“What could possibly go wrong?”

I well remember the questions a year ago, after I published my annual Budget Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the Great Unknown in 2018 – 2020‘.  Many readers found it difficult to believe that global interest rates could rise significantly, or that China’s economy would slow and that protectionism would rise under the influence of Populist politicians.

MY ANNUAL BUDGET OUTLOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2019-2021 period. The aim, as always, will be to challenge conventional wisdom when this seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

Before publishing the new Outlook each year, I always like to review my previous forecast. Past performance may not be a perfect guide to the future, but it is the best we have:

The 2007 Outlook ‘Budgeting for a Downturn‘, and 2008′s ‘Budgeting for Survival’ meant I was one of the few to forecast the 2008 Crisis.  2009′s ‘Budgeting for a New Normal’ was then more positive than the consensus, suggesting “2010 should be a better year, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP“.  Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

THE 2017 OUTLOOK WARNED OF 4 KEY RISKS
My argument last year was essentially that confidence had given way to complacency, and in some cases to arrogance, when it came to planning for the future.  “What could possibly go wrong?” seemed to be the prevailing mantra.  I therefore suggested that, on the contrary, we were moving into a Great Unknown and highlighted 4 key risks:

  • Rising interest rates would start to spark a debt crisis
  • China would slow as President Xi moved to tackle the lending bubble
  • Protectionism was on the rise around the world
  • Populist appeal was increasing as people lost faith in the elites

A year later, these are now well on the way to becoming consensus views.

  • Debt crises have erupted around the world in G20 countries such as Turkey and Argentina, and are “bubbling under” in a large number of other major economies such as China, Italy, Japan, UK and USA.  Nobody knows how all the debt created over the past 10 years can be repaid.  But the IMF reported earlier this year that total world debt has now reached $164tn – more than twice the size of global GDP
  • China’s economy in Q3 saw its slowest level of GDP growth since Q1 2009 with shadow bank lending down by $557bn in the year to September versus 2017.  Within China, the property bubble has begun to burst, with new home loans in Shanghai down 77% in H1.  And this was before the trade war has really begun, so further slowdown seems inevitable
  • Protectionism is on the rise in countries such as the USA, where it would would have seemed impossible only a few years ago.  Nobody even mentions the Doha trade round any more, and President Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico specifically targets so-called ‘non-market economies’ such as China, with the threat of losing access to US markets if they do deals with China
  • Brexit is worth a separate heading, as it marks the area where consensus thinking has reversed most dramatically over the past year, just as I had forecast in the Outlook:

“At the moment, most companies and investors seem to be ignoring these developments, assuming that in the end, sense will prevail. But what if they are wrong? It seems highly likely, for example, that the UK will end up with a “hard Brexit” in March 2019 with no EU trade deal and no transition period to enable businesses to adjust.

“Today’s Populist politicians don’t seem to care about these risks. For them, the allure of arguing for “no deal”, if they can’t get exactly what they want, is very powerful. So it would seem sensible for executives to spend time understanding exactly how their business might be impacted if today’s global supply chains came to an end.”

  • Populism is starting to dominate the agenda in an increasing number of countries.  A year ago, many assumed that “wiser heads” would restrain President Trump’s Populist agenda, but instead he has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers; Italy now has a Populist government; Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland made major gains in last year’s election, and in Bavaria last week.

The last 10 years have proved that stimulus programmes cannot substitute for a lack of babies. They generate debt mountains instead of sustainable demand, and so make the problems worse, not better.  As a result, voters start to listen to Populists, who offer seemingly simple solutions to the problems which have been ignored by the elites.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2019 – 2021 period, as we enter the endgame for the policy failures of the past decade.

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Petrochemicals must face up to multiple challenges

Europe’s petrochemical sector must prepare now for the trade war, US start-ups, Brexit and the circular economy, as I discuss in this interview with Will Beacham of ICIS news  at the European Petrochemical Association Conference.

