You are here

The UK economy is flying blind 100 days after the Brexit vote

Pubs, retailers, airlines. Name the business and it's likely they're looking for an answer to what Brexit will actually mean.

[LONDON] Pubs, retailers, airlines. Name the business and it's likely they're looking for an answer to what Brexit will actually mean.

Almost 100 days since the UK voted to leave the European Union, firms are still in the dark.

Prime Minister Theresa May has offered little insight into her exit strategy, leaving executives to make decisions on investment and hiring with no clarity on what the business environment might look like, or how easy it will be for the UK to continue trading with the bloc of 500 million people.

A reminder of the risks came on Thursday when Capita Plc, the services company that runs London's congestion charge, said it will miss estimates because of a slowdown in some businesses since the EU vote.

Market voices on:

Part of that was linked to "continued delays in client decision making," something the Bank of England has also highlighted as a threat.

Such uncertainty looms over an economy that has proven more resilient than anticipated since the June referendum. The UK is facing some form of scaled-back relationship with its biggest export market, and economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect the pace of expansion to more than halve next year.

"The government doesn't have a plan, and until it decides, it's really hard for anyone to prepare," said Thomas Sampson, a professor at the London School of Economics.

"In the short run, uncertainty can cause some decline in activity, but that's a separate issue from what will happen in the longer run once we change our relationship with the EU, which I'm much more concerned about."

Instead of an immediate move to withdraw from the EU, the government's approach has instead been slow and measured.

Formal exit negotiations may only start next year and then take two years to conclude, so any clues about the new relationship have been pushed into the distance.

Neame says Brexit "presents a degree of legal and economic uncertainty" and it's "mindful of the possibility of a slowdown."

Home-improvement chain Kingfisher Plc said it hasn't seen a direct impact on business yet but has formed a "working group" to monitor developments.

Others are turning to external help: demand for consultants is up 10 per cent compared with a year ago.

It's not just domestic companies that are considering their options. German airline Deutsche Lufthansa AG is examining whether it may need to vary frequencies and aircraft types on UK routes as demand shifts following the Brexit vote.

Crucial to the outlook will be whether the UK can negotiate the "bespoke model" that Mrs May wants in which Britain maintains access to the single market and restricts migration, according to Bloomberg Intelligence economist Niraj Shah.

But that could raise red lines on both sides, hampering agreement or even leading to a so-called hard Brexit where Britain leaves the single market entirely.

"The reality of the protracted process of withdrawing from the EU means we still know very little about the nature of our future trading arrangements," Bank of England Deputy Governor Minouche Shafik said at the Bloomberg Markets Most Influential Summit in London on Wednesday.

"This uncertainty is weighing on prospects for business investment."

That's not just talk. The BOE sees investment plunging almost 4 percent this year and 2 per cent in 2017.

Economic growth may cool to 0.8 per cent next year, which would be the weakest performance since 2009.

Brexit angst has sent the pound tumbling 13 per cent against the dollar since the referendum, making it the worst performer among major currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

The depreciation has provided a fillip to UK exports, but is also set to boost inflation and put a squeeze on consumers.

The lack of clarity poses a challenge for policy makers. According BOE official Kristin Forbes, the central bank may even be miscalculating the the overall impact of uncertainty on the economy.

The BOE, which cut interest rates and restarted its asset-buying program this summer, raised its near-term growth estimates, though it won't draw inferences for the longer term until it publishes a more detailed analysis on Nov 3.

That's three weeks before another key event, Chancellor Philip Hammond's fiscal statement that may include some form of modest giveaway.

"While we have a new government and departments of state, we still have no more information on business-critical issues including international trade and access to skilled workers," said Adam Marshall, acting director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, a lobby group representing thousands of companies.

"The government needs to reassure them as soon as possible."