Closing summary

Wall Street has edged higher at the open and the UK’s FTSE 100 and France’s CAC 40 hare also trading cautiously higher now, reversing earlier losses (up 0.29% and 0.17% respectively). The European Stoxx 600 index has also turned positive, up 0.17%. Germany’s Dax is flat and Italy’s FTSE MiB has slipped 0.2%.

Stocks have had a tough week and suffered heavy losses yesterday, pressured by concerns over rising Covid-19 infections, slowing economic growth in China, and the prospect of the US Federal Reserve starting to taper its asset-purchase programme later this year. More details are expected at the Jackson Hole central banker symposium next week.

AstraZeneca said today that its treatment AZD7442, a combination of two long-acting antibodies, reduced the risk of developing symptomatic Covid-19 by 77% compared to a placebo.

Our main stories today:

Retail sales in Great Britain suffered a sharp unexpected fall in July after a mini-boom during football’s European Championship a month earlier, according to official figures.

UK public borrowing almost halved to £10.4bn in July compared with the same month last year. This is good news for Rishi Sunak. But there is trouble ahead for the chancellor as he considers how much money to give government departments in his three-year spending review.

Apple has told its global workforce they will not return to its corporate offices until January at the earliest, over concerns about a rise in Covid-19 cases driven by the spread of the Delta variant.

I’m being asked to go back to the office, what are my rights?- here’s a handy Q&A.

Shares in Marks & Spencer jumped 11% after the embattled retailer issued a surprise profit upgrade, as the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions helped sales bounce back to better than pre-pandemic levels in parts of its business.

The UK competition watchdog has found that Nvidia’s takeover of UK-based chip designer Arm has raised serious competition concerns, and has launched an in-depth investigation into the US company’s $40bn (£29.5bn) deal, my colleague Mark Sweney reports.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that the controversial deal could reduce competition in markets reliant on semiconductor chips, which act as the “brain” in all electronic devices, which could in turn raise prices of products from cars and games consoles to mobile phones and data centres.

Ominously, the CMA rejected a behavioural remedy offered by Nvidia - in effect a guarantee from the company not to engage in anti-competitive practices - saying that it “does not believe any form of behavioural remedy would address the competition concerns identified”.

Elon Musk said he would probably launch a humanoid robot prototype next year, dubbed the “Tesla Bot”, which is designed to do “boring, repetitious and dangerous” work.

Thank you for reading and commenting! Have a fab weekend. We’ll be back next week. Bye!- JK

Nvidia has been quick to issue a brief statement:

We look forward to the opportunity to address the CMA’s initial views and resolve any concerns the government may have. We remain confident that this transaction will be beneficial to Arm, its licensees, competition, and the UK.

Wall Street edges higher

On Wall Street, stocks edged higher at the open but the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 are still on course for their worst week since mid-June, amid concerns over rising Covid infections, slowing growth in China and. the possible tapering of monetary stimulus in the US later this year.

  • Dow Jones up 23 points to 34,917
  • S&P 500 up nearly 5 points, or 0.1%, at 4,410
  • Nasdaq up almost 30 points, or 0.2%, to 14,571

Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at Markets.com, says:

The CMA looks like it might torpedo Nvidia’s attempted takeover of Arm... The CMA is progressing to a detailed phase 2 investigation and this means the deal is in serious trouble. The CMA itself cites grave competition concerns – notably the fact that Arm’s tech is used by various chipmakers in competition with Nvidia.

But we also know there are national security concerns, too, and a public interest test is already being applied to the deal. Secretary of state Oliver Dowden will decide whether the merger should be referred for an in-depth Phase 2 investigation on both competition and national security grounds, or if it should be passed back to the CMA to investigate on competition grounds only. Either the defence argument or the competition angle ought to be enough to block the deal, I feel. And ultimately it would be great to see Arm shares trade on the FTSE – if SoftBank were to let it go.

