Make or Break for Brexit?
There have already been so many twists and turns in the UK’s efforts to negotiate its separation from the European Union that that investors are getting dizzy. It is troublingly difficult to gain a reliable bead on a probable outcome for this stalemate, but the lack of time and dwindling hope of an outcome that will satisfy the majority of those involved raises the threat of a ‘bad’ outcome and even worse market response. This is not one of those events where ignoring the risks can prompt complacent gains. Once again, we are coming up to a key milestone in this saga where conditions can continue with a narrow course forward where the best case scenario still reflects considerable uncertainty and no small measure of market fallout. Or, it can be pitched into disarray. If you are monitoring the march forward of this fraught Brexit divorce – and you should whether you have direct Pound or UK investment exposure or not – highlight on your calendar Parliament’s vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal Tuesday.
The draft was made in concert with EU negotiators which produced a result that theoretically both sides could sign off on. That would seem a viable course forward if not for the level of discord in UK politics. Rhetoric surrounding the Prime Minister deal is distinctly harsh from both the conservatives who found vindication in the referendum outcome as a sign of a clean break as well as Labour and other groups who are attempting to keep economically supportive elements of EU access or do not support the withdrawal altogether. It is likely that Parliament votes the plan down which will open up a range of scenarios – very few of which are will avoid deeper trouble. After a rejection, the government has three weeks to work another deal, but the EU will be far less interested in an agreement that asks for more and the rapidly diminishing time frame will leave little opportunity to warm counterparts to their side.
Parliament voted this past week – after finding the Prime Minister in contempt for refusing to release official legal advice on Brexit – to give itself greater say over the proceedings should her plan be rejected. This is likely to empower the MPs to demand more favorable – but perhaps ultimately unworkable – terms. It may also raise the pressure for a second referendum. Previously May has rejected the option outright, but recently she has floated the idea. It comes off more as a threat for conservatives to get in line, but she has said there is a choice of “my deal, no deal or no Brexit at all”. Two of those three options are considered assured crisis to all the relevant parties involved; and unfortunately, that third lesser evil is different for all of them. Beware Pound volatility and the risk of fast moving local capital markets which can be exacerbated by the waning liquidity in these final weeks of the year.
This December is Already Bucking Seasonality Expectations
As we have discussed more and more as of late, there are seasonal norms in capital markets. These unlikely cycles arise through a few different practical market occurrences. Mid-day direction changes in individual trading sessions, summer doldrums, quarterly earnings runs and more draw on reliable conditional developments that can shape conditions – though specifics like direction are still up to the unique circumstances that play out in the given period. In the final weeks of the calendar year, we have one of the most reliable norms in trading. For those that want the scene described in a short phrase, ‘Santa Claus Rally’ usually suffices as they can fill in the circumstances with their imagination. A reduction in liquidity for western holidays and/or a general sentiment is seen as the foundation for a market’s performance. The liquidity aspect is at least correct and conditions earned through collective habit can often fill in the rest. However, when we follow this theme to the assumed bullish-backed trend, there are certain environmental criteria that need to support the outcome.
Normally, the pending risks column needs to either be small or populated with issues that can readily be deferred until more convenient market conditions return. That is not the case now with growth forecasts slowing, warnings of financial risks growing more numerous (from the likes of central banks and IMF), trade war consequences kicking in and political risks splashing the headlines. These are not issues that can readily be shelved and they are receiving media attention on a regular basis. With this backdrop, there are frequent sparks that can provoke panic which makes the backdrop all the more threatening. If an otherwise contained crisis arises somewhere in the world, the thin market conditions can amplify the ill-effects of panic to spread well beyond its normal reach. And, while it may not be capable of a lengthy collapse of the financial system through such diluted conditions, it can lay the groundwork for a vicious cycle that begins the process only to catalyze fully when markets fill out – much like a nuclear reaction.
In portfolio and statistical theory, it is not advisable to position for collapse against these seasonal norms as the probabilities are still skewed in favor of the norms. However, it doesn’t mean that we need to be utterly complacent with the risks that we hold. Reducing size, diversifying away from ‘risk’ markets or buying hedges reduces your beta exposure, but it isn’t like we are missing out on opportunities through a period that will be ‘dead’ in the base case scenario. The volatility we have experienced this past week, the past two months and in two distinct periods over the year (Feb-March and Oct-Nov) are a reminder that we should be more proactive with our reducing our exposure to the capricious unknown.
Who Faces the Greater (Probable) Systemic Threat: Dollar or Euro?
Everything in investing is a probability – that is a mantra I repeat to myself to avoid the delusion of certainty in a view or position. To put belief into action, I try to always lay out the probable scenarios for a particular market, asset, event, etc. Even if I consider a certain outcome more likely, considering the alternatives can help to identify earlier when the theory isn’t panning out and to even help stage an actionable strategy for a lower probability path. Most of the time in trading, the focus is to identify best case (the most productive bullish) scenarios, but there is just as much value in projecting worst case outcomes and their probabilities. This can help us avoid markets with a severe probability/potential imbalance or even identify better trading opportunities – I would rather pursue a short in a productive bear trend than suffer a long exposure in a choppy bull market. In evaluating the majors for their practical ‘worst case scenarios’ (those outcomes that are severe but not wholly unlikely – or qualifiers for a true ‘black swan’ designation) I think the Dollar and Euro deserve closer observation.
For the Pound, the market is well aware of the possibility of a bad fallout from the Brexit which puts investors on guard and making moves that help to hedge risk. The Japanese Yen is so inextricably tied to risk trends and the Bank of Japan’s policy so open-ended that other issues struggle to compete for anxiety. For the Euro, a return to existential rumination on the currency union with the Italy-EU budget standoff is a still-underappreciated issue. The bulls in the market likely look back to the situation with Greece and assume a routine path for any future confrontations to be resolved in the same way. That is presumptuous to be negligent. The fact that this is occurring after Greece and during the UK’s bid for a withdrawal (admittedly from the EU and not Eurozone) should raise the level of concern significantly. It hasn’t. Perhaps the lingering premium afforded the currency for the eventual turn from extreme accommodation by the ECB will be the first dashed enthusiasm to awaken market participants of more unfavorable outcomes. If a country were to leave the currency union (EMU or Eurozone), it would fundamentally change the appeal of the currency as a global unit by significantly reducing the size of its collateral (GDP and capital) which would in turn significantly increase its perceived volatility. And, those are critical properties of a currency.
The situation is unusually similar for the US Dollar. The pursuit of trade wars inherently encourages the world to redirect funds away from the US Dollar to avoid the policy conflicts that it brings (in trading terms, the volatility). Meanwhile, the rising deficit becomes increasingly problematic as the cost to service the massive debt rises and outside demand dries up. This can lead to a general shift away from the Greenback’s use permanently which the market won’t fully appreciate until much deeper into the situation. Similarly here, the market may more readily recognize something is wrong via monetary policy as the Fed adjusts to some form of the systemic risks by slowing its pace of policy normalization. So, which currency faces the longer-term – but still reasonable – risk? The Dollar. The ubiquity of the currency globally (nearly two-thirds of all FX transactions) means that it has far far more to lose should its use diminish. And that is very likely as the threat of further credit quality downgrades occur owing to its appetite for debt and its withdrawal from the global markets.