No Deal Brexit still a likely option if opposition parties fail to support a new referendum

Canada’s normally pro-UK ‘Globe and Mail’ summed up the prevailing external view of Brexit last week:

“We begin this editorial with an apology to you, our faithful readers. In March, we described the Brexit situation, then careening through its third year and nowhere close to resolution, as an “omnishambles.

“An omnishambles is a state of utter chaos, total disorder and perfect mismanagement – which brings us to our apology. If you’ve been paying any attention to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, you know that, in declaring United Kingdom politics to have reached peak shambolic six months ago, we spoke too soon. Oh, did we ever.”

Within the UK, most people are totally confused by the mixed messaging surrounding Brexit.  Was it effectively postponed again when Parliament passed a law meant to stop No Deal? Or is it all still going to go ahead – deal or no deal – on 31 October, as the prime minister insists. Nobody knows.

There has also been no debate about what kind of policies should be pursued after Brexit. Instead, the media has often focused on the influence of  Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings (pictured above, in casual dress).

Cummings led the Leave campaign under Johnson, and continues to carry out Johnson’s strategy today.  And whether by accident or design, his apparent fondness for tee-shirts also seems to be proving a useful tactic for diverting media attention away from discussion of potential food shortages.


Behind all the spin, Johnson’s strategy is simply responding to the opinion polls above.  He knows he has to win back Brexit Party voters if he wants to win a General Election.  Understandably, therefore,  he is going hard for the exit, declaring that he’d “rather die in a ditch” than leave after 31 October.

“Luckily” for him, he is up against Jeremy Corbyn – my local MP – who has completely failed to present a coherent policy on Brexit.  And Johnson has exploited this position by focusing on the Opposition’s continued failure to answer the critical question – “what would any extension be for?

It seems the Liberal Democrats will finally come off the fence under their new leader, Jo Swinson, and decide to campaign to remain in the EU. But we will have to wait to see if Labour’s Conference can force Corbyn to abandon his long-standing opposition to the EU.

If not, it is quite possible that the EU27 could refuse the extension request at next month’s Summit, if it doesn’t seem likely to lead to a second referendum or a new government.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has already set out her belief that Johnson wants to convert the UK to a form of Singapore-on-Thames. with a low tax, light-touch regulatory environment in direct opposition to the rules of the EU Single Market.

3 alternative and quite different scenarios therefore exist for the Brexit endgame:

  • No Deal. Johnson finds a way round Parliament and the No Deal Act, and leaves without a deal on 31 October. He then campaigns on the theme of ‘The People v Parliament’ and blames Parliament for blocking his hopes of getting a deal
  • 2nd referendum. The opposition parties threaten to install an interim government that would replace Johnson, and ask the Summit for an extension to allow an election and 2nd referendum.
  • ‘Plan B’.  Johnson understands the value of contingency planning.  Given his key policy is to leave on 31 October, he is already exploring the opportunity for a deal on the basis of accepting the EU’s proposed N Ireland-only backstop option.  He could then still campaign having (a) achieved a deal and (b) left as promised.

At the moment, Johnson clearly sees No Deal as his best option, as it means he doesn’t have to compromise.  So it is no surprise that the Foreign Secretary has warned they will “test (the No Deal Act) to the limit”, in order to leave on 31 October without a deal.

The compromise of a Plan B would clearly lose him DUP and Brexit Party votes.  But it might offer Johnson his best chance of staying in office, if the Opposition did agree to push for a new referendum. It would be humiliating, to say the least, if his term in office proved the shortest in history.

The next few weeks may therefore compel the ‘Globe and Mail’ to issue yet another apology to its readers.

 

UK, EU27 and EEA businesses need to start planning for a No Deal Brexit on 31 October

New UK premier, Boris Johnson, said last week that the UK must leave the EU by 31 October, “do or die, come what may”.

This means UK, EU27 and EEA companies now have less than 100 days to prepare for a UK No Deal Brexit. That’s less than 70 working days – and even less if you plan to take a holiday over the summer.

If the UK leaves without a deal, it will also leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. So everything will change overnight – 400 million Customs Declarations will likely be needed each year, plus compliance with Rules of Origin and thousands of other major/minor regulatory changes.

Of course, it is still just possible that the UK might change its mind. Or that the new UK government might persuade the EU27 to give up the so-called “Irish backstop”. This aims to avoid the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But neither outcome looks very likely today.

THE AUTO INDUSTRY IS ALREADY WARNING OF THE RISKS AHEAD 
Businesses therefore now need to prepare for a No Deal Brexit on 31 October.

What does this mean?  It means that companies have to assume there will be no transition period. Instead, the UK will operate under WTO rules.   The UK car industry has highlighted the risks this creates in a letter to the new premier:

“We are highly integrated with Europe, and a no-deal Brexit would result in huge tariff costs and disruption that would threaten production, as well as further undermining international investors’ confidence in the UK. We need a deal with the EU that secures frictionless and tariff free trade.

