The triggering by the UK of the European Union's Article 50 today formally signals the UK’s intention to seek a divorce and allows exit negotiations to begin in earnest. What does this means for British companies and the risks and opportunities that may arise from ‘Brexit’?
What do we know so far?
Sterling has predictably been a key barometer since the referendum, with its weakness starting to feed through to inflation and lifting concerns about the impact on real wages. Retail sales have held up relatively well, but we cannot really extrapolate from such a short period.
Weaker sterling has altered the inflation outlook
Source: Bloomberg; 12 months ended 29 March 2017. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Please note that an investor cannot invest directly in an index. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses or sales charges. This information is provided for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of an actual investment.
Impact on equity markets
In the stock market, sectors such as consumer discretionary, real estate (house builders) and utilities have been particularly sensitive, and are likely to remain so. The first two are particularly vulnerable to any further squeeze to real incomes, while utilities’ margins have been hurt by the rising sterling bill of energy imports. Fears of a mass-exodus of company HQs may be overblown, but equally it is naïve to expect a business-as-usual scenario. Recent warnings from EU top brass that UK-based airlines will have to relocate their HQs if they want to maintain their routes within continental Europe is a case in point.
On the other side, exporters have seen a boost thanks to the weaker sterling, but this could prove fleeting if the negotiations result in a more acrimonious separation (including a return of tariffs) – ironically, the scenario that the currency market appears to be discounting.
What can we expect?
The probability of a ‘hard’ outcome – leaving the European single market and customs union – appears to have risen, with the rhetoric suggesting that politicians may be preparing the public for such a scenario.
The exact monetary cost of the separation to the UK government is also unclear – even if numbers have been bandied about in the news – and there is a risk that this point will consume a lot of the energy early on, at the expense of the critical and more complex discussions such as a possible trade pact.
In terms of the policy agenda, there is little doubt that Brexit negotiations will divert attention from domestic issues over the two-year negotiation period. This includes Prime Minister Theresa May’s ambitious industrial strategy, one of the central pillars of which is ramped-up infrastructure investment in areas such as transport, broadband and energy.
In short, Article 50 marks the beginning of what is likely to be an eventful bargaining process and we expect to see recurring periods of volatility as markets assess the impact on individual businesses. We will be looking to exploit valuation anomalies that may arise throughout this process.