With higher tariff barriers going up between the US and China, the market in Europe is likely to experience an influx of polymers and other chemicals from exporters looking for a new home for their production, International eChem chairman, Paul Hodges said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the European Petrochemical Association’s annual meeting in Vienna, he said: “The thing we have to watch out for is displaced product which can’t go from the US any more to China and therefore will likely come to Europe.

In addition to polyethylene, there is an indirect effect as domestic demand in China is also falling, he said, leaving other Asian producers which usually export there to also seek new markets and targeting Europe.

The US isn’t buying so many consumer goods from China any more – and that seems to be the case because container ships going from China to the US for Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t full. So NE and SE Asian chemical producers haven’t got the business they expect in China and are exporting to Europe instead.  We don’t know how disruptive this will be but it has quite a lot of potential.”

US polymer start-ups
Hodges believes that the new US polymer capacities will go ahead even if the demand is not there for the product. This is because the ethane feedstocks they use need to be extracted by the producers and sellers of natural gas who must remove ethane from the gas stream to make it safe.

For these producers some of the cost advantages have already disappeared because of rising ethane prices.

The exports of US ethane are adding one or two more crackers to the total. And without sufficient capacity ethane prices have become higher and more volatile.”

Hodges points out that pricing power is being lost as poor demand means producers cannot pass on the effect of rising oil prices. “Margins are being hit with some falling by 50-60%,” he said.

Circular economy
EU targets mean that all plastic packaging must be capable of being recycled, reused or composted in Europe by 2025. For the industry this could be a huge opportunity, but only if it acts fast, said Hodges: “We have to develop the technology that allows that to happen. We will need the [regulatory] approvals and if we don’t get moving in the next 12-18 months we are in trouble.”

Brexit beckons
According to Hodges: “We are in the end game for Brexit. We talk to senior politicians from both sides who don’t think there is a parliamentary majority for any Brexit option.”

He fears that if no deal can be agreed there is a chance the UK will refuse to pay its £39bn divorce bill.

Then what happens to chemical regulation and transport? Although the bigger companies have made preparations, only one in seven in the supply chains are getting prepared,” he added.  This is why we have launched ReadyforBrexit.

You can listen to the full podcast interview by clicking here.

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Is your business Ready for Brexit?

Time is running out for the UK government to agree a Brexit deal with Europe.  As my new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business highlights, companies need to move quickly to prepare for the “No Deal” scenario

Legendary England footballer Gary Lineker best summarised the general sense of disbelief over the state of 
the Brexit negotiations when tweeting in July:

“A wealthy nation putting itself in a position where it has to stockpile food, medicine, etc., in times of peace is utter madness. What Are We Doing?”

Lineker’s concern was confirmed last month by the head of the British Chambers of Commerce who warned that “precision is what is required” regarding the Brexit process, rather than “declaratory statements”.

Yet today, with less than six months to go before the UK officially leaves the EU, businesses still do not know if the UK will simply crash out with no deal on 29 March, with no transition agreement in place. This is almost unbelievable, given that the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, taking 44% (£274bn) of UK exports in 2017, and provides 53% (£341bn) of all UK imports, according to a July report from the House of Commons library.

One problem is that the cabinet only finally agreed on its chosen option for the new EU relationship in August. In turn, this means the civil service is only now starting to be able to advise sector groups, trade associations and other experts on the key issues involved.

A second problem is that the new Brexit department had to be created virtually overnight after the June 2016 referendum, and the average age of its staff is just 31 years. Many have no personal experience of the enormously complex issues involved.

CHEMICALS IN NO-MAN’S LAND
Chemical companies are, of course, right in the middle of this no-man’s-land. They depend on frictionless movements of raw materials and intermediates between their various EU sites, and they are heavily integrated into just-in-time supply chains with key customers such as the auto and food industries.

The UK government has recently warned of possible major disruption if there is a No Deal Brexit, and the Key UK Risks chart highlights the key economic and business risks that lie ahead.

