Prime Minister May was disgraced
As Parliament calmly laid waste
To hopes that her deal
With Europe could heal
The schism that Brexit emplaced
Yesterday’s Parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal negotiated between PM May’s government and the EU resulted in a resounding rejection. While the UK remains fairly evenly divided on the absolute concept of Brexit, what was made clear was that the terms proposed were unacceptable to all sides. As I have maintained, the Irish border issue is an intractable one, where one side or the other simply must cede ground. There is no middle way. At this time, neither side is willing to do so, and quite frankly, unless Northern Ireland is willing to reunite with Ireland, (which seems highly unlikely any time soon), there can be no deal that will be acceptable to both sides. This leaves three potential outcomes; the UK could leave the EU with no deal in hand and go back to WTO tariff rules; the UK could opt not to leave at all (based on the European Court of Justice ruling from November); or there is a small possibility that the deadline could be delayed a number of months in order to reopen negotiations.
Let’s unpack those three choices.
1. In a no-deal Brexit, pretty much every published analysis by economists has forecast a nearly apocalyptic result for the UK economy, with a deep recession followed by much slower growth. Or course, every one of those economists likely voted to remain as the demographics of the vote showed professionals, especially financial industry professionals, overwhelmingly voted to remain. In other words, they are talking their book. Will the UK suffer? Almost certainly. Will the UK collapse into a depression? Absolutely not. The UK was a strong and viable nation before the EU came into existence and will certainly continue to be so going forward. The market impact of this outcome is likely to be quite negative in the short term, however, with both the pound and UK equity markets falling sharply if it becomes clear this will be the outcome. While both will recover eventually, the timing on that is unclear.
2. If the May government opted to remain in the EU, essentially repudiating the results of the referendum, I fear it would lead to riots in the streets, certainly in the Midlands which led the vote to leave. In fact, I could see an alliance between the French gilets jaune and the Brexiteers as both will be taking to the streets in an effort to change the government. A unilateral decision not to leave would have much deeper consequences with regard to the political system within the UK, as there would be whole swathes of the nation that would cease to trust the government entirely. I actually think this is the least likely scenario, although in the event it occurred, I would expect both the pound and the FTSE to rally sharply initially, but as the consequences of that act became clearer, I imagine both would suffer greatly.
3. Delaying the deadline seems like the best fudge available to both sides at this point, although the initial comments by EU officials followed the line that, given the depth of the defeat of the already negotiated deal, there seems little chance to make small changes and get a new result. This will also require unanimous approval by the remaining 27 members of the EU, which sounds daunting, although if there it was believed there was a serious chance of coming up with a better deal would get done. Here, too, the market response will be for a rally in the pound, and probably the FTSE, as investors would likely take the stance that the delay presages a deal.
However, for the time being, PM May’s first course of business is to fight off the no-confidence motion brought by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn in his attempt to bring down the government and force a general election. Pundits believe that while the deal was unacceptable, May will hold on. The problem is, she has no ideas as to how to move the process forward. Certainly, the probability of a no-deal Brexit has increased somewhat after the vote. Interestingly, the FX markets have not really priced for that outcome. In fact, since the original vote date, December 11, when May pulled the bill to try to garner more support, the pound has rallied pretty steadily and is nearly 3% higher over the past month. It would seem that FX traders believe a deal will be found.
The other story of note is that the Chinese government is now set to cut taxes in an effort to add fiscal stimulus to their ongoing monetary stimulus efforts. Remember, they have already cut bank reserve requirements by another 1% this year, adding to 2% cuts from last year, and they have created a loan targeting policy for SME’s. Now income tax cuts are to be included as well. This highlights just how poorly the Chinese economy is performing right now, and how critical President Xi believes it is to continue publishing GDP growth above 6%. While the FX market has shown little response to these actions, they have had a much more positive impact on equity markets, with yesterday’s rallies easily attributed to the announcement. The one thing that is certain is that Xi will continue to do whatever he things is necessary to support economic growth in the short run, regardless of the potential longer-term negative consequences. After all, despite being President for life, he is still a politician!
Pivoting to the data story, yesterday Germany reported 2018 GDP growth of just 1.5%, its weakest performance in 5 years, although there was no report on Q4 growth. Given the surprise decline in Q3, pundits were watching to see if Germany had entered a technical recession, although it appears not to be the case. However, it is clear that growth in the engine of Europe is continuing to slow which doesn’t bode well for the entire Eurozone. Nor does it bode well for the ECB’s nascent attempts to remove policy accommodation. In fact, their biggest fear has to be that growth slows further there and they have basically no monetary tools left to combat the situation. This morning’s data has shown that inflation continues to ebb in Europe (France 1.6%, Germany 1.7%, Spain 1.2%, Italy 1.1%), and the UK (2.1%) as well, which reduces pressure to tighten policy at all. While US inflation is also softening, it continues to puzzle me that there is any belief the ECB (or the BOE for that matter) will consider raising interest rates any time soon. So even if the Fed is more dovish (and given remarks from the always hawkish KC President Esther George yesterday, it is clear that there is no rate hike in the near future in the US), the idea that any other central bank is going to be tightening policy is absurd.
In fact, I would argue that the dollar’s recent weakness has been predicated solely on the idea that the Fed will back off on previously forecast rate hikes. But if the Fed is stopping, you can be 100% certain that any thoughts of tighter policy elsewhere are also out the window, and so relatively speaking, the US remains the tightest policy around. I still like the dollar for that reason.