“A no-deal Brexit presents an existential threat to our industry.  Above all, we must ensure the sector continues to enjoy — without interruption — preferential trade with critical markets around the world, including the EU”.

The chart above highlights the potential impact on the Nissan car factory in NE England.

THE NEW UK GOVERNMENT IS NOW PREPARING A MAJOR COMMUNICATIONS CAMPAIGN

Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, has been put in charge of No Deal preparations. And the aim is to quickly launch a major communications campaign to help the public and businesses get ready for leaving the EU without an agreement. As Boris Johnson said last week:

“What we will do, is we will encourage people in a very positive way. From the get-go, we start saying, ‘Look, what do you need, what help do you need, what reassurances do you need?’”

This will add to the information already available by clicking on the Gov.uk website:

READY FOR BREXIT PROVIDES PLANNING AND AUDIT TOOLS, PLUS DETAILED LINKS  

A No Deal Brexit will impact companies and supply chains.  This is why I co-founded Ready for Brexit a year ago, with a number of highly-experienced industry colleagues. It is subscription-based, and features detailed Brexit checklists, a No Deal Brexit planning tool and a BrexSure audit tool to check your suppliers and customers are also fully prepared.

It focuses on the key areas for business, as our Brexit Directory above shows:

  • 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

We can all hope that Johnson’s renegotiation with the EU27 is successful. But hope is not a strategy.

With the new government committed to the 31 October deadline, businesses really are taking an enormous risk if they don’t focus all their energies on planning for ‘No Deal’.

London house prices edge closer to a tumble

After the excitement of Wimbledon tennis and a cricket World Cup final, Londoners were back to their favourite conversation topic last week – house prices. But now the news has become bittersweet as the price decline starts to accelerate.

As the London Evening Standard headline confirms:

The London property slump has dramatically accelerated with prices falling at their fastest rate in a decade, official figures reveal… The latest “punishing” downward lurch means that more than £21k ($26k) was wiped from the value of the average London house over the period, according to the Land Registry… The number of sales is still in decline with just 5947 recorded in March, down from 7350 a year previously.”

‘Reversion to the mean’ is always the most reliable of investment guides, and the chart shows prices could have some way to fall before they reach this level – and, of course, prices often over-correct after the type of sharp rise that has been seen over the past 20 years:

  • Most people have to buy houses on a mortgage, where the ratio of price to income is the key factor
  • As the chart shows, prices and ratios have seen 2 distinct periods since 1971 (when records began)
  • Prices (inflation adjusted) have had an upward trend since 2000, with today’s 11% fall the worst
  • 1971-1999 saw more violent swings – eg between 1983-1993 they doubled and then halved
  • The average ratio since 2000 has been 9.3, which would bring prices down by a further 23%
  • The average ratio between 1971-1999 was 4.8, which would bring prices down by a further 60%

WHY DID PRICES RISE?
London prices have been boosted by 4 main factors since 1971:

Demographics.  Most fundamentally, the BabyBoomers (born between 1946-1970) began to move into their house-buying years. This dramatically increased demand (as I discussed last week), whilst supply was slow to respond due to planning restrictions etc.

In addition, women began to go back to work after having children, creating the phenomenon of 2-income families for the first time in history. The younger Boomers saw the benefit of this as affordability rose; those who followed them paid the price in terms of higher prices.

Buy to let. London became the capital of ‘Buy-to-let’. UK tenancy law changed in 1988 and by the mid-1990s, parents realised it would be cheaper and better to buy apartments for their student children, rather than paying high rents for shoddy lodgings. Others followed in the belief that property was “safer” than stock markets”.

Falling interest rates (they were 15% during the 1992 ERM crisis) made the mortgage payment very affordable – particularly with tax relief as well. But since 2017, tax relief has been reducing, and disappears next year. And today’s ageing UK population, where nearly 1 in 5 people are now aged 65+, means the Boomers no longer have spare cash to spend on buying property.

The global city.  After the financial crisis, London property appeared an oasis of calm as the Bank of England supported house prices by cutting interest rates to near-zero, dramatically boosting affordability. Everyone knew by then that “house prices only increased”, as memories of the 1970-1980s were forgotten, and so capital gains seemed assured.

This made London, along with other “global cities” such as New York, very attractive to Russians, Arabs, Asians and anyone else who was worried that their government might try to grab their money. Europeans also bought as the eurozone crisis developed. And then the success of the 2012 London Olympics made it the city where everyone wanted to live, especially as its financial sector was booming due to central bank stimulus programmes.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The question now is whether these drivers will continue.  Brexit, of course, has already cast a shadow over the idea of the UK as an island of stability in a troubled world. And whilst the collapse of the currency since the referendum makes property more affordable for foreign buyers, it means that those who bought at the peak are nursing even larger losses.

