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Key Questions in the Aftermath of the Brexit Vote to Leave

Updated: May 18, 2022

There is much that can be written about the referendum result. Indeed, much already has been. I shall try to keep this simple and focus on what, I believe, are the two key questions for our investors and ourselves. One, what were the prospects for the UK and global economy before the referendum? Two, what has changed since?

"This is all very well, but the EU has made it clear that the UK cannot have both"

For the last few years, growth in the UK and globally has been OK but not great. My view was that things were likely to continue in this vein rather than growth recovering to pre-crisis levels or on the other hand it slipping into negative territory.

I had a number of reasons for believing the global economy would continue to grow. First, that is its tendency. Despite the tiny minority who would like to return the human race to the Stone Age, most of us conduct our daily lives in a constructive way, both providing as well as consuming products and services. Aggregate that at a systemic level and you have what is called growth. And it’s quite hard to stop that in its tracks because, well, it’s what we like to do.

Since we quite like being constructive, we tend to do it more and more until economies overheat and central banks feel the need to step in and end the party. Looking at inflation prior to last Thursday, it seemed clear that economies on the whole were far from overheating. Agreed, some were closer than others, but at a global level it was obvious that there was a still a chronic shortage of demand rather than an excess of it.

Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has written about this “chronic” demand shortage. He refers to it as secular stagnation – a term coined by Alvin Hansen in 1938 to describe what he feared the US economy was experiencing in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In fact, I was going to write about Summers’ deliberations on the subject in detail in this investment letter. Alas, Brexit has rather overtaken events and that shall have to wait. Nevertheless, Summers’ key conclusion is that secular stagnation is real but that it can be countered with public investment in areas such as infrastructure. Since fiscal austerity has not generally resulted in a strong recovery in private sector confidence, he argues, it should be stopped. Furthermore, econometric models suggest, he says, that although government borrowing as a percentage of GDP would at first rise, over time it would fall as the multiplier boosted the denominator, GDP.

I have had increasing sympathy with this argument and as a result felt more optimistic about the prospects for the world economy. That said, it will likely be a while before key policymakers listen to Summers - and the many others who share his views - and consider his proposed solution.

In the meantime, I believed that ultra-loose monetary policy would prevent demand from falling off a cliff while workforce slack would prevent inflation from rising to uncomfortable levels.

My somewhat hopeful view was supported by generally positive leading indicators, yield curves that were steep rather than inverted, as well as the aforementioned low inflation and labour force slack.

Then on 23 June Britons voted to leave the EU. What has changed as a result?

The most obvious and incontrovertible thing that has changed is that the referendum is now behind rather than ahead of us. This matters because the UK and European markets had been weak over the preceding year or so, arguably because the referendum lay ahead and represented uncertainty (in the 12 months to May 2016, outflows from all IA sectors totalled £38 billion). True, there are now other uncertainties that have taken its place but at least they are not binary in the way markets hate.

Another equally incontrovertible fact is that the ‘leave’ camp won the referendum. The market’s violent reaction suggested this result was both unexpected and perceived as negative for the UK economy, though equities have since recovered. It seems the most likely outcome is that at some point the British government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thereby setting in motion the process to leave the EU. But it is far from clear when – and perhaps even if – this will happen.

In the meantime, there is scope for all sorts of developments. One of these must be for Brits to ponder whether the UK should seek to remain in the single market. If yes, we would have to accept free movement of people as Norway and Switzerland have. If no, we would have to accept tariffs on trade in goods and services with the EU. New UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said, “It must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services — but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.” This is all very well, but the EU has made it clear that the UK cannot have both.

The pound has fallen sharply. In some respects, this is a good thing as the UK’s current account deficit as a percentage of GDP had reached an unsustainable 7% (see chart 1). That said, the initial effect of the pound’s weakness will be to widen the deficit even further as imports cost more and exports are worth less. Longer term, the fall in the currency will be stimulative, though how much spare capacity the UK economy has to absorb this stimulus is unclear. Although wage pressures remain relatively subdued, Bloomberg Intelligence’s estimate of the UK’s output gap suggests that much of the excess capacity that prevailed after the Great Financial Crisis has now been removed (see chart 2).

Bond yields have fallen sharply. As of 4 July, the yield on the 10-year Gilt stood at 0.83% compared with 1.37% on the day of the referendum. Interestingly, this was not due to a fall in inflation expectations. Quite the opposite in fact - the inflation rate expecta­tion embedded in 10 year yields actually rose following the referendum, from 2.31% to 2.34%. In other words, it was a fall in real yields rather than inflation expectations that drove the fall in nominal yields.

Putting this fall in real yields in a longer term context as well as in the context of equity market yields is particularly interesting (see chart 3). The yield of -1.5% on the 10-year inflation protected Gilt as of 4 July suggests that if you bought it and held it to maturi­ty you would make a total real return of -14% (for the 30-year the number is -33%).

Bank of England governor Mark Carney has hinted he’ll loosen monetary policy over the summer. Furthermore, former Chancellor, George Osborne, backtracked on his longer term budget targets. It is clear therefore that both the Bank of England and the Treasury expected the impact of Brexit on the UK economy to be negative, perhaps considerably so. At the same time, evidence of an immediate impact is sparse. As of 4 July there were only 22 items on the FT’s Brexit Business Impact Tracker, a log of the expected impact of Brexit through company announcements and similar. Given all the warnings from UK companies ahead of the vote, it is perhaps surprising there have not been more announcements of cuts of some sort.

There are many other things that have changed since the referendum that I have not mentioned. However, the point of those that I have chosen to highlight is that it remains very unclear what the longer term economic impact will be of the vote to leave the EU.

What we do know is that developed market government bonds are even more expensive now than they were prior to the refer­endum (the chart above suggests that the great bond bull market is running out of steam but taking a long time to end!) We also know that equity market yields are generally well above long-term historic averages. Therefore, as far as the big asset allocation call between bonds and equities is concerned, this suggests pretty clearly that one should underweight the former and overweight the latter. We are thus sticking with our current positioning.

Published in Investment Letter, July 2016

The views expressed in this communication are those of Peter Elston at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. They do not constitute investment advice and whilst all reasonable efforts have been used to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this communication, the reliability, completeness or accuracy of the content cannot be guaranteed. This communication provides information for professional use only and should not be relied upon by retail investors as the sole basis for investment.

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