Investors received surprising news this morning, as the United Kingdom (U.K.) voted to leave the European Union (EU). While markets will no doubt experience increased volatility in the coming weeks, longer-term, we believe the negative impact of “Brexit” will be largely contained to Great Britain and Europe.
Trade accounts for about 40% of the U.K.’s gross domestic product (GDP), with most of those exports and imports tied to EU partners. As a result of the recent vote, Britain is likely to see higher trade tariffs from the EU and more trade staying within continental Europe’s borders. Both of these shifts could weigh significantly on Britain’s economic growth in the mid-term and would likely weigh on EU growth as well. One positive is that the U.K. never adopted the Euro, choosing instead to maintain the British Pound as its currency. This is should make an exit from the EU smoother and slightly less costly than if they had converted to the Euro, and suggests it could be less detrimental than if Greece had left.
While the U.K. is likely to experience the largest negative impact by leaving the EU, continental Europe is also at risk given its relatively fragile economic expansion following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. From 2010 through 2015, EU GDP has grown at an average rate of just 1.2% compared to U.K. GDP growth of 2.0%. Thus any major shock, such as one of its strongest members leaving the Block, could derail those modest growth levels.
Turning to the U.S., Europe is one of our larger trade partners with about 16% of total U.S. exports going to the Block last year. This is not an insignificant number, and will likely weigh on U.S. GDP growth in the near-term. However, the U.S. consumer remains the largest driver of our economy, accounting for about two-thirds of GDP growth. Following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, the U.S. consumer has gotten healthier, supported by an expanding housing market, strong jobs growth, and deleveraging. A resilient consumer and relatively better economic growth compared to the rest of the world should position us to better weather the recent developments in Europe.
To be sure, today’s news surprised investors and markets alike. Although the near-term economic impact will likely be limited to the U.K. and Europe, the vote has broader implications for the future of the European Union. While we can’t predict the longer-term repercussions of today’s historical vote, we can assure you of the benefits of staying invested in a diversified portfolio over the long-term. Markets will experience sharp corrections, as well as strong rallies, yet clients who remain invested across asset classes throughout the market cycle have a better chance of reaching their financial goals. With this perspective in mind, market declines like the one we’re seeing today simply represent an excellent opportunity to rebalance your portfolio at more attractive valuations levels.
There have been many headlines recently about the so-called “Brexit”, or the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. There is a referendum on the subject coming up on June 23 in the UK, with current polls showing 47% in favor of staying and 40% in favor of leaving. This is not to be confused with the “Grexit” fears from a few years ago about the possibility of Greece leaving the European Union as well as the Euro currency. The UK is different in that it is a member of the EU, but continues to use the Pound as its currency rather than the Euro. Therefore, the UK maintains its own central bank and monetary policy. The main effect of such an exit has to do with trade agreements within the EU.
Potential negatives of an exit include a possible slowdown in the UK economy, short-term local stock market volatility and\or depreciation in the Pound. The EU represents about 50% of UK exports but only about 10% of imports, so if trade agreements are less favorable as a result of the exit then the UK stands to lose.
There are also positive factors to consider with regard to the UK. According to Goldman Sachs, the economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product) in the UK is projected to grow faster than that of the US or the other Euro area countries in both 2016 and 2017. The Pound has already fallen 9% against the dollar over the past year, and the UK stock market has underperformed both the S&P 500 and the MSCI EAFE index over the same period. A vote to remain in the EU would remove the current uncertainty, and could be a catalyst for UK stocks to reverse their recent underperformance. If the vote is to leave the EU, many trade agreements will need to be renegotiated. This process will likely take years to complete, while UK stock market volatility should be short-lived.
To quantify our clients’ potential exposure to the UK, in a typical portfolio our target weighting for international stocks is about 26% of the overall allocation to equities. Of this amount, approximately 1/3 is emerging markets and about 2/3 developed markets. The UK is considered a developed market, and makes up about 20% of the MSCI EAFE index, which is the primary benchmark for most actively managed developed international mutual funds. This would imply that roughly 3-4% of our typical stock portfolio has exposure to UK equities through mutual funds, plus any additional exposure through individual stocks we might buy that are headquartered in the UK.
Since the outcome of the Brexit vote is impossible to predict with certainty, portfolio exposure to UK stocks is low and the effect of the vote on stock prices is indeterminate, we are maintaining our current target weights in international stocks.
From a diversification standpoint, investing in international stocks reduces overall portfolio risk since foreign stocks do not move exactly in tandem with US stocks. Sometimes international investing improves portfolio returns and sometimes it does not. In recent years international stocks have underperformed relative to the US, but historically there have also been periods of significant outperformance. While there will be more hype and headlines as the June 23 vote approaches, we remain committed to long-term investing in a globally diversified portfolio.
William S. Hansen, CFA
Chief Investment Officer