What is unclear is the extent to which this signals unease in Whitehall about UK plc being on sale. The CMA is only reviewing from a competition point of view at present. That alone may be enough to scupper Nvidia’s advances. But several deals have lately caught the attention and there is a sense of there being a raid on top British companies. Tory governments don’t like to be too interventionist – Britain is open for business and all that – but they also don’t like to appear asleep at the wheel when blue chips get hoovered up.

Whether it’s Morrisons, Vectura Meggitt or Ultra Electronics, the raiders seem to be picking up assets on the cheap. Does the CMA’s escalation tell us something is afoot in Whitehall to stop them? Maybe, but the CMA has only a narrow competition mandate at this point. But we do know the Ultra Electronics deal with US private equity-owned Cobham is being investigated, too. Advent has already sold off a good chunk of the old Cobham – why should Ultra be fed to the wolves as well? Hopefully the government is starting to show a bit more backbone.

Updated

Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, raised national security concerns about the Nvidia-Arm deal in April. He will now decide whether the merger should be referred for an in-depth phase 2 investigation on both competition and national security grounds, or if it should be passed back to the CMA to investigate on competition grounds only.

UK's CMA: Nvidia takeover of Arm raises 'serious competition concerns'

Britain’s competition watchdog has found that US company Nvidia’s $40bn (£30bn) takeover of the UK-based chipmaker Arm raises “serious competition concerns”.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it has determined that an in-depth investigation into the deal is required. It started investigating the contentious deal in January.

Arm Holdings, which employs 6,500 staff including 3,000 in the UK, is a global leader in designing chips for smartphones, computers and tablets. California-based Nvidia, a graphics chip specialist, announced its plan to buy the British tech group from Japan’s SoftBank in September.

Should the deal go ahead, the CMA is concerned that the merged business would have the ability and incentive to harm the competitiveness of Nvidia’s rivals by restricting access to Arm’s intellectual property. Arm’s IP is used by companies that produce semiconductor chips and related products, in competition with Nvidia.

This comes as other recent foreign takeovers of UK companies have sparked concerns about the impact on the economy and national security. Two days ago, the business minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, told the CMA to investigate the takeover of the British defence firm Ultra Electronics by a US private equity company.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said:

We’re concerned that Nvidia controlling Arm could create real problems for Nvidia’s rivals by limiting their access to key technologies, and ultimately stifling innovation across a number of important and growing markets. This could end up with consumers missing out on new products, or prices going up.

The chip technology industry is worth billions and is vital to products that businesses and consumers rely on every day. This includes the critical data processing and datacentre technology that supports digital businesses across the economy, and the future development of artificial intelligence technologies that will be important to growth industries like robotics and self-driving cars.

The graphics computer chip maker Nvidia’s $40bn purchase of chip designer Arm Holdings has raised serious concerns about its effect on competition.
The graphics computer chip maker Nvidia’s $40bn purchase of chip designer Arm Holdings has raised serious concerns about its effect on competition. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

Here is more analysis of the UK’s public finances from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and a look ahead to the three-year spending review in October.

Alison Ring, ICAEW public sector director, said:

Last month registered the second-highest July deficit on record, which further emphasises the weak fiscal foundations underpinning the upcoming three-year Spending Review in October.

There is a difficult choice to be made on the state pension, which at over £105bn a year is the second largest individual item in the public sector budget after the NHS. Sticking with the triple lock formula could make a significant contribution to increasing pensioner incomes, but would reduce the amount available for public services by tens of billions of pounds over the coming decade.

While there is borrowing capacity to fund temporary spending needs such as tackling the NHS waiting list backlog, the Chancellor has some very tough decisions to make the public finances more sustainable. It remains to be seen if he can restrain growth in overall public spending and maintain manifesto commitments to not raise the main rates of tax, while delivering on social care reform and other long-term pledges.

Global shares on course for biggest weekly drop since February

Global shares are falling for the fifth day in a row, putting them on course for the biggest weekly drop since February, as traders worried about rising coronavirus cases, slower Chinese econmic growth and the Fed’s taper of its asset purchase programme. The MSCI World index, a broad gauge of global shares, fell as much as 0.7% today.

