Britain’s banks have been forging ahead with their Brexit plans. Tim Sarson asks why some other sectors have been biding their time and when they will press ‘go’.
Earlier this year, I was suffering from an unrequited sense of Brexit urgency. My financial services colleagues were announcing one Brexit project after another, while my largely non-FS clients were holding tight – despite mounting evidence of a hard Brexit in less than two years’ time.
All this has, of course, changed since Article 50 was triggered: the “real economy” has now started planning and restructuring in earnest. But it left me wondering what was driving this clear difference in timetables. Is inaction a rational response to political uncertainty – or dangerous complacency? I believe it’s largely the former. That conclusion is backed up by our Brexit Navigator which sets out milestone moments for organisations to hit on their Brexit journey.
In my view, four variables determine a company's timing:
1 How big a deal is Brexit?
Brexit touches different industries in different ways: exiting the Single Market, with the loss of regulatory passporting and swift passage, affects not only financial services but also sectors like pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Exiting the Customs Union, with all the tariffs, red tape and supply chain disruption at borders will hurt other sectors, automotive in particular. The potential loss of EU talent, from seasonal farm labour to health workers, will be especially tough on another group - and issues such as FX movements will also affect different sectors to varying degrees.
For some – retail banks trading across the EU, say – the impact is potentially existential. For others, it may be no more than a mild inconvenience. The bigger the impact, the earlier the action required.
2 Do we know the outcome?
The prime minister’s speeches and red lines tell us this will be a hard-ish Brexit. The UK will not remain a member of the Single Market or the Customs Union. This is enough information for some businesses, such as the banks and food importers, to take protective action now.
But, we don’t yet know about the “deal”, or transition. Will this be a strong and stable Brexit or an omnishambles? And what if you uproot your supply chain base, anticipating WTO duties, only to find out later it was all for nothing? That’s why most companies with interconnected supply chains are staying put for now, focusing instead on making those supply chains more resilient.
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3 Can we do anything about it?
For a bank, there is an obvious solution to the loss of passporting: create a new regulated entity within the EU27. The main questions are then ‘where?’ and ‘how?’. Yet, for a farmer or coffee shop chain, facing the loss of their fruit-pickers or baristas, the solution is far less clear. Robots may provide an answer in the long term, but for now, the costs would be prohibitive. In other words, the more obvious the solution, the more concerted the action – which is why we are busy finding solutions across all parts of the economy where we have clients.
4 How should your business take decisions and approach risk?
Banks and airlines have a lot to teach us, derived from their own experience of crises in recent decades. These businesses are structurally designed to scan the horizon for risk and regulatory change: that’s why they were so fast out of the blocks in identifying the impact of Brexit. Many other sectors simply can’t match those formalised risk management structures and will need longer to get geared up. Corporate culture also plays its part: whereas owner-managed businesses tend to make decisions quickly, supertanker multinationals tend to do so only after extensive consultation and feasibility exercises.
Brexit waits for no business. Now is the time to measure yours against these four variables, check your progress against the Navigator, keep an eye on what your sector peers are up to and, above all, take a leaf out of the banks’ Brexit playbook. Where they go, the rest of business will follow.
This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK. You can register for the email subscription list of this column and expert views from our Brexit leaders.