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23/01/24 Briefing

The FTSE 100 has made a bright start to the day after US markets hit record highs, while better-than-expected borrowing figures spelt good news for the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

At 8:15am, London’s blue-chip index was up 18.52 points, 0.3%, at 7,506.23 while the FTSE 250 was up 38.93 points, 0.2%, at 19,114.57. 

Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics said public borrowing in December undershot the OBR’s forecast by £6.2 billion primarily because consumer price inflation has slowed more decisively than it anticipated, driving a £5.5 billion undershoot in debt interest payments.

He thinks the Chancellor will “almost certainly” cut personal taxes in his Budget to “improve his party’s chances in the general election.”

He noted a decision to scrap the increase in fuel duty planned for April would cost the Exchequer £3.7 billion, while a £500 increase in the income tax personal allowance would cost a further £3.3 billion. 

Hunt, however, likely will “not be much bolder than this, given that large tax cuts would reduce the MPC’s scope to cut Bank Rate this year and the Conservatives cannot risk pushing up mortgage rates again,” Tombs thinks.

In company news, AB Foods rose 0.4% after reporting strong Christmas trading at Primark, alongside double digit revenue growth in its Sugar and Agriculture businesses.

Richard Hunter, Head of Markets at interactive investor, commented “Primark remains the engine of growth for the business, with its value offerings still hitting the spot with an increasingly cost-conscious consumer.”

“Despite a slow start to the quarter given some unseasonably warm weather, Primark was back with a bang for Christmas.”

Investors were also raising a glass to Marston’s after punters flocked to its pubs to share a Christmas tipple.

Liberum described Marston’s Christmas trading as “strong” with like-for-like sales of 8.1% over the period and total sales up 8.8% ahead of the market with the CGA RSM Hospitality Business Tracker reporting LFL sales of 7.2% for pubs over a similar period. 

Shares rose 3.5%.

Elsewhere, Compass fell 1.2% after HSBC downgraded to ‘hold’ from ‘buy’.

Crest Nicholson poaches Persimmon's Clark as new CEO

Housebuilder Crest Nicholson has named Persimmon's Martyn Clark as its new chief executive, replacing Peter Truscott, who is retiring after joining the firm in 2019.

Clark is currently the chief commercial officer at rival Persimmon, and will join Crest later in 2024.

The firm, which recently issued a profit warning, said revenue in the year ended October 31 fell 28% year-on-year to £657.5 million from £913.6 million, while pretax profit slipped 30% to £23.1 million from £32.8 million.

Home completions dropped similarly by 26% to 2,020 from 2,734.

The total dividend was unchanged at 17.0 pence per share.

"Recently there has been some positive macro trends with inflation and mortgage rates falling, which bode well for the housing sector. Although it is too early to gauge customer behaviour, we have been encouraged by an increase in customer interest levels and inquiries this calendar year," said outgoing CEO Truscott.

UK borrowing less than expected in boost for Chancellor

The UK government borrowed less than expected in December, a boost to chancellor Jeremy Hunt as he prepares to unveil the Budget in March as a general election looms.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed public sector borrowing fell to £7.8 billion last month, around half the sum borrowed a year earlier and the lowest figure for a December since 2019. 

It was also well below City forecasts of around £14 billion.

The figure, was driven down by inflation-related debt interest costs, and is substantially lower than the £14 billion estimate for the month from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s fiscal watchdog.

Central government debt interest payable was £4.0 billion in December, £14.1 billion less than in December 2022 and the lowest December figure since 2020.

Borrowing in the financial year-to-December 2023 was £119.1 billion, £11.1 billion more than in the same nine-month period the previous year and the fourth-highest financial year-to-December borrowing on record.

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