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Split UK public holds key to world markets

Steven Wieting

By Steven Wieting

Global Chief Investment Strategist

June 13, 2016

- The strengthening polling for the “leave” camp in the past week has forced markets to reexamine the probability that the U.K. may exit the E.U. Sterling and world equity markets have weakened as a result (Bloomberg as of June 13th).

- Polls remain too close to ascertain a probable victor given judgments over likely voter turnout for different demographic groups with particular voting biases. Polls may provide no confidence in what the final vote result will be before actual results are in. We had not anticipated this level of uncertainty so close to the actual decision.

- Unlike polls, financial markets continue to suggest a higher degree of confidence that the vote will be "remain". Sterling has fallen just 3.8% against the USD this year. Legal UK wagering markets imply a 73% chance of remain (Financial Times as of June 13th).

- We see asymmetric risks/rewards in financial asset markets around this vote. A relief rally in global risk assets is likely if the vote is to "remain". The downside for markets on a "leave" vote is disproportionally large.

- The decision itself could drive some lasting economic changes. However, we believe "anticipation" effects would drive most of the adjustment in financial asset prices within a two-month period. Therefore, risk hedges may be a suitable way to address this known political event given the apparent asymmetry of risks.

Just two weeks ahead of the U.K.'s highly anticipated referendum on membership in the European Union, recent polls suggest voters are about equally divided in their decision. The most recent polls have suggested a rising probability of a vote for U.K. exit. The referendum date was set February 20, 2016. So close to the actual decision day of June 23, we did not anticipate this level of uncertainty over the likely result would prevail.

The short and long-term economic impact of the decision is multi-faceted and quite uncertain. However, all parties, including "leave" supporters assume a significant drop in the value of sterling, which has yet to occur. (In the year-to-date, GBP has fallen 3.8% against the USD, though the USD has also been somewhat weaker against most currencies this year).

The probability of a "leave" vote has been rated much lower in financial markets than current polls suggest, with many indicators, such as U.K. legal wagering markets, assuming a 27% probability of "leave". This means that risk/reward calculations for the financial market impact in the event of a "leave" vote are highly skewed to the downside. We say this even as we would expect some short-term "relief" in financial markets if the vote is to "stay."


Vote is Fundamental to UK and World Economic Outlook

The U.K. runs a large external deficit (-5.2% of GDP, growing larger over the past year) and exports a large share of its economy to the E.U. (13% of U.K. GDP). This suggests a significant impact in financial markets on mere anticipation of economic dislocations if the vote were to "leave." A “leave” vote would be likely to curtail direct investment flows to the U.K. until future trade arrangements with the E.U. were clarified. In repudiating the E.U., we would expect remaining E.U. members to offer trade agreements with retaliation in mind. This is in order to discourage other potential leavers.

Most clearly, abrupt foreign exchange and equity market valuation adjustments strongly tend to cause correlations to rise across markets (see figure 1). The typical correlation between UK shares and other developed markets is near 80%, and would spike even higher in a quick adjustment as a result of a vote to leave. (This is likely true, but less so of a vote to remain). In other words, it is not just U.K. shares that would fall if a vote were leave the E.U.

Given the discrete, binary nature of this vote, we would expect the large majority of any impact in global financial markets to occur over a short time, likely within two months. For this reason, and the asymmetric risk/rewards we mentioned, hedging portfolio risk seems a fitting solution to the problem created by this particular uncertainty. Because of an anticipated spike in correlation, one does not need to hedge in the obvious asset at risk: GBP. U.S., E.U. or U.K. equities are all exposed to the same risk to a somewhat varying degree.

Away from short-term risk hedges, the uncertainty created by the vote itself may be an added detrimental factor in a world economic outlook that has a variety of positives and negatives. For portfolios that cannot take advantage of hedging, this needs to be kept in mind. As noted, we do expect some measure of short-term relief in world financial markets if the vote is to "remain." Most economic and policy factors away from politics suggested a strengthening case for risk assets (please see our Mid-Year Review and Outlook).

Yet in the event of "leave," the world economy is not entirely "shock proof". Such a vote could alter monetary policy expectations across the world. The Citi Private Bank Global Investment Committee will consider the medium-term implications of the vote in its immediate aftermath, as well as the current uncertainty.

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