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Brexit's Impact on the World Economy

Why a British vote to leave the European Union would have consequences far larger than the UK’s proportional share of the global economy might suggest

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate

LONDON – The febrile behavior of financial markets ahead of the United Kingdom’s referendum on June 23 on whether to remain in the European Union shows that the outcome will influence economic and political conditions around the world far more profoundly than Britain’s roughly 2.4% share of global GDP might suggest. There are three reasons for this outsize impact.

First, the “Brexit” referendum is part of a global phenomenon: populist revolts against established political parties, predominantly by older, poorer, or less-educated voters angry enough to tear down existing institutions and defy “establishment” politicians and economic experts. Indeed, the demographic profile of potential Brexit voters is strikingly similar to that of American supporters of Donald Trump and French adherents of the National Front.

Opinion polls indicate that British voters back the “Leave”campaign by a wide margin, 65% to 35%, if they did not complete high school, are over 60, or have “D, E” blue-collar occupations. By contrast, university graduates, voters under 40, and members of the “A, B” professional classes plan to vote “Remain” by similar margins of 60% to 40% and higher.

In Britain, the United States, and Germany, the populist rebellions are not only fueled by similar perceived grievances and nationalist sentiments, but also are occurring in similar economic conditions. All three countries have returned to more or less full employment, with unemployment rates of around 5%. But many of the jobs created pay low wages, and immigrants have recently displaced bankers as scapegoats for all social ills.

The degree of mistrust of business leaders, mainstream politicians, and expert economists is evident in the extent to which voters are ignoring their warnings not to endanger the gradual restoration of prosperity by upending the status quo. In Britain, after three months of debate about Brexit, only 37% of voters agree that Britain would be worse off economically if it left the EU – down from 38% a year ago.

In other words, all the voluminous reports – by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the World Bank, and the British government and the Bank of England – unanimously warning of significant losses from Brexit have been disregarded. Rather than trying to rebut the experts’ warnings with detailed analyses, Boris Johnson, the leader of the Leave campaign, has responded with bluster and rhetoric identical to Trump’s anti-politics: “Who is remotely apprehensive about leaving? Oh believe me, it will be fine.” In other words, the so-called experts were wrong in the past, and they are wrong now.

This kind of frontal attack on political elites has been surprisingly successful in Britain, judging by the latest Brexit polling. But only after the votes are counted will we know whether opinions expressed to pollsters predicted actual voting behavior.

This is the second reason why the Brexit result will echo around the world. The referendum will be the first big test of whether it is the experts and markets, or the opinion polls, that have been closer to the truth about the strength of the populist upsurge.

For now, political pundits and financial markets on both sides of the Atlantic assume, perhaps complacently, that what angry voters tell pollsters does not reflect how they will actually vote. Analysts and investors have consistently assigned low odds to insurgent victories: in late May, betting markets and computerized models put the probabilities of Trump’s election and of Brexit at only around 25%, despite the fact that opinion polls showed almost 50% support for both.

If Brexit wins on June 23, the low odds accorded by experts and financial markets to successful populist revolts in America and Europe will immediately look suspect, while the higher probabilities suggested by opinion polls will gain greater credibility. This is not because US voters will be influenced by Britain; of course they will not be. But, in addition to all the economic, demographic, and social similarities, opinion polling in the US and Britain now face very similar challenges and uncertainties, owing to the breakdown of traditional political allegiances and dominant two-party systems.

Statistical theory even allows us to quantify how expectations about the US presidential election should shift if Brexit wins in Britain. Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that we start by giving equal credibility to opinion polls showing Brexit and Trump with almost 50% support and expert opinions, which gave them only a 25% chance. Now suppose that Brexit wins. A statistical formula called Bayes’ theorem then shows that belief in opinion polls would increase from 50% to 67%, while the credibility of expert opinion would fall from 50% to 33%.

This leads to the third, and most worrying, implication of the British vote. If Brexit wins in a country as stable and politically phlegmatic as Britain, financial markets and businesses around the world will be shaken out of their complacency about populist insurgencies in the rest of Europe and the US. These heightened market concerns will, in turn, change economic reality. As in 2008, financial markets will amplify economic anxiety, breeding more anti-establishment anger and fueling still-higher expectations of political revolt.

The threat of such contagion means a Brexit vote could be the catalyst for another global crisis. This time, however, the workers who lose their jobs, the pensioners who lose their savings, and the homeowners who are trapped in negative equity will not be able to blame “the bankers.” Those who vote for populist upheavals will have no one but themselves to blame when their revolutions go wrong.

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