Brexit is a big economic and political mess for British imperialism. It also undermines some of the previous plans to boost the City of London’s operations, especially in deals with China. The City will not collapse. But it will lose business as other European Union countries are already aiming to divide up the soon to-be-deceased member’s estate while the body is still stumbling around.
A large proportion of City financial dealing is with the rest of Europe, although London has been pre-eminent because of its worldwide links – including with offshore financial centres, many of which sing God Save the Queen as their national anthem. These European ties formerly helped underpin the City’s growth, but have since been a factor in decline, even before the Brexit vote in June 2016. So problems for British-based finance due to Brexit now add to those resulting from a drop in European economic strength.
Shift in economic power from Europe to Asia
IMF data show that the European Union’s share of world GDP fell from 25 per cent to 22 per cent from 2011 to 2016, a sharp fall in just five years. This was offset by a higher share for the US, and especially so for China, based on their faster growth. Weak economies, massive debts and bad loans also undermined Europe’s banks and led to a cut in their dealing operations – most of which are in London.
A good example of the impact is seen from the global foreign exchange market, which reflects the cross-border deals in the currencies used for investment in bonds, equities and real estate, and the buying and selling of goods and services. From 2013 to 2016, the size of the foreign exchange market had declined for the first time in more than a decade, based on low world growth and problems in banks. The UK’s share of the foreign exchange market fell from 41 per cent in 2013 to 37 per cent in 2016. Although the City still remained by far the world’s biggest FX dealing centre, and the US in second place had a much lower 19 per cent, the US share rose a bit, helped by the better position of its banks.
By contrast, Asian financial trading centres were the clear winners. Singapore’s share of trading rose from 5.7 per cent to 7.9 per cent from 2013 to 2016. Taken together, China’s and Hong Kong’s rose from 4.8 per cent to 7.8 per cent. Though still a small share, this is an astonishing result for China, one backed by the near-doubling in the use of the renminbi in global FX dealing to 4 per cent. This made the renminbi the eighth largest trading currency in 2016, just behind the far more established Canadian dollar and the Swiss franc. Meanwhile, the euro, now the currency of nineteen countries, saw its share slip to the lowest since its inception.
UK politicians: dumber than you might think
The City had a falling share of a falling market even before Brexit, but now faces the prospect of Brexit. A key problem it faces is how far will UK-based financial companies be able to conduct business with the European Union once the UK leaves. Implausible as it may seem, despite UK governments having promoted the financial sector for more than three decades, there is no sign that the current UK government has given this much attention.
Under the Labour governments from 1997-2010, there was also a clear pro-finance policy. This was seen as one of the few competitive UK ‘industries’, one that also provided lots of tax revenues to fund public spending, from income taxes on the high paying jobs and the various duties imposed. Finance supported millions of jobs related to trading in foreign exchange and all kinds of financial securities and insurance services. It also provided international revenues that covered nearly half of the UK’s record-breaking trade deficit in goods that in 2016 amounted to 7% of GDP. Even non-financial UK business services, from accountancy to information technology, are very closely tied into the financial sector, and offset another chunk of the trade deficit. Basically, without the City’s financial business, UK living standards would be lower.
In more recent years, the UK political class has had trouble maintaining support from a disgruntled electorate. Voters worried about pressure on living standards focused on immigration from the EU, so this has led the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, to accept the referendum vote and reject EU membership. They obviously want free access for all UK business to the EU market, but this is not possible under EU treaties for a non-member, unless, at a minimum, that country also accepts the free movement of labour, ie no restrictions on migration from the EU. UK politicians can grandstand as much as they like, declaring what they want from a deal, but the end result will come from a negotiation
With the UK a member of the EU, City-based financial firms can freely do business across the rest of the EU single market, due to so-called ‘passporting’. This means that banks or other financial institutions in the UK can sell their services in all other EU countries, as these are considered part of the same market. Without the ‘passport’, or something very similar when the UK leaves the EU, that ability will either cease or become much more restricted.
More than 5,000 UK-based firms rely on these passport agreements, and some 8,000 European companies also need them to offer services in the UK. So there may be some compromise. But it is in the interests of the remaining EU-27 countries not to make this a favourable one for the UK, or else the longstanding European Union project would risk being unravelled as others considered the exit too.
