Brexit and the feedback of uncertainty through asset prices

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 markets reaction to Brexit reflects 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.

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Figure 1. The pound sterling fell against most currencies following the Brexit vote, including by more than eight percent in one day against the U.S. dollar.

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.

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Figure 2. VIX, the CBOE measure of expected near-term equity market volatility, saw an almost 50 percent daily increase following the Brexit result

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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Nearly 100 freshly updated charts:

U.S. Macro and Markets Dashboard (Updated June 26, 2016)

References and additional reading

Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg

Nick Bloom comment on Brexit 

BBC: The UK’s EU referendum: All you need to know

 

Dashboard update: bond yields fall with renewed demand for safe assets and lower interest rate expectations

Monitor more than 80 economic indicators with the macro and markets dashboard:

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United States Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard: Updated June 11, 2016

Dashboard weekly update summary:

The latest labor market data show continued overall improvement in wages and low levels of new jobless claims, offering some consolation after the surprisingly weak May jobs report (see last week’s update). Equity market volatility increased, however, as already lackluster global growth forecasts were revised down by the World Bank. Domestic and foreign investors are shifting their portfolio of assets to fixed streams of income. Global bond yields, including on U.S. government and corporate debt, fell considerably during the past week’s rally. Investors are searching for higher returns on safe assets and responding to lower interest rate expectations.

Wages grow faster than productivity

Narrowing a long and persistent gap between productivity and wage growth, recent data suggest wages have been increasing in many industries. For most of the past decade, worker’s productivity (the output for each hour of work) grew more rapidly than their wages. The gap was in part from technology making work more efficient, but it also came from a weak labor market. An economy in which there are many qualified workers for each opening makes workers less likely to quit and more likely to accept no or small increases in wages. Companies simply do not need to rely on pay increases as a motivation when fear of unemployment is very strong.

While wage growth crawled along for a decade, productivity growth remained strong. Recent data suggest, however, that the long upward trend in productivity may be facing at least a hiccup. Meanwhile, overall measures show wages have been growing at a reasonable pace since mid-2014. Revised first quarter 2016 index data on wages and productivity shows the former nearly catching the latter.

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When oil prices fall, for example, there is a transfer of wealth from the stakeholders of oil producers (who face a fall in revenue) to households (who spend less on fuel and energy). Likewise, a fall or stagnation in corporate profits can result in an increase in worker’s relative share of output. Wages, unlike commodity or stock prices, tend not to be cut. Where the past year has seen labor markets and workers’ bargaining power improve, it has seen productivity and corporate profits stagnate.

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Additionally, data for the week of June 4 on new claims of joblessness was strong, with only 264,000 such claims. Overall, reasonable wage increases, an increasing labor share of output, and low headline unemployment paint a better picture for households and aggregate demand than the last jobs report’s payroll growth and participation rate data suggest. That said, labor market improvements are traditionally slow and gradual, while deterioration is rapid and steep. The June jobs report should therefore have major implications for the Fed’s rate hike decision.

Equity market volatility climbs

U.S. equity markets gains over the first four trading days of the week were erased on Friday by a large sell off. The CBOE volatility index, VIX, increased to 17 from 13.5 a week earlier. The bond rally described below suggests that there has been a flight to safety. Investors have been adjusting in part to new forecasts of generally lower global growth. Likewise, there are several large events on the horizon (brexit, elections, central bank policy divergence, etc.) suggesting fluctuations and jumps in equity markets (as well as debt and forex markets).

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Bond markets rally as investors seek safe assets and interest rate expectations fall

Over the past week, U.S. treasury bonds, t-bills, and corporate bond yields fell. Elsewhere, ten-year German bund yields are nearly negative and Japanese ten-year government bond yields have fallen to -0.13%. People’s tolerance for extremely low returns is limited, and U.S. government debt offers a relatively higher return. During the past week, ten-year U.S. treasury bonds reached a four year low, partially as a result of strong foreign demand.

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The spread between 10-year and 2-year treasuries sits currently at a nine-year low. Potential causes for the flat yield curve include the following: 1) investor search for return driving driving down long- and medium-duration bond yields, 2) investor fear of a business cycle downturn and a near future need for monetary easing, and 3) lower interest rate expectations as a result of recent data taking June (and potentially July) rate hikes off the table.

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Check out the full dashboard for more than 80 indicators of U.S. economic activity:

U.S. Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016

I also updated the dashboard for Japan:

Japan Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016