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.

 

thinking about Brexit

In two weeks, on the 23rd, the UK will vote on whether to remain in the EU or leave.  Polls show that the leave forces, which were once in the minority, have pulled to just about neck and neck with the remain camp.  One caveat:  I don’t know enough about the national mood in the UK to have a view about whether citizens are likely to reveal their true intentions to pollsters, which is always an issue with controversial topics.  My sense is the leave camp is populated with the same left-behind-by-globalization people as in the rest of the world, who dream that a return to a semi-mythical isolationist past will solve all their problems.

Britain has never been in favor of the ultimate “United States of Europe” destination for the EU project, which imagines an ever-closer union to mimic, and counter, the political/economic power of the US.  Because of this, some have argued (incorrectly, in my view) that a vote to leave will be a long-term political plus.

As investors, though, our task in understanding the implications of a possible Brexit is simpler:  what are the implications of Brexit for publicly traded firms doing business in the UK?

I see two, both negative:

–over the course of the past decades, many non-EU multinationals have decided to make the UK their base of EU operations.  The UK offers a large potential workforce, English as the national language and a legal system less strongly tilted to favor locals than is the case elsewhere in the union.  Also, of course, being inside the EU frontier, the UK is not subject to the tariff and red tape barriers that outsiders might face.

A “leave” vote on Brexit eliminates this last advantage.  At the very least, a period of uncertainty would follow until new trade, travel…agreements are negotiated.  These are unlikely to make the lot of the UK better–the question is how much worst things will be.  For companies without extensive manufacturing in the UK, the best solution may be not to wait but to decamp to, say, Ireland as fast as possible.

–the UK is by a mile the financial capital of the EU.  Same reasons as for multinationals in general.  In addition, the UK pursued a “regulation lite” policy to lure financial firms to its shores in the runup to the banking collapse of almost a decade ago.  (One result of that regrettable policy is that much of the highly unethical behavior of US and foreign banks that led to the financial meltdown, and which would have been against the law elsewhere, was technically ok in the UK.)  Post-Brexit, these firms would be on the outside looking in.  New EU banking policies would determine their fate.

 

My overall guess is that the UK leaving the EU would be bad economically for both sides–although the effect might well be lost in the general malaise (aging populations, generally weak government finances, hometown-favoring legal systems) that characterizes the EU today.  Subsequent action by EU policy makers to favor, or not, exports from the UK (which make up almost half of Britain’s total exports) will determine how badly UK-based multinationals will be hurt.  In the meantime, absent large falls in their stock prices (my guess is that 10% declines, a figure I plucked out of the air, will be the norm), I don’t imagine the firms in question will be drawing much favorable investor interest.

Scotland votes to stay in UK

Early this morning New Y0rk time the results of the Scottish independence referendum were announced.  The main features:

1.  “No,” meaning stay in the UK, votes made up 55% of the total; “Yes” votes were 45%.  

Yeses were much weaker than late polls had predicted.  Part of this is the nature of polling.  Part is also that sixteen-year-olds have the vote in Scotland and political pollsters have a difficult time getting accurate teen opinions.  I think the greatest part, though, is that No voters felt their views would be frowned on and were reluctant to share them.

2.  Almost 85% of eligible voters cast a ballot.  This is an immense number and indicates that citizens regarded the vote as crucially important.

3.  The result averts potentially destabilizing ripple effects throughout the EU.  Had Yes carried the day, separatists in, for example, Spain or Italy would have had a concrete example of success to spur on their own efforts.

4.  Scotland will become more autonomous.  This is partly the result of promises the UK made to tip the voting toward No, partly pragmatic politics to ensure an independence vote won’t recur.  Presumably similar, though likely smaller, efforts to assuage unhappy regions will take place elsewhere in the EU.

 

The response of stock markets has been positive, but small.  This is understandable, since the near-term effect of a No vote is preservation of the status quo.  Interestingly, though, the recent decline in sterling, which had been attributed to Scottish independence fears, hasn’t reversed itself–implying that other factors are behind the weakness.