Brexit becomes reality and the markets react with heavy selling of risk assets, particularly British and European stocks and the pound. The fears have materialised and the issue is taking its toll on investment portfolios. That said, the worst thing an investor can do at the moment is acting based on emotions rather than careful analysis of the situation. With the extreme levels of volatility that we are seeing now, a bad decision can have very costly consequences.
The markets’ reaction can be best observed on the pound’s exchange rate against the dollar. In the last days before the referendum, it appreciated from 1.40 to 1.50 (7%), as polls started to predict a narrow Remain victory. This morning after the actual outcome it dropped to 1.32 (12% down), but at the time of writing this article it is trading around 1.39 (5% up from the morning low). Similar volatility can be observed on stock prices (British, European and worldwide), commodities and other assets.
The Market’s Reaction Is Not Unusual
While the fact of Britain leaving the EU is unprecedented and extraordinary, the way the markets react to the decision is not unusual. It is similar to the way markets react to other surprising outcomes of scheduled events, such as central bank interest rate decisions or (on the individual stock level) company results. We see a sharp initial move triggered by the surprising outcome (this morning’s lows), followed by corrections and swings to both sides, as the market tries to digest further information that is gradually coming in and establish a new equilibrium level. These swings (although perhaps less extreme than today) will most likely continue for the next days and weeks.
What We Know and What We Don’t
At the moment the actual effects of Brexit on the economy are impossible to predict – we will only know several years from now. Even the timeline of next steps is unclear. The only thing we know is that David Cameron is stepping down as PM (that means succession talks and some internal political uncertainty in the coming months) and that the process of negotiations of the actual EU exit terms will be started in the next days or weeks.
We don’t know what the new UK-EU treaties will look like. There are some possible models, like Switzerland or Norway, but Britain’s situation is unique in many ways. We can also expect the British vote to trigger substantial changes within the EU, as the first reactions of EU representatives have indicated; therefore we don’t know who exactly we will be negotiating with. In any case, this is not the end of trade between the UK and EU countries. The EU can’t afford to not trade with the UK or apply punitive protectionist measures against us.
Where Will the Markets Go Now?
Under these circumstances, no one can predict where stocks or the pound will be one month from now or one year from now. Nevertheless, for a long-term investor, such as someone saving for their pension, these short time horizons don’t really matter. If you invest for 10 years or longer, our view is that you don’t need to fear the impact of yesterday’s vote. Leaving the EU might take a few percentage points from the UK’s GDP and from stock returns, but in the long run it won’t change the trend of economic growth, which has been in place for centuries.
The greatest risk that the Brexit decision represents for a long-term investor is not what the market will do. In any case, it will recover sooner or later. The main risk is the investor acting on emotions, under pressure and without careful analysis of all consequences. The investors who lost the most money in past market crashes such as in 1987, 1997 or 2008 were those who panicked and sold at the worst moment, when it seemed like the economy and the financial system was going to collapse. Those who were able to take a long-term perspective and stayed invested have seen their investments recover and even surpass previous levels.
We recognise that this is a momentous event and it will take time to fully digest the implications. For now, it is important that investors maintain their disciplined approach and do not act in haste to sell off their investments. This would only serve to crystallise losses which currently only exist on paper. We recommend that they sit tight unless their goals have materially changed. We also ask them to note that we are not taking this lightly and will be maintaining our portfolio structures under review in accordance with our overall investment philosophy. If we judge that changes need to be made we will provide advice as appropriate and this will be dealt with as part of our normal review process.