History can guide Investors on EU Referendum

Seasoned investors know that stockmarket sell-offs eventually offer buying opportunities. Indiscriminate falls in share prices mean bargains are available. But, putting this into practice takes real courage.

It is rarely possible to get in at the bottom, so some immediate losses are likely. How can investors make stockmarket volatility pay off? It can be useful to view current prospects through the lens of past experience.

Economic history has had more attention in recent years, becoming part of investor education. It can tell us that circumstances are rarely as unique as they seem. For example, some of the forecasts for the UK and eurozone economies – should the UK vote to leave the EU – envisage something worse than any past recession.

But worse things can happen to the economy than a devaluation. The UK now has material overseas earnings, which will revalue in sterling terms should our currency fall. Global companies listed in London selling oil or metals for dollar prices are little affected by the value of the pound.

Certainly, international investors could find the UK less attractive, but some investors are positively attracted to economies that get a devaluation boost.

There may even be more takeover activity from overseas firms that see bargains on offer in the London stockmarket. And for institutional investors, withdrawal from the EU would give the UK economy a special status, less easily substituted by investing in other European stockmarkets. Institutional investors tend not to dump everything when faced with uncertainty. Some may even see the EU as the loser – with other potential exits from the club – and move some money back to the UK.

A weaker pound may actually be positive in the short term for the UK economy and some types of shares.

In the aftermath of the banking crisis, when the UK’s position looked bleak, given the scale of its banking sector problems – the pound fell 30% against the US dollar in the space of six months. Yet, it marked the beginning of UK economic recovery and strong performance by shares. Amidst the despair of international investors, it proved to be a good time to buy UK shares.

There are other lessons from history, both recent and long past.

The history of referendums in the UK and Europe is that there are rarely black or white outcomes. Often, as with Scotland’s referendum, last minute concessions are made. And in Europe, history tells us that votes are often re-run with generous incentives for another attempt at a vote.

The Maastricht Treaty was run again in Denmark, as was the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland. So, concessions and a re-run following a Brexit vote would be possible – particularly if it were close.

Indeed, given the role of Parliament in this, there is ample scope for delay and further negotiation.

is clear that stockmarket investors are as fearful about the implications for the remaining European Union as they are for the UK in the event of Brexit. So it may be in the EU’s interest to make further concessions. History tells us that is the European way.

In longer history Europe has, several times since the nineteenth century, ended in conflict via economic reparations from countries that cannot afford to pay. The Treaty of Versailles was just one of these.

Now, the inability of Greece to re-pay its debts on any realistic economic scenario should be seen as a similar challenge. This may end in tears and eventual debt write-downs. So Europe will change, whether the UK helps that or not.

An investor’s mindset – longer term vision – can help a lot. Over time, the global economy grows and many shares benefit. It is easy to forget why shares are owned, or the right timescale for review, particularly when politicians are filling the headlines full of fear. Investors should use the past to lend perspective.

A version of this article was published online in Personal Finance in The Herald on 18 June 2016.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with which I am affiliated. The information presented in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however, I make no representation as to their accuracy or completeness and accepts no liability for loss arising from the use of the material. Articles and information do not represent investment advice.

Image credit: Colin McLean rights reserved.

 

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