Market calm over Scottish vote at odds with disaster warnings

Wed Sep 17, 2014 3:01am EDT
 
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By Mike Dolan

LONDON (Reuters) - The big question about investor anxiety over Scotland's independence referendum is not whether it's warranted, but why it took so long to materialize and why it's still so marginal.

Even now, with opinion polls showing a near-equal split in Thursday's vote for and against Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom, market moves have been modest at most - especially when you strip out influences such as domestic interest rate speculation and the wider global economic pulse.

Against the prospect of a potentially messy break-up of the world's sixth largest economy, the relative calm is eye-opening, whether due to detached calculations about the outcome and risks, or a worrying nonchalance and perhaps even puzzlement.

For all the banner headlines of market fright surrounding the issue - mostly trumpeted by unionists - sterling's value against a trade-weighted basket of world currencies is still a full two percent higher in 2014 so far, even after its recent retreat from midsummer peaks.

British blue chips remain in the black for the year, clocking an annual performance little different to Germany's equivalent DAX and outperforming the Milan bourse over the past six weeks. Scottish-domiciled stocks have indeed underperformed over the past year, but only by a sliver of 2 percent and even that's narrowed rather than widened of late.

The yield that investors require to hold British government bonds has actually fallen, insulated by London's guarantee to honor all outstanding gilts regardless of the vote. Ten-year bond yields have lost half a percentage point this year - despite constant speculation that a rise in the Bank of England's benchmark interest rate is coming closer.

Any signs of angst and a dash to hedging are confined largely to the currency options market, where one-week implied sterling volatility against the dollar jumped to its highest in four years as polls shifted toward a 'yes' vote.

Yet at an annualized 17 percent, traders say this still only suggests a likely sterling gyration of about 4 cents from the current $1.62 over the week ahead. What's more, volatility implied out to three months only prices for a move in sterling/dollar of half the year's 12 cent peak-to-trough move so far.   Continued...

 
A man walks past a building in the morning mist at London's financial district of Canary Wharf September 16, 2014.        REUTERS/Kevin Coombs