Brexit: For Wall Street banks in London, it's moving time
In Paris, an empty Art Deco postal office is on its way to becoming Bank of America's HQ for its European brokerage arm. Where telegraph operators once tapped out messages, hundreds of traders and sales people will be working by this spring.
In Frankfurt, Morgan Stanley's European hub will double its staff of 200. Germany's financial centre is welcoming investment bankers from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
The financial landscape of Europe is changing as banks shift employees and hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of assets from London to new subsidiaries across the bloc in time for Britain's divorce from the EU on March 29. Banks are adjusting contracts with 'Brexit clauses' to protect themselves if the separation is chaotic. Lawyers are checking regulations, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, to gird for possible future contractual disputes.
Cities across Europe have been vying for a piece of an industry that represents about 7pc of Britain's gross domestic product and more than a million jobs there. Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin and Luxembourg will be the first to secure new business as financial services companies gauge how profitable London remains.
In the next months, these cities, along with Madrid and Milan, will find more traders, compliance teams, human resource managers and technology workers in their midst. Amsterdam will become home to more European markets.
One big Brexit beneficiary is Dublin, where Bank of America, Citigroup and Barclays are expanding their ranks. "Dublin is our HQ for our European bank now, full stop," said Anne M Finucane, vice chairwoman of Bank of America, which employs more than 800 people there.
"There isn't a return. That bridge has been pulled up," Ms Finucane told the European Financial Forum last week. "From a trading perspective, likewise Paris would be the European trading arm."
Since January, there have been near-daily revelations about what Britain stands to lose after Brexit. Britain's Office for National Statistics showed growth last year was the weakest since 2009, and growth in the last quarter was 0.2pc. Brexit uncertainty was blamed, in part. Many financial companies are redeploying staff by the dozens - not the hundreds - because they are waiting to see whether the end is a messy break-up or a phased withdrawal, said David Pascoe, senior vice president for Europe at Cartus, a relocation company that moves 162,000 people a year.
So far, US banks have relocated fewer than 1,000 employees from London. But the number could grow to 5,000 as the March deadline approaches, said banking officials and analysts.
"We're seeing such a diverse range of cities because banks are saying they're not going to be caught out again by having all their operations in one city," Mr Pascoe said. "They don't want one country upsetting their operations again."
Few expect London, a dominant player in cross-border lending and foreign-exchange trading, to lose its might overnight. But international banks will no longer view London as their best gateway in or out of Europe.
The fragmentation of the industry will weigh on companies and Europe's wider economy. The cost of building and running operations in different locations could filter through to clients, making financial services more expensive. Bank of America alone has spent $400m moving assets and workers to Dublin and Paris.
The effects could be worse in Britain if the economy deteriorates significantly and borrowing becomes more expensive. The country is staring down Brexit but also trying to end austerity measures that have been in place for over a decade.
In a worst-case scenario, the Bank of England calculated last November that Brexit could shrink the economy by 8pc and send house prices plunging by 30pc. British banks could suffer if a souring economy leads to non-payment and defaults on mortgages, according to S&P.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, last week said the "fog of Brexit" and its uncertainty were "weighing more heavily on activity, predominantly through lower business investment and tighter financial conditions."
What is certain is that London is poised to lose some ability to move money around easily between its neighbours.
Passporting, which allows firms in one European member state to offer their services across the entire bloc, will no longer be available to Britain after Brexit. This has prompted banks to open subsidiaries and offices in well-positioned EU capitals.
Lenders have spent hours writing through lending agreements to mitigate the loss of passporting rights. Countries including France, Germany and Italy have legislation in the works to give banks some leeway if their transfer arrangements are not completed in time, a sort of "mopping-up exercise to make sure nothing falls between the gaps," said Susanne Whitehead, a lawyer specialising in corporate lending at Hogan Lovells in London.
There are also forecasts that the entire EU will suffer. By 2030, the new barriers between the British and EU markets could shave some €60bn a year from financial firms' productivity, according to an estimate by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"From the perspective of the banks, it is layering on another cost of doing business," Barney Reynolds, a financial services lawyer in London with Shearman & Sterling, said of Brexit.
Still, bank executives in the US have sounded a calming note. They have characterised the political brinkmanship and stuttering negotiations as inconsequential to their operations. Most began planning for a no-deal exit soon after the 2016 referendum that set Brexit in motion.
Last month, Morgan Stanley's chief executive, James Gorman, said that he hardly worried about Brexit: "That's not in my top 200 issues today." Morgan Stanley's new German-based securities trading subsidiary won provisional approval from credit rating agencies last year, along with several other banks. Still, it could be a different story if the economic fallout is severe.
"The real risk is the macroeconomic risk rather than a regulatory risk," said David Pinto-Duschinsky, who works in London for Promontory Financial Group, a consulting firm. "If there is no deal, it will be large shock to the economy."
Global banks are expected to be resilient. But volatile markets and weaker economic activity could eat away at earnings, said Moody's, the credit rating agency.
The potential fallout has some banks inserting clauses into new contracts to guard against a no-deal exit. Such clauses are intended to secure a process for handling unforeseen events related to Brexit, said Jennifer J. Kafcas, a finance lawyer in London at McGuireWoods. Banks too have been careful with framing the language of such clauses: they want to retain the right to recover loans further down the line.
"If that borrower loses access to markets or its supply costs rocket, the banks would not want to see that their carve-out stops them taking action," Ms Whitehead said. "Knowing that Brexit is on the horizon, they would've thought about what impact it would have on their business going forward. But nobody has a crystal ball."
The EU has prepared legislation, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, for transactions like derivatives clearing. Many banks in London have protectively asked their clients to sign over derivatives contracts to new jurisdictions. Britain and Switzerland have also signed a deal to recognise each other's insurance regulations.
These measures are the beginning of what could be a decade of realignment. "At the moment, they're working on the solutions to allow them to continue servicing clients in the hard Brexit scenario," said Vishal Vedi, a partner in the risk advisory practice at Deloitte.
But, he added, "the footprint will look very different in five years."
Emily Flitter and Michael J de la Merced contributed reporting.
(New York Times)