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Some Early Signs of ‘Brexit’ Upheaval

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS

By JACK EWING

– The New York Times

Royal Dutch Shell got clearance from antitrust authorities in China for the takeover of BG Group Plc, removing the final regulatory hurdle for its largest-ever deal. Credit Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

FRANKFURT — Only hours after Britain decided to leave the European Union, Emmanuel Lumineau cast his own “remain” vote — with his feet. Mr. Lumineau said he would move to Paris from London and take about 10 employees at his financial start-up with him.

The looming question on Friday was how many other executives might reach the same conclusion, undermining Britain’s status as the No. 1 destination in Europe for foreign investment.

Mr. Lumineau’s reasoning was simple. His customers operate under European rules and so must he. “We need to be inside,” said Mr. Lumineau, the French chief executive of BrickVest, a company that allows customers to invest small sums in real estate online.

The long-term business consequences of Brexit will take years to fully emerge, largely because no one knows what kind of new trade barriers and regulations will emerge from negotiations with the European Union. But already there were worrisome signs that the “remain” camp’s warnings of economic tumult could come true.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, warned his staff in a memo on Friday that in months to come “we may need to make changes to our European legal entity structure and the location of some roles.” Mr. Dimon had said before the vote that up to a quarter of JPMorgan’s 16,000 employees in Britain might need to relocate.

Shares of British property companies plunged Friday on fears that the Brexit vote will cause a recession and deflate London’s real estate boom.

Jürgen Maier, the top executive in Britain of Siemens, the German electronics and engineering giant, said it might need to rethink its investment plans. He predicted others would do the same, at least until they can judge the impact of Brexit.

 

“All companies will be holding fire to see what happens,” said Mr. Maier, Siemens’s chief executive for Britain.

For decades, big multinational companies have used Britain as their business-friendly, English-speaking beachhead to Europe. As a member of the European Union, Britain offered frictionless access to the mainland, while the legacy of Margaret Thatcher meant there was far less regulation than in France or Germany.

Now that the English Channel suddenly seems a lot wider, businesses are waiting nervously to see what kind of new Europe will take shape. Negotiations on a post-Brexit trade relationship are likely to be messy and take years. And in the meantime, Europe could be in for serious political instability as right-wing parties in France, Finland and other countries try to ride Britain’s coattails out of the union.

It is not all bad for business. The plunging pound will help the tourism industry by making Britain cheaper to visit. BMW Mini automobiles and other products manufactured in Britain will be less expensive for people paying in euros and other foreign currencies. That could be good for exports.

Britain could also be free to follow its free market instincts without interference from Brussels. If the “leave” forces are correct, that would make the country a magnet for companies seeking to escape the regulatory corset of mainland Europe.

But any advantages are likely to be outweighed by the enormous uncertainties ahead. With no road map, executive decision-making could be paralyzed and investment could come to a standstill.

Britain’s financial services industry, which employs 1.2 million people, is especially vulnerable. New stock listings in London are likely to all but cease while companies take stock of the damage.

Foreign banks may face the costs of moving thousands of employees out of London to the Continent so they can satisfy regulations governing trading and investment advice on behalf of European clients. London had provided a convenient hub to serve Europe.

James P. Gorman, the Morgan Stanley chief executive, and Colm Kelleher, the president, said Friday that they had no plans to relocate staff from London. But in a memo to employees — many of whom worked through the night to handle a huge trading volume — they said they might “consider adjustments to our operating model.”

A cask of The Glenlivet single malt whisky, produced by Pernod Ricard SA. Credit Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Even Deutsche Bank, the symbol of German banking nominally based in Frankfurt, uses London as a base for investment banking and trading. It has often made most of its profit there.

“I’m afraid that this is not such a good day for Europe,” said John Cryan, the Deutsche Bank chief, who happens to be British. “At this stage, we cannot fully foresee the consequences, but there’s no doubt that they will be negative on all sides.”

Perhaps no company embodies the European project more than Airbus, a politically driven consortium that allowed Europe to remain a player in the aircraft industry after smaller national manufacturers could no longer compete. Airbus produces wings in Broughton and employs 15,000 people in Britain plus tens of thousands more at suppliers.

Outside the union, Britain may no longer have as strong a claim on those jobs. “This is a lose-lose result for both Britain and Europe,” said Thomas Enders, the Airbus chief executive. “We will review our U.K. investment strategy, like everybody else will.”

Other sectors as different as petrochemicals and Scottish whisky could be damaged by increases in customs duties, diverging legal requirements and slumping growth. Energy companies like BP or Royal Dutch Shell are worried about having to deal with an unwieldy snarl of differing regulations once the European Union umbrella is gone. “Uncertainty is never helpful for a business such as ours,” BP said in a statement Friday.

United States technology companies like Google and Facebook have sizable operations in Britain, though their headquarters are technically in low-tax countries like Ireland and the Netherlands. Google employs roughly 1,000 engineers across Britain, working on global products like its search engine and Android mobile operating system. Technology companies could be under pressure to move sales and marketing jobs from Britain, so these employees can still have access to Europe’s common marketplace.

The ties are especially close between Britain and Germany, where the dismay was particularly pronounced. Britain imports more products from Germany than anywhere else. Britain is Germany’s third-largest customer for exports, after the United States and France.

German brands like BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen account for half the cars sold in Britain, according to the German Association of the Automobile Industry. Sales could suffer if Britain raises tariffs on imported vehicles. Shares of BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen plunged Friday.

German companies have helped keep alive manufacturing in Britain. Mini and Rolls-Royce are considered iconic British car brands, but both are owned by BMW. Bentley belongs to Volkswagen.

Probably the most important company in the renaissance of British car manufacturing has been Nissan, which has pumped close to 4 billion pounds since the mid-1980s into a world-class factory in Sunderland in northeast England. Last year the company produced about 475,000 vehicles, about a third of Britain’s total, exporting about 55 percent of them to the European Union.

Yet despite the European Union’s importance to local jobs, voters in Sunderland voted overwhelmingly to leave. The Brexit camp won 61 percent of the vote compared with 39 percent for remain. Stuart Boyd, a Nissan spokesman, said on Friday that the company was not ready to comment on how it might respond.

Perhaps workers believed that Nissan sales would increase because of a weaker pound. But any stimulus to British exports from a devalued currency is likely to be offset by higher prices for imported goods. Britain has a trade deficit, so a weaker pound is on balance negative.

Another huge foreign manufacturer is Siemens, based in Munich, which has 13 factories and 14,000 workers in Britain making products like electric motors, gas turbines and trains. Siemens is not about to pull up stakes. But Mr. Maier, the Siemens chief for Britain, said the Brexit vote could force the company to recalculate some investment decisions.

For example, European Union grants help finance Siemens research and development projects in Britain in areas like self-driving cars. That financial support will disappear once Britain is out.

“The question is more about future investment, future research and development,” Mr. Maier said. “That’s hanging in the balance.”

He embodies the strong ties between Britain and the mainland. Born in Germany, Mr. Maier has lived in Britain since he was 10, studied there, and speaks with a British accent. He said that there was a palpable sense of anxiety Friday morning when he visited a company office in Manchester that is used by engineers and customer service representatives.

“It’s usually a really buzzing office,” Mr. Maier said. “This morning it was definitely quiet. Customers weren’t calling. That’s not a good sign. The country is just taking all of this in.”

Contributing reporting were Chad Bray and Stanley Reed from London, Nathaniel Popper and Michael Corkery from New York, Mark Scott from Rome and David Jolly from Paris