The United States is the United Kingdom’s single biggest source of foreign direct investment, and this relationship is growing. US FDI in the UK was $851.4bn in 2019, a 6.9% increase on 2018. The Covid-19 pandemic has, naturally, stalled that trend somewhat; the total number of private equity investments in the UK fell by 17% in the first half of 2020 on the same period last year. However, much of this downturn can be attributed to the caution of domestic investors, and there is still a clear appetite from foreign investors for UK assets. The market share of private equity investments in the UK from the US grew by 5% to 25% in the first half of 2020 in terms of the number of deals. At the same time, the rest of the world accounted for 17%, up from 14%.
The UK’s exit from the European Union could represent a significant opportunity for US investors and has the potential to boost their appetite for the UK yet further. Below, we examine some of the factors which investors are likely to consider when deciding to invest in the UK.
A natural second home?
Much is made of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US on the geopolitical stage, but the ties between the two countries run deep on the business and even the personal level, too. The UK and the US both employ a million of each other’s citizens. They share many cultural and business norms. They share a language. It is clear that they hold one another in high regard. Indeed, a survey conducted by the British Council in 2018 found that 69% of Americans rated the UK as a “global power”, placing it above all other countries except China. The UK also topped the respondents’ rankings for the most attractive places to study and, crucially, for the top partners for trade and business.
These ties – not to mention the UK’s favourable time zone between the Americas and Asia – have long made the UK an attractive base for investors seeking to expand into international markets. But the UK market itself is seen as an attractive one in which to do business. A number of surveys of market leaders have highlighted the value which investors place on the UK’s perceived pro-business environment, its transparent regulatory regime, its adaptable labour market and its stable political institutions.
These sentiments were echoed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2019. The UK ranked ninth globally for its competitiveness, with Singapore first and the US second. The UK scored particularly highly for its macroeconomic stability (achieving a maximum score of 100), for the strength of its infrastructure and for its highly-developed financial system. While the WEF paused its rankings for 2020 as a result of the pandemic, its “special edition” for 2020 suggested that the UK was well placed for the post-Covid recovery, particularly in terms of trust in its institutions and in rethinking labour regulations to meet the needs of the post-pandemic economy.
Relatedly, London remains by a considerable margin the most competitive financial centre in Europe according to the Global Financial Centres Index. As of March 2021, London ranks second in the Index, behind New York, with which it last traded places in 2018. For comparison, the best performing other European centres, Zurich and Frankfurt, rank ninth and tenth respectively.
The impact of Brexit
For any who have followed the machinations of the UK’s Brexit negotiations closely, it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to see the WEF rank its “stability” so highly. The political uncertainty which Brexit has caused has undoubtedly had an impact on investment decisions. Coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic taking up so much government time, recent years have seen short-term responses often come at the expense of long-term planning.
A longer-term view, however, is likely to be the more important focus for many US private equity investors than any current uncertainties and, in this context, the signs appear positive. Post-Brexit, many of the inherent advantages of the UK for US investors will remain. The UK will maintain its pro-business environment, its skilled labour force, its stable institutions, and all of these will weigh in its favour.
Indeed, Brexit does not appear to have had a significant negative impact on UK-US M&A activities, which have remained robust despite turbulent political times. While 2018/19 saw an overall global decline in both domestic and cross-border M&A activity by around 30% on 2016 levels, US investors have continued to demonstrate a clear appetite for the UK over other European destinations. Of the 333 total “inbound” deals (by US investors in Europe) in 2018, for example, 119 were in the UK, representing more than the total for France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland combined.
Technology and the UK’s traditional strengths in technological areas are likely to be key drivers in sustaining this appetite. Some 38% of UK-US M&A deal activity has been in the technology sector over recent years, with large firms like Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle among the most active acquirers. This priority for investors aligns closely with the ambitions of the UK government. Tech skills have been identified as a clear priority by the government as part of its commitment to make the UK a “scientific superpower” with its Research and Development Roadmap, increasing R&D spending and encouraging top talent from around the world to make the UK their destination of choice.
Added to these continuing attractors, the UK’s departure from the EU presents opportunities for the UK and the US to strengthen their commercial relationship. A full UK-US trade agreement is still some time away but – as evidenced by the fact that the Prime Minister was the first European leader to receive a call from President Biden – there is an enduring appetite for close and mutually beneficial co-operation. Similarly, Trade Secretary Liz Truss and the new US Trade Representative Katherine Tai spoke in March with a view to accelerating the trade agreement process and highlighting “the importance of continuing to work together to build a closer economic relationship.”
Investors will want to monitor the details of this evolving relationship very closely, as there may be scope for incremental agreements – including, for instance, mutual recognition of professional qualifications – before a “full” free trade agreement is signed.
Of course, the benefits for building closer UK-US relationships may be rather offset in the minds of US investors if there are significant UK-EU barriers as a result of Brexit. Such obstacles could make the UK a somewhat counterintuitive prospect as a base for building pan-European operations, as compared to, say, Frankfurt or Paris. However, continuing agreements between the UK and the EU to lower commercial barriers (including an agreement on continued data sharing signed in February and a Memorandum of Understanding for co-operation in financial services to be signed shortly) are likely to help the UK remain a natural second home for US investors seeking European opportunities. As for the emerging UK-US agreements, investors will want to take a close interest in the recalibration of the UK-EU relationship as part of their decision-making process over the next few years.
The opportunity for investors
The UK’s emerging from both the pandemic and the political uncertainty of its Brexit negotiations represents an important opportunity for US investors. The UK will continue to be a stable, transparent, pro-business environment, with a convenient time zone and no language barrier. The UK government has also placed attracting foreign investment and talent alongside future-proofing the skills of its domestic labour force high on its agenda.
A full UK-US trade agreement may still be some way off, but the mood on both sides of the Atlantic for closer ties and increased co-operation could well see interim agreements and approaches put in place before then. US investors will want to pay close attention these developments if they are to take advantage of what could be a stronger and highly profitable renewed relationship.