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Macro Letter – No 124 – 20-12-2019

The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK

  • The UK election result was a clear mandate for Brexit
  • A UK/EU free-trade agreement may not be ready by December 2020
  • Uncertainty remains but real economic progress can now begin

For traders and investors in financial markets, risk and reward are two sides of a single coin. There are, of course, exceptions and geopolitical risk is one of them. The difficulty with geopolitical risk is that it is really geopolitical uncertainty. As Frank Knight observed back in 1921 in Risk, Uncertainty and Profitrisk is can be measured and forecast, uncertainty, cannot: –

Uncertainty must be taken in a sense radically distinct from the familiar notion of Risk, from which it has never been properly separated…. The essential fact is that ‘risk’ means in some cases a quantity susceptible of measurement, while at other times it is something distinctly not of this character; and there are far-reaching and crucial differences in the bearings of the phenomena depending on which of the two is really present and operating…. It will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk’ proper, as we shall use the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all.

I have kept this in mind throughout my investing career and it is for this reason that I have avoided investing in the UK stock market since the Brexit referendum. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit has not disappeared, but I now have sufficient confidence in the decisiveness of the incumbent administration to believe that progress can at last be made. To judge by the immediate reaction of financial markets in the wake of the UK election result, I am not alone in my optimism.

To begin, here is a chart of G7 GDP since Q2 2016: –

GDP comparison since 2016

Source: OECD

The UK has fared better than Japan and Italy but its momentum has diminished relative to the remainder of G7.

A more nuanced view of the relative underperformance of the UK is revealed by comparison with Eurozone growth. The chart below, which starts in 2014, shows the switch from UK outperformance to underperformance which began even before the Brexit referendum in mid-2016: –

GDP UK v EU

Source: Eurostat, Full Fact

Whilst there are many factors which have contributed to this change in the UK growth rate, the principal factor has been uncertainty relating to Brexit.

Of course, the direct impact of the Brexit referendum was felt by Sterling. The chart below shows the (Trade-weighted) Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2016: –

Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2016

Source: Bank of England

The rise since August 2019 appears to predict the outcome of the election, but the currency still has far to rise if it is to return to pre-financial crisis levels, as this 20 year chart reveals: –

Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2000

Source: Bank of England

The strong upward momentum which began in 2012 was swiftly terminated by the political morass which culminated in the UK referendum. The unexpected outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote only served to exacerbate the malaise.

The weakness of Sterling merely accelerated the deterioration in the UK terms of trade. The UK has run a continuous trade deficit since 1998 but, as the chart below reveals, the deficit has become structural: –

UK Trade Balance

Source: ONS

Any significant imbalance in trade makes an economy sensitive to changes in the value of its currency. The fall in Sterling since 2016 has had a knock on effect on the rate of UK inflation: –

united-kingdom-inflation-cpi since 2016

Source: ONS, Trading Economics

Viewed from a 10 year perspective, the reversal is even more pronounced. UK interest rates would probably have been substantially lower during the last four years had it not been for the uncertainty surrounding Brexit: –

united-kingdom-inflation-cpi since 2010

Source: ONS, Trading Economics

Is optimism now justified?

Aside from the trade balance, the charts above are a reflection of the discount financial markets have imposed on the UK. This month’s election justifies a rerating. Whilst the markets have not been overly enamoured with the latest Tory Brexit deal they have been craving certainty. A working majority of 80 allows room for any Conservative dissenters to be quashed. Then there is the ‘Corbyn Factor.’ Promises of widespread nationalisation, without clarity about the price with which private investors would be compensated, did not sit well. Neither did the proposed tax increases required to fuel the £80bln increase in fiscal spending. That threat has now passed.

Finally there was clarification of the nation’s opinion on Brexit itself. Labour lost ground almost everywhere; to Tories and the Brexit party in England and Wales, whilst in Scotland they ceded ground to the SNP.

This summation of the UK situation is an over-simplification, but from a financial market perspective the UK political landscape has improved. Suffice to say, there remain many challenges ahead, not least the Brexit transition period (end 2020) during which a free-trade agreement (FTA) needs to be agreed to avert unnecessary trade disruption. After four years, one might hope there has been behind the scenes preparation and that much of the deal will be a slight amendment to current access arrangements. In reality to complete a deal by year-end 2020 it will have to be an ‘FTA-lite’ affair, which may prove less than satisfactory. A swift trade deal should, nonetheless, reduce uncertainty which is also in the interests of the EU. I remain sceptical, there may be many a slip twixt cup and lip.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Four years of deferred investment and consumption will now gradually be unleashed. This should bolster Sterling. As the Pound rises inflation should fall. Assuming they do not give up on their inflation target, currency strength should prompt the Bank of England to ease monetary conditions. Gilt yields will decline, forcing investors to seek longer duration bonds or higher credit risk to compensate for the shortfall in returns. Companies will find it easier to issue debt in order to fuel capital expenditure: although I expect it may lead to more share buybacks too. UK equity markets will rise, driven by an improved outlook for inflation, a lowering of interest rates and expectations of stronger economic growth.

For equity investors, this rising tide will float most ships, but not all companies will benefit equally. Those firms which were at risk of nationalisation have been immediate beneficiaries. The chart below tracks their relative underperformance: –

UK Nationalisation Tragets v FTSE 350

Source: Bloomberg, The Economist

A longer term investment opportunity should be found in the FTSE 250. The four year picture is found below (FTSE 100 in blue, FTSE 250 in red): –

FTSE 100 vs 250 - 4yr

Source: AJ Bell

It might appear as if the FTSE 250 has already caught up with the FTSE 100, but this next chart reveals a rather different picture: –

FTSE 100 vs 250 10yr

Source: AJ Bell

The FTSE 250 is much more closely entwined with the fortunes of the domestic UK economy. For the past four years many business plans in the UK have been on hold, awaiting clarity on Brexit. Now that a deal will be done and an FTA with the EU will follow, we may have finally reached the beginning of the end of uncertainty.

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