Teething problems? Bumps in the road? The consequences of adjusting to life outside the EU in the midst of a pandemic are starting to become clear. Official figures show a drop in EU trade of almost a quarter at the start of 2021 compared with the same period three years ago.
Far from the “minimal” disruption observed by ministers earlier this year, the figures confirm Brexit came with reasonably substantial short-term costs. It turns out that handing exporters reams of paperwork and border checks on EU shipments, just as the pandemic worsened, isn’t an ideal recipe for a booming global Britain.
This much we knew. What is more difficult is to unpick the impact of Brexit from the Covid-19 catastrophe, and to know whether the early results are evidence of a long-term trend taking root.
China replaced Germany as the UK’s biggest import market because of pandemic trends, not because London thumbed its nose at Berlin to become a global trading powerhouse overnight. Chinese textiles, vital for face masks and PPE, were in hot demand, as were electrical goods being snapped up by locked-down British consumers. Car production in Germany was down sharply, while UK car showrooms were also closed.
A drop in trade was always likely after a stockpiling rush in late 2020, as companies built up supplies in anticipation of border disruption, and delayed sending shipments at first. Exports have recovered in recent months closer to normal levels.
However, with several months of data to analyse, the figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest there is far more to overcome than simple “teething problems”, as Boris Johnson called the disruption at UK ports.
The Office for Budget Responsibility expects additional trade barriers to reduce the size of the British economy by about 4% compared with EU membership, with the full impact taking 15 years to be realised. The full impact of Brexit will take much longer than six months to mature.
FirstGroup rebels may have missed the bus
The first instinct is to cheer an example of rebellious shareholders resisting the sale of a company’s prime asset to private equity at what they see as a lowball price. The scrap at FirstGroup is not quite that simple, however, writes Nils Pratley.
For starters, the rebels – led by hedge fund Coast Capital with a 14% stake – aren’t opposed to the principle of selling First Student, a US school bus operator, and First Transit, a North American bus business. They just don’t like the £3.3bn price-tag on the proposed disposal to Swedish private equity house EQT.
Coast has fired a barrage of statistics to make its case that the “crown jewel assets” would be departing at less than their true worth, and it’s not alone in its view. Schroders, almost the opposite of a mouthy New York hedge fund, will be voting its 12% against the deal on Thursday. That’s their choice.
It’s hard, though, to shake the suspicion that part of Coast’s frustration is driven by seeing a splashy headline disposal number reduced to a return of capital to shareholders of only £365m, or 30p, less than electrifying in the context of a 85.5p share price.
Yet it’s hard to grumble at the board’s division of the pie. This is FirstGroup’s last chance to address the hole in the UK pension fund. If the bill is £336m, so be it. The directors are also obliged to ensure the rump UK bus and rail business is left with a reasonably solid balance sheet.
So good luck to the rebels if they succeed in forcing the auction to be re-run. But 40 bidders had a look at the US buses, we’re told, so there’s no guarantee of a better price. Taking the deal on the table isn’t obviously silly.
Keep price sensible at Made.com and it’ll be made
Roll up, who wants to invest in an 11-year-old loss-making company at a valuation that could be as high as £1bn, writes Nils Pratley?
Actually, the pitch from Made.com is stronger than that brief summary. The online furniture retailer has got a position of annual sales of £315m with relatively little capital injected so far, which suggests there’s substance behind the boasts about the flexible model being cash-generative.
Punters are more willing to buy furniture online these days – suffering the hell of an Ikea showroom is not compulsory – and an advance into continental Europe is well under way. The ambition is to get to £1.2bn of annual sales by 2025, at which “low teen” top-line profit margins are promised. It’s not impossible at the current rate of growth.
The IPO market for online companies is bubbly, but there’s more to Made than Deliveroo-style airy optimism. Just don’t push the price-tag to silly territory.