As Britain’s Parliament struggles to find a Brexit solution, the chaos surrounding the country’s departure from the European Union has begun to wreak havoc with the economy.
On Monday, several car plants began temporary shutdowns to cope with potential Brexit disruptions and one of Europe’s largest discount airlines, EasyJet, said consumers have started holding back on buying tickets. Meanwhile, a key survey of British manufacturers found that stockpiling is running at record levels as companies engage in “panic buying” because of Brexit.
“Brexit is exhausting our business and wrecking the country’s tremendous reputation as an economic powerhouse,” said Juergen Maier, the head of Siemens in the United Kingdom, in an open letter to members of Parliament. “The world is watching, and where the U.K. used to be beacon for stability, we are now becoming a laughingstock.”
The uncertainty over Brexit heightened on Monday as MPs failed to settle on an alternative to Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU. Ms. May’s deal has been defeated three times in Parliament and on Monday MPs took over the agenda to vote on a variety of options including a second referendum, negotiating close ties to the EU or cancelling Brexit. However, none won a majority and MPs plan to vote again on Wednesday. Ms. May is also considering trying win approval for her deal for a fourth time. Britain is slated to leave the EU on April 12 and if no progress is made in Parliament, Ms. May could ask EU leaders for an extension.
EasyJet’s warning rippled through the airline sector, which is already reeling from the collapse of five European airlines in the past six months, including British regional carrier Flybmi. EasyJet said in a statement that “many unanswered questions surrounding Brexit” are driving weaker customer demand, which will continue for the rest of the year. “We had hoped for clarity around Brexit at this point of time and that hasn’t happened and that clearly has had an impact on customer demand," EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren told reporters on a call. "Whenever people turn on the television or they are looking up news and they go on to websites, they see uncertainty and lot of bad news. There is a waiting pattern for customers.”
The comments drove down the share price of other airlines including IAG, Wizz Air and Ryanair, with some losing up to 4 per cent of their value on the London Stock Exchange on Monday. “EasyJet’s warning about softer ticket prices has sent shock waves across the airline industry, adding to problems already voiced by tour operators and suggesting that 2019 could be a washout for the travel sector,” said Russ Mould, investment director at London-based AJ Bell. “The delay to Brexit adds to the travel sector’s woes as it prolongs consumer anxiety about whether to book a holiday or not.”
Earlier on Monday, BMW closed its Mini plant in Oxford for a month, citing the need to prepare for any disruptions related to Brexit. The company had announced the temporary closing several months ago, but workers hoped the move would be called off given that Brexit has been delayed beyond the initial March 29 deadline. The company said it couldn’t afford to change plans. BMW’s Rolls-Royce factory is also closing for two weeks and other automakers, including Jaguar Land Rover, will close as well for part of this month to prepare for contingencies. Honda Motor Co. has also announced plans to close its plant in Swindon in 2021, partly because of Brexit. The plant employs around 3,500 people and on Saturday thousands of people marched through the city’s streets protesting the closing.
Automakers and other businesses have also been stocking up on supplies at record levels, raising concerns among some economists that the stockpiling could crimp future economic growth.
“Efforts to build safety stocks led to survey-record increases in inventories of both purchases and finished products,” said the IHS Markit/CIPS Purchasing Managers’ Index report for the month of March. While manufacturing output improved in the month, the report said much of that was because of the stockpiling. It also noted that optimism among manufacturers remained subdued and that some European companies have started avoiding Britain when sourcing for supplies.
The concern for some economists is that manufacturing could slump once the massive stockpiles begin to be drawn down. That could curb overall economic growth and lead to job losses as some of the current level of employment is tied to building up supplies. “The stock-building boost introduces a major headwind for demand, output and jobs growth moving forward,” said Rob Dobson, director at IHS Markit.
“This panic-buying had a marginally positive effect on job creation, as increased Brexit preparations required more hands on deck," added Duncan Brock, group director at the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. “The big worry is if the threat of uncertainty recedes, businesses will have to resort to heavy discounting on these stocks to free up valuable operating expenses.”