How the Hedge Funds Are Really Playing Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Philip Hammond is officially “outside the tent,” to use Lyndon Johnson’s phrase.

After losing his job as U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer and then his badge as a Conservative MP by rebelling against Boris Johnson’s hardball Brexit strategy, Hammond has kicked up an almighty stink by accusing Johnson of being in thrall to wealthy financial “speculators” who would actively profit from a no-deal Brexit. Downing Street called it “an ugly smear,” Brexit-supporting hedge fund founder Crispin Odey called it “crap,” and Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party seized on it it gleefully as supportive of its own view: that the more chaotic and painful Brexit is for the U.K. economy, the bigger the “goldmine” for hedge funds.

Is there any truth in the accusation? Well, as a fresh expose of hedge funds’ portfolio positioning and how that might “wag the dog” of the U.K.’s current Brexit strategy, its value is pretty much nil.

Are there investors out there betting against the pound, or U.K. stocks? Absolutely. Data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission show the entire market is still underweight sterling. But much of this looks like rational positioning given Britain’s political chaos.

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch’s survey of global fund manager sentiment on U.K. stocks was already negative in June, before Johnson’s ascension as prime minister. Some short positions are actually being trimmed: BlueBay Asset Management, by no means a hive of Brexit lovers, closed its own negative bet in August after three years. Hedge funds really do hedge their bets to make money.

Still, it’s easy to see why some might be singled out by Hammond and others. Odey, who gave 10,000 pounds ($12,277) to Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign earlier this year, grumbles that he’s been made to look “unpatriotic” and uncaring about what happens to the country. Yet this is the same man who was filmed saying “the morning has gold in its mouth” after pocketing 220 million pounds on a market slump the day after the Brexit vote. While Odey’s no mastermind — his flagship fund fell nearly 50% in 2016 and is down 14% so far this year — he has profited from the mess.

But it’s too limited to see this as being all about hedge funds cashing in by shorting the pound. The potential gains from a no-deal Brexit are much bigger and more permanent than short-term trades. There’s the regulatory bonfire that the Mayfair crowd are so excited about: Odey and dozens of other City investors called for a slashing of red tape and divergence from EU standards in 2016. That’s now within sight.

Then there’s the low-tax economy promised by Johnson and others in a no-deal scenario. Howard Shore of Shore Capital wrote recently that corporate tax cuts combined with more tax breaks would make the U.K. more “business-friendly” than Ireland.

And finally there’s the weak pound, loved by many wealthy entrepreneurs (not just hedge funds). Chris Rea, the boss of sealmaker AESSeal who recently gave 50,000 pounds to the Conservatives, said back in 2017 that sterling’s depreciation would offset any pain from a hard Brexit. More than 80% of his customers are abroad.

Yet it’s clear that most ordinary Brits wouldn’t benefit. The Bank of England warns that a rise in unemployment and consumer prices will be the bigger concern for most people.

So while it’s easy to counter the idea of an orchestrated hedge fund heist, it’s harder to dismiss the idea of the industry embracing a no-deal Brexit. The Conservative donor base has hollowed out since the 2016 referendum. “The heart of the party is now Brexit-supporting, self-made entrepreneurs who are supportive of Boris and fearful of Corbyn,” one donor told the Financial Times.

A Reuters analysis in July found that Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit pledge pulled in record amounts of party funds (more than 700,000 pounds), with JCB’s chairman Anthony Bamford and Ipex Capital’s Jonathan Moynihan contributing the most. Bamford describes a no-deal outcome as a “clean break” that doesn’t worry him at all. He’s in a fortunate and privileged position.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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