The Brexit vote creates many uncertainties, exciting or frightening depending on your predilection. One thing which is certain is that the Leave victory was delivered by the less-skilled sections of the electorate.
It seems part of a more general stirring up of what we might think of as the dispossessed, those who feel left behind by globalisation. In France the Front National, in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, in Germany Alternative fur Deutschland – throughout Europe, in fact, these discontents receive an increasingly sympathetic hearing.
Equity markets have been very volatile and nervous in the face of the uncertainties which Brexit creates. But there may be a good reason for this from a longer-term perspective.
Compared to 30 years ago, stock prices both in Europe and the US are at much higher levels. A key reason underpinning this is the shift from wages to profits as a proportion of national income which has taken place. The share of wages in national income has fallen, and that of profits has risen. Profits have grown faster than the economy as a whole, and so the potential future dividend stream from shares has gone up. As a result, shares have become more valuable.
Measuring the share of wages in national income is not as straightforward as it might seem. Should it, for example, include self-employed income or the remuneration of chief executives? In February 2015, the OECD, along with the International Labour Organisation, published a detailed study of trends in the G20 economies since the early 1990s. No matter which measure was used, the data show that the wage share declined significantly in almost every member state of the G20, and nowhere was there a significant trend increase.
The changes themselves may appear small. On one measure, for example, the wage share fell from an average of 69 per cent of national income in 1990 to 65 per cent now. But in terms of, say, the UK economy, four percentage points represents nearly £80bn.
More recently, there has been a levelling off in the downward trend. The distribution of income between wages and profits has been stabilising. Does Brexit signify a tipping point, when the trends of the last few decades might start to be reversed?
The economic orthodoxy, not just in theory but in practice, has been one of open borders for both labour and capital. Both must be allowed to flow freely. But there is an increasing groundswell of public opinion against this. Donald Trump, for example, supports a 20 per cent tax on all imported goods to protect American jobs. Bernie Sanders has opposed every free trade deal which the United States has negotiated, and vowed to “take on corporations which take their jobs to China”.
It is much easier to protect wages in a world of tariff barriers and restrictions on capital movements. Boris Johnson sees Britain as a global entrepreneur, but most Brexit supporters do not. Brexit would not be the cause of a long-term downward revision to share prices, but more a symbol of why it’s happening.