The dollar is holding firm as investors sought out safer investments. The dollar index, which measures the greenback against six other currencies, rose to 93.685 for the first time since early November. Gold, another safe haven investment, increased 0.2% to $1,784 an ounce, and is heading for its second week off gains.

Deutsche Bank analyst Henry Allen said:

The Delta variant remains the biggest worry for investors right now, and along with the question of waning vaccine efficacy has made the risks to the outlook much more pronounced relative to just a few months ago.

However, nervousness about possible tapering by the Fed ahead of next week’s Jackson Hole speech by chair [Jerome] Powell, along with a potential Chinese growth slowdown have further played on investors’ minds, and brought the narrative a long way from the reflation hopes many had back in the first quarter.

Chinese tech stocks listed in Hong Kong tumbled, with the tech sub index finishing 2.5% lower, after state media reported that China’s National People’s Congress passed a law designed to protect online user data privacy, which is expected to lead to more compliance requirements for companies.

Here is our full story on Elon Musk’s “Telsa Bot”.

Elon Musk to launch 'Tesla Bot' next year

Elon Musk said he will probably launch a humanoid robot prototype next year, dubbed the “Tesla Bot”, which is designed to do “boring, repetitious and dangerous” work, reports my colleague Mark Sweney.

The billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla said that the robot, which would be about 5ft 8 inches tall and weigh 125 pounds, would be able to handle tasks such as attaching bolts to cars with a wrench or picking up groceries at stores.

Musk, speaking at Tesla’s AI Day event, said that the robot could have “profound implications for the economy” by being able to plug gaps in the workforce created by labour shortages. Musk said that it is important that the new machine is not “super expensive”.

He described it as an extension of Tesla’s work on building self-driving cars, with the robot set to use the same computer chip and navigation system using eight cameras.

Elon Musk, head of Tesla, stands on the construction site of the Tesla Gigafactory. In Grünheide near Berlin in September 2020.
Elon Musk, head of Tesla, stands on the construction site of the Tesla Gigafactory. In Grünheide near Berlin in September 2020. Photograph: Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB

Summary

Time to recap. European stocks are still falling, but the declines are relatively small after yesterday’s heavy losses. Oil prices are down for a seventh day.

Here is our full story on the 2.5% surprise fall in retail sales in Great Britain and the improvement in the government’s finances.

Our analysis of the public finances: There is good news for Rishi Sunak in the latest public borrowing figures. But there is trouble ahead for the chancellor as he considers how much money to give government departments in his three-year spending review.

Apple is delaying its return to corporate offices from October until January at the earliest because of rising Covid-19 cases and concerns about new variants.

Oil companies have used false claims over the cost of producing fossil fuel hydrogen to win over the Treasury and access billions in taxpayer subsidies, according to the outgoing hydrogen lobby boss.

Updated

All eyes on Morrisons' suitor Fortress

The battle for Morrisons entered another round when it announced last night that it had agreed a £7bn takeover by the US private equity group Clayton, Dubilier & Rice in a fierce fight for control of the UK’s fourth largest supermarket chain.

All eyes are now on rival suitor Fortress – will it come back with a higher offer? After the new CD&R bid, the US investment group responded with a brief statement, saying it was “considering its options” and urged shareholders “to take no action”.

The CD&R bid trumps the £6.7bn on the table from Fortress. The investment group already owns Majestic Wine, and is itself owned by the Japanese investment company SoftBank.

There are suggestions that the UK Takeover Panel could intervene and announce an auction, as it did initially with the asthma inhaler maker Vectura (whose board last week recommended a £1.1bn takeover bid from Philip Morris International to shareholders).

Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco chief executive, is one of CD&R’s senior advisers. He worked alongside Higginson and David Potts, the Morrisons chief executive, during his long reign at Tesco.

In a video message Leahy described Morrisons as a “great business with a great future”. CD&R were excited about working with Potts and the rest of the management team to “create more success for all of its stakeholders”, he said.

