Pro-Brexit supporters rally near of the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K.. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

U.K.'s Brexit Woe Is an Extreme Microcosm of Global Trade War

(Bloomberg) -- Brexit is an early experiment of how well the world can cope with new trade barriers and increased uncertainty.

Leaving the European Union will clearly make commerce with the bloc that accounts for half of U.K. trade more difficult. But it also may give an extreme example of what’s to come elsewhere as President Donald Trump threatens to disrupt arrangements with China and Europe. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney calls it an “acid test” for how consumers and companies respond to the new environment.

“We’ve had 30 years of globalization, and the U.K. is probably the best example right now of actively trying to reverse that by disintegrating from by far its largest and closest trade partner,” said Daniel Vernazza, chief U.K. and senior global economist at UniCredit in London. “Brexit is probably as close as you can get to an exogenous trade shock, and therefore you can more cleanly see the effects of it. We’ll see in the U.K. what disintegrating trade linkages does.”

The similarities give economists and investors, who may have grown weary of Brexit turmoil over the past three years, all the more reason to pay attention as U.K. politicians return to work this week.

According to calculations by BOE policy maker Gertjan Vlieghe, the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has cost the U.K. about 800 million pounds ($1 billion) per week since June 2016. Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond cited BOE figures that suggest business investment is 20 percent lower than it expected before the vote.

For Arend Kapteyn, global head of economic research at UBS Group AG, the dynamics in play in Brexit and a trade war are very similar.

“You model it exactly the same way,” he said. “The only difference with Brexit is three-quarters of the disruption is non-tariff barriers.”

If the U.K. is to prove a guide for the global economy, then there could be trouble ahead. According to calculations by Bloomberg Economics, close to $2 trillion -- some 2.3 percent of global GDP -- is tied to trade flows that are at risk from greater protectionism. The U.K., China and Germany are the major economies that face the biggest risks, the study found.

While the drop in the pound after the 2016 referendum hasn’t provided a hoped-for boost in U.K. exports, the so-called second round effects have been more pronounced. After initial resilience, consumer confidence has taken a hit, while growth has slowed considerably from pre-vote levels.

Meanwhile, business investment has slumped as companies refrain from making spending decisions amid the uncertainty. The BOE said in February it expected investment to fall a further 2.75 percent this year -- a prediction based on a smooth exit process in March.

Conversely, that’s boosted employment as firms opt to hire more people -- a decision that can easily be reversed-- rather than committing to longer-term capital investment.

In a speech in London in February, Carney said the prolonged period of uncertainty over trade could undermine the worldwide expansion, an effect that has already taken hold on the U.K.

“In many respects, Brexit is the first test of a new global order and could prove the acid test of whether a way can be found to broaden the benefits of openness while enhancing democratic accountability,” he said.

Proponents of both a no-deal Brexit and a rewriting of trade policy admit that they will cause some short-term pain, but insist the eventual outcome will be worth the immediate disruption.

Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said last year that the “full economic consequences” of the “overwhelming opportunities” of Brexit will become apparent over the next 50 years. Donald Trump’s top economist Kevin Hassett this month likened the trade wars to battling a scurvy outbreak, with tariffs and other trade weapons as the bitter lemons needed to cure the economy.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.