Brexit: Navigating The Aftermath

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Summary

The status quo in Europe is over following the U.K.'s vote to leave the EU.

We will be dependent on central bank interventions, the calmness of markets, and measured political decision-making to keep the world's economic growth momentum and thus support risk assets.

Prices have adjusted, and we are confident in the prospects for positive returns for U.S. equities.

However, we will need to be watchful for indicators of political and market stress, most notably bank credit spreads.

The effects of the UK's vote to leave the European Union have been felt around the world. Markets have re-priced to reflect heightened political uncertainty, the threat of lower growth in Europe, and the potential for deeper contagion to the global economy and financial system.

Equity markets initially traded down sharply, but in some cases recovered ground during the day. Meanwhile, the dash for safe havens led the Japanese yen to rally by more than 6% at one point, 10-year gilt prices are +2.7%, Treasuries +1.7%, and Bunds +1.5%. The Swiss franc did not rally materially against the euro, but only due to intervention from the Swiss National Bank to limit currency strength.

It is important to remember that although the equity market moves have been significant, they come in the context of a sharp rally in recent weeks, as markets had moved to largely price out the risk of Brexit. Betting markets had moved from pricing the risk of Brexit at around 40% last Friday to as little as 15% yesterday. While expectations clearly needed to readjust, markets are now, in general, back to levels of last week, and above the lows of last month. As such, today's moves should not be considered a major change in momentum at this stage. Even the British pound is overall down by only 2% in the past 10 days.

This kind of volatility goes to show that core investment principles like rebalancing, diversification across asset classes and geographies are key, particularly as nations move further into uncharted political and economic territory.

Looking forward, global market outcomes will be shaped by the progression of central bank intervention, global risk appetite, political risk, and economic contagion.

Central banks have already moved quickly to stabilize market conditions. The Bank of England has made an additional GBP 250B of liquidity available, and confirmed open currency swap lines if banks need them. The European Central Bank (ECB) also said it stood ready to provide additional liquidity if required. Both the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan intervened to mitigate the appreciation of their currencies. The US Federal Reserve highlighted Brexit as a key risk for financial markets in its last statement. We now believe it highly unlikely that US interest rates will rise at the Fed's July meeting, and we now only expect one interest rate hike in 2016.

So far, global central banks have continued their recent form by acting with determination to maintain financial stability, while supporting growth and inflation. We expect them to remain on the alert to any indications of tightening financial conditions, and respond promptly if they arise. But signs of central bank indecision or unwillingness to act could be considered a negative signal for risk markets.

Ahead of a series of political events, including the Spanish election, Greek debt negotiations, and US presidential election, the shock result in the UK referendum could dampen the markets' confidence and overall risk appetite. Popular angst about globalization and technology made itself felt in the UK – and markets will be wary of repeats.

For now, we believe risk appetite is still high enough to support risk assets, including equities, in the months ahead. But we will continue monitor market volatility, breadth, and liquidity to assess overall risk appetite. Signs of further diminishment of “animal spirits” could be cause to take a more cautious stance.

Political risk will be important to monitor. Right-wing parties in France, the Netherlands, and Italy have praised the UK's decision, and hinted at the possibility of follow-on referenda. Recent surveys show levels of euro-scepticism in France and Spain are even greater than those in the UK. Any EU exit of a member of the euro and the Schengen agreement could constitute a more significant unravelling of the European project than Brexit, and present financial risks akin to the euro crisis of 2011 and 2012. This remains unlikely for now, but we will monitor such risks by watching bank credit spreads. Today's 30–50 bps spread widening should be manageable for European banks, since it represents an effective cost in the low single-digit percentages of capital. That said, if we were to see a significant widening in spreads for a prolonged period, without ECB action helping to reduce spreads, this could lead us to grow more cautious on risky assets.

The longer-term impact on global risk assets will depend on how the above factors feed through into global economic growth. The primary channels for contagion to the real economy are through higher borrowing costs (due to financial market volatility) or economic uncertainty. Both would hinder investment and consumption.

So far, the increase in borrowing costs looks manageable, and the level of uncertainty is more likely to fall than rise now that Brexit has passed. We have downgraded our forecast for Eurozone growth by 0.25%, reflecting a modest deterioration in business and consumer confidence through both sentiment and wealth effects. However, we continue to expect growth of 1.25% in the Eurozone. Signs that our optimism on growth is misplaced would be a further reason to grow more cautious.

US equities have fallen today but we remain overweight. The US has limited export exposure to the UK (3%), and may be more insulated from the first-round effects of Brexit. Furthermore, we are confident that tightening US labor markets should continue to support US domestic consumption. We will monitor second-round effects such as the trend for the US dollar, which could become a potential headwind to equity earnings if its recent strength continues. But, on balance, a material underperformance of US stocks may offer opportunities for us to increase the size of our equity overweight.

Our currency positions rely on the potential for central bank policy divergence, and overweight the US dollar and Norwegian krone relative to the Australian dollar and euro, respectively. We continue to believe that policy between the US and Australia will diverge, and risk-off flows should support the US dollar in the near term. We will monitor the risk of a far more dovish outlook from the Federal Reserve that could lead to US dollar weakening. Equally, Norway maintains a growth and inflation advantage over the Eurozone, but we will monitor the risk of renewed calls for Norges Bank easing, given Norway’s small, open economy.

Note that given the increased uncertainty over the future of the European Union, we lower the EUR/USD forecast to 1.08 in three months, 1.10 in six months, and 1.10 in 12 months (from 1.10, 1,14, and 1.16, respectively).

Outcomes for UK assets will be primarily impacted by political developments within the UK. There are three layers of uncertainty: leadership, trade negotiations, and regional independence.

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced he will step down from October of this year, and a successor is yet to be identified. A more Eurosceptic successor could make trade deals with the EU more difficult to achieve. Alternatively, a smoother path of negotiations might lend some support to UK assets. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, has said a new Scottish independence vote is "highly likely." Concern about Scotland's independence had previously led to significant volatility in UK assets in 2014.

Within the equity market, companies most leveraged to the UK economy, including the financials, consumer discretionary, and FTSE 250 mid-caps, are likely to continue to underperform the more internationally-exposed FTSE 100, for whom a weaker pound is an earnings tailwind.

We expect gilt yields to remain low in the immediate term, as we expect two further rate cuts from the Bank of England this year to stave off a further growth slowdown.

We expect the pound to trade around 10% weaker than before the referendum. We therefore change the GBP/USD forecast to 1.32 in three and six months (from 1.46 and 1.52) and to 1.35 in 12 months (previously 1.56). Given the significant political uncertainty, our forecasts represent a mid-point around which the pound is likely to trade.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.