The Impact of Financial Globalization on the Brexit Vote

The Impact of Financial Globalization on the Brexit Vote


The reasons for the majority vote in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will be studied and analyzed for years to come. Globalization in the form of migration—or fear of migration—played a considerable role. Support for leaving the EU was also high in the British version of the “rust belt,” in this case the industrial Northern areas that have lost jobs to overseas competitors. But financial globalization also played a role in exacerbating the divisions that led to the vote to exit.

London’s role as an international financial center has served that city well. According to The Guardian, “The capital generates 22% of the UK’s gross domestic product, much of this from financial services, despite accounting for only 12.5% of the UK population.” Those employed in the financial sector have been well compensated for their work. In a study of financial sector wages in London, Joanne Lindley of King’s College London and Steve McIntosh of the University of Sheffield (see a shorter version here) report that “…the average wage in the financial sector was almost three times as large as the average wage across the whole private sector in 2009.” The same phenomenon has been observed in wages in the U.S. financial sector as well as in other European economies.

The relatively high wages paid to those employed in the financial sector contributes to rising income inequality in the UK. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has soared in recent years, and according to one report is now the highest in Europe. According to the Equality Trust, “Average household income in London is considerably higher than in the North East.” But this disparity across the regions of the country has not been an issue in recent elections, leaving those outside the financial sector feeling left behind and marginalized.

These developments are consistent with a broader trend towards higher inequality in economies that have deregulated their capital accounts. Davide Furceri and Prakash Loungani of the IMF (see also here) examined the distributional impact of capital account liberalization in 149 countries over the period of 1970 to 2010. They found that capital liberalization reforms increase inequality and reduce the labor share of income. The latter effect is particularly prevalent in high- and middle-income countries.

A UK withdrawal from the EU will entail significant changes in both that country and the EU, which in turn will affect the direction of financial globalization. Financial services exports account for a large proportion of all the UK’s financial services operations. The UK’s membership in the EU has allowed it to provide these services to other EU members. But if the UK leaves the EU, the country will have to negotiate continued access to the EU’s financial markets, and the remaining EU members will most likely be unwilling to permit this if the country is unwilling to adopt EU standards in other areas such as the movements of people.

If financial service providers no longer find the UK to be a suitable location, the effect will be seen in the balance of payments. The country’s current account deficit, which reached 5.2% of GDP last year and 7% in the first quarter of this year, has been financed by capital inflows, including inward FDI. Capital inflows will drop off as international banks and other financial services providers relocate at least some of their operations to EU countries where membership is not an issue. The sharp exchange rate depreciation after the vote may partially reverse the current account deficit, but a decline in capital inflows will exacerbate the situation.

In the meantime, the supervision of financial services within the UK will be muddled as regulators decide which rules to keep and which need to be modified. The loss of the UK as a member will also affect the design of financial regulations within the EU, as the UK has played a major role in promoting a more liberal approach to regulation within the union. If it no longer serves as an advocate for that position, the EU members may adopt a more regulatory approach that favors banks over capital markets.

But many Britons will be unsympathetic to these effects of the referendum. Their vote is one more unfavorable verdict on globalization, similar to those seen in the U.S. and other European countries (see here and here). Until there is confidence that globalization delivers benefits for all of society or that there are mechanisms to share the rewards, the negative backlash will continue. Criticizing the Brexit vote or the measures proposed by Donald Trump is not sufficient: voters need to believe that globalization can be handled in a responsible and evenhanded fashion. Managing the direction and impact of globalization–including capital flows–without reversing its direction may be the biggest task facing the next President of the U.S. and other national leaders.