Too early to say if Singapore will benefit from Brexit: Analysts

A pro-EU woman participating in the 'March for Europe' demonstration in London on July 2, 2016 against Britain's decision to leave the European Union.
A pro-EU woman participating in the 'March for Europe' demonstration in London on July 2, 2016 against Britain's decision to leave the European Union.PHOTO: REUTERS

Banks in Britain have started working on a possible move to other financial cities in Europe after the shock Brexit decision but it remains to be seen if Singapore will see any direct benefits from that.

Experts did note that Singapore's strong business competitiveness makes it an attractive destination but the decision will depend on what the banks are looking to do next.

Dr Chua Yang Liang, JLL's South-east Asia research head, said: "The situation depends very much on why these banks are looking to move out of London - is it to focus on their business in the Asia-Pacific or are they relocating due to the uncertainty in Britain?

"The main business of these banks is to serve the European market and clients, and chances are they would move only around Europe, given that Singapore, and anywhere else in Asia, is in a different time zone."

Experts are also unconvinced that financial institutions in Britain will simply leave Europe for hubs like Singapore or Hong Kong, and lose access to the European Union (EU) single market.

Banks and financial firms based in London have long enjoyed an automatic right to sell services across the 28-member EU bloc, offering low costs of doing business, along with a single set of rules.

This comes under a system known as passporting. Financial institutions are now trying to prevent losing these passporting rights.

Insead professor of banking and finance Jean Dermine said: "Moving to Singapore, that will not be helpful at all. If they want to continue selling services in the EU, they need to be in one of the countries in the EU."

He added that while it is not clear how Brexit would have direct implications for Singapore, it may have a bigger impact on Frankfurt, for instance.

Mr Steve Brice, chief investment strategist at Standard Chartered Bank, noted that Paris has been vocal in wanting to court financial institutions.

"We don't have operations in mainland Europe. Our focus is Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and so the implications are not that great," he added.

Also, the success of financial services in Singapore is more related to the growth in Asia, Prof Dermine noted, rather than Brexit, and the financial service sector here is already large.

"For a smaller country like Singapore, there must be a question of how large a financial centre you want to be, because it is important for any country to be well-diversified economically," he said.

However, experts agreed that if banks decide to place their centres elsewhere, such as in Asia, Singapore's status as a global financial centre would be attractive.

Ms Lynne Roeder, managing director of Hays in Singapore, said: "Where Singapore may benefit is from a possible migration of front-office talent from London, resulting from Britain theoretically losing its licence to operate across the EU.

"Singapore, as a financial centre, could be an option for some of these bankers, though this will be highly regulated by the immigration laws."

The falling pound could even work in Singapore's favour as employers could potentially lure talent with an equal or even higher salary in constant terms, and someone could be employed for 10 per cent less.

Mr Antony Eldridge, financial services leader at PwC Singapore, told The Straits Times: "If you look to talent that are in London or have moved to London from Europe, some people could rethink their location or might spread their wings further for other opportunities. Singapore could be a draw for talent like that."

Those who flock to London tend to speak or want to learn English, which is also the business language there, and Singapore also offers the same advantage, he noted.

In that sense, it could be more challenging to work in Frankfurt, which requires German, or Paris, which predominantly uses French.

Talent-wise, the insurance industry here could also benefit, said Mr Eldridge. "Insurance has a strong growth story in South-east Asia, given the demographics and mega- trends, and Singapore is a great location and it's increasingly a hub for insurers.

"You could see some British professionals, who are already looking for new opportunities, thinking: 'Maybe I'll develop my career elsewhere - and Singapore could be a good place to do that'."

But as Dr Chua said, the decision by organisations to relocate to another country is affected by factors such as ease of doing business, political risk, accessibility to the new market and clients, and the cost of doing business, such as taxation and human resource.

He added: "Singapore is strong in all factors, except perhaps labour costs, which in recent years have been challenging, given the strong Singapore dollar."

Also, Hong Kong comes to mind as a close competitor for any side benefits that might arise from Brexit, but experts say the two cities serve different purposes.

Mr Eldridge said: "Typically, Hong Kong is more an equities centre, and Singapore tends to have a greater focus on foreign exchange and fixed income."

Increasingly, Hong Kong is viewed as the market to serve North Asia, while Singapore is more for South Asia and South-east Asia, said Dr Chua.

Ms Roeder also noted how independence from China allows Singapore to provide other opportunities that may not be available in Hong Kong.

She said: "Reflecting the growth of the emerging economies in South-east Asia, local banks have seen an increased headcount in certain business functions, whereas European banks are busily shoring up their local operations with top talent and also acquiring less aggressive European players.

"These are definitely signs of banks preparing for Asia taking centre stage on the global economy in the coming years."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'Too early to say if Singapore will benefit from Brexit: Analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe