the cost of power production from traditional sources. In the current economic climate it only costs around 1.3 cents per kilowatt hour to generate power from hydroelectric systems, and about 2.6 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity with nuclear power. As various companies work to create solar panels at a lower cost, solar energy could see a similar fall in cost to produce energy.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in First Solar Inc., LM Wind Power, or Brookefield Renewable Partners. Henry James International does not currently own a position in First Solar Inc., LM Wind Power, or Brookefield Renewable Partners for any client portfolios).

(Please note: James O’Leary currently holds a position in General Electric and in Vestas Wind Systems A/S . Henry James International currently owns a position in General Electric, and in Vestas Wind Systems A/S in client portfolios).

China’s Gray Rhino Financial Risks

In the financial sector black swan events are those which are unlikely to happen but, if they did, would have a huge impact on the country and they are nearly impossible to predict. The elephant in the room is an event that everyone is aware of but no one wants to address. A new animal has recently been added to the list of financial risks – the gray rhino. A gray rhino risk is an event that is highly probable and high-impact that officials have neglected to address. China is currently facing just such a risk as debt has built up in Chinese banks and firms due to the unregulated shadow banking system.

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China’s economic growth is founded on a system of credit and the growing debt levels have surged China’s non-financial debt-to-GDP ratio to over 250%. Having neglected to curb bank borrowing previously, President Xi has now begun efforts to prevent a financial crisis which could negatively effect the domestic economy and result in social unrest. However, the current situation presents somewhat of a catch 22. Tackling debt levels would result in a sharp drop in growth, meaning a large portion of the population could find themselves without employment. If left as it is with no attempts to solve the issues, the financial situation could lead to the banking system crashing.

As the government begins to address this long-standing issue, investors are worrying that risky assets, such as small stocks, may bear the brunt of the damage, as many of them are purchased using credit. The Shenzhen, China’s small-cap index, fell by 4.3% on the 17th July while the tech-focussed ChiNext index closed the day at 5.1%, its lowest point since 2015. The government’s expansion of regulation into more aspects of the economy, rather than just financial sector excesses as before, has prompted many investors to sell off their domestic stocks. If Chinese stocks suffer as a result of efforts to rectify the gray rhino risk, the effects could be felt in other countries. In a global market, if a country as influential as China experiences problems other areas will follow.

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Despite the issue of bank debt finally being addressed by the Chinese government, the country’s growth in the second quarter of 2017 was still 6.9%, a faster rate of growth than predicted. While this puts China back on track to meet its growth target this year, it means that the country is still heavily relying on debt-fuelled investments to develop GDP. To target the gray rhino risks, China should address problems that could arise from liquidity, shadow banking, credit, and avoid falling victim to price bubbles in the insurance and property markets. The outcome otherwise could be negative for China’s economy.

Decline of the Silver Screen Industry?

How consumers choose to view movies has been changing over the past few years with a move towards home viewing using companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. This viewing trend is beginning to take its toll on both film and television studios, as theatres are becoming a less popular option for viewings. Currently Americans spend around $11 billion on going to movie theatres every year and a further $12 billion on home video rental and purchase (both physical and digital). Home purchase, however, was down by 7% in 2016, compared with the previous year, while subscription streaming leapt up by 23% in the same time period to $6.23 billion.

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Film companies are beginning to tap into the financial benefits they could reap from employing more watch on demand options when it comes to new films. Premium video on demand (VOD) has the potential to be two to three times more valuable to studios that movie ticket sales, and, as a result, some Hollywood studios are looking into the benefits of in-home releases of new movies. These early-release films would be available to see at the same time as, or shortly after, theatre release and would cost home viewers around $30 to $50 in comparison to the $5 to $7 currently paid to view movies months after the release day.

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While this shift in focus to subscription streaming could benefit, and boost revenue, of Hollywood movie studios, the impact could be negative for movie theatre companies. In the past two months Imax China has seen share prices fall dramatically. Nomura analyst Richard Huang has said that four reasons were put forward for this drop, one being wide-spread concern that there is a drop in consumer interest for premium movie viewing experiences and that, as a result, Imax will begin to face structural market share loss. This, and the other three reasons – concern over dwindling popularity of Hollywood blockbusters, a belief by some that Imax is choosing the wrong movies to screen, and the suggestion that the majority of new Imax screens have been installed in lower-tier cities – has resulted in Imax stock values falling by 40%.

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As the movie industry moves into this state of transition, several companies within the sector have seen drops in stock price. Opening on the 5th of July Walt Disney shares were down 1.4% to $105.98, while Lions Gate Entertainment experienced a drop of 1.3% to $27.77, and Regal Entertainment Group declined to $20.07, down 1.5%. It remains to be seen if this downward trend will continue for movie companies or if the proposed, alternative audience viewing options will reverse the losses.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Netflix, Amazon Prime, Imax China, Walt Disney, Lions Gate Entertainment, or Regal Entertainment Group. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Netflix, Amazon Prime, Imax China, Walt Disney, Lions Gate Entertainment, or Regal Entertainment Group, for any client portfolios).

The Robotics Revolution

As research in the robotics sector continues to advance so does investment interest in it, as well as the switch from human contribution within a variety of sectors to the use of robots within the same roles. This has seen many companies benefit from the new technologies, through streamlining of processes with automation.

Baxter, a working robot © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

In a recent deal Google has sold its advanced engineering and robotics unit, Boston Dynamics, to Japanese multinational company Softbank. The acquisition, which is believed to have been for around $100 million is just one of many recent acquisitions by Softbank, as part of its $100 billion tech investment “Vision Fund”. They have also recently taken over British chip designer, ARM Holdings for $32 billion, and office space start up WeWork for £300 million.

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Following the introduction of their dual-arm collective robot in 2015, Swiss industrial company ABB has experienced significant growth in interest, with their American depository receipts having gained 11% since March 2017. In fact, many robotic stocks have remained attractive to long-term investors, with German robotics company Kuka up 9% and Rockwell Automation, an American industrial automation company, up 7% since March 2017. The fear with the rapid growth of this industry is that many people may lost their jobs as companies choose to automate more and more of their processes. However, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, believes that, at least in the first part of the revolution, robots will actually help to make existing workers more efficient in their roles, rather than replacing them.

While this may be the case in some companies, in others the threat of replacement by robots is more immediate. Following Amazon’s $13.7 million deal to acquire Whole Foods, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos plans to automate the warehouses of both companies with a new fleet of robots, aimed at streamlining the distribution process. This could potentially put thousands of employees out of work in America, as well as in Canada and the UK. However, currently, Amazon’s hiring rates have not been affected, with employee numbers up 43% on last year, with 351,000 employees at the end of March, and the full effect of bringing in new robots awaits to be seen.

Asimo at the Robots exhibition © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The future of manual work within big industries remains uncertain, however, interest in the robotics industry seems set to continue growing. As new products are continuously developed their uses within various sectors will continue to expand.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Kuka, Rockwell Automation, Amazon, Whole Foods or Google. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Kuka, Rockwell Automation, Amazon, Whole Foods or Google, for any client portfolios).

(Please note: James O’Leary does currently hold a position in ABB, General Electric, Boston Dynamics, or Softbank. Henry James International does currently own a position in ABB, General Electric, Boston Dynamics, or Softbank for any client portfolios).

Market Overview – Australia’s Recent Finance and Retail Activity

Recent financial developments in Australia have signalled overall positive growth in several sectors, including areas of technology and finance, while in the retail sector recent announcements may have negative impacts on national businesses in the short term.

