As hard Brexit looms, stockpiling goods hits high gear

By Sarah Min

/ MoneyWatch

U.K.'s May taking Brexit deal back to EU

With less than two months until the U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union, British and European businesses and consumers in the U.K. are preparing for the possibility of a hard Brexit — lacking an agreement with the EU — by stocking up on inventory.

If the U.K. exits the EU without a formal agreement that eases the transition away from the single-market trading relationship it has had with the 27 other member states, that could mean trade delays, higher import prices and supply shortages.

Stockpiling goods

For retailers, stockpiling consumer goods is an efficient way to get ahead of any shifting customs regulations. "There are low-cost ways for people to hedge their bets," said Michael R. Englund, economist at Action Economics.

French luxury house LVMH said in its January earnings call that it's preparing for a "worst case scenario" and stockpiling four months of champagne and cognac in the U.K. Unilever, which owns both Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Magnum bars, announced last week that it's keeping several weeks' worth of ice cream on reserve.

Food suppliers warned, however, that they can keep certain food staples at hand for only so long. British retailers Marks & Spencer and Tesco are shoring up on nonperishables, prioritizing food items with a long shelf life over fresh foods.

Stockpiling is also only a temporary solution because supply will likely get more expensive when customs regulations finally coalesce. While the U.K. is the second-largest importer of German sweets after France, those imports will likely slow after the new customs regulations are in place. A slowdown in consumption will likely lead to lost jobs in Germany.

"It's really important that the government pushes forward and gives up the information we need to be able to plan for the future," Sandra Sullivan, the director of the British Food and Drink Association, told the Associated Press.

Growing exhaustion in U.K. over Brexit

Fears of prescription drug shortages

Britons are also stocking up their medicine cabinets to last the foreseeable future. For those who rely on monthly prescriptions, the consequences of a shortage in supply is even more dire because three-quarters of medicine used by the U.K.'s National Health Service come from the E.U.

Last year, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, pushed through plans to stock up on six weeks worth of medicine by purchasing 5,000 refrigerators and securing warehouse space.

"It's creating uncertainty for businesses on the form that Brexit will take, and there's no way to reduce that uncertainty at all," said Nicolas Véron, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

While British Prime Minister Theresa May is pushing for a softer Brexit, meaning closer trading ties with the E.U. and a transition period to adjust trade rules, the lack of clarity on what form a Brexit deal will take is frustrating plans to prepare.

Said Véron: "You have to plan for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit."

– The Associated Press contributed to this report

First published on February 5, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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