Brexit: What investors are and should be doing

On Friday 24 June 2016 the Australian share market experienced severe turbulence in response to Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union.

As had been widely reported in the lead-up to the historic vote, the outcome was always expected to be a close call. However, very few investors actually expected the Leave campaign to prevail, as highlighted by the initial rise of the S&P/ASX 200 (Index: ^AXJO) (ASX: XJO) on the day.

From there, however, reality began to kick in. Investors around the world experienced one of the most volatile days in recent memory.

In the United States, the tech-heavy NASDAQ index dropped 4.1% with the S&P 500 down 3.6%.

As one would expect, European markets were hit even harder. The German DAX, for instance, dropped 6.8%, while London’s own FTSE 100 dropped 3.2% (although, it did drop as much as 8.7% during the session).

Being one of the first markets to react to the news, Australia’s ASX 200 was also hit hard. The main bourse closed 3.2% lower, although it did drop as much as 200 points or 3.8%.

The financial stocks were hit particularly hard – a trend which was consistent in equity markets around the world. Westpac Banking Corp (ASX: WBC) shares fell 4.4%; Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ASX: ANZ) dropped 4.1%, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (ASX: CBA) lost 3.3%, and National Australia Bank Ltd. (ASX: NAB) lost 3.8%.

Clydesdale Bank plc (ASX: CYB), which was recently spun-out of National Australia Bank, was hit even harder. The bank is directly exposed to the UK market, and saw its shares lose 17.5% to $4.57. Shares of many other companies with direct exposure to the country were also sold down heavily, including BHP Billiton Limited (ASX: BHP) and Westfield Corp Ltd (ASX: WFD).

There is no denying that days like Friday can be distressing for investors. The shock outcome from Britain’s historic referendum vote caught markets completely off-guard, which no doubt contributed to the intensity of Friday’s trading activity.

And it would be naïve to ignore the uncertainty that the decision has created. It is currently unclear how Britain will plan its divorce from the European Union, and whether or not that will prompt further referenda from other countries within the EU.

It’s possible that markets will remain volatile in the near future as investors around the world adjust their expectations and tolerance for risk. It’s also possible there will be some forced sellers – in particular those who hold highly leveraged positions – which could see share prices drop further.

As long-term investors, it is important to keep control of your emotions as these events play out and remember these three things:

  1. We invest in businesses, not three-lettered ticker symbols. Even shares of some businesses which are unlikely to be impacted by a Brexit will likely fall. Stay focused on the businesses themselves and try to think rationally about their prospects.
  2. Ensure you are comfortable with your exposure to the market. No, that doesn’t mean sell all your shares. But it may be a good time to reassess your tolerance for risk and ensure you do have some cash in your account in case conditions do worsen.
  3. Uncertainty creates opportunity. Volatility is the reason why shares have historically generated greater returns than virtually any other asset class. That uncertainty can be extremely uncomfortable in the short-term, but long-term investors can benefit from it by keeping their cool when others are panicking.

This is a time where your patience and temperament will likely be tested. But remember, the volatility will eventually pass and the market’s fears will ease. As my colleague Mike King noted last week, “Sell out now and you might miss further falls, but you could equally miss the recovery. Very few investors can consistently time the market successfully.”

To borrow another line from Reuters, which quoted Jeff Kravetz, a strategist at the Private Client Reserve at U.S. Bank: “In the end, when markets start to settle down, I think they are going to realize that this is not the end of the world.

Whether you want to be aggressive with acquisitions or just wait on the sidelines, do yourself a favour and be on the lookout for some great buying opportunities. Some are sure to present themselves in the near future.

With markets falling, be on the lookout for some great buying opportunities

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Motley Fool contributor Ryan Newman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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