Two US groups in bidding war to buy WM Morrison supermarket.
Two US groups in bidding war to buy WM Morrison supermarket. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Danni Hewson, financial analyst at the stockbroker AJ Bell, says:

Supermarkets were one of retail’s big lockdown winners and the allure of those retail juggernauts has been clearly visible over the past weeks as the battle to takeover Morrisons has pulled no punches. In the dying minutes of what could be the final round, first bidder CDR got its second wind and delivered a £7bn knockdown offer.

Will Fortress pick itself of the mat and find another level? It is a real possibility. Morrisons is unique, its production capabilities make it extremely attractive at a time supply is becoming a huge issue and the Japanese bank behind Fortress has deep pockets. Then there’s the Amazon factor. No one really expects they’ll table a bid, but even their position on the field is huge factor.

However, Clayton, Dubilier and Rice always seemed like the more natural fit for the Yorkshire business. Its forecourt operation might require a few tweaks to please the UK’s competition watchdog but adding Morrisons’ to the portfolio will put them in a strong position to be at the forefront of the switch to electric.

It won’t hurt shareholder sentiment that retail royalty Sir Terry Leahy is a senior advisor on this deal and he took the opportunity last night to play on emotions, spotlighting his relationship with the late Sir Ken Morrison. But ultimately this is a numbers game and in business sentiment often only goes so far.

AstraZeneca releases positive results from Covid-19 antibody therapy

AstraZeneca said its treatment AZD7442, a combination of two long-acting antibodies, reduced the risk of developing symptomatic Covid-19 by 77% compared to a placebo. There were no cases of severe disease or deaths in those treated with the therapy while in the placebo arm, there were three cases of severe Covid-19 including two deaths.

Myron J. Levin, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and principal investigator on the trial, said:

The PROVENT data show that one dose of AZD7442, delivered in a convenient intramuscular form, can quickly and effectively prevent symptomatic Covid-19. With these exciting results, AZD7442 could be an important tool in our arsenal to help people who may need more than a vaccine to return to their normal lives.

JUST IN: AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 antibody cocktail was found to be 77% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid in high-risk people https://t.co/T6BR2DgKWX

— Bloomberg (@business) August 20, 2021

Updated

FTSE set for worst week since January

European shares are a sea of red again, although losses are limited, compared to yesterday’s chunky falls.

The FTSE 100 is on track for its worst week since January. Today the index is being dragged down by AstraZeneca after the drugmaker halted a late-state clinical trial, and news that retail sales in Great Britain fell sharply in July.

AstraZeneca shares fell 1% after it announced that its newly acquired Alexion division, a rare diseases specialist, was stopping a late-stage trial of a treatment for a rare, fatal neurodegenerative disease. However, it also released positive test results from an antibody treatment to prevent Covid-19 (more in the next post.

  • UK’s FTSE 100 down 15 points, or 0.2%, at 7,043
  • Germany’s Dax down 92 points, or 0.6%, at 15,672
  • France’s CAC down 29 points, or 0.4%, at 6,576
  • Italy’s FTSE MiB down 114 points, or 0.4%, at 25,818

US stock futures are pointing to declines of 0.36% (for the Nasdaq) to 0.5% (for the Dow Jones and S&P 500) on Wall Street later.

M&S shares jump after rare profit upgrade

Marks & Spencer has surprised investors with a rare profit upgrade, sending its shares soaring by as much as 12% (now up nearly 11%).

M&S, one of the biggest names on the high street, enjoyed a jump in demand for food and a surge in online orders for clothes and items for the home, indicating that its turnaround plan is working. Food revenues leapt 10.8% in the 19 weeks to 14 August compared with last year, and 9.6% on 2019/20.

M&S said it had switched to “more focused ranges, fewer promotions and a substantially smaller summer sale” in clothing and home, which paid off. Full-price sales were up 9% on 2019/20, while online sales surged nearly 62%. The company has added third-party clothing and footwear brands to its website.

