2 years on, Brexit vote has taken a toll on UK economy

No one knows what will happen once Brexit takes effect in 2019 (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 June 2018
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2 years on, Brexit vote has taken a toll on UK economy

  • Big companies are sounding the alarm bell, with plane making giant Airbus this week threatening to pull out of the country, where it employs 14,000, if it gets no clarity on future trade deals
  • The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, estimated recently that average household incomes are around 900 pounds lower than the bank was forecasting on the eve of the referendum

LONDON: While it’s still unclear what Brexit will look like when it happens next year, the decision to leave has already had a clear effect on the economy: households are poorer, companies are more cautious about investing, and the property market has cooled.
In the two years since the vote to leave the European Union, Britain has gone from being a pace-setter among the world’s big economies to falling into the slow lane. And the uncertainty over what relations with the EU will be when Brexit becomes official on March 29, 2019 could make matters worse.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government remains split on what those relations should be. There are those who favor a “hard Brexit,” a clean break that takes Britain out of the bloc’s free trade union but also gives it more freedom to strike new trade deals around the world. Others want to keep Britain as close as possible to the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner, which could mean it has to obey more of the bloc’s rules.
Big companies are sounding the alarm bell, with plane making giant Airbus this week threatening to pull out of the country, where it employs 14,000, if it gets no clarity on future trade deals.
“Thousands of skilled, well-paid jobs are now on the line because of the shambolic mess the government have created over the Brexit negotiations,” said Darren Jones, the lawmaker for the community where Airbus has its plant.
Before the referendum of June 2016, the British economy had been one of the fastest-growing industrial economies for years. Now, it’s barely growing. In the first quarter of this year it expanded by just 0.1 percent from the previous three-month period, its slowest rate in about five years.
For most people, the first and most noticeable impact was the drop in the pound. The currency slid 15 percent after the vote in June 2016 to a post-1985 low of $1.21. That boosted prices by making imports and energy more expensive for consumers and companies — the rate of inflation hit a high of 3 percent late last year.
The weaker pound helped some companies: exporters and multinationals that do not sell mainly in the UK But it hurt consumer spending and businesses that depend on their shopping. The retail industry was hit hard, with high-profile companies like Toys R Us and Maplin going bust, and supermarket chain Marks and Spencer planning deep cuts.
While prices rose, wages lagged, even though unemployment is at its lowest since 1975, at 4.2 percent.
“After Brexit, prices definitely went up,” said Nagesh Balusu, manager of the Salt Whisky Bar and Dining Room in London. “We struggled a bit earlier this year, so now we’ve increased the prices.” The bar is next to Hyde Park, a popular destination for foreign visitors. “The tourists have a good exchange rate. They know they can spend a little bit more than they usually do. But the locals are coming a little less. They are starting to think about how much they spend.”
The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, estimated recently that average household incomes are around 900 pounds lower than the bank was forecasting on the eve of the referendum.
The real estate market, meanwhile, has cooled considerably, with the number of property sales in London near a historic low last year, according to estate agent Foxtons.
While some foreign prospective buyers were attracted by the drop in the pound, others seem to have been scared off by uncertainty over what Brexit might mean for their investment.
House prices are stagnating after years of gains, also due to expectations that the Bank of England will keep gradually increasing interest rates.
Nic Budden, Foxton’s CEO, predicts that the real estate market will remain challenging this year, while Samuel Tombs, analyst at Pantheon Economics, predicts that house prices will flatline for the next 6 months.
Against the backdrop of uncertainty, businesses have become more reluctant to invest in big projects. Because Brexit could lead to tariffs on EU imports of British goods, companies are hesitant to spend big on British plants and office space before they know what the new rules will be.
Benoit Rochet, the deputy chief of the port of Calais, the French town across the Channel from Britain, complained to a parliamentary committee this month that “we know there is Brexit but we don’t know exactly what Brexit means.”
“You are not alone,” responded the Conservative chair of the committee, Nicky Morgan.


INTERVIEW: Saadia Zahidi — A woman’s voice amid the macho power players at Davos

Updated 21 January 2019
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INTERVIEW: Saadia Zahidi — A woman’s voice amid the macho power players at Davos

  • Saadia Zahidi, 38-years-old, is a member of the WEF’s managing board
  • She agrees that the WEF has a challenge on the low level of female participation at Davos

DAVOS: The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which kicks off tomorrow in the Swiss resort of Davos, is predominantly a late-middle-aged male affair. About 78 percent of the attendees in 2019 are men, with an average age of 54.
Saadia Zahidi is a breath of Alpine fresh air in this clubby world of macho power players. The 38-year-old member of the WEF’s managing board, and head of its Center for the New Economy and Society, is a rising star at the forum, and a key shaper of its thinking on social, gender and employment issues.
She agrees that the WEF has a challenge on the low level of female participation at Davos. But she believes that only reflects the wider world, where despite years of recognizing the need for gender equality in politics, business and society at large, women are still a minority when it comes to the commanding heights of the policymaking process.
“There’s a long way to go to get to 50/50 participation at Davos, but that reflects a global problem, reflecting the practices of global leadership,” she said. Only single-digit percentage proportions of the leaders of the world’s biggest corporations are female, while only a slightly bigger number of heads of state are women, she said, adding: “We have quite a way to go.”
As she recognizes, it is not just a WEF problem. Last year, she published a seminal work on gender equality as it especially related to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. It is entitled “Fifty Million Rising,” a reference to the number of women that have joined the workforce in Islamic economies.
The work was optimistic in tone, charting the progress of women as more equal participants in their economies, be they McDonald’s workers in Pakistan, IT technicians in Egypt, or running big conglomerates in Saudi Arabia. The underlying message was that the empowerment of women was inexorable.
By the end of last year, Zahidi seemed to have lost some of that positivity. A report authored by her for the WEF on the gender gap — the difference in pay and conditions for men and women doing more or less the same job — found that on average, female workers were paid just 63 percent of men’s wages for the same job.

