British voters shocked the world last week with their 52% to 48% decision to leave the European Union. The uncertainty of how this complex divorce will play out over the coming decade sent global markets reeling. London’s Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 lost 4.4% of its value in one day, and the British pound sterling was down 14% against the yen and 10% against the dollar. The financial news media went berserk.
Britain has two years after notifying the EU of its intention to leave to negotiate its exit with policy makers, so we can expect the markets to remain volatile for some time. Why all the fuss?
The thinking is that British companies will lose access to the European market for duty-free trade and financial services. Some think London will no longer be able to function as Europe’s financial center as it has done, since companies have long seen Britain as the gateway to free trade with the 28 nations in the EU. Eventually, Britain could lose American investment and manufacturing jobs that would move across the channel to mainland Europe. However, this is all speculation. Nobody knows exactly how the Brexit will play out long-term.
One reason it’s unwise to assume the worst is because the Brexit vote is not legally binding on the government. Since British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned his post and called for a new election by October, it’s possible the new government might decide to delay withdrawing from the EU. Or Parliament could instruct the new prime minister not to notify the EU that Britain is withdrawing until the government has had a chance to study further the implications. There could even be a second referendum to undo the first.
Given all these uncertainties, what was and continues to be my advice to investors? It’s quite simple: do nothing.
The current market disruptions represent an emotional roller coaster, a short-term panic reaction to what is likely to be a very long-term, well-constructed exit from the EU. British companies were certainly not 4% less valuable the day after the vote than the day before, and the pound sterling is not suddenly a second-rate currency. The US, China, and Japan are not part of the EU. Global economies function fine and they will continue to function without Britain in the EU, just as they functioned well before the EU was created in 1989.
The emotions of traders and speculators are driving the short-term market responses to a long-term event that will be worked out by reasonable people who will have their nation’s economic best interests at heart. Long-term investors who sold because of the Brexit will undoubtedly realize they were suckered and manipulated once again by panic masquerading as an assessment of real damage to the companies they’ve invested in.
The good news is that long-term investors who are diversified have only a minority of their portfolios in equities. While the Brexit was not good in the short run for Britain’s currency and global equity markets, it was a positive for investment vehicles. Gold, bonds, and managed futures all profited nicely upon the news of the Brexit. The strategy of global diversification worked—again. And, if equity markets decline sufficiently, long-term investors will be able to rebalance their portfolios by selling a portion of what has appreciated and buying equities. That is called “selling high and buying low.”
However much short-term disruption there may be, Britain and the EU will find a way to move through this unexpected event without too much damage. Like every other recent short-term financial calamity, Brexit will become just another blip on the long-term charts.