World Markets: Would Brexit be a global economic watershed

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FRANKFURT, GERMANY >> A British exit from the European Union could mean global markets fall but soon recover, with no big damage to the economy.

Or, it could be the crack that starts to break apart the European Union and unleashes forces of protectionism and nationalism that hurt world trade.

Such sharply different scenarios are featuring in experts' predictions as they try to assess the risks for the wider world from Thursday's referendum.

While they say a British exit from the EU — or Brexit, as it is known — would be painful mainly for the country itself and to a lesser extent for rest of the Europe, the consequences for the global economy are harder to estimate.

In the gloomier narratives, a Brexit becomes a turning point, an event that snowballs and leads to much larger and nastier problems. It could deal a setback to free trade and globalization, which many disgruntled voters around the world are already cool on. And it could trigger more defections from the 28-country EU free trade bloc, destabilizing the region and unsettling companies and consumers.

So forecasts are ranging from the benign to the apocalyptic.

Some, like outgoing Finnish Finance Minister Alexander Stubb, compare Brexit to the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, which spread financial ruin across the globe. Or, as analyst Timothy Ash from Nomura International suggests, it might be more like Y2K, in which computers worldwide were supposed to fail on Jan. 1, 2000, because software was written for years beginning with 19-.

In the event, not much happened.

Here's a quick run-through of the global risks from a Brexit.

Flight to safety

It's reasonable to assume that a vote to leave would cause global financial market swings in the short term, with investors selling riskier assets such as stocks and seeking safety in government bonds, analysts say. The pound has already fallen in value against other currencies and would likely fall more. Gold, seen by some as a refuge in troubled times, might rise.

Markets seem to be betting that "remain" will win, so if they're wrong, there could be some scrambling to adjust.

Lower for longer

Central banks could try to steady things with extra loans for banks or other ways of making credit more readily available. Market swings could help persuade the U.S. Federal Reserve to postpone interest rate increases once thought likely this year and now in doubt. That could be good news for mortgage holders but could prolong savers' agony over low rates and non-existent returns on deposits.

Manageable?

The direct impact of a Brexit would likely not be too bad on growth — if you're not British. A year after a vote to leave, Britain's economy would be one percent smaller than it would have been otherwise. The EU would lose 0.25 percent.


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