William Schmick | At the Market: The 'Brexit' primer

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At this time next week the results of a United Kingdom referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union will be announced to the world. The polls are too close to call and the odds are changing every day. For the past several days equity markets worldwide have been selling off in fear that the Brits will vote yes to a Brexit. Why so much angst over one country leaving the EU?

The obvious concern is that if one nation decides to leave, how many other nations will follow suit? And if they do, the chances that Europe's currency, the Euro, survives would be dicey at best. That's a big deal since it is the second-largest trading currency in the world after the U.S. dollar.

As the days grind on, the predictions of doom and gloom have escalated. As they do, investors have run for the hills. Even our Federal Reserve Bank has decided to postpone any interest rate hikes for the foreseeable future as a result of the uncertainty this event has generated.

The departure by Britain, the second-largest nation in the community after Germany, would deal an economic blow to one of the three largest regions on the globe. The EU can ill-afford that kind of downside since it has been struggling for years to climb back from the abyss created by the financial crisis of eight years ago. Despite herculean efforts by the European Central Bank to jump-start the region's economy, so far, the results have been mediocre at best.

Struggling countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, for example, have already expressed disappointment (and even outrage) at the treatment they have received by EU authorities. And more and more of Europe's citizens have grumbled about the viability of continuing in the EU.

The International Monetary Fund has warned that if the UK decides to exit, it could cause severe implications for their economy and that of the EU's other member countries. Other nations, including the U.S., have warned that an exit would create an entire basket of problems from defense to trade and immigration.

Clearly, there are pros and cons of exiting the EU for Britain. There is a perception among the English that the rewards for giving up some of their sovereignty to Brussels, the seat of EU power, have been found wanting. While the EU spews out mountains of new regulations, rules and guidelines per year, say the Exiters, the United Kingdom's representation on any vote is less than 10% of the total.

Most Brits have no idea how and what laws are concocted in Brussels, but they feel that more and more of this legislation favors the largest multinational organizations, while hamstringing their small and mid-size companies. The country's Chambers of Commerce state that the total cost of this EU regulation is about 7.6 billion pounds/year.

Immigration is also a big issue that concerns Britain. The massive exodus to Europe's shores over the last two years by refugees from the on-going strife in the Middle East has burdened the resources of almost all members of the EU. The UK and Germany, thanks to the strength of their economies, are prime targets for these new refugees looking to start a new life. The results have been a huge increase in immigration with the UK now hosting 2.3 million workers from outside the EU.

Since the UK is an island nation where over 50 percent of goods and services produced and consumed are dependent on trade, leaving the tariff-free benefits of the EU could be a substantial negative. It could also create a substantial hit to jobs as well as investment in the country. Pro-EU campaigners warn that Britain could lose as many as 3 million jobs, which are linked to trade with the EU. Given that London is considered the financial center of the EU, there is also a great deal of concern that finance and investment will revert back to mainland Europe on any exit from the EU.

Like our own presidential elections, separating fact from fiction in the Brexit campaign is difficult at best. Clearly, there is a lot at stake for Europe and by implication, the rest of the world's financial markets. My own opinion is that the impact, at least on the UK, will be at best short-term in nature. If they decide to exit, however, Europe's future may be a different and on-going story.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.


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