US banking giants look for a city to replace London

Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris waiting in the wings to take over as financial hub

Morgan Stanley's London headquarters at Canary Wharf. The bank will consider adjusting its operating model in Europe only after the full impact of the referendum outcome becomes clearer over the next two years.
Morgan Stanley's London headquarters at Canary Wharf. The bank will consider adjusting its operating model in Europe only after the full impact of the referendum outcome becomes clearer over the next two years. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Big Wall Street banks are scouring Europe to find a new home for their traders, bankers and financial licences now that London is on shaky ground as the region's pre-eminent financial hub.

Bank executives have been making contingency plans for months, but many were still surprised by the outcome of a British vote last Thursday to leave the EU.

Even with those plans, huge uncertainties remain about when Britain will formally exit the EU, and what cities could replace London as New York's transatlantic counterpart.

"The dilemma for US banks is whether to make the worse-case scenario assumption regarding an exit model, or to wait and risk running out of time," said Mr Edward Chan, a partner at law firm Linklaters. "Then the question becomes where exactly do they move to? You might end up having a more fragmented financial industry in Europe."

Among the questions being asked in C-suites across Wall Street: What's the best European city to house a broker-dealer, if not London? Does Frankfurt have the capacity to house tens of thousands of bankers and their families? Will language be an issue in cities where English is not the primary tongue? Will American bankers abroad be able to find schools for their kids?

Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam and Dublin are all vying for relocation.

Even with all that uncertainty - and a timetable of at least two years for Britain's formal exit - US banks appeared to be moving quickly to respond to the Brexit decision.

JPMorgan Chase & Co is considering changes to its legal entity structure in Europe, as well as moving some of its 16,000 Britain-based employees, according to a staff memo signed by chief executive Jamie Dimon and other senior executives.

Goldman Sachs Group has been planning for the possibility of a Brexit vote for "many months," chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein said in a memo. The bank has been building a new European headquarters in London, and is now considering what to do with all the space, a source said.

"There is no immediate change to the way we conduct our business or where we conduct our business," a Goldman spokesman said.

In a memo to Morgan Stanley staff, chief executive officer James Gorman and president Colm Kelleher said the bank will consider adjustments to its operating model in Europe only after the full impact of the referendum outcome becomes clearer over the next two years.

A lot could happen in that time as anti-EU nationalists around Europe, energised by the British Leave campaign, are already demanding their own referendums on EU membership or on whether to abandon the euro.

Wall Street banks that trade trillions of euros in derivatives through London-based broker-dealer subsidiaries are on pins and needles about what happens next.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is expected to push hard for that business to shift out of London and into the euro zone, meaning that banks may have to create new broker-dealer operations supported by billions of dollars in capital.

Much depends on the sort of deal that the EU offers Britain - if it allows London continued access to its single market, then financial companies would retain the right to sell their products across the EU - but negotiations will take time.

The uncertainty has left many bankers with the jitters - especially since shifting banking operations could take four to five years, while the Brexit timetable extends only two years.

"Firms are already thinking about things like applying for bank licences," said Mr Peter Watts, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells.

Many European cities have long looked enviously to London, hoping to replicate, on a smaller scale, its success as a financial centre.

Frankfurt, the home of the ECB, and Paris, the French capital, are the two most commonly cited alternatives. Amsterdam, where many fund managers are based, and Dublin, which has benefited from Ireland's status as an offshore centre, also have ambitions.

"We've been reading the signs for some time," said Ms Kajsa Ollongren, deputy mayor of Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands and less than an hour's flight from London. "Ever since the announcement of the referendum, there has been an increase in interest from international companies," she said, citing the financial sector in particular.

Paris, too, has been positioning itself to benefit. Before the referendum, financial industry group Paris Europlace said foreign banks had made inquiries about moving there if Britain were to quit the bloc.

Frankfurt kicked off an immediate lobbying campaign with the city's official marketing office, Frankfurt Main Finance, setting up a hotline for interested firms and scheduling roadshows in London and other British cities.

"We want to send the message loud and clear: "Welcome to Frankfurt. How can we help you?'" said the head of Frankfurt Main Finance, Mr Hubertus Vaeth. "The welcome banner is hung up and Frankfurt's doors are wide open."

Continental European cities, however, are known to be lukewarm to Anglo-Saxon-style banking. This reputation was underscored in recent years when France and Germany pushed for the introduction of a tax on trading across the EU.

London-based bankers and traders are bemoaning the idea of leaving their beloved city, where everything from posh nightclubs and high-end shopping to elite boarding schools and glamorous residences are right at their fingertips.

As a pseudonymous, self-described investment banker who goes by the handle Epicurean Dealmaker put it on Twitter: "I'm not convinced even #Brexit can make Frankfurt less boring."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline US banking giants look for a city to replace London. Subscribe