Share prices in freefall. Pension funds obliterated. A sea of red ink across trading screens. Billions wiped off the value of leading companies. And brokers, or at least the automated trading algorithms that have replaced them, contemplating throwing themselves out of the window, or whatever exactly it is that an algorithm does when it has a really bad day at the office. That is surely an accurate description of the City of London this morning.
Except, er, is isn’t really. In fact, as the financial markets wake up to an outcome they had planned for but never really expected, something far more interesting is happening. True, the FTSE-100 has taken a hit, and bank shares look about as popular as Jean-Claude Junker at a UKIP rally, but on the whole the losses in London have been fairly modest. It is Madrid, Milan, Paris, and Frankfurt that are tanking. The reason? While there will be a short-term hit to the British economy, it will be the rest of Europe that suffers far more from this than us – and investors have already figured that out.
Just take a look at the figures. The predictions were that the London market would go into meltdown if we voted to leave the EU. It would be Lehman Brothers all over again, except probably far worse. The index could lose 20 per cent or 30 per cent of its value we were told. In fact, by lunchtime the FTSE had lost 260 points, or 4.2%. That’s a nasty hit. But it’s only fallen back to its level of, er, last Friday. In effect , a week of gains have been lost. It is still up on the beginning of February. You need a very fevered imagination to describe that as a catastrophe.
The really heavy losses are on the other side of the English Channel. Madrid’s IBEX 35 is down by 12.5 per cent. Milan’s MIB is down by 11 per cent. In Paris the CAC-40 is off by 8.4 per cent and even Germany’s mighty DAX is off by 7 per cent. In short, the losses across Europe are far worse than ours. That is, to say the least, a bit odd. After all, Brexit is meant to be an economic catastrophe for us, not for our neighbours, who have all been wise enough to stay in the EU, and will carry on enjoying all its wonderful economic benefits.
So what’s up? The explanation is simple. In reality, the EU doesn’t make much difference to the UK economy one way or another. We export less and less to it every year, and the Single Market, while valuable in some ways, was never much use for the kind of high-end services we sell abroad. By Christmas, we will have sorted out our political problems, and be growing again.
But Europe faces a real challenge. If the British can come out, why not the Spanish, with youth unemployment of more than 50 per cent? Why not the Italians, with an economy that is now smaller than it was in 2000? Why not the French, who have lost competitiveness relentlessly against Germany, and are stuck in permanent recession? If a relative successful prosperous economy, with lots of jobs, votes to leave, so might others. In fact, the rest of the EU could now face a rolling series of populist revolts, and many of them will be successful, and that will put constant pressure on the euro, and their economies. Our trauma will be over quite quickly but the EU’s has just begun. The markets have worked that out – and investors are quite rightly getting out while they still can.