The decision by British voters to leave the European Union (EU) has shocked markets and will no doubt lead to continued uncertainty for an extended period. Stock markets around the world are reeling, the British pound has taken an unprecedented nosedive, commodity prices with the exception of gold are plunging and interest rates are falling sharply. Central banks, particularly the Bank of England, are vowing to do whatever it takes to provide liquidity and stem financial chaos. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and a vocal opponent to Brexit, has assured markets that the Bank will be there as a lender of last resort to cushion the blow to financial institutions. Banks and insurance companies are hardest hit, but businesses worldwide that do business in the UK or in Europe are faced with disturbing questions that could take months or years to answer. Moreover, hedge funds and other investors around the world that have been caught on the wrong side of this trade are scrambling, which likely portends a sell off in risky assets for at least a couple of days.
Even with all of this, investors should not panic sell this environment. It is a buying opportunity for longer term investors. At the same time, do not try to time markets. No one can pick the bottom and market timing never works. Canadians who have some dry powder should consider buying their favourite stocks as they are sideswiped by the British vote.
Politically, the vote and the subsequent resignation of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is a vivid indication of the global move to nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia. Populist demagogues around the world are finding a welcoming audience as the top 1 percent who have benefited from globalization and free trade have failed to share the wealth. The broad middle class in all countries have been squeezed by forces that have pushed production to cheap-labour emerging economies or have replaced their jobs by technology. In all advanced economies, income growth has stagnated for all but the richest among us, which has led to a very nasty blame game. Scapegoating immigrants, minorities, free trade and the powers that be is evident from the US to France. Donald Trump, the most vivid example of such populist demagoguery, who happens to be in Scotland today, supported Brexit and has lauded the British people for taking their country back.
Elites who make light of this growing sentiment do so at their own peril. It helps to explain the populist movement in the US election campaign on both the left (Bernie Sanders) and the right (Donald Trump). Mainline economists support free trade and globalization. But mounting income inequality creates a tinder keg that is ripe for exploitation. Promises of “bringing the jobs back” and “America (Britain) First” set fire to this furor and, as we have just seen, these forces can win at the peril of financial and economic losses.
For now, the most immediate impact will be lower interest rates. Not only will the Bank of England and the European Central Bank ease further, so will central banks in Switzerland and Japan. The Fed, which was widely expected to hike interest rates once again in September, will likely remain on the sidelines.
The Bank of Canada will wait and see what happens. The Canadian dollar is actually holding up quite well right now, although Canadian bank stocks are taking a hit, down just over 2 percent as of this writing. Only about 4 percent of Canadian trade is with Europe and only roughly 3 percent with Britain. Investors are fleeing to the safe haven of the US dollar, US Treasuries and, to some extent, Canadian assets are safe havens too. If anything, continued very low interest rates could further boost already hot Toronto and Vancouver housing markets.
Bottom Line: while this is not good for our economy, the negative impact will be relatively muted. Nevertheless, financial turmoil and uncertainty will continue for some time, which is never good for confidence and therefore, risk-taking and spending.