Brexit Vote Hits U.S. Cos. Hard, But Differently

Media companies get slammed, while airlines foresee lower traffic from Britain.
David KatzJune 24, 2016

[Editor’s note: this article has been updated to provide stock market index prices at the close of the trading day.]

Although shares of U.S.-based companies overall were hit hard today following Britain’ 52% to 48% vote to leave the European Union, the immediate and longer term effects of Brexit on U.S. companies appeared to vary by industry.

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Brexit sign UK flag vector

Brexit sign UK flag vector

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 611 points, a 3.4% drop. The S&P 500 was down 2.6%, while the Nasdaq composite fell off by 3.4%. USA Today reported that by mid-day about $675 billion in U.S. market value as measured by the Wilshire 5000 index had been wiped out.

Media giants like Fox, Discovery, Netflix, and Apple opened their trading in the United States down billions of dollars in the valuation of their shares, according to TheWrap, which used a five-day window to show a fuller picture of the fall.

Discovery, which does a great deal of business overseas, fell the most, according to the media industry site. Fox, which owns a big part of Sky,  a particularly hard-hit European satellite broadcaster, saw its shares fall a tad more than those of its competitors.

For its part, the U.S. airline industry stands to endure a mixed effect from Brexit, the Wall Street Journal reported. The split “shouldn’t cause regulatory issues for U.S. and U.K. airlines,”  according to Craig Jenks, president of the Airline/Aircraft Projects consulting firm, who was quoted by the newspaper. “Nor would it upend the tight joint ventures between Delta Air Lines Group Inc. and its 49%-owned partner Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., or between American Airlines Group Inc. and British Airways.”

But Jenks did tell the Journal that the U.K. economy and the falling British currency will decrease travel between the United States and Britain. Airlines with a strong share of traffic between the two countries will be hurt during holidays because travel to the United States will become more expensive, according to the newspaper’s account.

At the same time, Americans, moved by the strength of the dollar, will probably fly more to Britain, Jenks told the Journal. “For mainstream carriers such as American, Delta and British Airways, their coach cabins will be fuller with Americans and less full with Britons,” he reportedly said.

For U.S. automakers doing business in the United Kingdom, the impact of Brexit seems worse. The Ford Motor Co. saw its share price drop 6.57% to $12.52 and pledged in a statement to “take whatever action is needed” to keep its U.K. operations competitive, according to TheStreet.

U.S. automakers, as well as chemical, machinery, and other manufacturers with facilities in Britain, will probably have to reconsider relocation because of the potential for the loss of customers in both the United Kingdom and in Europe, Ana Boata, European economist for trade credit insurer Euler Hermes, told CFO before the vote.

If Brexit sparks a recession — and the insurer predicts that in what it calls a “soft leave” scenario, the country’s real GDP growth could be cut by 2.8 percentage points between 2017 and 2019 — that could mean a lot fewer Britons would buy U.S. automakers’ cars. (In what Euler Hermes calls a “hard leave” scenario, real U.K. GDP growth could be slashed by as much as 4.3 percentage points.)

Further, because of increased tariffs likely to arise in the wake of the British exit from Europe, “when I export a car that is produced in the U.K. to Germany, for example, [that] car will cost much more for the Germans than before,” she said.

The top executives of General Electric are a bit more optimistic, however. “Although GE supported the UK remaining in the EU, we respect the decision of the British people and remain firmly committed to the UK and Europe,” Jeffrey R. Immelt, the company’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement provided to CFO. “GE has 22,000 employees in the UK and 100,000 employees in Europe overall that will continue to focus on delivering great outcomes for our customers. We believe in the potential to build a competitive Europe and UK through digital transformation and manufacturing.”

The company’s finance chief, Jeffrey S. Bornstein, told CFO in an interview that although “we do a lot of health care, oil and gas and aviation” business in Britain, Brexit “doesn’t change in any way how we think about” operating those businesses there.

“Although there might be a little bit of a slowdown in Britain,” Bornstein continued, “we don’t worry that in some point in the future we’ll find ourselves in a place where the U.K. will not be participating economically in the Europe or the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.”

In fact, Bornstein added, “you could make the case that the weakness of the pound will ultimately be a source of growth in the U.K.”

In order to be in a position to respond to such crises as Brexit represents, executives must “be able to see around corners and avoid being caught up in the status quo,” said Bornstein, who was CFO of GE Capital during the financial crisis.

“The world had convinced itself that the voting for exit was remote, even though the polling suggested that it was pretty tight.,” he said. “Today, the reason you see the equity and the debt markets where they are is that the entire world was on the wrong side of the trade.”