M&S now expects adjusted profit before tax for the year to hit the top end of previous guidance of £300 to £350m, assuming there are no further Covid-related restrictions on trading.

A woman walks past a M&S store on Oxford Street in London, Britain.
A woman walks past a M&S store on Oxford Street in London, Britain. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Updated

Turning to the UK public finance figures, they showed a bigger than expected improvement in July. The government borrowed £10.4bn, amid a fall in the number of workers on furlough and a rise in self-assessed income tax receipts. City economists had forecast borrowing of almost £12bn. Compared to July last year, borrowing almost halved (but it was still the second-highest July borrowing on record).

It comes as chancellor Rishi Sunak weighs options for the spending review this autumn, which sets out funding for Whitehall departments. The chancellor said the latest borrowing figures showed the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic was “well underway, boosted by the huge amount of support government has provided”.

Hoa Duong, economist at PwC, has crunched the numbers.

The government is in a much stronger financial position than last month according to today’s public finances data, with borrowing halving in July at £10.4bn. This is largely driven by 13% increases in tax receipts and a 5% decrease in government spending compared to June.

Today’s data also shows an impressive recovery in self-assessed income tax and business rates, together contributing nearly £11bn to the government budget, twice the amount received in this time last year. With the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ending next month, all eyes are on business and wages recovery which seems to have withstood the test of 10% increases in employer contributions to furloughed worker salaries from July 2021.

Despite triple economic shocks caused by supply, demand and financial factors, there have been early signs to show the chancellor that he should expect the UK’s public finances to have limited scars in the long run as government borrowing is now nearly at the pre-Covid levels and net debt has started to fall below the GDP levels.

Updated

The FTSE has turned negative again, trading some 10 points lower at 7,048, a 0.15% drop.

FTSE rises at the open, rest of Europe flat to slightly lower

Stock markets have opened in London and the rest of Europe. The UK’s FTSE 100 index has risen 23 points to 7,082, a 0.3% gain (following its sharp drop of 1.5% yesterday).

But elsewhere, markets are slipping again. Germany’s Dax and Spain’s Ibex have edged down 0.2% while France’s CAC and Italy’s FTSE MiB are flat, following yesterday’s heavy losses.

Updated

Martin Beck, senior economic advisor to the EY ITEM Club, says the fall in retail sales is down to three factors:

First, June’s Euro 2020-related rise in sales in food stores unwound. Second, there is likely to have been some impact from the fact that the number of people told to self-isolate by the Covid-19 app in July was nearly three times the June total, constraining retail footfall. And third, with restrictions continuing to be relaxed, consumers will have spent more on social consumption at the expense of the retail sector.

Looking ahead, the normalisation of spending patterns is likely to remain a key theme. Increased opportunities for social consumption, and a high degree of pent-up demand for these services, points to consumers switching back to spending a higher proportion of their money in these areas, at the expense of the retail sector. But there is likely to be some mitigation from the fact that the broader environment for consumer spending is very positive, with restrictions on mobility having been lifted, household incomes more resilient, and some consumers sitting on large levels of ‘excess’ savings accumulated over the pandemic.

So, while the extent to which the retail sector outperforms the wider economy should narrow in the second half, the EY ITEM Club expects this to mean that retail sales stabilise, rather than continue to fall significantly.

While retail sales fell sharply between June and July, they were 5.8% higher than in February 2020, before the impact of coronavirus.

People still shop online: the proportion of sales online went up to nearly 28% in July from 27% in June – much higher than before the pandemic when online sales were just under 20%.

Here is some instant reaction to the fall in July retail sales. Aled Patchett, head of retail and consumer goods at Lloyds Bank, said:

With the UK’s recovery lagging behind that of other major economies, the return of holidays, social events including weddings and the general easing of restrictions last month hasn’t turbocharged consumer spending in the way many hoped it might have.

