Howes: ‘Brexit’ fallout exposes elite, exacts high toll

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Monday’s flailing reaction to “Brexit,” Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union, tells you everything you need to know.

People cross the London Bridge heading into work Monday were greeted by continuing fallout from Britain’s historic vote to exit the European Union. Standard & Poor’s stripped the U.K. of its triple-A credit rating Monday, citing instability from the referendum’s outcome.

Once again, the political class — from Washington to EU headquarters in Brussels, from Berlin to the British prime minister’s residence at No. 10 Downing Street — and financial markets from New York and London to Frankfurt and Tokyo are demonstrating a failure of collective imagination and a remarkable disconnect from the concerns of everyday people.

Nearly 52 percent of Britons voted last Thursday to leave the EU, a move the smart set did not fully anticipate because they figured a majority wouldn’t summon the gumption to make it. The seismic event promises to shake the post-war global order, to reshape financial markets and possibly to shift security alliances amid an unnerving geopolitical vacuum.

It also presages a similar shocker in the coming cage match between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in this fall’s general election campaign: how populism, false promises from the left and from the right, can be packaged into a political balm both sides can sell to folks suspicious of elites.

Delivering the promises is another thing entirely. Britons are likely to learn that bitter lesson quickly as asset values swoon, volatile markets erase trillions in wealth and the Great Britain 2.0 promised by the “Leave” backers struggles to materialize.

More ominously, multinational corporations from Detroit’s Big Two automakers to Wall Street investment houses are rethinking their presence in the United Kingdom, as well as the implications of and timetable for the country extricating itself from the EU block.

“Leave” backers may find the prosperity promised from British independence will prove a challenge to deliver.

Standard & Poor’s stripped the U.K. of its triple-A credit rating Monday, citing instability caused by Brexit. The EU is expected to demand stiff terms for exiting the European club. Would-be trade deals between London and its soon-to-be former European partners are likely to carry tougher, and more expensive, provisions for Britain — or what remains of it should Scotland and Northern Ireland press to stay part of the EU.

All of it promises uncertainty for business, for economic growth, for global companies deeply planted in an EU market that for too long denied the possibility that a Britain divided over immigration and affronts real and imagined from Brussels actually would bolt.

In a note, Comerica Bank called the vote “a game changer,” and predicted U.S. and other foreign-owned companies that maintained sizable presences in the U.K. “as an entry point to the EU will start shifting resources and operations toward the continent.” It termed the vote a “stunning rebuke to transnationalism” for which “global financial markets were clearly unprepared.”

Clearly. The U.K.’s potential exit, or “Brexit,” from the EU is proving to be anything but good news in the short term. For the second straight trading day, stock indexes plunged around the world: London’s FTSE slipped another 2.55 percent; Germany’s DAX dropped more than 3 percent; and New York’s Dow Jones slumped 1.5 percent.

Britain’s pound weakened another 3.6 percent against the U.S. dollar, reaching a 31-year low; the euro gained 2.3 percent against the pound, illustrating the near-term pain Brexit is likely to have on global companies that do big business in Britain and account for it in euros or dollars. Namely, goods sold in pounds will yield fewer dollars and euros, squeezing revenue and profits.

The extensive presence Ford and GM share in Britain was reflected in the pounding their respective shares have taken.

Brexit is not good news for Detroit’s two largest automakers. Ford Motor Co.’s Blue Oval is the top-selling brand in the British market, followed by General Motors Co.’s Vauxhall brand. Britain now is GM’s top market in Europe, displacing Germany.

The exposure of Ford and GM to Brexit, and the vitality of their respective European businesses, are reflected in the pounding investors delivered Monday. GM shares dropped 2.96 percent and Ford slumped 2.88 percent, roughly double the percentage hit traders exacted on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

With the aftershocks of the vote still reverberating, and British politicians scrambling for direction in the chaos, executives from GM and Ford are reluctant to publicly discuss the implications for their business — beyond privately reiterating what they’ve already said: a vote to leave the EU would have, as one executive said, “a profound effect on the business.”

None of it is expected to be good. In a video message to Ford of Europe Monday, FoE President Jim Farley told employees to “stay focused and execute the business. Don’t get distracted by the headwinds. Focus on what you can control.”

The problem is what they can’t control. A full 60 percent of the engines Ford produces worldwide are built in Britain, where the automaker employs 14,000. There it maintains a large product development center, sales and marketing operations and Ford Credit Europe’s headquarters, too.

How and whether Brexit affects Ford, for example, will depend largely on what happens to the value of the pound relative to the dollar and the euro; the more the pound weakens, the more it hurts the Blue Oval. Second, what effect will the economic volatility have on the auto industry and its ability to sell cars? And, third, how will follow-on trade agreements impact the company and the industry?

It’s too soon to answer those questions. But it’s not too soon to acknowledge that history and the reassertion of sovereignty can trump transnationalism and confound elites — because they just did.

The vote was a “stunning rebuke to transnationalism” for which global markets “were clearly unprepared,” Comerica Bank said.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.