The current gap between the UK and EU positions was emphasised in chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s recent evidence to the UK Parliament:

  • He confirmed that the EU did not believe key proposals in the Chequers Plan for the Irish border and other super-critical issues can either work or be agreed
  • Instead, Barnier proposed the idea of a “Canada plus plus” deal in the form of a Free Trade Agreement covering goods (but not services), plus customs cooperation, plus participation in health, research, Erasmus, aviation and internal security
  • He also emphasised that the UK’s £39bn payment was a divorce settlement covering past UK commitments, not an up-front payment for a good trade agreement

THREE MAIN SCENARIOS AHEAD

‘May achieves a withdrawal agreement’
The UK and EU will both lose from a No Deal Brexit and so in principle they could simply “fudge” the trade issue for future discussion during the transition period until December 2020. But although both sides emphasise that 80% of the withdrawal agreement is now agreed, this only highlights that the most difficult 20% still lies ahead – issues such as Ireland, immigration and EU citizen rights, and future trade relations.

‘Markets cause a panic on Tory benches’
What happens if May does stumble at this point and fails either to gain an agreement with the EU27 or to get it safely through the Cabinet, Tory party and Parliament? As the Risks chart shows, this might well lead to financial market pressure on the pound and interest rates. This would also represent more bad news for chemical companies. If even 20 Tory Eurosceptics vote against a deal, then May would have to rely on opposition party votes, and their support looks unlikely given Labour’s “six tests” for approving any deal.

‘No deal’ scenario
Exchange rate volatility could become a critical issue for companies and investors if this scenario is reached, with the pound possibly falling towards parity with the US dollar and the euro, causing interest rates to rise. Foreign investors currently own 28% of the government’s £1.9tn debt, and concern over the value of the pound could lead some to reduce their holdings of government bonds.The Brexit Directory chart from Ready for Brexit shows the scale of the risks involved.  It highlights how Brexit potentially involves almost every aspect of business – from Customs & Tariffs through Finance and Legal issues, to Services & Employment and the Supply Chain.

Of course, many major companies have already spent months and millions of euros in preparing detailed contingency plans. Some are already stockpiling key raw materials and products, and revising relevant contract clauses.

But smaller businesses do not have these resources. Surveys show that only one in seven have done any forward planning for a No Deal Brexit, and official government guidance for a No Deal has only just begun to appear. In turn, this creates a clear risk of widescale disruption, as today’s highly integrated supply chains are only as strong as their weakest link. The lack of just one raw material can stop a production line.

As Gary Lineker says, it is hard to believe this is happening. But it is, and so far “declaratory statements” rather than precise detail continue to dominate the process.

It is also easy to forget that a No Deal Brexit will not just impact the UK. US and EU-based businesses involved in a supply chain that involves a UK company face a clear risk of disruption.

This is why I have helped to launch Ready for Brexit with other industry colleagues. As the Scout motto reminds us, to ‘Be Prepared’ could be critical for business survival if a No Deal Brexit does occur.

 

Please click here to visit Ready for Brexit, and click here to download the full ICB analysis.

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Political and economic risks rise as US mid-term elections near

This is the Labor Day weekend in the USA – the traditional start of the mid-term election campaign.  And just as in September 2016, the Real Clear Politics poll shows that most voters feel their country is going in the wrong direction.  The demographic influences that I highlighted then are also becoming ever-more important with time:

Demographics, as in 1960 and 1980, are therefore likely to be a critical influence in November’s election:

  • Median age in 1960 was just 30, and 29 in 1964. Young people are by nature optimistic about the future, believing anything can be achieved – and their support was critical for the Great Society project
  • Median age was still only 30 years in 1980. The Boomers were joining the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 generation in large numbers. They were keen to join the Reagan revolution and eliminate barriers
  • Today, however, median age is nearly 50% higher at 38 years, and the average Boomer is aged 61.. The candidates are not mirroring Kennedy/Johnson and Reagan/Bush in focusing on the need to remove barriers. Indeed, Trump’s signature policy is to build a wall”

2 years later, the median age is still increasing, and the average Boomer is aged 63.

But there is one major change from 2 years ago.  Then, President Obama had a positive approval rating at 50.7%.  But today, President Trump has a negative approval rate of 53.9%.

