Your A to Z Guide to the Brexit trade negotiations


A. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty set out the rules for leaving the European Union. As with most negotiations, it assumed the leaving country would present its proposals for the post-withdrawal period – which would then be finalised with the other members. The UK government, however, has still not yet set out its post-Brexit trade objectives.  So the UK left the EU on Friday and entered the Transition period without anyone knowing what might happen at the end of the year.
B. ‘Brexit means Brexit’, has been the UK’s core statement since Article 50 was tabled. But as I noted in September 2016, Brexit can actually mean a variety of different outcomes – and they have very different implications as the chart above shows. At one extreme, the ‘Norway model’ is very similar to full EU membership, but with no say on EU decisions. Whereas the ‘Canada model’ – which seems to be the UK’s objective – is simply a free-trade agreement. It would offer some access to the Single Market for goods, but less access for services (which are 80% of the UK economy). A ‘No Deal Brexit’ – which is the likely alternative outcome – means working under WTO rules with arbitrary tariffs and regulations.
C. The European Commission manages the day-to-day business of the European Union on behalf of the European Council, and is effectively its civil service. Its president is Ursula von der Leyen and she re-appointed Michel Barnier to lead the post-Brexit negotiations. As with Brexit itself, the UK’s failure to agree its objectives has allowed Barnier to gain “first mover advantage”, and effectively control the scope of the negotiation, by finalising and publishing the EU’s own negotiating objectives.
D. The Default date for the UK to exit the Transition period is 31 December 2020. It has also been agreed that this can be extended for a further 2 years, if the UK requests this before the end of June – but the UK government has said it will refuse to do this. The UK stance gives the EU a very strong negotiating position, as it means they effectively control the timetable as well as the scope of the negotiations.
Barnier has suggested they have “3 goals for 2020: to maintain a capacity to cooperate closely at the global level; to forge a strong security partnership; and to negotiate a new economic agreement (which, most likely, will have to be expanded in the years to come).” Given the EU’s focus on its proposed EU Green Deal, and the need to ensure a positive outcome for the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, there may not be much time left for trade talks, given that security is their second priority. This view is reinforced by Barnier’s suggestion that the new economic agreement will have to be expanded after December.
E. The European Union is a treaty-based organisation of 28 countries. As its website notes, it was ‘set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War.’ The UK joined the original six members (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) in 1973, along with Ireland and Denmark. Further expansions took place, especially after the end of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. At the suggestion of then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, it was agreed to establish a Single Market and Customs Union in 1993, based on four key freedoms – free movement of goods, services, people and money – and this transformed trading relationships across the continent.
F. The Financial Settlement or ‘divorce bill’ is part of the Withdrawal Agreement and covers the costs of the programmes that the UK agreed to support during the period of its EU membership. Like most organisations, the EU operates on a pay-as-you-go basis and only charges member countries as and when bills actually come due. The UK calculated this to be between £36 billion-£39 billion (€40 billion-€44 billion), depending on the assumptions used.
G. The UK held 2 General Elections whilst finalising the Withdrawal Agreement. The first, in 2017, forced premier Theresa May to rely on the Ulster Unionists in order to gain a working majority in Parliament. The second, in 2019, gave Boris Johnson a comfortable 80 seat majority on the basis that he would “Get Brexit Done”. In reality, however, the only bit of Brexit that has been “done” is the exit from the EU. The process of replacing all the arrangements built up over the past 47 years, since the UK joined the then European Economic Community, has yet to begin.
H. A Hostile No-Deal at the end of December would be the worst of all possible outcomes, as it would mean the UK had to trade on WTO terms. Unfortunately, this is a significant risk, given the range of areas that could cause friction – fisheries policy, financial services, immigration and EU citizen rights etc. The underlying issue is that the UK has now become a “Third Country“, and lost all its veto rights in Brussels as well as the ability to help determine policy. Trade negotiations always cause Winners and Losers to emerge, as they are based on the negotiators conceding something of value to the other side in one area, in order to get back something of value for themselves. And potential Losers generally complain very loudly.
I. Ireland proved to be a key sticking-point in the negotiations, as nobody wanted to disturb the peace created by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Withdrawal Agreement means that Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory and, at the same time, benefit from access to the Single Market without tariffs, quotas, checks or controls. In turn, this means the end of frictionless trade between it and Great Britain. The border will effectively run down the Irish Sea, as the EU will need sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks on food products and live animals entering from GB. The EU will also be able to assess risks on any product coming into its market and, if necessary, activate physical controls.
J. June 2016 was the date of the referendum that voted to take the UK out of the EU by a 52%: 48% majority.
K. Keeping the UK aligned with EU standards is a key concern for many UK businesses. They rely on complex supply chains, and would face major expense if they have to operate to 2 different standards. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, told the Financial Times last month that “There will not be alignment, we will not be a ruletaker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union — and we will do this by the end of the year.”
L. Legal issues are, of course, a critical area in the negotiations as the UK currently operates under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and now intends to ‘take back control’ to its own courts. The ECJ role will continue during the Transition Agreement, but seems unlikely to continue after the Transition period ends.
M. Tariffs on Materials and goods will be introduced between the UK and EU27 unless a comprehensive trade deal can be finalised by the end of the year. The EU’s terms for this depend on continued UK alignment with Europe’s societal and regulatory model. If the UK refuses to agree to this, then its trading terms will likely also change with countries outside the EU27. It currently operates under more than 750 free-trade and trade-related agreements negotiated by the EU – and it is unlikely that the UK could continue to benefit from them

