What to Expect in U.K. Markets When May Pulls Brexit Trigger

  • Strategists split on sterling, weak pound to help stocks
  • Bank of America sees market complacency around negotiations

JPM's Flanders Says Pound to Trend Down In Brexit Talks

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The trigger of Article 50 is the event traders have been waiting for since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. Yet as Prime Minister Theresa May approaches her end-March deadline for launching Brexit, there is no consensus on what it means for markets.

The pound has slumped 18 percent and the country’s benchmark equities index has rallied about 16 percent since the June 23 referendum. While currency and stock volatility is now calmer ahead of the talks, some analysts are warning markets are too complacent in expecting a smooth path toward an agreement.

Click here for a primer on what comes next on Brexit

Is Article 50 already baked into sterling?

No, says Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “We reject the notion that sterling has fully priced Article 50 and beyond. Risks to the currency remain to the downside on a disruptive start to negotiations,” strategists including Kamal Sharma said in a note to clients on March 2, adding they see a dip before a recovery into the end of the year.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. is also bearish. It recommended on March 3 selling the pound against the dollar at 1.2250, with a stop at 1.2530, as it sees the currency as the most over-valued in the Group-of-10 and investor confidence as vulnerable.

Bank of America’s preferred strategy is to bet on greater swings in the pound, rather than its direction. It has recommended buying three-month forward volatility, a measure of expected swings, with a target for it to gain around 20 percent from current levels. Societe Generale SA also sees opportunity in options, as it expects two-month implied volatility to pick up if cable falls below $1.20.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley is more sanguine and thinks the triggering of Article 50 shouldn’t come as a major surprise. “There may be many Article 50-related news headlines in the coming weeks but we believe that a lot of the negativity around Brexit-related economic data weakness is already in the price,” strategists led by Hans Redeker said in a March 2 note.

The bank initiated a long sterling versus the euro trade recommendation last month and is targeting a move to 0.8000, as it sees political risks in the euro zone remaining high.

What are key things to watch during negotiations?

The key question is whether economics or populist politics dominate the negotiations, according to Bank of America economist Robert Wood. It should become apparent relatively early into the formal talks that the U.K. is on course for a harder Brexit, with all of the economic disruption that leaving Europe’s single market is likely to entail, according to JPMorgan.

Traders will focus on what the process means for the financial services industry, a key contributor to the economy, and any signs that banking or broader investment is being relocated out of the U.K. could potentially have a negative effect on the currency, said Viraj Patel, a London-based strategist at ING Groep NV.

How will Article 50 affect stock allocations?

U.K. equity investors are not losing any sleep over Article 50. In fact, stock volatility as measured by the VFTSE Index is near a record low. That’s in large part because members of the benchmark FTSE 100 Index get about three-quarters of sales from abroad, so their profits have been benefiting from the slide in the pound. If the currency sees a significant drop from here, the index may rise further, after hitting a record high this month.

Yet some analysts argue that upside is limited, as the weak pound has been priced in. Members of the FTSE 250 Index get about half of revenues from the U.K., and that’s at 70 percent for the FTSE Local U.K. Index, so these firms may struggle if U.K. growth shows more signs of a slowdown. Investors will watch housebuilding shares, which have defied expectations since the vote, and may retreat if the economy shows significant weakness.

What about gilts?

Bank of America expects a rising risk premium for holding gilts as a result of political headlines early on in the negotiations, and recommends being short five-year gilts versus overnight indexed swaps. JPMorgan also has a bearish view, expecting “market noise” following the Article 50 trigger, and is staying short 10-year gilts. Citigroup Inc. is targeting 10-year yields to fall to 1 percent on a pessimistic economic outlook as consumers start to feel the pinch.

ING says it’s worth watching the level of foreign ownership of U.K. bonds as a gauge of sentiment. Foreign ownership of U.K. bonds has slipped in the past two months and “if this becomes a six-month theme that’s telling you something,” said ING strategist Patel.

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