Brexit: investors, don’t be spooked

Take comfort this is not the global financial crisis, writes Fred White, Head of Balanced Funds, Sanlam Investment Management

global financial crisisOn Friday morning the British Pound declined by 12% between a midnight high of $1.50/GBP (when a victory for the “Stay” campaign was seen as the likely outcome), to $1.32/GBP a mere six hours later when the referendum outcome became apparent.  Some shares were sold aggressively, such as Barclays PLC which was soon down some 30%, and financial markets were littered with red screens and turmoil everywhere.  The Rand/US$ mimicked the Pound’s move and fell from R14.40/$ to R15.60/$ in six hours.

When this kind of panic last hit markets in 2008, banks were littered with toxic assets which threatened their existence and with it, the functioning of the global financial system. But this is not the global financial crisis.  Certainly, Brexit will have some ramifications, but in all likelihood, the effect will be less than what the markets reflected today.  Investors should not get spooked by the volatility that the Brexit outcome caused and make hasty trades based on an emotional response, but rather take time to reflect on the severity of the likely longer-term impact.

What does Brexit actually mean?

The UK has two years to negotiate the terms of their departure from the EU.  It is not an abrupt change or a case of all trade and movement of goods and people terminating overnight.  Furthermore, where the UK in future has goods to trade, there is no reason why trade won’t happen – this is not an embargo or sanctions, just a withdrawal from a current set of trade agreements, which are likely to be replaced by a series of alternative agreements such as, for example, a series of new bilateral trade agreements with individual countries.  From a big-picture perspective, it is not the biggest of issues.  It might add some additional cost in the process and there might be new tariffs here or there, but the currency will adjust (as it has already done) to compensate for this.

What is the likely impact going to be on the real economy?

The uncertainty surrounding the impact of Brexit might cause a conservative reaction of increased savings and reduced or delayed spending, as well as a reduction in capital investment.  If this happens, UK growth will slow and it may even go into recession for a while.  To some extent, a similar (but less pronounced) effect might be observed in Europe.  So there may be a likely (but small) knock-on effect on global growth.  Indeed, the expected decline in UK growth could lower global GDP by 0.1% directly in 2016, with some additional spill-over impacts.

At a company level, certain UK companies could face slightly higher costs and more red tape to do international trade, which could add slightly to inflation and reduce efficiency.  But at the same time, this could be beneficial to direct non-UK competitors, which could then help lift growth elsewhere.

What is the most likely policy response?

If there does turn out to be a detrimental impact on UK and European growth, the probability will rise that the current accommodative policy regime will be prolonged or further augmented.

What are the most likely impacts on financial markets?

Once the dust of the initial knee-jerk reaction settles, the markets are likely to reflect the fact that not much will change overnight and that the longer-term impacts will take time to reveal themselves and are likely to not be catastrophic. Unless there is additional negative news flow in the world, such as negative earnings-related news flow in equity markets, the sharp moves seen today are likely to reflect a reversal of the very sharp rallies seen in markets in the last couple of days, rather than the start of a protracted decline.  The most likely conclusion is that the Brexit event will be another reason to keep rates lower for longer, which should continue to put downward pressure on bond yields.  Lower for longer interest rates would continue to keep returns on fixed-interest assets low, which would continue to support equity valuations that are high relative to very long term average levels.  On a stand-alone basis, Brexit should not lead to a sharp contraction in either equity or bond markets.

Are there other longer-term associated risks?

The UK’s action might prompt other countries to consider leaving the EU.  While considered unlikely, it remains a possibility given a global rise in nationalism in developed economies.  Such a development would be more worrying and would be likely to add to global inflation in the long term, due to waning efficiency (which won’t necessarily trouble global central banks, given their stated desire to raise inflation amidst generally high government debt levels).

Ultimately though we may see slowing momentum in globalisation. Specifically for the UK, limiting immigration against the backdrop of an ageing population (the share of the population of working age is already in significant decline), is bad news for long-term growth prospects. More generally, a protectionist stance (less competition) implies a loss in efficiency. In turn, to the extent this may catch on around the globe, it risks a worsening trade-off between world real economic growth and inflation in the longer term.

What about South Africa?

South Africa imported 2.9% of its goods from the UK in the opening four months of 2016, while exporting 3.4% of their goods to the UK. We still have two years to negotiate trade agreements with the UK. The overall direct impact is, therefore, not large. But, there is likely to be an additional impact given South Africa’s exposure to Europe more generally.

Sanlam Investments is part of the Sanlam Group. The Sanlam Investments (SI) cluster provides individual and institutional clients in South Africa, the USA, Australia, the UK and elsewhere in Europe access to a comprehensive range of specialised investment and risk management expertise.