Significant caveats remain as retailers’ attention turns to the upcoming ‘golden quarter’. For example, inflation is expected to continue affecting pricing, leaving brands caught between the rock and hard place of deciding between passing on price increases to consumers or sacrificing margin. Meanwhile global shipping issues are already contributing to stock shortages in a range of sub-categories – particularly food and drink.

As with last year, this could see shoppers front-load the traditional Christmas spending window as they are asked to select from a leaner menu of gifts and goods than usual.

Underwhelming start to Q3 for the UK economy - retail sales down 2.5% m/m in July 2021, largest fall since the lockdown driven drop in Jan-21.

Food (-1.5%), non-food (-4.4%) sales decline sharply & first fall in fuel sales (-2.9%) since Feb-21. pic.twitter.com/NB7Pw87P3e

— Suren Thiru (@Suren_Thiru) August 20, 2021

Introduction: Retail sales in Great Britain fall sharply as Euro boost wanes

Good morning, and welcome to our rolling coverage of the world economy, the financial markets, the eurozone and business.

Retail sales in Great Britain fell sharply in July, as the boost from the Euro 2020 football tournament faded and people dined out more, and so bought less food and drink to consume at home.

Retail sales volumes dropped 2.5% from the month before, according to the Office for National Statistics, while economists had expected a small rise of 0.4%. In June, sales rose by 0.5%.

Food sales declined 1.5% last month after a 3.9% increase in June when sales were boosted by the Euros. Petrol and diesel sales fell 2.9%, the first monthly decline since February, as heavy rainfall in early July led to fewer cars on the road.

Clothes and household goods stores both reported declines of 2% while department stores were the only sector to report monthly growth, of 0.2%.

The ONS said transportation delays had resulted in shortages of some items, such as electrical goods. Other non-food stores such as chemists, toy stores and sports retailers suffered a 10.1% drop, the first monthly decline since February, driven by second-hand goods stores and computer and telecoms equipment retailers.

Our latest data show retail sales fell by an estimated 2.5% in July 2021 compared with June 2021.

This is 5.8% higher than their pre-pandemic February 2020 levels https://t.co/zHf7yPqIWY pic.twitter.com/FvF5iPV53u

— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) August 20, 2021

Separate figures showed that the UK government borrowed £10.4bn last month – this was the second-highest July borrowing since monthly records began in 1993, but £10.1 billion less than in July 2020.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said:

Our recovery from the pandemic is well underway, boosted by the huge amount of support Government has provided.

But the last 18 months have had a huge impact on our economy and public finances, and many risks remain.

We’re committed to keeping the public finances on a sustainable footing, which is why at the budget in March I set out the steps we are taking to keep debt under control in the years to come.

Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks was £10.4 billion in July 2021.

This was the second-highest July borrowing since monthly records began in 1993, but £10.1 billion less than in July 2020 https://t.co/ON50Rs82jt pic.twitter.com/eimHfJDDpU

— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) August 20, 2021

Apple is delaying its return to corporate offices from October until January at the earliest because of rising Covid-19 cases and concerns about new variants. The iPhone maker told staff in a memo that it would confirm the reopening plans one month before employees are required to return to the office, according to Bloomberg News.

European markets are set to open slightly lower after experiencing their worst day in month yesterday as investors worried about the spread of the Delta virus, slowing economic growth in China, and the US Federal Reserve’s plans to taper its asset-purchase programme this year.

The FTSE 100 index in London closed 1.5% lower, Germany’s Dax lost 1.2% and France’s CAC slumped 2.4%. Wall Street fared better, where the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq recovered to finish slightly higher at 0.1% while the Dow Jones slipped 0.19%.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei lost 1.1%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng tumbled 2% and the Australian market slipped 0.2%. Japanese carmakers got hammered on the back of Toyota’s decision to cut car production in September, with Toyota shares losing 5%.

China’s biggest technology stocks including Tencent and Alibaba dropped after Beijing approved a strict data privacy law, intensifying concerns among investors over China’s regulatory crackdown.

Updated

Contributors

Julia Kollewe

The GuardianTramp

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