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The chances of a Brexit still appear low, but the stakes are high. The polls show that a growing number of the British want to turn their back on Europe.
According to Mark Glazener, portfolio manager of Robeco NV, the unrest is taking hold mainly on the currency markets. The British pound is weakening and if a Brexit does actually materialize, it could wipe “10 to 20% off sterling's value.” The reason for this is obvious. “The United Kingdom has a current account deficit that will have to be financed at a lower exchange rate.”
A departure from the EU will have huge repercussions. There is a two-year transition period in which Britain would have to arrange its withdrawal, and at the same time all kinds of new trade agreements would have to be drawn up. “The agreements with countries outside the EU all go through the EU. The British would have to arrange all of these themselves. 50% of the goods and services exported by the UK goes to countries outside the EU.” It's going to be a hell of a job to arrange all of that within two years, predicts Glazener. “The EU has been negotiating its trade agreement with Canada for seven years now.”
Looking at bigger picture, Glazener thinks that leaving Europe would be bad for British business. The question is, which sectors will be hit hardest? “Half of UK exports to Europe are goods and the other half are business and financial services – which has made London the current financial center of Europe. There are blueprints for new trade agreements for goods exports via the World Trade Organisation, but hardly any for services.”
According to Glazener, this also throws a spanner in the works for Brexit proponents who compare the situation with countries like Switzerland and Norway, which are doing fine outside the Europe Union. “These countries have a completely different economic structure, and are much less reliant on their financial and business services.” British financials are therefore particularly risky at the moment, thinks Glazener. “We are avoiding local British banks for now. We only have HSBC* currently, which depends mainly on developments in China and Hong Kong.”
‘A Brexit would put pressure on commercial real estate investments’
Glazener is also avoiding British real estate for the time being. “A Brexit would put pressure on commercial real estate investments if London is threatened with losing its role as Europe's financial center. This would also have an impact on residential real estate. And eventually on local banks, which would see the size of their mortgage portfolios decline. What's more, these banks would feel the pain of a contracting British economy in the event of a Brexit scenario.”
Against the backdrop of all these dark clouds is the advantage of a weaker pound. Glazener has a slight overweight* in the UK. “Companies that generate a large proportion of their sales overseas like Vodafone, Reckitt Benckiser and British American Tobacco are benefiting from the positive currency effect. It is important to avoid the country risk – with the aid of futures – and still be able to benefit from the cheaper currency via stock exposure.”
* reference date 26 February 2016