Personal Wealth Management / Market Analysis

A Market Lesson in Pre-Pricing From Britain’s ‘Windfall’ Tax

In our view, markets saw last week’s bad news coming.

Here are two things that might seem logically related: Two big UK Energy firms announced last week the government’s windfall profits tax wrecked their Q2 earnings and curtailed North Sea investment plans accordingly, and UK stocks’ bad month has put them back near correction territory.[i] Thus, here is something that might surprise you: UK Energy stocks are up month to date, albeit with some sharp volatility along the way.[ii] We think this is a pretty striking reminder of how markets deal with bad news well in advance.

The tax, introduced in May 2022, added a 25% surtax on Energy firms’ profits—on top of the headline 40% rate, bringing the total to 65%.[iii] The goal? Redistribute profits that stemmed from a factor outside businesses’ control (in this case, spiking oil and natural gas prices following Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion) to the households affected by said energy prices.[iv] Knowing high taxes discourage investment, the government sought to blunt the impact by including an 80% investment allowance, which the Treasury described as “a 91p tax saving for every £1 [firms] invest.”[v] In November, the government announced the windfall tax rate would jump to 35% on January 1, 2023—bringing the total marginal rate to 75%—and sunset in 2028 rather than 2025.[vi] The investment allowance remained, though, at the same cash value.

At the time, it wasn’t clear to us what the tax hit would be and whether the allowances were enough to preserve investment despite the apparent disincentive. Some large global firms said, anecdotally, that it was impacting their plans, but in our view, it was all rather speculative.[vii] Until last week, when one of the UK’s largest domestic producers announced it booked a post-tax loss in 2023’s first half, with its effective tax rate reaching 102% once currency moves were factored in.[viii] Another producer announced it was writing down assets and cancelling planned investments due to the tax.[ix] Now commentators we follow are warning that as companies write down the value of their North Sea oil and gas leases, bank funding will dry up, causing a vicious circle of lower production and lower investment.

Energy represents over 12% of MSCI UK IMI market capitalisation—far larger than global stocks’ sub-5% weight—which is a big reason UK stocks were amongst the world’s best performers last year, in our view.[x] And we think Energy, which lagged hard earlier this year (as we will show shortly), also had a lot to do with the initial throes of the UK’s 2023 correction.[xi] Yet, in our view, this doesn’t seem tied to the windfall tax—global oil prices seem a much likelier culprit. Brent crude oil prices’ -17.3% plunge between 6 March and 17 March coincided with a -7.5% drop in UK stocks, driven by UK Energy’s -14.5% plunge.[xii] Then the two rebounded with oil throughout April, and UK Energy has mostly tracked oil since.[xiii] With UK Energy stocks up slightly this month, we think British stocks’ sour returns seem more tied to the global market pullback than anything local.[xiv]

Logically, we wouldn’t expect the tax to have much effect on returns this year, even with the recent run of bad news. In our view, markets are too forward-looking for that. Exhibit 1 shows broad UK market and UK Energy returns since the end of April 2022. You may see Energy had a rough ride after the tax hit the wires that May, then enjoyed a lovely summer and autumn. Volatility surrounded the tax increase in November, but it didn’t prevent UK Energy stocks from galloping to new highs in February—by which time it was well known that companies were readjusting plans in response to the tax.

Exhibit 1: Markets Pre-Priced Taxes

 

Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI and MSCI UK Energy IMI total returns in GBP, 24/8/2021 – 24/8/2023.

Exhibit 2 presents an alternate way to see the pre-pricing mechanism at work. It shows UK Energy’s returns relative to global Energy stocks. As you will see, UK Energy underperformed, for the most part, between the windfall profits tax’s introduction and increase. Yet several months of outperformance followed, and UK and global Energy stocks are mostly even month to date.

Exhibit 2: Markets Pre-Priced Taxes, Alternate View

 

Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI total returns and MSCI UK Energy returns with net dividends in GBP, 24/8/2021 – 24/8/2023.

Draconian taxes aren’t great, in our view, and we suspect UK markets would be better off without this one. But they are also only one variable affecting profitability. For UK Energy firms, our research finds other factors include oil and gas prices, obviously, as well as currency swings (since oil is priced in US dollars), hedging costs and exploration and drilling costs, just to name a few. Interest rates also matter given the amount of leverage in the industry.[xv] This is rather a lot of headwinds at the moment, in our view, and it may be that companies are perhaps exaggerating the tax’s impact a wee bit to save face—much as firms will sometimes pin bad reports on currency or the weather, in our experience.

At any rate, we think the preceding charts indicate markets didn’t wait for last week’s bad news to incorporate the tax in stock prices. In our view, markets’ core job is evaluating potential profits 3 – 30 months out, and we find they are pretty good at doing those maths … and at moving on once they have done said maths. We doubt this time is different.


[i] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI total returns in GBP, 31/7/2023 – 25/8/2023. A correction is a sentiment-driven decline of around -10% to -20%. “Windfall Tax Has Forced Us to Scrap Energy Projects, Says North Sea Producer,” Matt Oliver, The Telegraph, 23/8/2023. Accessed via MSN. “Britain’s Largest Oil Producer Swings From $1bn Profit to Loss After Windfall Tax,” Jonathan Leake, The Telegraph, 24/8/2023. Accessed via MSN.

[ii] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI Energy total returns in GBP, 31/7/2023 – 25/8/2023.

[iii] “UK Hits Oil and Gas Companies With $6 Billion Windfall Tax,” Anna Cooban, CNN Business, 26/5/2022.

[iv] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. Brent crude oil price in USD and Dutch TTF natural gas price in GBP, 24/2/2022 – 24/6/2022. Of course, there are always factors in every business that are beyond their control, rendering this logic dubious, in our view.

[v] “Energy Profits Levy Factsheet – 26 May 2022,” HM Treasury, 26/5/2022.

[vi] “UK Expands Windfall Tax on Energy Firms to Fund Bills Cap,” Rachel Morison, Todd Gillespie, and Will Mathis, Bloomberg, 17/11/2022. Accessed via Investing.com.

[vii] “UK Oil and Gas Sector Warns Windfall Taxes Are Deterring Investment,” Gill Plimmer, Financial Times, 26/2/2023. Accessed via The Marcet.

[viii] See note i.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI World Index and MSCI UK IMI Index Energy sector weights and MSCI World and UK IMI total returns in GBP, 31/12/2021 – 31/12/2022. Market capitalisation is a measure of a firm’s size calculated by multiplying its share prices by the number of shares outstanding.

[xi] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI total returns in GBP, 31/12/2022 – 31/3/2023.

[xii] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. Brent crude oil price and MSCI UK IMI and MSCI UK IMI Energy total returns in GBP, 6/3/2023 – 17/3/2023.

[xiii] Ibid. Statement based on Brent crude oil price and MSCI UK IMI and MSCI UK IMI Energy total returns in GBP, 17/3/2023 – 25/8/2023.

[xiv] Source: FactSet, as of 25/8/2023. MSCI UK IMI Energy total returns in GBP and MSCI World Index returns with net dividends in GBP, 31/7/2023 – 25/8/2023.

[xv] Source: Company filings and Fisher Investments Research, as of 25/8/2023.

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