How to get a piece of the financial action?
Whatever the wider economic and political issues for the UK and the rest of Europe, the UK’s financial business is an area coveted by some of the major EU players. Already, many UK and international banks and other financial institutions have said that they plan to relocate some business into the EU-27. So far it is only on a small scale, and as a precaution so as not to be left high and dry if there are barriers to their UK-based operations doing business in the EU. If it becomes clear that full access to EU financial markets will be difficult, more will follow.
The likely outcome is a piecemeal lopping off of some parts of City business into several other EU locations rather than into one new rival centre. Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, is one of the favoured alternatives, but there is also Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Luxembourg and others, depending upon where a financial company might already have some existing business.
Ironically, Frankfurt, the main financial centre for Europe’s largest economy, Germany, is a rather provincial town, not particularly attractive to financiers, and is based in country whose politicians have shown little orientation to finance. They have instead been able to benefit from the prowess of German engineering business and have had other ways of promoting German capitalists on their minds.
I do not think that the Brexit effect by itself is likely to add up to a dramatic reduction in the City’s operations. London has built up a series of reinforcing advantages that are difficult to replicate elsewhere, as shown by the several directions in which alternatives are sought. For now, at least, London has very many more international connections than rival financial centres, plus a broad range of financial services and personnel skills that other centres lack. English is the main business language and English commercial law is the foundation for many financial contracts, for example interest rate swaps, the largest traded financial derivatives contract.
The commercial law issue is more important than one might think. Lawyers based in other countries, or sent from the UK, might be trained in the relevant aspects of English commercial law, but legal judgements are based on court decisions. Being part of the relevant legal network is important. It would also take a long time before contracts are changed into another legal system, and that system may not have the specific aspects necessary that have been developed over decades within the UK legal set up.
Furthermore, most other possible centres have also had governments that have been advocates of a financial transactions tax. This will not help them make a convincing case for expanding their role as a financial business centre. Nevertheless, the incompetence of the present British government could make them question favouring London.
What next for the City?
Despite the impact of Brexit and the recent decline in the growth of financial dealing, it will not be easy to dislodge the City of London from its pre-eminent position. London will almost certainly lose business to other financial centres, but it is costly for banks to move even some operations from London to the rest of Europe, estimated at anything from $30-$50bn.
As these decisions play themselves out, British financial elites are planning to secure for the London Stock Exchange the flotation of Saudi Aramco’s shares. This state-owned Saudi Arabian oil company is the world’s largest and the deal would produce big revenues for the exchange and banks handling it. Around five percent of the company might be on sale, but even this is expected to raise some $100bn.
Only a major stock exchange could handle such a large deal. But although New York is the biggest, and Trump’s pro-Saudi politics are supportive, US financial regulations could be a barrier since the Saudis do not like giving much information. London is more lax on that score and has also changed its rules to help its bid for the deal. Furthermore, there could be US legal claims against the Saudis regarding the 9/11 attacks that would impact Saudi Aramco, and this kind of trouble looks more likely to occur in a US court than any such thing in British courts.
One deal, no matter how big, would not point to sunlit uplands ahead for British finance. But the outcome for Saudi Aramco’s deal will be an interesting signal of how far a Brexit-hobbled City can have a future outside the European club. It would also indicate how far Britain’s status as a key player in world politics has been damaged, since the Saudi decision will certainly have that in mind.
Tony Norfield, 1 August 2017
A fuller discussion of City finances in relation to British imperialism, plus Brexit and Trump is available in the paperback edition of my book, The City, available from these sources.
For a brief article on this blog covering the background to the City’s business relating to British imperialism, see here.
 The Bank for International Settlements surveys from which this information is taken are conducted in April of the relevant years, so in 2016 it was before the June Brexit vote. Similarly, the UK’s share of the trade in financial derivatives fell back between 2013 and 2016, based largely upon a drop in the volume of dealing in euros.
 See this Bloomberg story: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-31/banks-may-be-hit-with-50-billion-capital-needs-after-brexit