Proponents and skeptics speak out as deadline approaches

As the clock ticks down to the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union, one prominent billionaire is predicting a major recession. While other experts see a bit of hyperbole in the doom-and-gloom forecasts, multinationals appear to be hedging their bets. But could U.S. firms find ways to benefit from Brexit?

A self-described prominent billionaire said he believes the United Kingdom’s impending “Brexit” from the European Union will wreak havoc on the world economy, creating a “lose-lose” situation for Britain, the U.S., and others. And as Brexit edges closer, multinational companies around the world appear to be taking heed of at least some of the possible worst-case scenarios.

“There can never be such a thing as a win-win in Brexit. Unfortunately, it will only result in everyone losing,” said Vijay Eswaran, the entrepreneur, speaker, and philanthropist who founded the QI Group of Companies. “Will the E.U. lose more than the U.K.? This is the more pertinent question now. Not even the pundits can predict who will face the greater loss. In my opinion, when this comes to pass, both the U.K. and Europe will be left reeling … There is therefore no upside, no winners. There is bound to be a recession followed by Brexit, which will have an impact on the U.S.”

primemin400x588Britain is slated to leave the E.U. on March 29. Prime Minister Theresa May, however, has so far failed to secure Parliament’s support for her exit plan, leading to fears of a chaotic “hard Brexit.” Without an agreement, E.U. will simply stop applying to British citizens at 11 p.m., March 29, with no transition period – this will affect the ability of British citizens to travel to the E.U. and vice versa, tariffs, and it remains unclear as to whether the union’s bilateral trade deals will continue to apply to the U.K. (most experts say no).

Multinationals recently have made moves to reduce their exposure to the U.K. economy. Japanese automaker Honda announced this week that it will close its lone British factory. Nissan also has pulled out of a plan to make a new SUV in England (CNN reported Nissan and Honda saying that Brexit did not play a role in their decisions, but many industry experts disputed that). Electronics company Panasonic announced as well that it would shift its legal departments to Europe. All of these moves came on top of each other after Japanese officials and business leaders reportedly lost confidence in the British government’s ability to successfully manage the Brexit process.

It remains unclear what a hard Brexit’s impact would be on the U.S., but the two countries’ industrial bases are tightly intertwined and both rank among each other’s top trading partners. But even if a hard Brexit comes to pass, could American firms find a way to benefit?

“U.S. businesses are the most significant investors in the U.K. with around $588 billion in investments. These companies use the U.K. as the gateway to free trade with the 28 E.U. nations. Britain's investment in the United States is at the same level,” Eswaran said. “Brexit is a vote against globalization. It takes the United Kingdom off the main stage of the financial world.”

Eswaran might be overstating his case, however. Substantial disagreement exists among academics and policy analysts as to the possible size of Brexit-related losses. And without an agreement in place, it becomes even more difficult to predict.

“If the U.K. were to remain in the Single Market then any losses would probably be relatively minimal. A so-called ‘hard Brexit’ would entail a much larger economic hit. As such, from a purely economic standpoint it is correct to state that Brexit is lose-lose,” said David Hearne, a researcher at the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University. “To put this in some kind of context, the U.K. Treasury estimates that a Brexit in which the U.K. remained in the European Economic Area would entail a hit of 1.4 percent to U.K. GDP, whilst a ‘hard Brexit’ would entail a loss of 7.6 percent. My own view is that these numbers are probably pessimistic, but as I stress there is enormous uncertainty over the size of economic losses.”

The damage, however, will almost undoubtedly be asymmetrical, Hearne told “Advisors Magazine” by email, given that the fallout to the E.U. will be spread out among the remaining 27 member countries. The U.S. as well is “reasonably well insulated” from Brexit’s effects given the relative size of each country’s economy and investments in the other.

“Although the UK is a significant trading partner for the US, the size of this trade is small relative to the overall size of the US economy. Individual businesses might feel some pain but over the economy as a whole the impact will be relatively muted,” Hearne said.

Cross-border investments could face much more significant complications from Brexit. The U.S. is the single largest source of foreign direct investment into the U.K., and a Brexit-spurred tumble in Sterling could reduce the value of those investments. It also could, however, set U.S. businesses off on a chase to “bargains,” Hearne noted. U.S. firms also could struggle with legal issues related to financial services as London currently stands as Europe’s financial capital – former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is on record saying this will remain true even after Brexit passes – but many firms have rushed to set up European offices to offset any issues created from the split.

“If the U.K. economy takes a nosedive, it will have ramifications in the U.S., especially on the eastern seaboard. Tourism will definitely take a hit once Brexit comes into force,” said Eswaran, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Growth Companies.

But Brexit may have a silver lining for some U.S. companies. The possibility exists that Brexit could spur the U.S. and U.K. to sign a free trade agreement. Stopping short of a free trade agreement, a U.K. free of the E.U. customs union could set its own tariffs, many of which are in place to benefit other European regions.

“Oranges are a classic example: the climate in the UK is too inclement to grow oranges, but tariffs are set at an E.U. level and exist to protect European orange growers, mostly in Spain. Orange farmers in California or Florida might therefore stand to benefit if the U.K. were to eliminate tariffs on that product,” Hearne said.

These silver linings do seem relatively few in number, however, and it remains unlikely that the U.S. would be able to seal a free trade pact with the U.K., given the number of compromises the latter would need to make in regards to European health, safety, and other regulatory standards. Those compromises might cause too much friction with the U.K.’s European trading partners to be palatable, Hearne said.

That said, the pessimistic predictions surrounding Brexit, while possible, are not set in stone.

“The old adage ‘economists have predicted nine out of the past five recessions’ is a maxim worth bearing in mind in this regard,” Hearne said. “A Brexit-induced recession is not unlikely, but it is far from a certainty.”


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