Brexit risks for Africa are overblown

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

For Africa and the United Kingdom, I choose to be optimistic.

Scare-mongering can stop now, the vote is over
I do not share the pessimism expressed by some on the potential negative impact of Brexit – term used to refer to the now almost certain exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union – on African countries. It is important to distinguish between short-term and long-term impacts. Credible risks – if they materialize – are likely short-term. Once market participants get over the shock, things should get back to normal. Market participants were surprised by Brexit. UK pollsters got it wrong. Again. Considering the margin by which the ‘leave’ side won, it is hard to believe that robust polling would have showed a ‘too close to call’ reading. Brexit-induced market volatility may pass sooner than people think, in my view. That is, after market participants get over the angst of being blind-sided. The South African Rand – the worst-hit African currency in the aftermath of the Brexit vote – is typically vulnerable when there are market jitters. And when negative domestic events – bizarrely intermittent – don’t cause some trouble, happenings in distant lands – a la Brexit – almost always come about to disrupt things. But if a long-term view is taken, it is not likely that increased sovereignty for the United Kingdom would be disadvantageous for African countries, the longstanding primary focus of UK foreign policy – or influence. There is ample time for both sides to calmly negotiate, once emotions become subdued and rationality takes over.

Brexit is an opportunity to rebalance the UK economy
Former Rolls Royce – a British carmaker – chief executive, John Rose, wrote once of the unbalanced ‘post-industrial’ UK economy for The Economist. In the article (“Made in Britain”), he recalls how an eminent British industrialist at a conference he was attending was introduced to a German audience as follows: “Our speaker is now going to explain how you run an economy based on real estate.” Sir John Rose made a case then for more British high value-added manufacturing. Brexit is an opportunity for such issues to get the type of attention they deserve. Also, even as Brexit negotiations could potentially get nasty, London’s place as a global financial centre in continental Europe would be hard to replace in a hurry. Still, some global banks have started to make contingency plans, reportedly transferring some jobs to Dublin, Paris, and Frankfurt. They are probably being hasty. It is still possible that the UK would be allowed some form of nuanced access to the single EU market for some services, probably just enough for financial institutions to be able to continue doing their EU-related business from London. So, upcoming Brexit negotiations may still tilt in banks’ favour. The view that a hard EU stance would be a crucial signaling tactic to dissuade other potential ‘Brexiters’ in the EU is short-sighted. I think the EU would be pragmatic.

Domestic factors matter more for African giants
It is the actions of authorities in Nigeria and South Africa – Africa’s largest economies – that matter more for investors. Structural imbalances in both economies have nothing to do with Brexit. And even portfolio inflows into these countries – expected by some to slow due to volatility and uncertainty in global markets owing to Brexit – would depend on the actions of their monetary authorities. Both countries clearly need to remain on a policy tightening path. And in the Nigerian case, if authorities follow through on ongoing structural reforms, the investment case for that country is hard to refute. Morever, capital seeking African assets are now more diversified. Long-term investment plays for asset classes like infrastructure are likely to continue unabated, in my view. The African Development Bank, Africa Finance Corporation and other African infrastucture or development-focused financial institutions are not going to cut back plans just because the UK decided it wanted more sovereignty over its own affairs. Furthermore, fears about a potential reduction in African diaspora remittances may be misplaced. Actually, I think Africans – who now see an increasingly insular West – may begin to build closer ties with their home countries.

Recessions don’t last forever
UK recession fears are the main argument behind negative African Brexit impact fears. Pray tell, do recessions last forever? The key question is whether Brexit would have a long-term negative impact on African economies. It is hardly robust to base an assessment of this on a potential UK recession; which would likely pass – if it happens – within the two years or so that Brexit negotiations and modalities are expected to be completed. Fears that Britons would buy less Kenyan flowers – expressed no less by the Kenya Flower Council – seem defeatist to me. Say that happens during a UK recession that everyone seems to think would occur this year, what about afterwards? I think things would either go back to normal or improve. Morever, there are other markets that could be explored.

British outwardness was never about the EU
There is a need to distinguish between the increasing insularity of some Britons – mostly the white, less educated and older ones, borne out of fears about immigration, and the likely rational decision-making of UK authorities. Whoever succeeds David Cameron as prime minister is not likely to jeopardize the advantages that the UK currently enjoys in global trade and finance. Now free from its EU obligations, it would likely ramp up its foreign policy reach through The Commonwealth – a multinational association of fifty-three member states formally under British colonization, which it controls. A likely renewed British Commonwealth focus would be an additional positive for African countries’ trade. Thus, I am sceptical of the view that the UK would need to renegotiate each and every trade deal it agreed to under the aegis of the EU, especially those with African countries. Brexiters are not dumb. A simple conversion would do.

Also published in my BusinessDay newspaper back-page column. See link viz. http://businessdayonline.com/2016/06/brexit-risks-for-africa-are-overblown/

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