The medium- and long-run consequences of Brexit are unknown, but increased uncertainty in response to the event will likely have real global effects of its own. Individuals are now less confident in their guesses about the future, and this uncertainty changes behavior, increasing risk aversion and decreasing business investment. Global market reactions to Brexit reflect not only the new average belief about expected future earnings, but also the indirect feedback effects of the higher level of uncertainty.
Medium- and long-term effects unclear
The U.K.’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union, termed ‘Brexit’, surprised many analysts. As the referendum vote neared, markets (representing the average belief of individuals) increasingly expected the ‘remain’ party to win. Some well-educated analysts explained how Brexit would never happen (possibly what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would consider proof of a black swan). The ‘leave’ campaign won with 51.9 percent of the vote, prompting David Cameron’s announced resignation.
The medium-term consequences for the U.K. and E.U. (or anywhere else) are entirely unclear. For example, should unemployment increase and production falter in the U.K. during the next few months, the Bank of England may need to ease monetary policy further and adopt very unconventional tools. However, if the market reaction to Brexit can be fully absorbed by exchange rate adjustment, the Bank of England may need to raise interest rates in response.
On June 24, the pound sterling fell more than eight percent against the dollar (figure 1). In response to the currency depreciation, many here in the U.S. joked about buying goods online from the U.K. or planning vacations. Many others expressed uncertainty about the future of the U.K. and the E.U., and the economic and political implications for the U.S.
Markets reminded of their anxiety issues
Within hours of the ‘leave’ campaign victory, stock prices of some financial services companies, such as Lloyds, fell by 30 percent. Although real changes from the vote may take two years to implement, the average belief about the appropriate cost of equity for these firms changed dramatically overnight. The fundamentals for people and businesses in the U.K. do not immediately change, but their behavior and asset prices do, and this has an indirect feedback effect on the fundamentals
Likewise, the U.S. is clearly not part of the E.U. or U.K., however, it is intimately linked to both markets through trade and investment. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 610 points (3.39%) on Friday in response to the news. The most widely-used measure of market volatility jumped nearly 50 percent (figure 2). The sales revenue of the largest U.S. companies is practically unchanged, however, individuals’ collective behavior has changed in response to uncertainty.
Individuals are repricing the assets that they previously overvalued. However, if the Bank of England is forced to wait to decide which direction its key policy will turn, how well can individuals immediately reprice future earnings? The immediate reaction to Brexit reflects not a new certainty about future earnings but increased uncertainty. Individuals never know what the future will hold, but these large unexpected events make them less confident in all of their guesses, and it changes their behavior.
Searching for safety and the uncertainty feedback loop
When people are less certain about the future, they take fewer risks. For example, business investment falls when equity market volatility is high. Individual and institutional investors also show preference for safe assets during times of increased uncertainty. In an immediate reaction to Brexit, U.S. treasuries, gold, and Japanese Yen saw inflows, while equity markets saw net outflows. Neither business fundamentals nor any rules had changed; people were showing risk aversion.
Investors’ increased aversion to equity investment raises firms’ equity cost of capital. This cost of capital is a major factor in firms’ investment decisions, especially for smaller and less-cash-flush firms. Therefore, the uncertainty induced asset price shock has a feedback mechanism through which it affects the future value of companies. This dangerous feedback mechanism can be procyclical.
What it means for the U.S.
The medium- and long-term direct effects of Brexit on the U.S. are very unclear. Brexit-induced equity market volatility, higher levels of uncertainty, and the negative effects these entail can however be analyzed with attention to the current U.S. macroeconomic environment. Three potential short-run consequences emerge:
1) Continued volatility in equity markets and strong demand for treasuries;
2) More downward pressure on business investment, which was already negative in the first quarter of 2016; and
3) Delay of the next Federal Funds rate hike in response to the above.
While the downward pressure on already weak business investment is worrisome, none of the above are enough to induce major concern. Households, many of which have recently started seeing long-awaited wage and income increases, will play a key role in determining whether recent asset price volatility will spill into consumer sentiment and awake a much worse set of feedback mechanisms.
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References and additional reading
Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg