• 08/09/2017

Peter Westaway explains what “Brexit” would mean for investors

Peter Westaway explains what “Brexit” would mean for investors

Peter Westaway, Chief Economist for Europe, Vanguard Investments

On 23 June, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether to remain part of the European Union or to withdraw from it. The possibility of a British EU exit – often shortened to “Brexit” – has caused lots of noise in the press. But what would it mean for investors?

For investors in the UK, the potential implications are significant. For those in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, the effects would likely be comparatively minor, but bear consideration nonetheless. Let’s take a look at three key factors.

Economic growth

Economists have offered a range of estimates on Brexit’s economic ramifications; some are positive but the majority are negative.

In terms of gross domestic product, the United Kingdom boasts the world’s fifth-largest economy, according to the World Bank. Given our historical ties, of course, the UK has extensive commercial interests in Hong Kong, along with significant bilateral trade. For 2015, trade between Hong Kong and the UK amounted to more than HK$130 billion, according to data from HM Revenue and Customs.

Post-Brexit, the UK would lose the favorable trade tariffs that European Union membership bestows. And inward flows of investment by firms – for example those wanting to establish a UK presence to access the lucrative British market – might be discouraged. There might also be a negative impact from restrictions on the number of EU citizens coming to work in the United Kingdom, something that has boosted the UK economy and tax revenues in recent years.

The argument that Brexit would increase UK GDP assumes that its trade outside the EU (particularly with former British territories such as Hong Kong) could increase, even though such trading opportunities already exist. The anti-EU camp also argues that removing what they see as burdensome EU regulations would allow stronger economic growth. But the UK is already one of the least regulated economies in the EU. What’s more, many EU regulations were actually initiated or supported by the UK government.

Finally, on immigration, it would still be possible for EU citizens to live and work in the UK post-Brexit, but the choice of who can do so would be up to the UK government. On the whole, this could be an improvement over unrestricted access to workers of all types.

Overall, the consensus view of economists suggests that EU membership is positive for the UK economy, but there are considerable uncertainties, especially over the long run. And while an economic downturn in the UK would not carry the global weight of a downturn in, say, China or the United States, there could be ripple effects for countries around the world.

Investment costs

For UK residents, Brexit would probably mean higher investment costs. UK-based asset managers would likely lose access to the “passporting” arrangements that currently allow them to distribute investment products into EU markets. This might compel them to set up additional offices in continental Europe, and it’s likely that the cost of doing so would be passed on to the end investor. The alternative argument is that the costs of investing within the UK could fall due to the removal of regulatory costs imposed by the EU. So overall, the net effect is still probably an increase in cost, but admittedly the outlook is not completely clear.

Investment returns

Speculation about the UK leaving the EU has already caused increased volatility in European and global markets, especially for assets denominated in British pounds. Some studies have suggested that Brexit could cause the pound to weaken further, perhaps by up to 20%. This might suggest that investors should avoid allocating assets to the UK. However, this possibility has already been “priced in” by the markets to some extent. And if Brexit doesn’t happen, sterling-denominated assets might end up representing good value.

The short-term impact, then, would be a degree of market volatility and disruption. But it’s difficult to predict how significant the impact would be for a long-term investor holding a well-diversified global portfolio.

So, what’s the answer?

Taking all these factors together, there seems to be evidence that EU membership provides benefits to investors in the UK. However, the pros and cons for individual investors are affected by a wider range of factors. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say definitively that Brexit would ultimately be good or bad for the UK. For investors in Hong Kong, the implications are even less clear.

As ever, Vanguard believes the best approach is to be clear on your investment goals, to take a long-term view, and ensure that your portfolio is well-diversified. BM