Will Brexit strike a blow at the UK auto industry?


The U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union (EU) could create problems for the autos industry, but also opportunities, according to market watchers.

"The U.K.'s vote to leave the EU will create uncertainty for several automotive manufacturers and is likely to weigh moderately on revenue and earnings in the next couple of years," Fitch Ratings said in a report on Tuesday.

A vehicle being produced at Nissan's factory in Sunderland in the U.K.
Luke MacGregor | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The referendum result, in which almost 52 percent of the U.K. elected to leave the EU, has led to political and economic uncertainty and created questions about how it will affect manufacturing operations in the U.K.

"While it is clear there will now be a period of uncertainty, there will be no immediate change to our operations in the U.K," a spokesperson for car-maker Rolls Royce Motor Cars told CNBC via email.

"We know that many of the relevant conditions for supplying the European market will have to be re-negotiated, but of course we cannot say what this means for our U.K. operations until those future regulatory and legislative arrangements are agreed."

As a result of uncertainty, market analysts have revised down their expectations for the autos market. For instance, IHS Automotive now expects muted growth of light vehicle production between 2016 and 2018.

"A more significant reduction is seen in 2017, when we expect output at 92.331 million units against 93.515 million units in our June forecast," the company said in a press release last week.

"The reduction in output is 1.184 million units and reflects year-on-year growth of 1 percent compared to 2.1 percent anticipated in the current forecast."

Cars for sale at a motor dealer in Bristol in the U.K.
Matt Cardy | Stringer | Getty Images

Andrew Bergbaum, managing director of business advisers AlixPartners, also expects to revise the forecasts for the autos industry down.

"[Before the referendum] we were forecasting moderate growth in Europe and we were forecasting a compound annual growth rate of about 1.8 percent for sales in Europe. Clearly, we will have to revise these forecasts," he told CNBC in a phone interview.

In its report on Tuesday, Fitch Ratings singled out automakers with significant exposure to the U.K. as most vulnerable in the wake of the referendum.

"The group most at risk of revenue and earnings pressure is Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), with over 20 percent of unit sales in the UK and substantial local production exported to the EU," Fitch said.

Other automakers at risk include BMW, Peugeot, Volkswagen and Daimler, which all generate 5-10 percent of unit sales and revenue in the U.K., the ratings agency said.

More broadly, automotive sales growth is looking robust. The global car market will grow 2.8 percent a year on average, with global sales of 110 million cars per year by 2023, according to the AlixPartners Global Automotive Outlook 2016 report, published last week.

The U.K. is not likely to lose jobs in the auto industry in the short term, according to Bergbaum.

"Last year and the year before there was about £2 billion ($2.66 billion) a year invested into the U.K. Clearly, making sure that investment continues is not going to affect jobs now, but jobs in the future," he said.

"Now is the time not to panic, but to carefully assess the whole organization, remembering that investment is critical."

However, Brexit could affect some car-making nations, such as Germany, due to currency depreciation.

Maximilian Stock Ltd | The Image Bank | Getty Images

"We import about 2.2 million of the 2.6 million cars that we sell in the U.K. and a large proportion of that is coming from Europe," said Bergbaum. "With what's happening to the euro-pound exchange rate, imported cars have gotten more expensive."

As a result, any attempt to maintain sales volume may result in margin compression for auto makers, according to Bergbaum.

On the other-hand, some parts of Europe may benefit if operations are moved from the U.K.

"Brexit will be beneficial for Eastern Europe, because some of the manufacturing that now takes place in the U.K. will move to Eastern Europe," Mark Mobius, chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, told CNBC last week.

"That depends on whether the Eastern European countries step up to the plate and encourage investment."

—With contribution from CNBC's Katy Barnato. Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.