Brexit or Bust

As it happened, my wife and I were in Europe when the Brexit vote took place, and had several conversations with bemused Britons, Scots and Italians about the vote and its potential consequences. I was out of the office until July 5, so I missed the sharp market decline and equally sharp recovery, though I followed both the commentary and the market activity quite carefully.

The Economist, the English-speaking world’s most reliable source of utterly conventional wisdom, called the Brexit Leave vote “a senseless, self-inflicted blow.” Nigel Farage, head of Britain’s nationalist UKIP party, called it “a victory for ordinary people, for decent people.” Wealthy London, home to the UK’s powerful finance sector, voted to Remain, as did poorer, welfare-dependent Scotland. Most of the rest of the country voted to Leave.

The contrast says much of what one needs to know about the two closely-balanced factions throughout the West. Bureaucratic elites, finance types  and wards of the state versus strained working and middle classes struggling with a moribund global economy and stagnant wages.

The immediate consequences for the markets were negative. Worldwide, equity markets fell sharply, then rallied. For the second time this year, bears cried havoc and were proved wrong…or at least, premature.Markets dislike uncertainty, but amid record low interest rates on cash, stocks remain the preferred asset class. The dollar strengthened against both the pound (significantly) and the Euro (slightly).

A key investment principle is that disorder creates opportunity. The V-shaped market action (sudden fall, quick recovery) has been a pattern in recent years, as one market break after another has failed to transition into a true bear market. As usual, we took careful advantage of the market break to buy low in accounts with excess cash.

What will Brexit mean long term? That is very hard to predict. Protectionism weakens economic growth, but the UK leaving the EU does not necessarily mean adopting higher tariffs. All that must be negotiated.

Brexit is a very different proposition from Grexit. In the case of Greece, a net recipient of Eurozone transfers required immediate financial assistance in order to avoid defaulting on its obligations and possibly suffering a chaotic exit from the common currency. Brexit, on the other hand, contemplates one of the Eurozone’s wealthiest members, a net payer into the system, exiting the common market but not the common currency. (Britain never joined the Euro, keeping the pound.) Further, the Leave vote represents a mandate without a mechanism. There are provisions within the Lisbon agreement for member states to leave, but they have never been tested. Britain’s departure is likely to be a protracted process of negotiation and compromise. There could even be another vote repudiating the Leave vote.

We appear to be witnessing the end of the post-war project of economic and political integration in the Western democracies. That project paid great dividends, both in rising wealth and  (more important) in two generations of peace in Europe. (Or at least Europe’s core. The Balkans wars of the 1990s demonstrated the inability of united Europe to deal with even minor security issues, absent American leadership.)

Free trade and free markets create wealth, as Adam Smith argued centuries ago. But not everyone wins from globalization. In recent years, the economic benefits of a more-connected world have been concentrated in the hands of the finance sector and government. They have almost entirely bypassed the working and traditional middle classes. For those voters, Brexit was a rational rejection of the status quo.

Reducing regulation and bureaucracy, making markets more free and hence more dynamic and productive, could have widespread benefits. But higher growth would come at the cost of reducing both the power and the compensation of entrenched, unaccountable elites in both Europe and the United States. We’ll see whether those members of the New Class get the message.

The Greek Tragedy: Final Act?

As it has been for more than a century, Greece is a financial mess. Last weekend, negotiations broke down between Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras and the “troika” of the European Union, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. (EU, ECB, IMF from this point forward.)  There will be no third bailout for Greece, at least not until the results of Sunday’s Greek referendum are in.

This past Monday, June 29, world stock markets fell sharply. The S&P 500 Stock Index was down 2.1%, erasing all year-to-date gains. This was the biggest decline since April of 2014. On Tuesday evening, Greece officially defaulted on a 1.6 billion Euro loan owed to the IMF.

We have watched the Greek situation carefully for years, and have written about it several times, most recently here. There are two dimensions to this latest chapter in the Greek tragedy.

The first is the human dimension. A Greek exit from the Euro (and probably from the EU as well) is likely to have profound and even catastrophic human costs. The Greek people, most of them hard-working and honest, will suffer greatly. Within a year or two, Greece is likely to be the world’s only formerly developed nation. We may see in Greece a level of poverty, suffering, and social breakdown not seen in Europe in peacetime since the grim decades of the 1920s and 1930s.

The second dimension is financial. How will the Greek drama impact the finances of U.S. investors? This is a very different picture. In the medium term, we expect a “Grexit” from the Eurozone to be a net positive for investors, for several reasons:

  • The risk of a systemic breakdown, like the 2008-2009 financial panic, is low. When the Greek crisis emerged in 2009, European banks had dangerous exposure to Greek loans, and a default could have triggered a collapse of Europe’s financial sector. Those big bank debts have been written down and recycled to European governments. If Greece defaults, it will cost European taxpayers billions, but we see little risk of contagion.
  • Monday’s market action was not unusual. Historically, declines of 2% or more happen several times a year. (Back in 2008-2009, they often happened several times a week.) Here in the later stages of a long, long bull market, periodic downside surprises are inevitable. What has been unusual is the very low volatility of markets since 2013. Expect a bumpier ride, but don’t worry about it.
  • Absent Greece, the investment outlook for Europe looks much more positive. With plenty of bad news already “priced in,” the unanticipated outcome is one where a Greek exit is largely an economic non-event for the rest of Europe. (Remember that Greece’s peak GDP was less than 3% of the Eurozone as a whole.)

Overall, our expectation remains largely unchanged. We expect the departure of Greece from the Eurozone to be an extended, messy process, very much a “Grexident” rather than a clean and surgical separation. But while markets may be volatile, we think any sharp downside break will represent a buying opportunity.