Brexit vote could hit Berkshire's tourist economy


While it likely won't cause a run on local banks or spur businesses to close their doors, a vote by Great Britain to leave the EU most certainly would have an impact in the Berkshires.

The potential implications of the vote could carry negative consequences across today's globalized economy — including in the Berkshires, according to several local experts.

The biggest impact would be in the form of diminished tourism, they agreed.

"The Berkshires have a global reputation as a tourist destination," said Bill Schmick, a registered investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. "Overseas people visit and spend money here on culture just like people from Boston and New York City do."

In a referendum to be held Thursday, UK voters will be asked if the country should "remain a member of the European Union" or leave. The movement to secede has been dubbed Brexit, as in Britain exit.

"Consensus forecasts are that Brexit would result in somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent (perhaps as high as 6 percent) decline in UK GDP over the next 15 years," said Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard in an email. "This reduction in income would affect UK demand for all sorts of goods and services, but locally would affect the modest levels of UK tourists who find there way to Tanglewood, Norman Rockwell Museum, The Clark, Mass MoCA and other Berkshire County destinations."

Last week, a member of Parliament, Jo Cox, who vocally supported remaining, was shot and killed outside a library in her district of Birstall, England — a chilling indication of the inflamed feelings surrounding the issue.

The suspect in her killing, Thomas Mair, was asked in court for his name, and he replied, "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain."

"It is interesting, and surprising, to see the parallels between the Brexit campaign in the UK and the Tea Party/Trump efforts in the U.S.," Sheppard wrote. "The primary sources of support for Brexit appear to come from people and regions who are likely to be made worse off if the 'leave' campaign succeeds. Reports indicate that Brexit could significantly increase the inequality between regions in the UK, making the poorer regions in the north and southwest of the country more disadvantaged relative to London and the southeast of the country."

Brexit support, Sheppard said, "is driven by hostility to migrants, by a yearning to 'take my country back' and a belief that the economic difficulties they face are somehow all the fault of these foreigners who have come to invade their country."

On the other hand, advocates say EU membership is a drag on the UK economy, diminishing the country's position on the continent and narrowing its freedoms.

Bookmakers and investors are betting heavily that voters will choose to remain — calming nervous markets over the last few days. Betfair, a betting exchange, lists a 73 percent chance that those in favor of remaining will carry the day. Pollsters, however, continue to record a dead heat, a virtual 50-50 split.

Back in the Berkshires, local manufacturing — particularly multinationals like General Dynamics and Sabic — also would feel an impact, though relatively slight.

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"While Berkshire County manufacturing does not have the international market it once did," Sheppard said, "such a severe recession in the UK, and its knock-on effects throughout Europe would certainly not be a move in the right direction for our region."

Economists are saying with virtual unanimity that a Brexit would equal falls in the value of the euro and the pound — strengthening of the dollar.

"Which would make U.S. produced goods and services more expensive and hence more difficult to sell to the British," Sheppard said.

"It might impact exports somewhat," Schmick said.

Matthew Chester, a financial adviser with RBC Wealth Management, agreed.

"Overseas exports would get more expensive," he said. "The U.S. dollar will stay strong and exporters here will struggle."

On the other hand, Schmick said, anyone considering traveling abroad ought to get planning if the UK splits — the strong dollar and falling euro and pound will make it available on the cheap.

"If you were thinking about a trip to Europe, pay attention," Schmick said. "It would be an ideal time to book your weeks in Italy or France. Your dollars will go a lot further."

A euro currently fetches $1.13, but Schmick said Brexit could spell a 1:1 parity.

Regarding markets — and local residents' stock portfolios — economists believe a Brexit cause an immediate dip that would stabilize months down the road.

"Markets in general will be adversely affected by the uncertainty created by a successful 'leave' campaign, but this effect may be only in the short- to medium term and could well be offset by global investors moving more assets into U.S. markets in search of greater certainty," Sheppard said.

"It would probably cause a short-term move down [in U.S. markets], but not as much as [one] would expect," Chester said. "The money might flow right back [because investors would be seeking the security of the dollar]."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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