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RUTH SUNDERLAND: It’s sink or swim time for M&S

The pandemic might, just might, be a blessing in disguise for Marks & Spencer, unlikely as it may seem given the near £90million loss it has run up in just six months, its first in nearly a century of trading.

Let’s not underestimate the scale of the woe. The troubles afflicting chief executive Steve Rowe are not just Covid-induced, they are the product of at least two decades of boardroom failure.

If the most bitterly divisive US election in recent memory had not relegated our favourite knicker-seller down the pecking order of news, red ink at M&S would have hit the front page.

Online future: The pandemic might, just might, be a blessing in disguise for Marks & Spencer

One potential compensation is that M&S could hardly have picked a better moment to embark on its online food delivery joint venture with Ocado: With the nation back in lockdown, indulging in food and wine at home are one of the few pleasures left.

The average value of a basket is impressive, at more than £137, comfortably above the minimum needed to make a profit.

The pandemic may also prove a powerful antidote to the stultifying and slowcoach elements that linger in the company culture. 

Covid-19 has been a catalyst for faster progress on improving the online operation and sorting out the portfolio of stores, some of which are irredeemably dingy.

Rowe has launched a digital business, MS2, which aims to act more like a pure-play online retailer than the current operation, which behaves as a bricks-and-mortar chain with a website tacked on.

There will be a push to use data from more than 8m Sparks loyalty card customers to offer tailored promotions, and more online-only brands along the lines of its first partnership, with chic eco-fashion label Nobody’s Child.

It’s easy to forget that M&S is actually the second biggest online fashion retailer in the UK, behind Next but ahead of Asos. Online offers huge potential for growth, if it can get its offering and service right.

As for the stores, too many are in the wrong locations, on dilapidated High Streets with too few customers. 

Shutting them down has been controversial – it upsets many loyal shoppers – but may well be less so under the cover of the virus.

Investors, who have seen their shares fall by 55 per cent this year and drop to under £1 from around £5 five years ago, can be forgiven for remaining sceptical.

Predators are stalking the UK stock market for bargains and are picking off distressed companies including another great British brand, Clarks shoes, which has been ‘rescued’ by a Hong Kong private equity group. 

M&S, whose share price is well below the £4-a-share bid by Sir Philip Green 16 years ago, looks vulnerable. Food for thought for Rowe, as he tucks into his Ocado-delivered goodies.

Election fright

Many UK private shareholders are exposed to American stock markets through tech funds, which adds piquancy to the riveting, horrifying spectacle of the US election.

The underlying effect can only be unsettling for investors. The US is the world’s biggest economy. 

What happens on Wall Street, in the banking system and on the currency, share and bond markets, has a huge impact on markets here, and on our finances. 

The US is our biggest single trading partner and a deal will be one of the keys to our post-Brexit fortunes.

The country has been run for the past four years by an unpredictable braggart with zero respect for institutions including the World Trade Organisation. 

The fact that US markets, hardly populated by socialists, rose on hopes of a big Biden win, is a sign of the unease Donald Trump has fomented.

The US cannot take its economic supremacy for granted. Trump is sometimes praised for his handling of the economy, but pre-virus, it actually underperformed the last three years under Obama. 

His trade war with China did not narrow the trade gap and provoked damaging retaliatory tariffs. Even so, Biden, a superannuated political insider with a tax-raising and high-spending agenda, is scarcely preferable.

The election circus comes at a particularly dangerous time. A resurgent China is already seeing its economy spring into life, having bestowed the coronavirus on the rest of the world. 

Beijing is flexing its muscles and imposing its will on markets including the dramatic kibosh on the planned £26billion listing of Ant Group.

One president is a big winner from the US polls. Worryingly for investors, and indeed for all of us, his name is Xi Jinping.

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