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Scotland exit risk for investors

Monday, July 28 08:37:29

Less than two months before an independence vote that could ultimately tear apart a G7 country, investors in financial markets seem largely unmoved.

Last week saw the first glimmer of action in currency markets to protect against the possibility of Scotland voting on Sept. 18 to break away from the United Kingdom.

But against the backdrop of ultra-low volatility in financial markets that barely stirs even in major geopolitical crises, such moves have been small.

Reasons for leaving financial positions uncovered heading into the vote range from the complexity, the costs and expectations of interest rate rises which muddy the waters. Generally, it's just not considered worth it.

"Investors are completely not positioning themselves for the potential of a vote in favour of independence," said Insight Investment's head of currency Paul Lambert.

Opinion polls that show a lead of around 20 points for the 'No' voters, excluding the undecided, are enough to convince many investors that anything else is too remote a possibility to worry about.

Bookmakers see a 'No' vote as highly likely, offering odds of just 1/8. One Surrey-based businessman staked 400,000 pounds ($680,000) on this bet - the biggest political gamble that bookmaker William Hill has ever received - last month when the odds were 1/4, standing to win 100,000 pounds if he is right.

But even for those slightly perturbed by some polls that show nearly 30 percent of voters are still undecided, finding how best to protect financial assets is no simple task.

Morgan Stanley's strategy team has been rare among banks to put a figure on the chances of a 'Yes' vote - 25 percent. It, among others, is certain that sterling and UK government bonds would come under some pressure if Scottish leader Alex Salmond's nationalists won the vote.

It says the volatility it would cause could discourage the Bank of England from raising interest rates in support of a rebounding UK economy - an eventuality that money markets have fully priced in for December.

Investors can decide to take out an option to insure against this outcome while retaining their existing positions.

The question is whether the price of protection is worth paying to cover the potential losses which, in the currency markets, some have predicted could shave up to 10 percent of the pound's value versus the dollar.

Many are unconvinced.

One money markets broker, who wished to remain anonymous, said "the ramifications of a 'Yes' vote could kneejerk sterling money markets higher, but not enough in my view to pay for the hedge."

"My conclusion is that the Scottish independence vote is untradeable."

Citi is one of the few banks to have stuck its neck out and advised clients to try to offset any potential losses by buying credit default swaps on UK government bonds.

With the costs of five-year CDS contracts at their cheapest level since 2008 - less than higher-rated German equivalents - there is potential for their value to rise amid referendum-related volatility.

However, very few people are bothering to buy them.

The net notional for five-year UK CDS - a broad measure of the market's exposure to this contract - fell to its lowest since 2008 this month, according to Creditviews data.

The underlying message from strategists and researchers to equity investors is "don't worry".

Morgan Stanley predicts there will be no repeat of the jitters that gripped Canadian stocks when one of its most productive provinces, Quebec, nearly seceded in the mid 1990s.

"A large and sustained move is unlikely given the small impact we expect on UK profits from a Scottish exit," it said.

Investors holding any of the 100 Scottish-based companies listed on UK bourses can also sleep easy, concluded a paper by Paul Marsh of the London Business School and Scott Evans of Walbrook Economics.

There has so far been no evidence that equity investors are bracing for a shock. There are those, though, who fear this ambivalence, which they say also surrounds UK plans to hold a referendum on membership of the EU, could come back to bite. (Reuters)

For more visit: www.businessworld.ie