N. No Deal means that the UK would have to operate under WTO rules after 31 December 2020. This short Ready for Brexit video explains the complications this would create. The WTO has also warned that the number of Technical Barriers to Tradehas grown significantly‘ in recent years, and these can often severely restrict trading opportunities. Plus, EU laws would still have a role under WTO rules for all UK products sold into the EU27 under No Deal. The EU Preparedness Notices also suggest there could be a ban on UK banks providing financial services, as well as a whole host of other restrictions including on travel.
O. The Operation of the Transition Agreement will be in the hands of a new UK-EU Joint Committee. This will replace all the formal and informal interactions that the UK used to have with other member states and EU officials. It may well also become the body through which the UK and EU manage new treaties on global co-operation and security, as well as any future trade agreement.
P. Preparing for Brexit. The Ready for Brexit team has over 250 years’ combined experience of importing and exporting, and we wanted to share this knowledge. Ready for Brexit is a subscription-based ‘one-stop shop’. It provides a curated Directory to the key areas associated with Brexit – Customs and Tariffs, Finance, Legal, Services and Employment, and Supply Chain. It includes Brexit Checklists; a BrexSure self-audit tool to highlight key risks; a Brexit Negotiation Update section linking to all the key official UK and EU websites; a Brexplainer video on WTO Rules; plus news and interviews with companies about their preparations for Brexit.
R. Regulations are usually a much greater barrier to trade than tariffs, as they set out the rules that apply when products and services are sold in an individual country. The EU never aimed to harmonise regulations across its member countries, as that would be an impossible task. Instead, it has focused on creating a Single Market via mutual recognition of each other’s standards, along with harmonised rules on cross-border areas, such as safety, health, and the environment. Regulations are particularly important in the financial services industry, and many businesses have already relocated relevant parts of their operations into the EU27 so that they can remain authorised to trade.
S. The Single Market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, services, people and money across the EU without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles. It includes a Customs Union, as this short BBC video explains, which seeks to ensure that there are no Customs checks or charges when goods move across individual country borders. With a No-Deal Brexit, however, the UK will become a Third Country and no longer benefit from these arrangements.
T. The Transition period began after the UK left on 31 January 2020. It allows the UK to operate as if it were still in the EU until 31 December 2020 (or possibly December 2022 if the UK government requests an extension by the end of June 2020). The aim is to give negotiators more time to agree how future EU-UK trade in goods and services will operate, and provide guidance for businesses on how the new deal(s) will operate. But major trade deals are very hard to do and generally take at least 5-7 years.
U. Unblocked, or frictionless trade, is a key aim of the negotiators. But the government has already accepted that the UK may well go back to the pre-1993 world, before the Single Market arrived, when vast numbers of forms had to be filled in and lorries/ships sometimes stopped for hours for border checks. As Honda explained in June 2018 (see chart) it could easily take between 2-9 days to move goods between the EU27 and UK without a Customs Union, compared to between 5-24 hours today. The cost in terms of time and money would be enormous given that, as Eurotunnel told the Commons Treasury Committee in the month, ‘Over the past 20 years, warehouses have become trucks rolling on the road’.
V. Ursula von der Leyen has taken over from Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission President. Her priorities are naturally different from his, with her key focus being to deliver the EU Green Deal. On Brexit, she noted last month in London that “The truth is that our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before. And it cannot and will not be as close as before – because with every choice comes a consequence. With every decision comes a trade-off. Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services. Without a level playing field on environment, labour, taxation and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world’s largest single market. The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership has to be.
W. WTO Terms are not actually “terms of trade” at all, but simply a reference to the basic rules set out by the World Trade Organisation. As our Brexplainer video explains, they 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. As a result, no country currently trades on WTO terms, as this briefing from the independent academic group, The UK in a Changing Europe, explains.
Z. Zig-zag perhaps best describes the process that has led us to this point. It began long ago when Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990, as the catalyst was partly her hostility to European Monetary Union. Fast forward through many zigs and zags by both main political parties, and we finally reached June 2016 and the Brexit referendum – and then, in turn, last month’s UK’s exit from the EU.

