‘Panic Is Palpable’ as Markets Swoon on Brexit Vote Few Expected

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  • Investors grapple with high volatility, thin liquidity
  • Pound, euro plunge by records as haven assets advance

Chuck Self got into the investment business 36 years ago, but he’s never seen markets like this.

“This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime,” said Self, the chief investment officer of iSectors LLC, an Appleton, Wisconsin-based asset manager. “Most people will be feeling pain.”

As the U.K.’s historic vote to leave the European Union jolted markets around the world, investors responded with a mix of shock, fear and excitement. The pound and euro both sank the most on record, U.S. Treasury yields posted the biggest decline in seven years and the yen jumped to an almost two-year high.

“Panic is palpable,” said John Gorman, the Tokyo-based head of U.S. debt trading for Asia and the Pacific at Nomura Holdings Inc., one of the 23 primary dealers that underwrite America’s sovereign bonds.

The referendum’s result came as a surprise to both financial and betting markets, which had been positioning for a “Remain” vote leading up to the poll. Traders from the U.S. to Europe and Asia worked through their nights and early mornings to react to the results, facing thin volumes and big price swings as counts from around the U.K. poured in.

“The market is extremely illiquid, extremely volatile,” Richard Benson, managing director and co-head of portfolio investment in London at Millennium Global Investments, which oversees about $16 billion. “This is a shock.” He came into the office around midnight local time, when Sunderland in northeast England voted 61 percent to leave, a result that triggered the U.K. currency’s downward spiral.

The selloff takes its place among some of history’s worst market meltdowns, reminding traders of the global equity crash of Aug. 24, 2015, in which $2.7 trillion was wiped out in 24 hours, and the rush to the exits that marked some days during the global financial crisis in 2008.

Sterling plunged to the weakest level since 1985 and the euro suffered its biggest intraday drop since it was introduced in 1999. South Africa’s rand led losses among currencies of commodity-exporting nations as oil slid and industrial metals slumped.

Gold soared as investors piled into haven assets, while global equities sank. Money markets also convulsed, with one measure of stress reaching the most extreme level since 2012. Central banks across the world pledged to take action as needed to avert any breakdown in financial-market liquidity.

“All hell is breaking loose,” said Vishnu Varathan, a senior economist in Singapore at Mizuho Bank Ltd. “The only surefire is you buy yen, you buy U.S. Treasuries, you buy gold, and you sit tight.”

Here’s what other traders, investors and analysts are saying:

Alan Richardson at Samsung Asset Management in Hong Kong

“I’m doing nothing. I’m paralyzed in fear, curled up fingers and toes like in a horror movie.”

David Bloom at HSBC Holdings in London

“There are certain days you never forget and this will be one of them. Everyone is all over the place, it’s been a roller coaster.”

James Butterfill at ETF Securities in London

“It’s scary, and I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re going to see outflows from basically any kind of cyclical asset. A lot of people were caught out, and many investors will lose a lot of money.”

Alan Ruskin at Deutsche Bank in New York

“It’s certainly a very crazy event overnight -- and now, unfortunately, you have huge amounts of uncertainty.”

Ang Kok Heng at Phillip Capital in Kuala Lumpur

“Fear is normally easier to profit from than greed. This is what we are seeing today.”

Nicholas Teo at KGI Fraser Securities in Singapore

“I can’t leave the market alone. This is the event risk of the year. Central banks will probably pump liquidity into the markets given the spike in volatility. The biggest fear among investors is the contagion that a Brexit win will have across Europe.”

Hiroaki Hiwada at Toyo Securities in Tokyo

“Things have gone wild. I’ve never seen a market like this before."

Tim Condon at ING Groep in Singapore

“Everybody is just watching and trying to absorb what’s happening. A lot of people have been caught off guard. Central banks will probably prevent any sort of liquidity issues.”

— With assistance by Dani Burger, Wes Goodman, Adam Haigh, Lilian Karunungan, and Anna Kitanaka

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