Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Brexit Hits Pricing More Than Profits, as Uncertainty Reigns

  • Weak pound hurts airlines but helps shoppers visiting U.K.
  • Mixed signals in company earnings after Britain’s EU exit vote

The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has sown confusion in corporate executive suites, and so far it’s had a greater effect on pricing and planning than on profitability.

Engineering giant ABB Ltd., publisher Daily Mail & General Trust Plc and appliance retailer AO World Plc cited rising uncertainty in their quarterly profit reports on Thursday, the busiest day for earnings announcements since the June 23 referendum. Still, consumers are still buying cars, handbags and ice cream, bolstering companies like Daimler AG, Hermes International SCA and Unilever.

In one of the clearest examples of Brexit hitting a company’s business, low-cost airline EasyJet Plc said Thursday that the drop in the pound was one of several factors, including recent terrorist attacks, that were making travelers uneasy. That has hurt fare revenue at the carrier.

“Currency volatility as a result of the U.K.’s referendum decision to leave the EU as well as the recent events in Turkey and Nice continue to impact consumer confidence,” EasyJet Chief Executive Officer Carolyn McCall said in a statement.

General Motors Co. also quantified the impact, saying the plan to exit the European Union could cost the company $400 million in the second half of the year. “We are facing strong headwinds at the moment, particularly in our largest market –- the United Kingdom,” Karl-Thomas Neumann, the head of GM’s European division, said in a video published on his Twitter account. “The Brexit decision is not a good omen.”

While second-quarter earnings include only one week of results after the referendum, executives expect an impact in coming months. In a survey by the Bank of England this week, around one-third of respondents said they expected “some negative impact” over the next year. But the report showed more question marks over the future than any clear evidence of a marked slowdown.

The biggest effect of the decision is reduced visibility over the future as the U.K. negotiates its EU exit, which could affect investment plans, companies say. Oerlikon, Switzerland-based ABB said orders were generally strong in Europe in the latest quarter except in the U.K., where they dropped 34 percent because of uncertainty surrounding Brexit. “The vote will put a dampening effect on business activity in this part of the world,” CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer said on a conference call.

The Confederation of British Industry on Thursday urged the government to quickly form a plan and timetable for withdrawal. It said the future strength of the economy would be dependent on the government’s ability to retain access to the single market and to ensure any curbs on immigration didn’t deprive companies of skilled workers.

Advertising at Daily Mail & General Trust’s MailOnline digital newspaper increased 27 percent in the three weeks after the Brexit vote, compared with a year earlier, the company said. The increase, fueled by department stores, carmakers and bookmakers, indicated that some companies were spending budgets that were put on hold in advance of the referendum, Daily Mail said.

Luxury Goods

The decline in the pound has persuaded visitors to the U.K. to splash out on watches and other luxury goods. Swatch Group AG, which makes Omega and Tissot timepieces, said sales at its British retail stores were up by 50 percent to 100 percent in the first three weeks of July. Though Swatch’s profit plunged 54 percent in the first half, CEO Nick Hayek called the U.K. performance “fantastic” in a CNBC interview.

Strong demand for handbags that can fetch more than $10,000 boosted results at Paris-based Hermes. Car sales are holding up in the U.K. and any Brexit-related effect on sales will probably be mostly limited to the British market, Daimler said in a statement.

“We’ve not seen any noteworthy impact on sales in the U.K. so far,” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said on a call with reporters.

U.K. companies that generate a majority of their sales outside the country, like Unilever, have also benefited because international revenue is now worth more when converted into pounds. Shares of Unilever, which sells Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Lipton tea and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, have surged since the referendum.

For U.K. consumers, the weaker pound will mean higher prices for imported products like Ben & Jerry’s, which is made in the Netherlands. “Are we going to sell the product at a loss in the U.K.?” Unilever CEO Paul Polman said at a meeting with reporters. “Most likely not; someone has to pay for this.”

‘Challenging Conditions’

Some companies didn’t wait for earnings announcements to assess the impact of the Brexit vote. British Airways owner International Consolidated Airlines Group SA lowered its 2016 profit target the day after the referendum, saying it no longer expected earnings to rise as much as in 2015. Real-estate broker Foxtons Group Plc on June 27 forecast that “challenging conditions” will lower sales volumes. A cooling of the U.K.’s once red-hot housing market is expected to lower demand for building materials, too -- prompting supplier Grafton Group Plc to warn of a likely slowdown in demand.

Brexit has caused a number of companies to adjust pricing because of the drop in the pound. Headlam Group Plc, a U.K. distributor of floor coverings, said it will raise prices in August to cover the increased cost of importing carpets and other items. Svenska Cellulosa AB, the maker of Velvet tissues and Cushelle toilet paper, said it is considering raising prices of diapers, liners and incontinence pads. Electrolux AB said Wednesday a slowdown in the U.K. construction market could hurt demand for the company’s home appliances.

For French car maker PSA Group, the Brexit vote served as a convenient explanation for a decision to idle a plant near Paris for four days in September -- too convenient, it later emerged. When asked about the move Thursday, a spokesman said the maker of Peugeot and Citroen cars cited the referendum because it was in the news, even though the shutdown had more to do with adjusting inventories and a seasonal sales lull.

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