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Brexit and the Pound in Your Pocket

BERKELEY – The early returns on Brexit are in, and, contrary to what some have been claiming, they’re not good. In July, following the referendum, consumer confidence collapsed at its most rapid rate since 1990. Surveys of manufacturing and construction dropped precipitously. While August’s data were better, it is too soon to say whether the improvement was just a “dead cat bounce.”

In this topsy-turvy post-referendum world, the one piece of good news is sterling’s fall on the foreign exchange market. A lower exchange rate will make British exports more competitive. Faced with higher import prices, consumers will shift their spending toward domestic goods. This, too, will give a boost to the British economy.

The question is how big a boost. Skeptics caution that Britain relies heavily on exports of financial services, which are not especially price-sensitive, and that the scope for growth of merchandise exports is limited by the subdued global demand.

Britain has been here before, so this is a question on which history can shed light. In 1931, when the UK abandoned the gold standard, sterling plummeted by 30%. Like now, the country relied heavily on exports of services – not just banking services but also shipping and insurance. And the external environment was even more unfavorable than it is now.