Britain's decision to leave the Eurozone has already sent waves through the markets. It taught traders too young to remember the 2004 US presidential election that the first few election night polls are not always accurate. (In 2004, markets relying on faulty exit polls gave Kerry a 70% chance to win at one point.) But traders predicting another vote incorrectly is not the story. The story is about an upcoming massive institutional change that no one is quite sure how to interpret.
In order to leave, the UK has to actually petition to leave the Eurozone. This won't happen until a new prime minister replaces David Cameron in three months time. Intraparty battles will occur over this time period as politicians position themselves in the aftermath of a referendum. If there is an attempt to ignore the referendum and keep the UK in the EU it will occur during this time period. Supporters of Remain recognize that after the European Council is notified by the UK under article 50
there is no way to reverse the process short of jumping through all of the hoops required of countries wishing to join the European Union.
One way supporters of Remain might go about ignoring the referendum if they get into power is by indefinitely delaying any notification under article 50. This would extend the period of uncertainty indefinitely and would not be helpful to the UK or world economy.
After the UK issues their petition, the rest of the EU will have to come to an agreement with the UK about the terms of their exit within two years.
If during this turmoil the UK voters and EU members decide that they don't want the UK to leave the EU quite yet, there is a way to kick the can down the road for more than two years. They can indefinitely extend exit talks as long as the UK and European Council unanimously agree to extend withdrawal negotiations. However, any pro-Leave UK party or anti-UK EU member from that point onwards could cause even worse disruption as any dissenter would have the power to force an immediate exit. The UK would have either too little or too much leverage for this scenario to be stable. So any news about definite plans to initiate article 50 makes an exit more likely and might cause another mini-panic.
If the UK and EU keep it simple and retain relatively open trade and freedom of movement both sides will benefit. This seems to be Merkel's preferred approach
"The negotiations must take place in a businesslike, good climate," she said. "Britain will remain a close partner, with which we are linked economically."
She has no separatist movement within Germany to worry about scaring away from EU exit. However, other members of the EU realize that there is a risk that the UK will not be the only one to leave, so signaling that leaving does not come without consequences will be a very tempting idea. And some will be tempted to punish the UK for choosing to leave them, as is the case of the Mayor of Calais
. Fortunately for all of those in favor of prosperity, that particular mayor does not hold much sway in international negotiations.
The more EU officials sound like Merkel, the better the economic outcome. If they start sounding like the Mayor of Calais, the short and medium term economic damage will likely be significant.
But there will be economic impacts either way. There will be a hit to business confidence. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, seems to expect that they will have to change the location of some roles
to comply with European laws. Other companies expecting to move may be reluctant to increase headcount and investment in the near term and when this happens on a large scale a recession is almost inevitable.
Then there will be capital flight as the volatility of the British pound and uncertainty of the political situation scares away certain classes of slow moving investors. Foreign direct investment inflows
for the United Kingdom have fluctuated between one and two percent of GDP in recent years. It is likely to be much lower over the next couple years. The large fall in the GBP after the results of the referendum occurred was in anticipation of these flows and economic weakness in the UK.
Weak economic growth is widely expected to be countered by central banks to the best of their ability. The Bank of England's base rate is already close to zero at 0.5%. And sometimes the best thing a central bank can do to stimulate the economy is weaken a country's currency to boost exports. In this case, the GBP has already weakened considerably and further weakness may be interpreted as a further loss of confidence.
Part of the problem is that central banks influence demand more than supply. To the extent that Brexit is a hit to confidence, demand matters and central bank actions are important. But if there are permanent business relocations from regulatory change or economic damage from trade barriers going up, Brexit becomes a supply shock. This means that there is not much that the Bank of England can do even if it was in a position to do something. If a central bank tries to fight a supply shock, stagflation is a likely outcome. In light of this, it is heartening that Mark Carney's statement on Brexit
focused on the stability of the financial system and not on what the bank might do to support growth.
For Europe, the uncertainty is not going to be helpful, though the impact will be lighter than in the UK. A larger worry is what might happen as other EU members push for the right to hold their own referendums on leaving the EU. Gary Kasparov makes the interesting argument that Brexit will not only help Putin
face a divided Europe, but the absence of the UK will lead to far worse policy being made in Brussels. Long term, this could be worse for Europe than the UK.
In the US, many people see the election of Donald Trump as analogous to a Brexit. Both are decision that were been deemed to be very unlikely well before voting day in part because elites regard Trump or Brexit as very destructive. The referendum resulting in a Brexit doesn't mean Trump's victory is any more likely than it was before the vote, but it does suggest that some forecasters might not be able to accurately forecast populist movements like Trump's.
Gold rose significantly on the day of the Brexit. The general theory is that uncertainty causes people to flee to gold. Gold is also helped by the general hit to economic growth expectations. Central banks who shift towards easing to counter the hit to global confidence should also benefit the irrationally valuable metal while also keeping government benchmark interest rates lower longer than previously expected.
The full implications of Brexit really are too many to cover in a short space. This is even more the case when some of the things people pretend are implications of Brexit are really just one of the many political impacts of long term trends like the stagnation of real income growth
for many people in developed countries. A fuller picture would also look at Scotland and other parts of the UK who might favor leaving to try to stay in the EU. What it would take for London to remain a global financial center and whether any European city is likely to emerge as the obvious alternative is another interesting question.
And there is still more to write about other countries. China's enigma of an economy will take a hit when Europe economic weakness reduces their Chinese imports. The Japanese yen is now just above 100 after the panic over Brexit and this yen strength puts extra pressure on Kuroda and Shinzo Abe.
But the biggest thing to track will be whether the world starts turning protectionist. Nasty exit negotiations would be a bad sign. Many people are tempted to constantly make bad analogies between our economic circumstances and the Great Depression. But the Brexit negotiations have the potential to create the closest thing to a modern Smoot-Hawley Tariff bill. And that's why it has the potential to be very scary.