The British are leaving! The British are staying! As U.K. voters prepare for June 23’s European Union membership referendum, the polls are vacillating with the result too close to call.
Either way, the markets will react.
Here’s a road map.
If the U.K. bolts, a bad year for European equities will probably get worse. After 19 straight weeks of outflows from the region’s equity funds and $43 billion so far this year, stocks could lose about a quarter of their value in the immediate aftermath of secession, the risk-modeling firm Axioma Inc. found.
UBS Group AG’s wealth management unit says the FTSE 100 Index is likely to drop 10 percent. The pounding German shares took for their reliance on China doesn’t bode well for the DAX Index. Companies there depend on Britain for 9 percent of total sales, a percentage point less what they get from China, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. says.
Unlike counterparts in currency markets, U.K. equity traders have only just started pricing in Brexit risks. It’s been a rude awakening: A gauge of volatility for British stocks has risen 58 percent in June and is near its highest level since 2011; a similar measure for the euro area is up 55 percent.
Both probably would remain far above long-term averages after a British vote to leave the EU, discouraging investors from putting extra cash sitting on the sidelines into European equities.
The one bright spot in the European stock market: companies that mine gold, the go-to asset in times of turmoil. A vote to leave the union would increase the likelihood that the world’s central banks will keep interest rates low, potentially intensifying the gains of three of this year’s top eight Stoxx Europe 600 Index performers: Randgold Resources Ltd. (57 percent), Fresnillo Plc (73 percent) and Polymetal International Plc (48 percent).
U.K. equity traders are already seeking shelter in international firms at the expense of domestically-focused companies, especially with the slump in the pound. That pushed valuations for the FTSE 100 Index of the country’s biggest companies above those in the FTSE 250 Index’s mid-caps for the first time since 2009. Larger companies probably would suffer less because about 80 percent of FTSE 100 sales and 55 percent of assets are outside the U.K., Goldman Sachs estimates.
Obviously, Brexit would hurt the pound the most, with a majority of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg forecasting a drop to at least 30-year lows. Plenty of other currencies with stakes in the EU would be rattled too, not least the euro.
The 19-nation shared currency would come under pressure because Brexit may damage trade and encourage other members to renegotiate their relationship with the union at a time when the European Central Bank is already engaged in unprecedented stimulus to revive growth, which tends to debase a currency.
The Japanese yen and Swiss franc, traditional havens due to liquidity and the countries’ current account surpluses, likely would rally. Switzerland’s legal tender already has reached its strongest level this year versus the euro. David Bloom, head of global currency strategy at HSBC Holdings Plc, called it the best gauge of Brexit risk.
The dollar may perform best of all. Unlike the central bankers in Japan and Switzerland, U.S. Federal Reserve policy makers are less averse to their currency strengthening and don’t pose the threat of intervention.
Norway’s krone is among the developed-market currencies that are most vulnerable to Brexit. The U.K. is the Scandinavian nation’s second-largest trading partner, and global risk aversion would weigh on prices for commodities, including Norway’s oil.
The Swedish krona may also be a big loser due to “poor market liquidity and market speculation that Sweden may follow in the footsteps of the U.K.,” said Valentin Marinov, head of Group-of-10 foreign exchange strategy at Credit Agricole SA’s corporate and investment-banking unit.
Demand for havens would probably persist and drive core bond yields even lower if Britain votes to leave.
Investors are already piling into the safety of top-rated government bonds from Japan, Germany and the U.S., driving some yields to record lows as negative borrowing costs, once unthinkable, become more common.
German bond yields with two- to 10-year maturities hit new lows, with the longest of those bunds falling below zero for the first time. The U.K.’s 10-year gilts yields fell to their lowest ever last week. Japan’s tumbled to minus 0.21 percent. Switzerland’s 30-year also went negative briefly.
“The market is really looking at vulnerabilities here,” said Martin van Vliet, senior interest-rate strategist at ING Groep NV in Amsterdam. He predicted bund yields of minus 0.05 percent in the run-up to the vote and said they could “easily” drop 15 basis points if Britain parts ways with the EU.
