Here’s a confusing financial press headline from today: German 10-year sovereign bond yields turn negative for first time.
What does that mean in plain English: it means traders are so worried about what the UK economy would look like post-Brexit, they’re pulling their money out of the UK, and actually paying the German government to let them lend it money. Read that sentence again to realise how deep the fear is.
You’ve heard the scaremongering. This is what the reality looks like, unfolding in real time. Until recently, there were only two big, safe, European economies still standing: Britain and Germany. Now Britain is dicing with, at best, three to five years of chaotic and bitter negotiations before anyone knows what it will look like as a long-term investment destination.
City traders, who don’t care about much except the size of the Ferrari their end of year bonus can buy, are ditching Britain and fleeing to the last safe economic harbour in Europe.
We don’t need to project what might happen to the economy after Brexit. We can look at what has already been happening, this week, as Brexit starts to look like a probability.
Higher spreads on HM Treasury bonds will mean Brexit puts up the cost of servicing Britain’s national debt, meaning even deeper cuts in services, and relatively soon after higher mortgage rates. Small businesses will pay higher rates on loans, choking expansion.
Sterling has been falling as traders ditch it. In theory, a lower pound might mean more competitive manufacturing exports, but in practice manufacturing supply chains are already hyper-globalised, so British manufacturing firms will pay more for their purchases. In practice, the incentive will be to move high-wage, high-profit, late stage manufacturing to cheaper Eurozone countries in eastern and southern Europe, and what survives in Britain will be earlier in the supply chain, with lower wages and lower profit margins.
Imported goods will become more expensive, including pretty much all your clothes, furniture and kitchen goods, and a hell of a lot of your food.
And whatever else is agreed in a potential future UK-EU trade agreement, retail financial services simply won’t be part of it, unless the UK is prepared to cede regulation of the City to European institutions it no longer has a vote in. For all the very good reasons seen in the American sub-prime crisis, financial services sold to ordinary consumers are regulated like crazy, with cross-border selling rarely allowed anywhere in the world outside the EU. So the entire London-based cross-border financial services business will migrate to Dublin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg, and tens of thousands of higher-rate tax-paying jobs will migrate with them. This is like killing the golden goose and allowing someone else to eat it for dinner.
This referendum has been an education for me. I’ve had strong views on elections before, but I’ve never actually been worried that the result might screw up my life. Single, no kids, good education and CV, I’m alright Jack.
But this time I’m really not alright. I’m scared. I’m six months into a 90% mortgage on an ex-Council house. Post-Brexit house price falls are pretty much assured, and they’re going to be dramatic in overheated Southern England, especially at the bottom of the market. I’m three years into a job that even my boss tells me that, for the sake of my own career, I need to move up from within five years. And I can see myself trapped, in a small town with a limited job market, in a stagnant economy, with a massive mortgage supporting negative equity.
If I’m trapped like that, so will hundreds of thousands of others be, mostly aged 25-40. The prime movers of innovation and sheer bloody hard work in any functioning economy, with a ball and chain of debt preventing them moving to where they can most benefit themselves and wider society.
If you’re in Northern Ireland, prospects are even worse: this a region that has a low rate of business formation, overdependence on fiscal transfers from UK central government, a weak private sector economy, and for the bits of the private sector that do work well, a high degree of integration with the Eurozone economy over the UK’s only land border.
Project Fear? I’m bloody terrified. And I didn’t need David Cameron or George Osborne to tell me that.
As John Hume said, you can’t eat a flag.