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Brexit Anniversary: Are We at Risk of Recession?

One year on from the Brexit vote, Rathbone's Ed Smith examines the three key areas that will be impacted by Brexit; trade, financial services and investment

External Writer 23 June, 2017 | 10:23AM

Morningstar's "Perspectives" series features investment insights from third-party contributors. Here, Rathbones’ Asset Allocation Strategist, Ed Smith, reflects on one year since the outcome of the Brexit referendum and assesses the impact of the decision to leave the European Union on the UK economy.

This weekend marks one year since we learned the UK intended to leave the European Union. Although we correctly forecast the magnitude of the fall in the pound, we were wrong-footed by stronger household consumption – after the referendum households actually decreased their rate of savings and took out even more consumer credit.

We now see more risk of a disappointment than a pleasant surprise

That said we were always more optimistic than many of our peers, some of whom were floating the possibility of recession. It’s been pleasing to see consensus estimates for growth in 2017 being revised up; but what drives markets in the short term is not so much the level of growth as the level of growth relative to expectations. As a result, we now see more risk of a disappointment than a pleasant surprise.

In particular, we see a threat to household consumption. This is crucial, as it accounts for about 65% of the economy and has been the only component to make a consistently positive contribution to growth over the last three years. Our analysis suggests that real, inflation-adjusted, pay growth is unlikely to return to anything much above zero for the next six months or so, and rising prices will erode consumer confidence. Also, our theoretical econometric modelling suggests that the effect of an ‘uncertainty shock’ is felt most acutely three to five quarters after the source of the shock. It may be that the impact of the vote to leave on confidence is taking time to feed through.

Brexit Negotiations are Key

A poor start to negotiations could further unnerve some people. In the first week of official negotiations, the government appears to have jettisoned its previous insistence that talks on trade should accompany the first phase of talks on rights of EU citizens residing in the UK, the size of the divorce bill and the border between Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Is this the first clear sign of a weakened hand? Regardless, if the economic implications are predominantly about a ‘hard’ of ‘soft’ withdrawal from the single market, we may be waiting some time for any hint of clarity. There is no set timetable for the beginning of phase two.

Many have inferred the collapse of a popular mandate for ‘Brexit at whatever cost’ from the results of the General Election. But despite anecdotal evidence, it’s not quite so clear that the result was a backlash against the ‘hard’ Brexit Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to be heading for.

The Labour manifesto was quite unequivocal: they too would withdraw from the Single Market and the Customs Union, and curb immigration – that sounds like a hard Brexit to us.

Are We at Risk of Recession?

Thinking about the long run, we put the probability of a significant downturn at 30%, arrived at by a hard Brexit and also the possibility that the EU project revivifies, bringing further gains from integration. If the EU completes the single market without the UK, then it is much more likely that capital will be reallocated from the UK towards the mainland than if further progress in the EU project stalls.

Trade

We are not concerned about the imposition of tariffs in the event of a hard Brexit. The average weighted tariff that would be payable on the UK’s exports to the EU under World Trade Organisation rules would be a little over 3%. Clearly, that has been paid many times over by the 21% fall in the Euro to Sterling exchange rate since it peaked in August 2015.

We are much more concerned about non-tariff costs to trade; in Western markets dominated by complex regulatory and certification costs, quality assurance and labelling regimes, state subsidies and minimum import prices.

Financial Services

This is our biggest concern. The ‘export’ of financial services is a significant contribution to the UK economy. The UK’s trade surplus in services is almost entirely in financial, and other professional and technical services often ancillary to finance. Again, this is not a risk that would be realised overnight. We should not underestimate London’s history of financial innovation and predisposing government policy. However, if the UK failed to negotiate a bilateral agreement that enshrined the continued passporting of its financial services, it is difficult not to envisage a gradual loss of business and investment.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)

Investment intentions had been on a downward trend since 2014. They have actually improved this year, but remain low and we do not expect business investment to make any meaningful contribution to UK growth while the cloud of Brexit hangs over UK commerce. Research suggests the most important drivers of global FDI are market size and agglomeration – a fancy term to describe the benefits when firms and industry networks locate near one another.

A hard Brexit would clearly impact market size but other factors that compel agglomeration in the UK would remain. Investment will not be immune, but again we would not envisage inward investment collapsing in the event of a hard Brexit.

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