The riskier debt of Italy, Spain and Portugal, the so-called peripheral nations, has seen demand fall. The yield difference between Italian and German 10-year bonds jumped to its highest since February last week when polls showed voters shifting toward leaving the EU. This rift in the region’s bond market, largely contained by European Central Bank asset purchases, could widen on Brexit.
ING’s Vliet said Ireland’s debt is also at risk. “Ireland has very strong trade links with the U.K.,” Vliet said. “I would identify Ireland as one of the potential losers in the event of a Brexit.”
For now, emerging-market managers at Allianz Global Investors Europe GmbH and Barings Plc are refraining from overhauling their strategies, taking only a few chips off the table.
“The direct impact on the portfolio would be minimal,” said Isabelle Irish, an emerging-market equity investor at Barings, which oversees about $35 billion in its assets management unit.
Given that developing countries’ trading links to the U.K. are mostly immaterial, London-based Capital Economics estimates that a 5 percent contraction in Britain would slash growth in emerging markets by 0.1 percentage points.
Most developing nations have become less reliant on foreign capital as countries from India to Brazil have reduced their current-account deficits over the past three years. To the extent that the Fed and other major central banks react by holding interest interest rates down for longer, cheaper borrowing gives developing nations an additional cushion.
Emerging-market bonds have “proven fairly resilient,” said Gregory Saichin, who helps manage $2.4 billion as chief investment officer for developing-world fixed-income at Allianz.
Eastern European currencies that have become a hedge for some investors may take a hit. The Polish zloty and Hungarian forint are most vulnerable to Brexit, given the countries’ exposure to Western Europe, according to Citigroup Inc.’s strategists, basing their conclusion on how emerging markets performed during the 2010-2012 European debt crisis.
Peter Schottmueller, head of emerging-market and international fixed income at Deka Investment GmbH., shorted the zloty to prepare for the referendum, along with other moves involving developed markets.
“We didn’t pay much attention to” the referendum, but “we realized it was very cheap to hedge against it,” said Schottmueller, whose emerging-market bond fund beat 82 percent of its peers tracked by Bloomberg over the past year.
JPMorgan Asset Management is reducing exposure to the debt of U.K. companies because its managers think credit markets are underestimating the risk a Britain exits poses.
“There’s more downside to a ‘leave’ than upside to a ‘remain,’” said Andreas Michalitsianos, a credit portfolio manager at JPMorgan Asset Management, which oversees $1.7 trillion. “If there is a ‘remain,’ yes, you are going to see spreads rally somewhat. But on an exit, the knee-jerk reaction would be for spreads to widen more meaningfully.”
The average extra yield investors demand to hold the euro-denominated securities rather than government bonds has increased to 131 basis points on June 16, the widest spread since March 31, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data show.
“As we have been moving closer to the vote, the market has become more illiquid,” said Paul Suter, a London-based fixed-income trader at ECM Asset Management, an investment team within Wells Fargo Asset Management, which oversees more than $480 billion. “Of course there are still people trying to trade, but it is getting a bit too late now.”
And What if...
The British are staying! The British are staying!
If voters opt to remain in the EU, strategists at Morgan Stanley say the FTSE 100 will rise as much as 14 percent and the Euro Stoxx 50 Index will rally 16 percent. Investors anticipate that the biggest cash pile since 2001 will start flowing back into the region’s stocks.
But don’t count on a huge bounce, said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab & Co.
“The recent fall in global stocks as ‘leave’ sentiment gained polling momentum showed that markets had been expecting the U.K. to stay in the EU. That means you shouldn’t expect a big market rally if that’s exactly what happens,” Kleintop said in a report.
As for bonds, “it goes without saying that if the vote is to remain it’s a risk-on event and Treasuries will get slammed,” said CRT Capital Group LLC bond strategists David Ader and Ian Lyngen in a report, predicting 10-year yields as high as 1.75 percent.
Economists surveyed by Bloomberg say the pound could jump toward $1.50, from about $1.47 now. The euro “would likely see a decent upside move” against the dollar and “weaken versus sterling,” according to a Goldman Sachs report.
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