Your ‘A-Z Guide’ to the Brexit Negotiations

The UK is now facing a national crisis”, according to Margaret Thatcher’s former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, speaking to a dinner in London on Thursday night.  Brexit continues to tear the UK apart, and places the economy at greater and greater risk.

On Thursday, premier Theresa May had unveiled her draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU27.  Within a few hours, another 5 Ministers had resigned including her Brexit Secretary.  Over the summer, she had already lost her previous Brexit Secretary and her Foreign Secretary, plus other Ministers.  And 5 Ministers – including Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liam Fox – are now planning to produce their own revised deal on the Irish question, in opposition to the draft agreement

Businesses are far too complacent about the risks of a No Deal Brexit, as I told BBC News on Thursday:

“If the deal went through Parliament, then we could be reassured that we had until the end of 2020 before anything happened. But looking at what’s happened this morning, it seems less likely that’s going to happen, and therefore the default position is that we leave without a deal on 29 March.  And that, I think, panics SMEs, small businesses, because if you don’t know what’s happening that’s worse than almost anything else. “

If you, or a colleague, now need to get up to speed with Brexit developments – and what they may mean for your business and your investments, here is my ‘A – Z Guide to the Brexit Negotiations’:

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the rules for leaving the European Union.  As with most negotiations, it assumed the leaving country would present its proposals for the post-withdrawal period – which would then be finalised with the other members.  But the UK Cabinet was split on the key issues, and so the 2 year’s notice was given on 29 March 2017 without any firm proposals being made for the future UK-EU27 relationship beyond 7 “negotiating principles and “the desire for a “close partnership”.

Brexit means Brexit“, has been the UK’s core statement since Article 50 was tabled.  But as I noted back in September 2016, Brexit can actually mean a variety of different outcomes – and they have very different implications as the chart shows.  At one extreme, the ‘Norway model’ is very similar to full EU membership, but with no say on EU decisions.  Whereas the ‘Canada model’ is simply a free trade agreement offering some access to the Single Market (qv) for goods, but less access for services (which are 80% of the UK economy).  A ‘No Deal Brexit’ (qv) means working under WTO rules with arbitrary tariffs and regulations.

The European Commission manages the day-to-day business of the European Union (qv) on behalf of the European Council, and is effectively its civil service.  Its president is Jean-Claude Juncker and he appointed Michel Barnier to lead the Brexit negotiations.   Barnier’s first step, as mandated by the Council, was to agree within the EU 27 “the overall positions and principles that the EU will pursue“.  He understood that in any negotiation, the team that writes the drafts and controls the timescale usually has the upper hand. The UK’s failure to finalise its own detailed objectives before tabling Article 50 meant it gave up this critical advantage.

The Default date for Brexit is 29 March 2019.  It has also been agreed that if a Withdrawal Agreement (qv) is finalised, then a Transition Agreement (qv) could operate until 31 December 2020.  Unfortunately, many people have therefore assumed they can wait until 2020 before starting to plan for Brexit.  But as the Commission warned in its ‘Guidelines for Brexit Negotiations on 29 April 2017, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed“. So No Deal also means no Transition Agreement.

The European Union is a treaty-based organisation of 28 countries.  As its website notes, it was “set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War“.  The UK joined the original 6 members (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) in 1973, along with Ireland (qv) and Denmark. Further expansions took place, especially after the end of the Cold War between the West and Russia.  At the suggestion of then UK premier Margaret Thatcher, it was agreed to establish a Single Market (qv) and Customs Union based on 4 key freedoms – free movement of goods, services, people and money – and this transformed trading relationships across the continent.

The Financial Settlement or ‘divorce bill’ covers the costs of the programmes that the UK agreed to support during the period of its EU membership.  Like most organisations, the EU operates on a pay-as-you-go basis and only charges member countries as and when bills actually come due.  The UK calculates this to be between £36bn – £39bn (€40bn – €44bn), depending on the assumptions used.