This has clear consequences for the likely outcome of the mid-terms, with the latest FiveThirtyEight poll suggesting the Democrats have a 3 in 4 chance of winning control of the House.  In turn, of course, this increases the risk of impeachment for Trump and makes it even more difficult for him to stop the Mueller investigation.  We therefore have to assume that Trump will do everything he can to reduce this risk over the next few weeks.

Americans are not alone in feeling that their country is heading in the wrong direction, as the latest survey (above) for IPSOS Mori confirms.  And they have been feeling this for a long time – as I noted back in November 2016:

  • China, Saudi Arabia, India, Argentina, Peru, Canada and Russia are the only countries to record a positive feeling
  • The other 18 are increasingly desperate for change

Today Malaysia, S Korea, Serbia and Chile have moved into the positive camp.  But Argentina, Peru and Russia have gone negative.  And if we narrow down to the world’s ‘Top 10’ economies:

  • 7 of them are negative – 53% of Italians, 59% of Americans, 63% of Japanese, 66% of Germans, 67% of British, 73% of French and 85% of Brazilians
  • Only 3 are positive – 91% of Chinese, 67% of Indians and 52% of Canadians

There is a clear message here, as the median ages of the ‘Unhappy 7’ are also continuing to rise:

  • Median Japanese age is 47.3 years; Italy is 45.5; Germany is 43.8; France is 41.4, Britain is 40.5; US is 38.1, (Brazil is unhappy because of economic/political chaos, and is the exception that proves the rule at 32 years)
  • By contrast, China’s media age is 37.4 years, India is 27.9 (Canada is the exception at 42.2 years)

The key issue is summarised in the 3rd slide from a BBC poll, which shows that 3 out of 4 people in the world believe their country has become divided.  More than half believe it is more divided than 10 years ago.

There is also a clear correlation with the demographic data:

  • 35% of Japanese, 67% of Italians, 66% of Germans, 54% of French, 65% of British, 57% of Americans and 46% of Brazilians see their country as more divided than 10 years ago
  • Only 10% of Chinese, 13% of Indians and 35% of Canadians feel this way

POLITICIANS ARE INCREASINGLY FOCUSED ON ‘DIVIDE AND RULE’
One might have expected that politicians would be working to remove these barriers.  But the trend since 2016 has been in the opposite direction.  Older people have historically always been less optimistic about the future than the young.  And the Populists from both the left and right have been ruthless in exploiting this fact.

This trend has major implications for companies and investors. As long-standing readers will remember, very few people agreed with my suggestion in September 2015 that Trump could win the US Presidency and that political risk was moving up the agenda.  As one normally friendly commentator wrote:

“Hodges’ predictions are relevant to companies, he says, because of the likelihood of political change leading to political risk:

  • The economic success of the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle meant that politics as such took a back seat. People no longer needed to argue over “who got what” as there seemed to be plenty for everyone. But today, those happy days are receding into history – hence the growing arguments over inequality and relative income levels
  • Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades. They now need to move quickly up the learning curve. Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s

“Of course a prediction skeptic like me would say this, but I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that populist movements could have significant traction in the U.S. Congress in passing legislation that would seriously affect companies and investors.” (my emphasis)

Yet 3 years later, this has now happened on a major scale – impacting a growing range of industries and countries.

As the mid-term campaigning moves into its final weeks, we must therefore assume that Trump will focus on further consolidating his base vote.  Further tariffs on China, and the completion of the pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal are almost certain as a result.  Canada is being threatened in the NAFTA talks, and it would be no surprise if he increases the economic pressure against the US’s other key allies in the G7 countries, given the major row at June’s G7 Summit.

Anyone who still hope that Trump might be bluffing, and that the world will soon return to “business as usual”, is likely to have an unpleasant shock in the weeks ahead.

 

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UK faces ‘make or break summer’ as ‘No Deal’ Brexit risk rises

Last week, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, its chief Brexit negotiator and several junior ministers, resigned.  President Trump gave an interview attacking the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and suggesting her policies would “kill” any future trade deal with the US.  And the EU 27’s main negotiator on the critical Brexit issue, Michel Barnier, warned:

“On both sides of the Channel, businesses… should analyse their exposure to the other side and be ready, when necessary, to adapt their logistical channels, supply chains and existing contracts.  They should also prepare for the worst case scenario of a “no deal”, which would result in the return of tariffs under WTO rules.” (My emphasis)

It was quite a week.  None of us know what may happen next, as I warned when Ready for Brexit launched last month.