The overall picture is that gender equality has stalled. The future of our labor market may not be as equal as the trajectory we thought we were on.

At current rates of progress, it would take 202 years to close that gap, leading her to conclude: “The overall picture is that gender equality has stalled. The future of our labor market may not be as equal as the trajectory we thought we were on.”
So what has gone wrong in the movement to empower women?
Zahidi identifies two main reasons for the lack of progress. “There have been big shifts in the labor market with greater use of technology and automation, and women have borne the greater brunt associated with those changes,” she said.
“There’s a perception that blue-collar men in manufacturing are being put out of work by automation, but many women in service sectors, especially in the emerging world, are feeling the effects just as much if not more.”
More women than ever are graduating from universities, but many are not qualified in the skills required in the modern digital world, in science, technology and maths.
The second reason is that many countries and societies are still not balancing domestic roles more efficiently between men and women. “It still seems to be women who have the main responsibility for unpaid care work, be it in child care, elder care or other aspects of home life,” she said.
“So women are less present in the paid economy than they are in the unpaid economy. It’s a structural factor, but you shouldn’t really need a business case to move forward on gender equality, because there’s also a very clear moral argument to be made.”
The movement for gender equality and female empowerment has been a factor in social and economic policymaking in many Arab Gulf economies, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where it is a prominent feature of the Vision 2030 reform plan.

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BIO

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, 1980

Education

•Smith College, Massachusetts, US — economics degree

•Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland — master’s in international economics

•Harvard Kennedy School — master’s in public administration

Career

•Joined WEF as economist, 2003

•Currently head of WEF’s Center for the New Economy and Society; •member of managing board

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Zahidi agrees that there has been some progress in recent decades, with greater investment in girls’ education leading to more skilled women in employment and all the social and cultural changes that brings. That advancement can also lead to “pushback” by women against some of the cultural and social restraints imposed on them by conservative societies.
“It’s not surprising now that there are more questions being asked about the viability of something like the (Saudi) guardianship laws,” she said. “Largely speaking, the guardianship laws are an additional barrier, whether it’s a question of transport, the ability to get from point A to point B. Is it a question of availability of transport, or because you don’t have the permission of one person? It’s a barrier that women will face and men won’t face.”
Although probably best known for her work at the WEF on gender and employment issues, last year her role was broadened to take responsibility for the “new economics” that the forum views as essential in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the confluence of digital, technological and communications factors that the WEF sees as having a profound effect on economic relations.
In October 2018, Zahidi led a study group at a WEF meeting in Dubai on the subject of the new economy. Those deliberations resulted in the recent publication of a WEF white paper on the subject. Her enthusiasm on the topic is obvious and infectious.
“It was an exercise in how to offer newer as well as the traditional voices on how we manage and direct our economy,” she said. She believes that modern economies, under pressure from digitalization and technological change amid volatile geo-economic conditions, have to seek answers to four big questions.
“First, do we need to fundamentally rethink what constitutes economic value, and what practical avenues exist for doing so?” she asked. She believes that new types of assets and economic activity are not well understood, and that new sources of consumer welfare are not adequately measured.
“What’s the value of the open knowledge on Wikipedia, or the toll taken by the incursion of digital technology into our private lives?” she asked. The answers will have fundamental repercussions for traditional methods of valuing economic activity, such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the price mechanism, she believes.
Second, Zahidi posed the question of whether, in the age of Big Data, we need to address the issue of the market concentration created by online platforms. Digital platforms bring undoubted benefits in terms of new services, greater choice, faster access and lower costs.

 

There’s a long way to go to get to 50/50 participation or men and women at Davos, but that reflects a global problem.

“Yet at the same time, scale and the resulting concentration of market power can offset some of these benefits, with potential repercussions on innovation, quality and distributional outcomes,” she said, adding that we need to think again about the regulatory regimes that govern the digital economy.
Third, the new economics must consider whether policymakers need to put in place practical measures for job creation. Technology and automation are forcing major transformations on employment practices. “If managed wisely, these transformations could lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all. If managed poorly, they pose the risk of greater inequality and broader polarization,” she wrote in the white paper.
Finally, the new economics must consider the need for new social “safety nets” for those who get left behind by the rapidly changing digital transformation. “In developed economies, the efficacy of social insurance policies tied to formal work and stable employment contracts is depleting, as increasing numbers of people become displaced or experience insecure work, low pay and unequal access to good jobs,” she said.
“In developing economies, where work has largely been diverse and informal, technological advances look set to continue that trend and offer additional flexible work opportunities, leaving open the question of what a future social protection model might look like.”
These issues will be among the questions considered at Davos 2019. Despite the withdrawal from the annual meeting of some prominent regular attendees — most of the US government sector, for example — Zahidi is confident that it will be another success. “My main aim this year is to raise and discuss issues that are starting to pose challenges, and to build coalitions to tackle them,” she said.