Compare and contrast. At the Bank of England, preparations for a no-deal Brexit are proceeding swimmingly. The central bank and its EU counterpart have established a plentiful supply of euros that banks can access via weekly auctions starting almost immediately. No creditworthy financial institution need get hurt unnecessarily.
This “prudent and precautionary step”, as the Bank called it on Tuesday, was accompanied by other reassuring news. Threadneedle Street’s financial stability committee has updated a traffic-light assessment of Brexit risks and, for the first time since the referendum, red danger signals are absent for both sides. “Most risks to UK financial stability that could arise from disruption to cross-border financial services in a no-deal Brexit have been mitigated,” officials declared.
Indeed, one concern is that the EU hasn’t been keeping pace and risks could spill over the border. By the afternoon, even that worry appeared milder as the Bank unveiled a cooperation arrangement with the EU covering insurance firms after a no-deal exit.
The Bank isn’t promising there won’t be fireworks for the pound, share prices or companies reliant on foreign capital. Quite the opposite. “Financial stability is not the same as market stability,” it said. But the overall message is that the core of the UK financial system is “resilient to, and prepared for” a disorderly Brexit. The City can sleep soundly.
Now consider the news from elsewhere. At the Geneva Motor Show, BMW became the latest big manufacturer to warn of the threat to its UK operations were a no-deal Brexit to happen. It could stop making the Mini at its Cowley plant, which would mean the end of 100 years of carmaking at the site. Meanwhile, Toyota joined the chorus of Japanese firms talking about the loss of competitiveness to its UK operations in such a situation. There is speculation that production cuts are looming at Nissan in Sunderland.
It was the carmakers’ day in the spotlight but swathes of the non-financial world, from farmers to Airbus, are equally in the dark. They will share the assessment of Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways’ parent, IAG, that “it has been quite shocking to get so far in the political process without having any real clarity about the future”.
That shock, one suspects, will linger in boardrooms even if a no-deal Brexit is avoided. Carmakers can read the government’s industrial policy, which describes frictionless tariff-free trade with the EU as “fundamental to the competitiveness of the UK automotive sector”, and wonder if it was supposed to mean anything at all. The reality is a Brexit negotiating stance that risks the lot. The inconsistency will be damaging to long-term confidence in UK decision-making, whatever the long-term Brexit outcome.
No manufacturer would begrudge the Bank of England’s efforts to save us from another 2008-style credit crunch. Threadneedle Street is merely doing its job and everybody knows it started with the advantage that the EU needs access to London’s banks. But the outcome is a comfort blanket for the City – London is on its way to becoming a “free port”, Simon Jenkins argued in this paper last week – and next to nothing for the rest of the economy.
It was always thus, it might be argued. Yes, but rarely have Westminster’s business priorities been paraded so starkly. A respected and well-oiled regulator has pursued “prudent and precautionary” measures of behalf of the City. Everybody else has had to make do with Chris Grayling et al.
Debenhams leans on landlords
January’s profits forecast is “no longer valid”, said Debenhams, channelling Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s press secretary, who described statements as “no longer operative”. Still, on the plus side, shareholders are probably too worn down to fret about short-term profit outcomes. With the shares at 3p, versus 50p a mere two years ago, the looming financial restructuring dominates everything.
The fact the banks advanced £40m last month to cover Debs’ immediate working capital needs suggests they’d prefer the business to survive, as long as landlords are prepared to accept 50 store closures and a whack on rents. But the lenders clearly hold the whip hand over shareholders.
But note how widely the chief executive, Sergio Bucher, is casting his net in search of helpful “stakeholders”. It’s not only profit-seeking landlords who he would like to be generous on rents, but also local authorities on business rates.
The latter plea is highly sensitive since rates go into the pot that funds local services. If one limping retailer is granted a concession in the interest of saving a high street or two, won’t everybody demand similar treatment?