tallying up the cost of Brexit

How good is the UK, the part of the EU most American investors know best, as a way to participate in potential economic strength in Europe over the coming 12 months?

Probably not good at all.  Here’s why:

–since the Brexit vote last June, sterling has depreciated by 13+% against the US dollar and 8+% against the euro.  While the loss of national wealth in Japan through depreciation dwarfs what has happened in the UK, the blow to holders of sterling-based assets is still immense.

Depreciation lowers the UK standard of living and reduces the purchasing power of residents by raising the cost of imported goods.  While one might argue that the fall in sterling is in the past–and while the consumer will be in trouble benefits to export-oriented firms through lower costs are still to come–this may not be the case here.  More in point #3.

–there’s some evidence that UK residents, realizing last June that prices would soon begin to rise, did a lot of extra consuming before/while firms were marking up their wares.  If so, the UK economy could be in for a significant slowdown over the coming months, both because consumers are now poorer and because they’ve already used up a chunk of their budgets through anticipatory buying.

–much of the appeal of the UK as a destination for export-oriented manufacturing comes from its position as the large foreigner-friendly country in the EU, from which multinationals could reach into the rest of the union.  That’s no longer the case.  An article from yesterday’s Financial Times is titled ” Brussels starts to freeze Britain out of EU contracts.”  Its basis is an EU government memo, which, as the FT reads it, advises staff to:

–avoid considering the UK for any new business dealings where contracts may extend beyond the two year deadline for Brexit

–cancel existing contracts with UK parties that extend beyond the Brexit deadline

–urge UK-based companies to relocate to continental Europe, presumably if they want favorable consideration for new business.

It seems to me that the EU leaked this memo to the FT to get the widest possible dissemination of its new not-so-friendly-to-the-UK policies.  It implies that the post-Brexit business slowdown in the UK will start immediately, not in two years.

One set of potential winners:  UK-based multinationals that do little or no business with the EU.  These, like ARM Holdings, are also potential takeover targets–although it’s questionable if the UK will permit further acquisitions by foreigners.

 

redemption halts in UK-based property funds

Over the past week or so, the boards of a number of UK property mutual funds have exercised the ability their charters give them to suspend shareholder redemptions.

What’s this all about?

The central issue is, of course, the “Leave” result of the Brexit vote.  This has two negative consequences for UK property.  The first is that property is a domestic sector, where holders whose base currency is the US$ or the € have felt the full brunt of the subsequent fall in sterling against those currencies.  The second is that although suddenly 12% cheaper to foreigners, it’s questionable whether offices or other commercial properties will retain their allure once the UK is on the outside of the EU.  Also, the central bank is predicting the vote will cause a mild recession, always a bad thing for property.  So bargain hunters haven’t yet appeared as buyers.

On balance,  a lot of people want to cash their shares in.

The second problem is endemic to property.  It’s not a particularly liquid sector.  Not only would you get a horrible price in a forced quick sale, it’s probably impossible to get the paperwork processed and a check in hand inside, say, a month.  Property funds–in fact, all mutual funds–try to safeguard against being overwhelmed by redemptions by keeping a percentage of assets (maybe 2% or 3%) in cash.  Funds also have credit lines they can draw against if need be.  But for property funds if holders of 10% of the outstanding shares all want to redeem at once that won’t be enough.

Initial redemptions can also create a self-reinforcing cycle.  Shareholders who initially had no intention to redeem may join the queue simply because they fear continuing withdrawal pressure will depress net asset value further.

The result is that the funds in question have been unable to meet the redemptions they’re experiencing.  They’ve been forced to suspend redemptions while they raise cash in a orderly way.

I don’t think the redemption window will be opening any time soon, although I’d imagine enterprising brokers have already set up a market to transact in these suspended shares, at a substantial discount to NAV, no doubt.

 

Lessons for the US?  More tomorrow.

 

Brexit, sterling and the case for London stocks

the UK stock market

I started to learn about the UK stock market in 1986, a scarily long time ago, when I took over management of a failing global fund.  I realized pretty quickly, though, that despite similarity with the US in language and accounting standards, London stocks trade on complex signals that are far different in kind from those I was familiar with in New York.  I ultimately decided that the large effort required to become proficient would pay too small a reward to justify making it.  So I remain more or less an innocent (read:  the dumb money) in that market to this day.