The Labour Party want a General Election if the government fails to get Parliament’s approval for its proposed Withdrawal Agreement.  But there is considerable uncertainty about what might happen next, if Labour won the election.  Some suggest Labour could renegotiate the deal, others that there could be a second referendum. Either option would mean a new government asking the EU to ‘stop the clock’ on Article 50. As a result, support is rising for the idea of a ‘People’s Vote’, or second referendum, as this might be more able to achieve all-party support. The European Parliament elections in May also complicate the picture as a referendum would apparently take 22 weeks to organise.

A Hostile No-Deal would be the worst of all possible outcomes. But Theresa May has warned Parliament that “without a deal the position changes” on the £39bn Financial Settlement, contradicting her Chancellor, Philip Hammond.  We do not know what would happen if the UK refused to pay, but one fears it could lead to a Hostile No-Deal if the EU then reacted very negatively in terms of future co-operation.

Ireland has proved to be a key sticking-point in the negotiations, as nobody wants to disturb the peace created by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  The issue is the potential need to reintroduce a border between Ireland and the North to secure the Single Market.  The draft Withdrawal Agreement devotes a full section to this issue, which remains a potential deal-breaker due to Brexiter concerns about N Ireland remaining in the Single Market and the UK remaining in the Customs Union. This expert Explainer from the impartial Institute for Government highlights the key issues.

June 2016 was the date of the referendum that voted to take the UK out of the EU.

Keeping the UK in “a single customs territory” with the EU after Brexit is a key feature of the so-called “temporary backstop arrangement” designed to avoid a hard border with Ireland.  It is intended to operate until a full free trade agreement is finalised between the UK and EU.  It was the most difficult part of the negotiations, and has provoked the most resistance from Brexiters.

Legal issues are, of course, a critical area in the negotiations as the UK currently operates under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice  (ECJ), and the UK wants to “take back control” to its own courts.  However, the Withdrawal Agreement confirms that the ECJ will have a continuing role under the Transition Agreement and potentially afterwards if the “backstop” is activated.

Tariffs on Materials and goods would be introduced between the UK and EU27 if there is a No-Deal Brexit.  Less well understood is that the UK’s trading terms would also change with countries outside the EU27, as the UK currently operates under more than 750 free trade and trade-related agreements negotiated by the EU – and it is unlikely that the UK could continue to benefit from them.

No Deal means that the UK would have to operate under WTO rules after 29 March.  This short Ready for Brexit video explains the complications this would create.  The WTO has also warned that the number of Technical Barriers to Trade “has grown significantly” in recent years, and these can often severely restrict trading opportunities. And EU laws would still have a role under WTO rules for all UK products sold into the EU27 under No Deal.  The EU Preparedness Notices, for example, also suggest there could be a ban on UK banks providing financial services as well as a whole host of other restrictions including on travel.

Preparing for Brexit.  My colleagues and I have set up Ready for Brexit. This is a subscription-based ‘one-stop shop’ and provides a curated Directory to the key areas associated with Brexit – Customs & Tariffs, Finance, Legal, Services & Employment, Supply Chain.  It includes Brexit Checklists; a BrexSure self-audit tool to highlight key risks; a Brexit Negotiation Update section linking to all the key official UK and EU websites; Brexplainer video on WTO Rules; plus news & interviews with companies about their preparations for Brexit.

Regulations can often be a much greater barrier to trade than tariffs, as they set out the rules that apply when products and services are sold in an individual country.  The EU never aimed to harmonise regulations across its member countries, as that would be an impossible task.  Instead it has focused on creating a Single Market via mutual recognition of each other’s standards, along with harmonised rules on cross-border areas such as safety, health and the environment.  Regulations are particularly important in the financial services industry, and many businesses are now relocating relevant parts of their operations into the EU27 so they can remain authorised to trade.

The Single Market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, services, people and money across the EU without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles.  It includes a Customs Union, as this short BBC video explains, which seeks to ensure that there are no Customs checks or charges when goods move across individual country borders.  With a No-Deal Brexit, however, the UK will become a Third Country and no longer benefit from these arrangements.