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A recent dip in interest rates has eased up mortgage stress, with the number of mortgage holders in Australia considered “at risk”, dropping by 1.6% in the last year, from 744,000 to 660,000, making up 16.8% of all mortgage holders compared to the previous 18.4%. While this is a move in the right direction, those with lower incomes are still at a higher mortgage risk. Of mortgage holders with a household income over $100,000 per annum only 1% were considered to be “at risk” while this jumped to 85.3% of mortgage holders with an income of under $60,000. If interest rates continue in this downward trend fewer mortgage holders may be considered “at risk” however, an appreciation in interest rates will abruptly have the opposite affect.

The Australian state of Victoria is experiencing changes in another area of the financial sector with the release of development plans by the Victorian government, announcing the establishment of a fintech center in Melbourne. According to the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews the hope is that this will not only strengthen the Australian fintech sector by bringing together start-up companies with investors, researchers, and industry corporates in one work space, but that it will also create new jobs in the area. Technology is fast changing the way the financial sector works and the plans for this fintech hub will provide Victoria with the opportunity to win a bigger share of the industry.

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While developments with in the financial technology sector are positive, Amazon’s announcement of their $13.7 million bid for the grocery company Whole Foods has had a drastic effect on Australia’s retail sector. Supermarket company Woolworths experienced a drop in value of 3% while Metcash fell 1.7% and Wesfarmers, the operators of the supermarket chain Coles, dropped by 1% following the announcement. Companies in the electronic appliance field have also noticed depreciations as Amazon announced their bid to expand into the grocery sector. JB Hi-Fi is down 18% this year while Harvey Norman dropped 25%, and its stocks are down by 2%. Alongside the acquisition of Whole Foods, these drops are fuelled by Amazon’s intention to expand across Australia this year. Many analysts believe that this will have further negative effects on Australian companies, as Amazon eats into their earnings.

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(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Amazon, Whole Foods, Woolworths, Metcash, Wesfarmers, Coles, JB Hi-FI, or Harvey Norman. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Amazon, Whole Foods, Woolworths, Metcash, Wesfarmers, Coles, JB Hi-FI, or Harvey Norman. for any client portfolios).

Post-Election Economic Activity

The results of the UK general election on June 8th have left many factors in a state of uncertainty in Britain. The country has been left with a hung parliament, with the Conservatives only securing 318 seats of the 326 they needed to win a majority. This political result has had effects, both positive and negative, on areas of the economy and investment markets.

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Previous trends have shown that, when there is anticipated disturbance in the political sector, investments in commodities such as gold increase as people try to hedge their bets against economic losses. In the run up to the election, there was increase of 64% in people investing in gold for the first time, while numbers of financial professionals buying physical gold were up 49% in the week leading up to the vote.

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Following the announcement of a narrow Conservative win the sterling experienced a sudden drop of 2% in value against the dollar to $1.2683, its lowest level in two months though it regained a little ground back up to $1.27 on Friday the 9th. It is predicted that sterling will continue to experience some level of volatility in the short term.

While the election results have hit some areas of the economy negatively, others are thriving after the news. The FTSE 100 ended on the 8th of June up 1%, while the Stoxx Europe 600 experienced an increase of 0.3%. Global businesses, such as Diageo, Reckitt Benkiser, and Unilever also observed upward movement, all trading at around 1.5% higher by the 9th. Increased value of shares of exporting companies, which make up three quarters of the FTSE 100, are expected to do better as the weakened currency is likely to rise income earned abroad.

The narrowness of the Conservative win will have an impact on how the upcoming Brexit negotiations are carried out as well. Theresa May gambled the Conservative status as the ruling party in the hope of gaining an even stronger position in the negotiations however, this has backfired with no party having an overall majority in the UK parliament. The weakened Conservative position means that a more lenient Brexit deal may be agreed on as opposed to the “hard” Brexit that May hoped for, with no trade deal.

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As the Conservative party enters into discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) about a possible coalition, economic uncertainty may continue. This coalition would see the DUP adding their 10 parliamentary seats to the Conservative seats, giving the party the majority it needs to pass legislation, and gain a stronger hold over the Brexit negotiations.