WHAT ARE WTO RULES?
It is now less than 9 months until the UK officially leaves the EU on 29 March.  Yet according to a ReadyforBrexit poll:

  • Only around a quarter of businesses have begun to plan for what happens next
  • Nearly three-quarters have so far done nothing

They could have a considerable shock ahead of them, as the Brexplainer video above explains.

Currently, the UK trades with the world on the basis of around 750 agreements negotiated by the EU.  Trade between the current 28 EU members is covered by the Single Market and Customs Union.  But as Barnier warns, if there is no deal agreed by 29 March, then WTO rules will apply:

  • WTO rules would mean that a tax, called “Tariffs”, would be reintroduced for trade in goods between the UK and the EU27.  Services, including financial services, could also be impacted by restrictions on market access
  • Border controls and customs checks could add time to shipments and impact supply chains.  This could be particularly important for highly regulated sectors such as chemicals
  • Documentation and paperwork will increase, as businesses will need to be able to prove the nature and origin of their goods, especially if they use parts or components from several different countries

HAS YOUR BUSINESS PLANNED AHEAD FOR A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT?
Most major businesses have been planning for a ‘no deal’ scenario for some time:

  • They are increasing warehouse space, in case deliveries are delayed
  • They are checking their cash flow, as VAT could be payable up-front under WTO rules
  • They are working out the possible ‘no deal’ impact in key areas such Customs & Tariffs, Finance, Legal, Services & Employment and their Supply Chain

Most smaller businesses have assumed they don’t need to do anything.  Yet 29 March is now only 257 days away.

SURELY ITS CERTAIN THAT WITHDRAWAL AND TRANSITION AGREEMENTS WILL BE SIGNED? 
After the Brexit vote in June 2016, the chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, was confident that all the major trade deals would be finalised by July 2018:

“Be under no doubt, we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly… So within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete, and therefore before anything material has changed, we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.

But by September last year, he had changed his mind and was instead warning as the Telegraph noted:

Nobody ever pretended this would be simple or easy.

And now, of course, Davis has resigned along with his fellow Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson.

NOBODY KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT
The truth is that nobody knows what will happen next.  After last week, any UK business that trades with the EU, or any EU business that trades with the UK, would be wise to start planning ahead for a ‘no deal’ WTO rules scenario:

  • Have you asked your suppliers about their plans for a ‘no deal’ scenario?
  • Have you asked your customers about their plans for one?
  • Have you checked if your ‘just in time’ deliveries will still arrive?
  • Have you checked if your insurance policies will still be valid?

As the UK’s main business organisation, the CBI, warned on Friday “It will be a make or break summer:

‘With three months left to go, it is now a race against time. The EU must now engage constructively and flexibly, as must politicians from all UK parties. This is a matter of national interest. There’s not a day to lose.’

We can all hope that negotiations are successful.  But hope is not a strategy.  And after the events of the last week, prudent managers now need to start start planning for ‘no deal’.  Please click here to watch the Brexplainer video.

 

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Airbus warns of “dawning reality” there may be no Brexit deal

Suddenly, businesses across Europe are waking up to the realisation that the UK is currently on course to leave the European Union (EU) on 29 March next year, without a deal on trade and customs.  As Katherine Bennett, the UK boss of aerospace giant, Airbus, warned on Friday:

“This is not project fear, this is dawning reality.”

As the BBC reported on Friday: “Airbus has warned it could leave the UK if it exits the European Union single market and customs union without a transition deal…It also said the current planned transition period, due to end in December 2020, was too short for it to make changes to its supply chain.  As a result, it would “refrain from extending” its UK supplier base. It said it currently had more than 4,000 suppliers in the UK.”

BMW, which makes the iconic Mini and Rolls Royce, added:

“Clarity is needed by the end of the summer.”