The Transition Agreement covers the period after 29 March, and would allow the UK to operate as if it were still in the EU until 31 December 2020.  The aim is to give negotiators more time to agree how future EU-UK trade in goods and services will operate, and provide guidance for businesses on how the new deal(s) will operate.  But 21 months isn’t very long, as trade deals are very hard to do and generally take 5 – 7 years. The problem is that they create Winners and Losers whenever a market (large or small) is opened up to new foreign competition – and the incumbents usually complain.  The Transition Agreement will only operate if there is a Withdrawal Agreement and so would not happen with a No-Deal Brexit.

Unblocked, or frictionless trade, is a key aim of the negotiators.  Nobody really wants to go back to the pre-1993 world, before the Single Market arrived, when vast numbers of forms had to be filled in and lorries/ships sometimes stopped for hours for border checks.  As Honda explained in the summer (see chart) it could easily take between 2 – 9 days to move goods between the EU27 and UK without a Customs Union, compared to between 5 – 24 hours today.  The cost in terms of time and money would be enormous given that, as Eurotunnel told the Commons Treasury Committee in June, “Over the past 20 years, warehouses have become trucks rolling on the road“.

The draft 585-page Withdrawal Agreement was published on Thursday and sets out the basis for the future UK – EU relationship after Brexit.  The impartial Institute for Government has produced a expert summary of its key points.  But as the resignations have shown, the deal is contentious, with observers suggesting that MPs may vote it down in Parliament next month.

Zig-zag perhaps best describes the process that has led us to this point.  It began long ago when Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990, as the catalyst was her position over European monetary union.  Her supporters ignored the key fact that the party needed a new leader if it was to have a chance of winning the next election,  and instead blamed Europe for their loss – soon styling themselves as Eurosceptics in her honour.  Fast forward through many zigs and zags  and as I warned in March 2016, – “Slowly and surely, a Brexit win is becoming more likely“.  We can doubtless expect many more in coming months and years.

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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Markets struggle with political risk as populist momentum gains

Populists Sept15Markets have forgotten how to price political uncertainty in recent decades, as I discussed on Monday.  They have become dependent on central bank handouts, and assumed that globalisation and trade agreements are permanent features of the economic landscape.  Today, they are having to relearn, very quickly, what has been forgotten.

My post a year ago on the rise of the populists aimed to highlight the paradigm shift underway.  I argued that outsiders such as Trump and Sanders would probably play a major role in the US Presidential Election, and that this political development would have economic impact:

“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”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many readers were amazed at my suggestion that Trump could become the Republican nominee.  They were also somewhat shocked by the idea that populism might start to have a major impact on trade agreements.  Yet last week’s presidential debate featured Trump as the nominee, and both candidates argued for major changes on trade policy, as the New York Times reported:

“That neither candidate came to the defense of trade and trade agreements underscored a remarkable feature of this presidential election: Both major parties’ nominees are running against such pacts, despite the long pro-trade tradition of the Republican Party, and Mrs. Clinton’s past endorsement of the signature trade agreements of her husband and her former boss, Mr. Obama”.

More recently, my suggestion in March that a Brexit vote “was becoming more likely”, also surprised some readers. But today, many companies and investors are becoming uncomfortably aware that the Brexiteer demand for immigration controls make it likely that the UK is heading for a “hard Brexit” in Q1 2019 – where it leaves the Single Market and maybe even the Customs Union.

It is, of course, difficult to envisage a world where populists rule.  But the Brexit result highlights that “business as usual” is no longer the only Scenario that needs to be considered:

  Even though Sanders did not win the Democrat nomination, he is still a very powerful figure, and a Clinton presidency would no doubt be far more radical in certain areas as a result
  A Trump presidency would almost certainly be very different from the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama continuum of the past 35 years, with major policy changes – such as the renegotiation or scrapping of many trade agreements and a possible withdrawal from NATO
  Similarly, Europeans and others need to consider what might happen in Italy if premier Matteo Renzi loses his December referendum and resigns; or in France if Marine le Pen becomes President next year; or in Germany if the Alternative für Deutschland does well in next October’s national elections – where they might gain enough seats to make a continuation of the current “Grand Coalition” between the CDU/CSU/SDP impossible.
  Even in the UK, where most pundits regard the populist Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as unelectable due to his radical socialist and pacifist  agenda, it would only take a breakdown in the Brexit negotiations for his chances of gaining power to rapidly improve.

The key conclusion is that we are living in very uncertain times.

Companies and investors therefore need to prepare very carefully for every possible outcome – even if these seem unlikely today.  For example, most investors today assume that the Federal Reserve will always support US stock markets. But if Trump were to win next month, it is likely that this policy would change very quickly. 

On Friday, I will discuss why these developments are taking place.