100 days of Brexit: Was it as bad as 'Project Fear' warned?

Many of the effects of Brexit will take more time to play out.
Many of the effects of Brexit will take more time to play out.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The warnings were stark. A vote to leave the European Union, the British government said, would trigger an immediate recession, a painful fall in house prices, and a steep drop in exports.

It's almost 100 days since Britain completed its split from the EU - almost five years after the referendum vote - and a clearer picture of the consequences of the decision to leave is starting to emerge.

The divorce has already had a negative impact on the UK economy, the data show, even if it has been largely overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the effects of Brexit will take more time to play out: with Britain outside the EU's single market and customs union, trade with the bloc has been hampered - but the full extent of the damage won't be clear until businesses fully re-open after lockdown.

Some of the claims made by the Remain side, "Project Fear" as the British press dubbed it, have proved to be overblown, though. Here's an early look at how Brexit is shaping up compared with the predictions.

The short-term hit

In a report published before the 2016 referendum, the UK Treasury predicted that a vote to leave, followed by the immediate triggering of the Article 50 withdrawal process, would see national income decline by as much as 3.6 per cent within two years, 520,000 more people unemployed, and house prices fall by 10 per cent.

It didn't turn out that way - not least because the government didn't invoke Article 50 until March 2017. By June 2018, gross domestic product had risen by more than 3 per cent, unemployment had fallen by 280,000, and the average house price had gained more than 7 per cent.

Then came Covid. GDP shrank almost 10 per cent last year, the deepest slump since the Great Frost of 1709. The economy has only partially recovered from the huge losses incurred during the first lockdown last spring, leaving Britain further below pre-pandemic levels of output than any other Group of Seven nation.

Higher cost of living

In April 2016, the government sent a leaflet to all UK households, urging them to vote in favor of staying in the EU. It warned that leaving would increase the cost of living, because a falling pound would make imports more expensive. (About half of all UK imports come from the EU.)

That prediction turned out to be prescient. The pound fell by as much as 18 per cent against the euro within two years of the referendum, and remains 12 per cent below its level on the day of the Brexit vote.

Consumer-price inflation reached a 5½-year high of 3.1 per cent in November 2017, squeezing living standards. It remained above the Bank of England's 2 per cent target for almost all of the following two years. But inflation has since slumped because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Treasury predicted that if the UK left the EU and managed to reach a trade deal with the bloc, the country's economy would be between 4.6 per cent and 7.8 per cent smaller in 15 years' time than if it would have been had it stayed in the EU.

Though Britain has only been formally out of the EU's single market for less than 100 days, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Brexit has already lowered GDP by 1.4 per cent since the referendum. It now expects GDP will be 4 per cent lower in the long-run than had Britain remained in the EU.

Dan Hanson of Bloomberg Economics puts the hit at 3 per cent, or as much as 5 per cent if the impact of the government's restrictions on immigration is factored in.

In January, exports to the continent shrank by 41 per cent from the previous month. PHOTO: AFP

Export pains

The government said leaving the EU would make it more difficult for firms to export goods to the bloc, and that businesses would face higher costs.

This warning turned out to be correct. UK companies have had to grapple with additional red tape such as export health certificates to shift goods into the EU. In January, exports to the continent shrank by 41 per cent from the previous month.

David Frost, who negotiated the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU and is now minister responsible for Britain's relations with the bloc, has blamed stockpiling in December and the coronavirus lockdown for the reduction in trade. He says trade recovered to its normal level at the start of February. The data that will confirm or disprove that won't be published until Tuesday.

Finance fleeing

Before the referendum, many in the City of London warned a vote to leave would trigger a wave of job losses. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that as many as 100,000 jobs in financial services would go.

In fact, far fewer jobs have relocated to the EU: 7,600 roles had moved as of March, according to EY, a consultancy. PwC didn't respond to a request for comment.

Still, more jobs could go if Britain and the EU can't reach a deal giving UK financial firms broad access to the single market, something they lost as a consequence of Brexit.

In the meantime, the City has lost business. Almost all trading of EU shares on UK exchanges - more than 6 billion euros (S$9.57 billion) in daily transactions - shifted to the bloc in January. And banking giants such as JPMorgan Chase & Co and Goldman Sachs Group have moved hundreds of billions of euros to their new or expanded hubs across the bloc.

Long term?

The full cost of Britain's decision to sever ties with its biggest and nearest commercial partner is likely to only become clear once the coronavirus restrictions ease and businesses return to normal. The debate is still far from settled.