And, of course, the fall in the actual volume of sales is another worrying sign. Volume usually leads price, up or down. And housing markets aren’t like stock markets, where you can usually trade very quickly if you want to sell. Instead you have to wait for a buyer to appear – and even then, the UK’s property laws make it possible for them to pull out until the very last moment.

All in all, it would therefore be surprising if prices didn’t continue falling, back to the average house price/earnings ratio of the past 20 years.  A temporary over-correction, where they went even lower, would also be normal after such a long period without a major fall.

Whether they go lower than this, and return to the 1971-99 ratio, probably depends on what happens with Brexit.  If those who believe it will open up a new ‘golden age’ for the UK economy are right, then  prices might well stabilise and could even rise again, after the initial disruption. But if it proves an economic disaster, then a return to the troubled period of the 1970s would be no surprise at all.

 

G7 births hit new record low, below Depression level in 1933

If a country doesn’t have any babies, then in time it won’t have an economy. But that’s not how the central banks see it.

For the past 20 years, through subprime and now their stimulus policies, they have believed they could effectively “print babies”.  Even today, they are still lining up to take global interest rates even further into negative territory.

But common sense tells us their policy cannot work:

  • New data shows 2018 births in the G7 richest Western countries were just 7.8m
  • This was the lowest level seen since records began in 1921
  • It was even lower than at the height of the Depression in 1933 when births dropped to 7.99m/year
  • By comparison during the 1946-70 BabyBoom, they averaged 10.1m/year and peaked at 10.6m

The chart above confirms the unique nature of the Western BabyBoom.  Births jumped by 15% versus the previous 25 years, and since then they have fallen by an average 17%. Every single country is now having fewer births than at the peak of the Boom:

  • US births were 3.79m last year, versus a peak of 4.29m in 1959
  • Japan had 0.92m versus 2.7m in 1949; Germany had 0.79m versus 1.36m in 1963

The BabyBoom mattered because the Boomers were part of the richest society the world has ever seen.  In 1950, the G7 were half of the global economy, and they were still 45% in 2000. The “extra babies” born during the Boom, effectively created a new G7 economy the size of Canada.

But since 1970, the West has not been replacing its population, as fertility rates have been below 2.1/babies per woman.  This matters, as the second chart shows for the USA, the world’s largest economy.

Consumer spending is 70% of GDP, and it peaks in the 25-54 Wealth Creator generation – when people are building their careers and often settle down and have children.  Spend then drops by over 40% by the age of 75.

This didn’t matter very much for the economy in the past, when most people died around pension age:

  • In 1950, for example, there were just 130m Westerners in the Perennials 55+ age group.  By comparison, there were 320m Wealth Creators and 360m under 25
  • But today, there are 390m Perennials compared to 515m Wealth Creators and just 350m under-25s

This means it is impossible to recreate the growth of the Boomer-led SuperCycle.

Does this matter? Not really.

Most of us would prefer to have the extra 15-20 years of life that we have gained since 1950.  But because policymakers have pretended they could print babies via their stimulus programmes, they were able to avoid difficult discussions with the electorate about the impact of the life expectancy bonus.

Now, this failure is catching up with them.  Perennials are, after all, effectively a replacement economy. They already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they move into retirement. So we need to adjust to this major change:

  • In 1950, it was normal for people to be born and educated, before working to 65 and then dying around pension age
  • Today, we need to add a new stage to this paradigm – where we retrain around the age of 55, probably into less physically demanding roles where we can utilise the experience we have gained
  • This would have tremendous benefits for individuals in terms of their physical and mental health and, of course, it would reduce the burden on today’s relatively fewer Wealth Creators
  • It is completely unfair, after all, for the Boomers to demand their children should have a lower standard of living, and instead support their parents in the Perennials cohort

There is, of course, one other fantasy peddled by the central banks as part of their argument that monetary policy can always create growth.

This is that the emerging economies have all now become middle class by Western standards, and so global growth is still going to power ahead. But as the third chart shows, this simply isn’t true:

  • It shows the world’s 10 largest economies (the circle size) ranked by fertility rate and median age
  • Only India still has a demographic dividend, with its fertility rate just above replacement levels
  • But India’s GDP/capita is only $2036: Brazil’s is just $8968 and China’s $9608
  • By comparison, the US is at $62606, Germany is at $48264 and France/UK are at $42600

Companies and voters have been completely fooled by these claims of a “rising middle class” in the emerging economies.  In reality, most people have to live on far less than the  official US “poverty level” of $20780 for a 3-person household.

In China, average disposable income in the major cities was just $5932 last year, and only $2209 in the poorer rural half of the country. Its great success has actually been to move 800m people out of extreme poverty (income below $1.90/day) since 1990.

