Brexit: Headache for businesses, uncertainty for investors

A long-standing tradition among British europhiles is to lament the hostile euroscepticism of most of its newspapers.

Yet while Rupert Murdoch and others leant towards Brexit, the big beasts of its business community lean in the opposite direction. Look at the main donors to the Remain and Leave campaigns and the first impression is of a David vs. Goliath contest.

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Both campaigns in the run-up to a referendum on 23 June on UK membership of the EU lean heavily on individuals.

David Sainsbury, a long-standing financier of pro-European think tanks and political parties, had given €4.9 million to the Remain camp by mid-April, according to the UK Electoral Commission. Multi-millionaire businessman Arron Banks donated €7.9 million to Leave.

Bloomberg and Richard Branson’s Virgin group are among major donors to the pro-EU cause, but the only group that appears to have co-ordinated itself is investment bankers.

Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley have coughed up €2 million between them for the Remain camp.

If funding from sharp-toothed US mega-banks has offered an easy line of attack for Leave campaigners, it is no surprise that Goldman Sachs and the other banks were among the few to put their heads above the parapet.

Financial services in the economic firing line

The UK’s financial services sector is probably first in the economic firing line from a Brexit.

Their concern is that losing single market access would result in some financial sector activities being relocated away from London. This fear is not without foundation.

For example, in March 2015 the European Court of Justice overturned a rule by the European Central Bank that would have required central counterparty clearing houses (CCPs) – which handle trades of stocks and shares – to be located inside the eurozone if they were processing transactions worth more than €5 billion.

This was a major victory for the City of London, which currently provides most of these services.

However, the court made it clear that London’s financial houses would not be able to offer the service were they outside the EU.

“Outside the EU, the UK would not have been able to challenge this decision and achieve this result,” said Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder at the time.

Serious complications

Bloomberg founder, CEO, and owner, Michael Bloomberg said on 23 May that some people in Frankfurt and Paris were “rooting for Brexit”.

“In my conversations with chief executives of banks and other industry leaders, with rare exceptions, they see Brexit as a serious complication that could lead some jobs to shift to the continent over time,” he said.

Meanwhile, monthly surveys by tax and audit firm Deloitte in 2016 have indicated that companies have postponed decisions on whether to invest in the UK since the announcement of the referendum.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that only big banks and multinationals fear Brexit.

A survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that 71% of their members backed Remain. So, too, do a majority of members of the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Similarly, 70 percent of firms in the UK’s booming tech sector back Remain, and the figure is 61 percent in the manufacturing sector, according to the UK’s Engineering Employers’ Federation, a trade association.

Most small businesses do not trade directly with the rest of the EU but are part of the wider supply chain. Single market integration has blurred the distinctions between companies who export directly and those who do not.

However, the difficulty for the pro-EU cause has been to persuade business leaders to engage in the campaign.

The CBI, Nissan and Honda were among a group of organisations who publicly warned in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the UK economy would suffer if it stayed out of the eurozone, only to be left high and dry when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown backed down from joining the euro.

They were, understandably, reluctant to risk getting their fingers burnt again.

Businesses crave certainty

If the referendum is a major political irritant to most European capitals, the economic consequences are negligible for most of Europe. Ireland, Cyprus and the Netherlands are most directly exposed to the UK economy, particularly in terms of bilateral trading and banking.

A survey of economists by the Munich-based Ifo Institute found that 65 percent believed the Germany would only experience “minor economic drawbacks” from Brexit, with 12 percent anticipating “strong disadvantages”.

In truth, it is impossible to accurately estimate the economic impact of a Brexit (though that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying).

However, the “better the devil you know” argument is hard to trump.

The Centre for European Reform estimates that EU membership has increased trade between the UK and EU members by 55 percent, equivalent to € 171 billion.

“If someone offers you a stock that offers at best zero you’re not going to take it,” says strategist Rupert Harrison of US investment management firm BlackRock.

Businesses crave certainty or, at the very least, predictability. That is why the Bank of England, CBI, Treasury and the vast majority of policy think tanks have warned that Brexit would hit everyone in the wallet.

A version of this story also appears in EUobserver’s new print magazine, entitled Business in Europe, due out this week.

You can download a free PDF version of the magazine.

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