Brexit auto impact taking shape; full effect years out

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Detroit auto stocks have recovered on Wall Street a month after the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union sent the global financial market into a tailspin. But in other ways, Detroit automakers are just beginning to feel the impact of the referendum that will take years to complete.

General Motors Co. on Thursday said Brexit has “adversely impacted the British pound and uncertainty has put strain on the U.K. automotive industry.” It forecasts a potential negative impact of up to $400 million for the second half of 2016 in Europe if current market conditions continue through the end of the year.

The uncertainty is expected to result in a slower auto sales pace in Europe, lower consumer confidence and a litany of unknowns for businesses in Europe and the U.K.

“This vote came as a real shock for business,” said Martin Kahl, editor of UK-based global auto industry publication Automotive World. “Politically, it’s a major thing. But the auto industry is not an insignificant part of the overall European auto industry.”

According to the U.K.’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the automotive industry accounts for 4 percent of the gross domestic product of the world’s fifth-largest economy. It supports 800,000 jobs in an industry that produced 1.59 million vehicles in 2015, more than half of which were sold tariff-free into that EU market of 27 other nations.

When Ford Motor Co. reports its second-quarter results next week it “could be a bigger impact” than its crosstown rival because Ford has a larger amount of total vehicles imported to the U.K. and no vehicle assembly in U.K., according to a note to investors Friday from analyst Joseph Spak of RBC Capital Markets.

Roelant de Waard, Ford of Europe vice president of marketing, sales and service, earlier this month said if the pound stays weak or gets weaker, analysts have said sales could fall as much as 10 percent annually — from about 3.1 million vehicles to 2.8 million vehicles — in the U.K.

“It’s warranted for people to be cautious about the marketplace, but we shouldn’t forget half of the country is extremely happy at the moment because they won the vote,” he said. “We haven’t seen a dramatic change in demand. The one thing that could dampen the market is if the exchange rate gets weaker.”

Ian Fletcher, London-based principal analyst for IHS Automotive, said Ford and GM along with Volkswagen AG are among the mainstream automakers expected to be affected the most initially from Brexit due to their prominence in the U.K.

“They’re going to come under the most first initial pressure, particularly with the weakness of the pound,” Fletcher said.

The real impact for major automakers with large presences in Europe and the U.K. isn’t expected to be known for at least two years, following the outcome of complex future negotiations between the U.K. and EU on all aspects of the exodus, including trade.

Leaving the EU means the end of guaranteed tariff-free access to the 27 other EU markets. The EU currently represents 81 percent, or $49.4 billion, of U.K. motor vehicle import volumes, and 52.8 percent of its export volumes, according to a recent special report from Automotive World.

The formal start of the negotiations will occur when the U.K. executes Article 50, which initiates the talks and is expected to take two years, followed potentially by years of other trade negotiations.

“It’s those two years,” Fletcher says, “that will lead to the most uncertainty.”

As a whole, the U.K.’s automotive industry was firmly in favor of remaining within the EU, with 77 percent of U.K.’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders members wanting to stay, according to Automotive World.

Luxury automakers such as Bentley, Rolls-Royce and even Jaguar-Land Rover, which is based in the U.K. but owned by India’s Tata Motors Limited, are expected to be impacted. But they are not worried as much about a potential tariff between the U.K. and EU countries as mainstream manufacturers that have lower profits per vehicle.

“A tariff on a luxury brand is a drop in the ocean compared to a tariff on a small car,” Kahl said, adding only about 20 percent of Jaguar-Land Rover behicles produced in the U.K. go to Europe.

Some automakers have called for a tariff-free deal, but it could be difficult for the U.K. to close its borders but remain tariff-free, according to analysts.

However, if automakers are producing vehicles in the U.K. and exporting them to non-EU countries, including the United States, tariffs with the EU countries wouldn’t impact those products.

Those with large manufacturing presences in the U.K. that don’t have heavy exports to EU countries could actually benefit from the Brexit impacting the strength of the pound. “What you could see is that the U.K. factories become a global outpost so that they might build cars that are not destined for Europe,” Kahl said.

Overall, analysts say all global automakers are going to have to watch very closely what happens over the next two years and potentially create contingency plans depending the outcome of the U.K.’s negotiations with the EU.

“The U.K. auto industry is part of the European auto industry, and it would be a really significant change if factories were to pull out of the U.K. now … I think everything is going to be done to keep these factories in the U.K.,” Kahl said.

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Twitter: @MikeWayland