Similarly Tom Crotty, group director at INEOS, the giant petrochemicals group, said several companies were putting investment decisions on hold because of Brexit uncertainty:

“The government is relatively paralysed … it is not good for the country.

THE RANGE OF TOPICS COVERED BY THE BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS IS VERY LARGE

This is why my IeC colleagues and I have now launched Ready for Brexit on the 2nd anniversary of the UK’s referendum to leave the EU.  We are particularly concerned that many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) – the backbone of the European economy – are failing to plan ahead for Brexit’s potential impact.

As our Brexit Directory above shows, Brexit creates a wide range of challenges and opportunities:

  • Customs & Tariffs:  Export/Import Registration, Labelling, Testing, VAT
  • Finance:  Payment Terms, Tax & VAT, Transfer Pricing
  • Legal:  Contracts, Free Trade Agreements, Intellectual Property
  • Services & Employment:  Banking, Insurance, Investment, Property
  • Supply Chain:  Documentation, Regulation, Transport

And yet, today, nobody knows on what terms the UK might be trading with the other EU 27 countries after 29 March.  Or indeed, all the other countries where UK trade is currently ruled by EU agreements.

The EU is a rules-based organisation, and the legal position is very clear:

  • The UK has notified the EU of its intention to leave by 29 March
  • Negotiations are underway over a possible Withdrawal Agreement, which would set new terms for UK trade with the EU 27 after this date
  • The proposed Transition Agreement, which would extend the deadline for leaving until 31 December 2020, will only apply if this Withdrawal Agreement is finalised in the next few months

Ready for Brexit will keep its subscribers updated on developments as they occur, as well as providing news and insight on key areas of business concern.

A NUMBER OF VERY DIFFERENT OPTIONS EXIST FOR FUTURE UK-EU TRADE ARRANGEMENTS

The UK has been in the EU for 45 years.  Unsurprisingly, as the slide above confirms, the negotiations are proving extremely complex.  Both sides have their own objectives and “red lines”, and compromise is proving difficult.

The negotiators not only have to deal with all the trade issues covered in the Ready for Brexit Directory, but also critical political questions such as the trading relationship between N Ireland and Ireland after Brexit.  That, in turn, is complicated by the fact that the UK government depends on Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) votes for its majority, and the DUP is opposed to any “special deal” on customs for the Irish border.

BUSINESSES NEED TO RECOGNISE THERE MAY BE “NO DEAL” AFTER 29 MARCH
I have taken part in trade negotiations, and negotiated major contracts around the world.  So I entirely understand why Brexit secretary David Davis has insisted:

“The best option is leaving with a good deal but you’ve got to be able to walk away from the table.”

Similarly, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is right to warn that:

“The prime minister has always said no deal is better than a bad deal. It is essential as we enter the next phase of the negotiations that the EU understands that and believes it… I think our negotiating partners would not be wise if they thought our PM was bluffing.”

The issue is simply that many businesses, and particularly SMEs, have so far ignored all these warnings.

According to a poll on the Ready for Brexit website, only a quarter have so far begun to plan for Brexit.  Half are thinking about it, and almost a quarter don’t believe it is necessary.  This is why we have produced our easy-to-use Brexlist™ checklist, highlighting key areas for focus.

“NOTHING IS AGREED UNTIL EVERYTHING IS AGREED”
As the UK and EU negotiators have said many times over the past 2 years, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed“.  These 7 words should be written above every business’s boardroom table:

  • They remind us that it may prove impossible to agree a Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU27
  • And without a Withdrawal Agreement, there will be no Transition Agreement

Instead, the UK would then simply leave the EU in 278 days time on World Trade Organisation terms.

If you don’t know what WTO terms would mean for your business, you might want to visit Ready for Brexit and begin to use its Brexlist checklist *.

 

 Ready for Brexit offers users a free one-month trial including access to the Brexlist. After this there is an annual fee of £195 to access the platform.  Discounts are available for companies who want to help SMEs in their supply chains to prepare for Brexit, and for trade associations who would like to offer the service to their members.

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