Demographics don’t lie, and they clearly challenge the rose-tinted view of the central banks that further interest rate cuts will somehow return us to SuperCycle days.

Their real legacy has been to create record levels of debt, which can probably never be repaid.

From subprime to stimulus…and now social division

The blog has now been running for 12 years since the first post was written from Thailand at the end of June 2007. A lot has happened since then:

Sadly, although central banks and commentators have since begun to reference the impact of demographics on the economy, they refused to accept the fundamental issue – namely that economic growth is primarily driven by the needs of the Wealth Creator 25-54 age group:

  • Their numbers are reducing because Western fertility rates have been below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman) for nearly 50 years
  • Central bank attempts to effectively “print babies” via stimulus policies have therefore only increased debt to record levels

As a result, the world has become a much more complex and dangerous place. None of us can be sure what will happen over the next 12 months, as I noted last week.  But clearly, the risks are rising, as UK Justice minister, David Gauke, has highlighted:

“A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse.  This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.

“A dangerous gulf is emerging, between the people and the institutions that serve them. Such institutions – including the legal system and the judiciary – provide the kind of confidence and predictability that underpins our success as a society. 

“Rather than recognising the challenges of a fast-changing society require sometimes complex responses, that we live in a world of trade-offs, that easy answers are usually false answers, we have seen the rise of the simplifiers. 

“Those grappling with complex problems are not viewed as public servants but as engaged in a conspiracy to seek to frustrate the will of the public. They are ‘enemies of the people’.”

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT OVER THE PAST 12 YEARS
It is a great privilege to write the blog, and to be able to meet many readers in workshops and conferences around the world. Thank you for all your support.

Resilience amidst headwinds is key for H2

Resilience is set to become the key issue as we look forward to H2, as I note in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business. None of us have ever seen the combinations of events that are potentially ahead of us. And none of us can be sure which way they will develop. So it seems essential that we start to create contingency plans to build corporate resilience ahead of their possible arrival.

Of course, we can all hope that we are just seeing a series of false alarms, and that business as usual will end up as the outcome. But hope is not a strategy. Even if we optimistically believe it is an 80% probability, the scale of the potential problems under more pessimistic scenarios suggests it would be prudent to decide ahead of time how to tackle them. Everyone will have their own list of possible outcomes. Mine is as follows:

  • Business as usual. Central bank rate cuts avoid recession risk; Presidents Trump and Xi reach stable agreement to roll back tariffs; oil market tensions disappear in the Middle East; Brexit uncertainty is put on hold with another extension period; sustainability concerns over single use plastics are put on back-burner
  • Gathering clouds. China’s vast offshore borrowing creates increasing risk of corporate defaults as growth slows, particularly if the trade war continues; geo-political risks mount in the Middle East; Brexit leads to major friction between the UK and EU27; more major consumer products companies decide to end use of single-use plastics
  • Storm warnings issued. Debt problems morph into major bankruptcies, impacting a range of supply chains around the world; US – Iran tensions mount in the Middle East causing oil prices to rise sharply; regional tensions mount as the world settles into a new Cold War between the USA and China; polymer volumes are hit by a rapid escalation of consumer concerns over single-use plastics

Asia is likely to prove the catalyst for this potential next crisis, if it hits. China has begun to deleverage over the past 2 years, taking $2tn out of its high-risk shadow banking sector. But unfortunately this tightening has driven many of the riskiest businesses into the offshore dollar markets, where naïve western fund managers have rushed to place their bets – driven by their need to achieve higher returns than are available in their domestic bond markets.

If world trade continues to slow as the chart from Reuters shows, and the remnimbi starts to weaken, then some of these borrowers will inevitably default. In turn, this risks a chain reaction across world markets, impacting not only the zombies but also their supply chain partners.

What would your company do in these circumstances? As the American writer Ernest Hemingway noted in ‘The Sun also Rises’, there are two ways to go bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly”. And the suddenness of the final stage makes it almost impossible for companies to survive if they have not used the gradual stage to create contingency plans. History unfortunately shows that when markets turn, executives suddenly find they have very little time in which to think through how to respond.

Governments will also be in the line of fire, due to their debt levels. And it is unlikely that politicians will know how to respond. They used to be clear about the key issue for the voters, as Bill Clinton famously observed in 1992 – “it’s the economy, stupid”. But today’s politicians instead simply assume that central banks can always print more money to overcome financial and economic crises. They have forgotten the simple mnemonic that many of us learnt at school, namely that “to ASSUME can make an ASS of U and ME”.

Time spent now on building your company’s resilience to potential future challenges may therefore prove time very well spent, if hopes for ‘business as usual’ turn out to have been wishful thinking.

Please click here if you would like to download the full article.