What leaving the EU means for your money

We’ve finally left the European Union. It may seem like nothing has changed, but investors need to look at what it means for their portfolio right now, says John Stepek

This article was first published in MoneyWeek magazine issue no 984 on 31 January 2020. to make sure you don't miss out in future, sign up to MoneyWeek here and get your first six issues free.

So that’s it. It’s only taken one referendum, two general elections and three prime ministers to get here. But Britain is finally leaving the European Union (EU). What happens now? The immediate answer is: nothing. The “Withdrawal Agreement” comes into force, which effectively keeps everything as it is, but sets the stage for 11 months of talks to decide on a future deal governing trade and the wider UK-EU relationship by the end of the year. Elsewhere, Helen Thomas of Blonde Money looks at how those talks are likely to unfold. Here I want to look at the implications for investors.

What’s changed?

While it may look as though nothing has changed, there are in fact major differences between where we are now and the various “cliff edges” that we’ve been perched on over the past three-and-a-half years. For one, businesses now know for sure that “remain” is no longer an option. Even if the UK were to change its mind tomorrow, it would need to reapply to be a member. So even with months (perhaps years) of talks ahead of us, the end destination is far clearer than it was. That’s a big step forward for businesses. They may not yet know exactly what Brexit will look like, but they know for sure that they’d better prepare for it, and they also have an explicit deadline. It’s also a big step forward politically. For as long as the UK itself was divided as to the way forward, there was no reason for the EU to engage seriously with talks. Why bother, when the country might change its mind at any point? Now that Britain has left, it makes sense to hammer out a deal that works for both parties.

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That’s not to say it will be easy. Debates over financial services and fisheries will probably hog the headlines during the first half of the year. And when you throw efforts to achieve a US trade deal into the mix – and how that might interact or conflict with any EU deal – it becomes even more complicated. Even if a deal is agreed by the end of the year, it’s likely to be a bare-bones effort that pushes more detailed negotiations further into the future.

In terms of what to look out for, Paul Dales of Capital Economics reckons that if both sides can agree on “what to talk about and in what order” by the start of March, “it would be a good sign”. If they can’t even manage that, “it would be an omen that the going is likely to be heavy for the rest of the time”. But however it pans out, the point is, it’s happening. So what are the implications for investors?

UK government bonds (gilts) are probably the least-affected British asset class. For now at least, yields on most developed-world government bonds follow the general direction of global interest rates and that’s likely to remain the case, even if the government does unveil a decent-sized spending package under Chancellor Sajid Javid at the budget in March.

Rather than via gilt markets, the way global investors have expressed their concerns about Brexit has been by selling off (or buying back into) sterling. That’s unlikely to change this year. The pound is off its post-Brexit lows, but as Jonas Goltermann of Capital Economics points out, 2020 promises to be a bumpy, headline-driven year, with sterling being particularly vulnerable to fears that the UK could end up with no explicit trade deal at all at the end of the year. So while we think it’s a good idea to increase your portfolio’s exposure to the UK (particularly if you are currently “underweight” relative to where you were before the Brexit vote), that doesn’t mean selling all of your overseas exposure and betting it all on Britain.

The most obvious bet on a Brexit bounce

The most obvious investment beneficiary of extra clarity on Brexit is the UK equity market. Despite its recent burst higher, Britain is still cheap relative both to its own historical valuations and to other global markets. As Karen Ward, chief market strategist for EMEA at JP Morgan Asset Management points out, “it is the attractive dividend yield offered by UK stocks that is likely to prove too tempting for international investors”, who are still hungry for yield against a backdrop of low interest rates. As a result, even in a year in which equities are unlikely to shine as brightly as they did in 2019, says Goltermann, “we think that a gradual unwinding of the ‘Brexit discount’ on UK equities means that they will fare better than most”. Indeed, “if the forward price-to-earnings ratio for UK equities returned to where it was in mid-2016, it would raise the level of the index by about 25%”.

So what should you invest in? We’ve suggested several UK-focused investment trusts in the past and the sector did very well last year. But with catch-up potential remaining, options include BlackRock Throgmorton (LSE: THRG), which trades on a small premium to net asset value (the value of the underlying portfolio), Schroder UK Mid Cap (LSE: SCP), on a discount of just under 10%, and Montanaro UK Smaller Companies (LSE: MTU) on a discount of 7%.

John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.