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I’m planning to vote for Brexit. I could write many many pages on this, but here are the four points that matter to me — and that I think should matter to investors.
The EU doesn’t exist. I’m slightly behind in my reading so I have only just made it through Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One of his key insights into how humans came to dominate the planet rests on the idea that we are the only group of beings that have a language that “allows us to talk about things that do not exist at all” — apart from in our imaginations.
There are realities around us — the physical existence of the land that makes up Europe for example. And there are the “inter subjective realities” that we create to give ourselves the structures and the rules we need to hang on to stability in very large groups. Religions are obvious examples. So are big companies (they only exist as long as we believe in legal codes). And so of course is the EU. It isn’t Europe — which is real. It is an “imagined community”, existing only in our collective imagination. The problem is that it isn’t a very good one.
Longstanding nations are obviously imagined communities (a river is real, the boundary it represents is not). But many hundreds of years of work on cultural cohesion and language makes them resilient: Germans firmly believe in various kinds of German uniqueness, for example. That’s not the case with the EU. Most of us feel no real connection with it, or belief in it. We care about it only in terms of what we can get out of it. That makes it a deeply uncertain construct to be attached to.
Look at Schengen, at the failure of ECB monetary policy, at the probable solvency problems of both the eurozone’s big banks and its big countries (France and Italy being the obvious) and you must accept that it is likely the eurozone will see an existential crisis in the next few years. That will push the top management to demand higher levels of belief — more integration, not less. That might work — or it might blow the whole thing up as people make it clear they believe in their own nations more than they do in the EU. Either way, as the Brexiters say, better to watch from a comfortable lifeboat in the Channel.
Democracy. No one argues that there isn’t a democratic deficit or sovereignty problem in the EU given how indirectly all representation to it works. Some say that doesn’t matter. But it does. And it is likely to matter more. The push for more integration (the only solution the EU’s elite can countenance) is unlikely to come with even the faintest of nods to democracy. We are choosing here between more EU and less EU. As things stand, our PM has to ask about 27 other people before he can make minor changes to our welfare system. With that fresh in my mind post renegotiation, I’ll take less.
The economy. It will be almost impossible to cut though the numbers on both sides over the next few months and I am not going to try here (you can get a reasonably neutral overview from the Capital Economics report on the matter. What I will say is that it is much easier to measure potential loss than gain. Big UK companies lobbying so very hard against Brexit have spent the past few decades spending fortunes lobbying in Brussels for an environment that works for them.
They’ve done it well — the very fact that they can so precisely measure the gain from the creation of the kind of highly regulated system we work in tells you just how well. Of course they like the status quo. It is harder, however, to measure the loss from the workings of the EU: the companies that have suffered from it or never started because of it. This is impossible. The best we can say is that it is likely that all the numbers you see one way or another underestimate the possible gains from Brexit. There is huge uncertainty if we stay and if we don’t. But add it all up and Brexit is not a leap from the light to the dark but from the greyish to the also greyish. Which is fine.
Scotland. Voting Brexit seems to me to be the best chance we have to save the union. The SNP is threatening to hold another referendum if we vote out. I suspect they don’t really want to (they do good threats). But their members may force them into it and Westminster may allow it (it isn’t a devolved issue). If they do, they won’t win.
The falling oil price has destroyed an already ropey economic case. And the way the timing works, the UK would already be out of the EU before Scotland was out of the UK — leaving it stranded in the North Sea while it reapplied — in the full knowledge that it would have to take the euro and the EU’s fiscal limits with no UK-style federal transfers. Who would vote for that? Quite. And another decisive loss really would be the end of the matter. Vote Brexit to save the union.
On to what all this fuss means for your money. This might be one time when I can recommend very good active managers who have a good record of preserving capital. In the run-up to the vote and in the immediate aftermath of a Brexit vote, a diet of relentless propaganda from both sides will have markets and currencies veering from hope to fear and back several times a week. So it makes sense to hold multi-asset funds run by crisis-tested managers such as Personal Assets and RIT.
I would also look at a few new funds. The Aurora Investment Trust (which I mentioned a few weeks ago) is run by Gary Channon of Phoenix Asset Management. When I spoke to him he told me that his first priority is to make sure that even in the worst of scenarios he would get his money back. His past performance suggests he knows what he is doing: think long-term average returns of about 10 per cent. Take a look also at an entirely new fund — Equitile. This one aims to invest only in low-debt companies that can demonstrate “resilience — an ability to adapt, survive and thrive, whatever the environment”. That might be of some use as a strategy over the next few years.
Finally, it is worth thinking about what feels comfortable and what does not. If, as the referendum gets closer it looks like the vote might be out, it will be tempting to look for a safe haven in the big multinational firms. But remember why so many of them love the EU. They’ve lobbied to make it work for them — and to make the EU bureaucracy think that capitalism effectively is multinationals. If it is to go, better perhaps to be in some of the smaller companies that are already operating without that advantage.
UK’s EU referendum: full coverage and analysis
View the FT’s comprehensive guide to the vote on whether Britain should stay in Europe, with all the latest news, analysis and commentary from both sides of the debate. See more