12% cheaper

Nevertheless, the large drop (about 12%) in the value of the pound against the dollar suggests to me that there will ultimately be a big post-Leave-vote equity investing opportunity in the UK.  If the government follows through on its plans to cut the corporate tax rate from the current 20% to 15% (something the EU would have opposed) and lowers interest rates as well, the potential would be substantially larger.

Two reasons:

Mexico

–Weak currencies most often mean strong stock markets.  The most striking example I can think of is Mexico in the 1980s.  Over that period, the peso lost 98% of its value against the US$.  Still, Mexican stocks were, in US$ terms, just about the best-performing in the world–outdoing the US stock market by a mile.

Three causes:  supportive economic policies by the Mexican government; currency decline gave Mexican exporters a powerful price advantage; and the currency collapse created substantial inflation, which prompted local investors to strongly prefer equities as a way of preserving the real value of their savings.

Yes, Mexico is an extreme, but stocks in the UK are now 12% cheaper in US dollars than they were a couple of weeks ago.  And the government appears to be preparing to implement significant economic stimulus.  So earnings prospects for many firms are substantially better.

currency markets lead the way

–currency fall typically comes in advance of stock market rise.  The lag may be months.  This is partly because the currency markets always seem to act far ahead of stocks and bonds.  It’s also because equity investors, particularly in Europe, want to see some evidence of earnings improvement–either actual results or management confirmation that the numbers are looking surprisingly good–before they are willing to act.

timing

The big question, I think, is not whether London stocks, especially multinationals or exporters, will do well.  It’s when the fallout from the Brexit vote will have fully played itself out in financial markets.  Given that European investors typically take the month of August off, and that the start of this annual vacation period is only a few weeks away, my guess is that this won’t be until close to Labor Day.

noodle making returning to UK from China–what this means

noodles to Leeds

British Food company Symington’s, the inventor of pea flour and maker of Golden Wonder’s pot noodles, is returning its noodle manufacturing operations from Guangzhou to Leeds, according to the Financial Times.  The FT says the company cites equivalent/lower labor costs in the UK and better response times to customers’ requests as the main reasons.  (I’ve looked in vain on the Symington’s website for a press release.)

This says something about China.  

But it’s not new news.  Alerted by Hong Kong-based distributor Li and Fung and by David Pilling of the FT, I wrote  in late 2010 about the shift of labor-intensive manufacturing, like t-shirt making, away from China to places like Bangladesh and Vietnam.  As I commented back then, this wasn’t particularly new news in 2010, either.

China has run out of cheap labor on its eastern seaboard, a signal that at least this region of the country has to shift to higher value-added manufacturing.  The textbook solution for a nation facing this issue is to allow its exchange rate to rise, while holding local currency wages steady.  China, however, hasn’t followed the schoolbooks.  It has kept its exchange rate relatively stable, while aggressively encouraging local currency wages to rise.  Although this also gets the job done of forcing the most labor-intensive and low value-added businesses to go elsewhere, it runs the risk of creating a lot of inflation.  We’ll see how things turn out.  But, personally, I’m not betting against Beijing on this one.

What’s more interesting, to my mind, is what this says about the UK

Yes, the home country has won back the noodle makers.

There certainly are transportation time and cost savings.

Symington’s will doubtless use “Made in the UK” to its marketing advantage.  And there are probably political points being scored as well.

Nevertheless, this isn’t wresting high-tech business from Google, or Samsung or Amazon.  It isn’t bio-tech.  It isn’t competition for LVMH.  It’s labor-intensive work that would otherwise have ended up in a developing country further down the food chain than China.

“Reshoring” of this type is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, it’s an illusion-shattering phenomenon for dreamers who recall the days when Britain held a privileged place as the manufacturing hub for a far-flung colonial empire–including Bangladesh.  On the other hand, it’s a place to start.  And with sterling gradually depreciating, UK labor will be in increasing demand.

as an investor…

…this may not be great news for UK manufacturing.  Nor is it a reason to be interested in this sector, because profits are likely to be slim.  But even a low-end manufacturing revival means more jobs.  That suggests that mid- to low-end entries in consumer-oriented areas like lodging, specialty retail and supermarkets may have better prospects than is currently factored into their share prices.