Follow Us

Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on LinkedIn

20 June 2016

VoxEU: Brexit - The potential for a financial catastrophe and long-term consequences for the UK financial sector

This column, which reports the views of panel members in the monthly Centre for Macroeconomics survey, finds that almost all think that a vote for Brexit would lead to a significant disruption to financial markets and asset prices for several months, putting the Bank of England on high alert.

Long-term financial sector implications

Brexit is likely to have important consequences for the UK’s financial sector. Armstrong (2016) highlights several. If the UK were to leave the EU, then it may not have the same access to the Eurozone’s financial infrastructure, because the ECB may restrict euro-related activities of London-based banks.

Proponents of Brexit argue that stability of the Eurozone will require greater integration and increased regulation. But changes that are desirable for the financial stability of the Eurozone are not necessarily beneficial for the UK financial sector. One could counter that the UK financial sector is unlikely to avoid being affected by Eurozone financial regulation if it continues to play such a dominant role in Eurozone finance. An objection against this last argument is that given the increasingly global nature of finance, future regulation will be heavily influenced by the G20 and the Financial Stability Board, and the UK has an influential role in these bodies.

Another issue is the right of UK-based financial institutions to conduct business anywhere in the EU. These ‘passporting rights’ would disappear in the event of Brexit, which would mean that financial institutions currently in the UK (whether UK- or foreign-owned) would need to establish EU-based operations. Those in favour of remaining in the EU argue that this would reduce the competitiveness of the City. Those in favour of leaving the EU counter that these extra costs are small and that the benefits of being in a large financial centre such as London (so-called ‘agglomeration effects’, such as an abundance of experienced financial sector workers and support businesses) easily outweigh them.

Finally, it has been argued that the EU-imposed cap on bonuses is not effective at improving financial stability, and that it reduces the competitiveness of UK financial services vis-à-vis non-EU financial service centres. Leaving the EU would allow the UK to revoke this cap.

Thirty-eight of the panel answered this question, and a strong majority agree with the statement: 18% strongly agree, 55% agree, 13% neither agree nor disagree, and 11% disagree. When weighted with self-assessed confidence, 82% either strongly agree or agree and only 8% disagree. It is very unusual that the panel members are so united in their views.

The two main arguments given by those who agree with the view that Brexit would have negative long-term consequences for the UK financial sector are the following.

First, losing privileged access to the Eurozone financial infrastructure is likely to reduce business opportunities for UK-based financial institutions. In particular, several panel members argue that the likely loss of passporting rights will hurt the UK financial sector. Indeed, several participants agree with Morten Ravn (University College London) that the loss of passporting rights will “set in motion a process of relocation” of some (large) banks to the Eurozone.

In addition, Jagjit Chadha (NIESR) and Ray Barrell (Brunel) point out that this privileged access enabled UK banks to benefit from ECB’s liquidity operations during the financial crisis and Brexit would make such benefits less likely in the future.

The second main argument given to support the view that Brexit will be damaging to the UK financial sector is related to regulation. As Angus Armstrong (NIESR) points out, “it is clear that the EU will be responsible for financial regulation within the EU (within the context of G20, FSB, etc). The UK would have to comply with regulations which it would have only a consultative role in shaping.”

Moreover, UK-based financial may face tougher regulation for euro-related activities. For example, Ray Barrell (Brunel) writes “the current EU financial regulation environment has a single market in financial services that does not coincide with the regulatory area under the control of the ECB. Although this is unwise, it is of benefit to the UK. Once the UK has left the EU, the ECB will tidy this up, and the UK financial system will find itself with the same access as the US, and hence firms will move.” [...]

Short-term financial instability

The first question focuses only on long-run consequences for the financial sector. This question focuses on the short-run financial instability that a vote for Brexit would be likely to generate.

A vote in favour of Brexit on 23 June would not result in the immediate withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Instead, the UK government would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and have up to two years to withdraw.

At the moment of the referendum result, there would be uncertainty about future arrangements with the EU. For example, we would not know about the UK’s future trade relationships with the EU and other countries and they would become subject to negotiation. Similarly, product, labour and financial market regulations would all be subject to some uncertainty. Such economic uncertainty can have a big impact on the investment and hiring decisions of firms (Bloom 2009).

Here we focus on the effects of Brexit on financial markets that would be likely to be affected by both the implications of Brexit for UK economic prosperity, as well as by the uncertainty itself.

With this question, we want to get an assessment of the likelihood of a severe financial disruption. [...]

One could counter this alarming prediction with the observation that the UK economy including its financial sector are doing well and that the financial markets may see some advantages in an upcoming Brexit.

Thirty-eight panel members answered this question. The results are shocking. The panel members are extremely worried about the consequences of a Brexit outcome for financial markets.

The question asked about the likelihood of a “significant disruption” and the background information pointed out that the question is about a “severe financial disruption” that would “put the Bank of England on high alert and will be most likely to require some non-trivial intervention by policymakers.” Nonetheless, there is only one panel member, Michael Wickens (Cardiff and York), who thinks that the chances of such serious disruptions are basically zero. He writes “Like most of the predicted economic gloom this too is an exaggeration. More significantly, the point of Brexit is long-term, largely non-economic benefits, not short-term costs.”

All of the other panel members think that there is at least a non-trivial chance of a serious financial breakdown: 26% think that the chance is higher than 70%, 29% think this probability is between 31% and 70%, 24% think it is between 11% and 30%, and 18% think that it is less than 10%, but still non-trivial. The picture becomes gloomier when answers are weighted with (self-assessed) confidence. Then 37% of the respondents think that the probability is above 70%. One important qualifier is that several panel members point out that it is very difficult to predict how financial markets will react.

Ricardo Reis (LSE) points out that financial markets themselves are predicting quite a bit of turbulence if the Brexit campaign were to win the referendum. He writes “implied volatility in sterling/dollar three-month option contracts is very high (around 14%, which is 1.5 times higher than in January) while the betting markets for Brexit seem to put its odds at around 20%. Combining these two numbers, it seems that financial markets think the unlikely event of Brexit would lead to significant disruption in the value of sterling.”

Several of our experts emphasise the uncertainty associated with a Brexit outcome. Panicos Demetriades (Leicester) writes “This event will unleash the kind of uncertainty that Keynes had in mind when he said “we simply do not know” when referring to the likely effect of war. Such uncertainty can only be disruptive for financial markets. We will enter a new era of volatility that is likely to last until these difficult negotiations are completed.” [...]

Richard Portes (London Business School, LBS) highlights the current unfavourable external position of the UK: “We are running a current account deficit of 6-7% of GDP, financed by portfolio capital inflows and FDI [foreign direct investment]. It is highly likely that there would be a ‘sudden stop’ to these capital flows, a sharp depreciation of sterling, and a sharp fall in asset prices. We would no longer be the ‘safe haven’ that we have been in ‘risk off’ episodes of recent years.” [...]

Overall Brexit consequences

The first two questions focused exclusively on the financial sector. We added a third question to the survey, because some panel members’ opinions may be different when the overall economic consequences of a Brexit outcome are considered and they may want to make that known.

Twenty-three panel members answered this question and nobody answered that the overall consequences of a Brexit outcome would be beneficial for the UK economy. It is noteworthy that – for the first time since the start of this survey – one side of the argument is supported by none of the panel members. [...]

Full column on VoxEU


< Next Previous >
 Hover over the blue highlighted text to view the acronym meaning
Hover over these icons for more information

Add new comment