“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is an old French saying that translates literally as “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”
Before the Brexit vote there was a lot of debate about the trajectory of the venture capital markets and that has intensified considerably in the last couple of weeks. Venture investment has been pretty steady for nine months now in both Europe and the US, albeit with a lot of month to month volatility, but there are fears that the 2015 slowdown could precipitate a full on crash, that public market woes might transfer to the private markets, and now that our exit from Europe will hurt our ecosystem. In my opinion there is a danger that these fears are being blown out of proportion.
Impact of Brexit on the economy
I was as shocked and disappointed as the next Londoner when we voted to leave
EU on June 23rd and I was dismayed by the uncertainty and political turbulence that followed. However, I’m pleased that we now have a new Prime Minister and are on the road back to more stable government. My next hope is that the Labour Party regains its status as a credible opposition party.
Now that Theresa May has moved into 10 Downing Street and chosen her cabinet we can start to predict what our path out of Europe might look like.
From the perspective of the startup ecosystem, the most important question is whether we continue to allow the free movement of labour from Europe. We know that many of the best founders we see hail from countries within the EU and we want them to continue to come here, and similarly we want our partner companies to continue to easily source talent from the whole continent. London’s magic has always been that it’s a open, cosmopolitan city and few people here want that to change.
May has said many times that Brexit means Brexit and she has chosen two prominent ‘Vote leave’ campaigners for the cabinet positions that will negotiate our exit. For me that means we are overwhelmingly likely to leave the European Union, and that the decision is now between ‘hard leave’ where we fully extricate ourselves, and ‘soft leave’ where we accept continued free movement of labour in return for full access to EU markets.
Of those two options I think ‘soft leave’ is the most likely. It’s what the City of London wants and what business wants more generally, and polls conducted by the BBC are indicating that the majority of the population expects that immigration won’t fall. The interests of the country and the expectations of the electorate both point to us leaving the EU, but staying in Europe. That also seems to be what key figures in our new government want, most of whom are, above all, pragmatists. May was a ‘moderate Remainer’, Phillip Hammond, our new Chancellor, has always been pro-Europe, and before the Brexit campaign Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, was an advocate of staying in Europe provided we got a better deal.
The stock markets are another indicator that a ‘soft leave’ with little disruption is the expected outcome. The FTSE 100 has recovered its losses and is now at a 2016 high whilst the more UK focused FTSE 250 is trading well above the average for 2016 to date. There is no sign that public market investors are anticipating a recession.
Foreign exchange is the one market that has moved significantly, with sterling down around 8% against the dollar from its trading range before the run up in the week immediately before the Brexit vote, but devaluation boosts exports and that will most likely be positive for the UK, and especially for our startups who have their cost bases here but sell globally.
So for me the only significant negative indicator has been sentiment, but given that there is little actual change I expect people will soon realise that their fears are overdone and return to business as usual.
Impact of Brexit on London’s status as Europe’s premier startup hub
I’ve been asked by a number of LPs whether Brexit will undermine London’s strengths as a startup hub and whether we might now lose out to Berlin. It’s true that we have voted to separate from Europe, making us a less open society and that startup ecosystems thrive on open-ness and immigration, but once again I don’t expect too much to change. As I explained above I think it likely that free movement of labour between the UK and the EU will be retained, and if that’s the case London’s attractions as a startup hub will remain undiminished.
To set it out, our deeper capital markets, English language, low taxes, low regulation, and expertise in accounting and law make this city a uniquely attractive place to found a startup.
Trends in venture more generally
We now have Q2 venture capital investment data (US and Europe) and it looks increasingly unlikely that the sharp slowdown in activity last summer will turn into a crash. Investment volume and value have been flat to up for three quarters now and whilst there’s a lot of month to month volatility and it’s hard to read the data with confidence, I expect us to trend upwards from here.
As you can see from the chart above activity in Europe has been particularly strong. Per capita investment levels in Europe are at least 5x lower than in the US, but the gap has been closing and over time I expect that the growth in venture activity will continue here until we approach parity.
Moreover, the fundamentals in favour of startups remain strong. The world continues to change at a faster and faster pace, pushing innovation from large companies to small companies and increasing the number and quality of investment opportunities. We are swimming with the tide.
There are lots of plausible scenarios as to how Brexit and the startup world will evolve over the next 12-24 months, but the most likely is that the referendum won’t change much and that the venture industry gets back to growth following last year’s correction. There are risks to that prediction, but for most of the time since 2008 we have had geopolitical risks hanging over us. Grexit, Russia/Ukraine and terrorism spring to mind as recent examples. Here in the UK we now have to add ‘hard exit’ to the list, but new risks intensify and weaken, and come and go. As operators and investors in this market the best thing to do is get our heads down and focus on building our portfolio. For potential investors it’s right to compare the geopolitical risks across different markets, but as I’ve been arguing, it seems to me that the Brexit vote doesn’t significantly change the risk profile of the UK.