Wall Street banks in no hurry to move from London to EU
The ease of doing business from the City’s Square Mile will be hard to match as Brexit plays out
Wall Street’s big banks may have started shifting some assets from the UK, but their EU operations have a way to go before they can match those in the City of London.
JPMorgan Chase is moving about $230bn of total assets to its Frankfurt-based subsidiary by the end of the year as a result of Britain’s exit from the EU. Other banks have also been beefing up operations in the bloc.
But the Square Mile’s dominance is such that plenty more banks would have to shift as many assets as JPMorgan to start undermining it.
Wall Street’s five big firms retained three times the equity and more than four times the amount of risk-weighted assets in their UK subsidiaries compared with their EU ones at the end of last year, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of regulatory filings and annual reports.
JPMorgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America had a combined $900bn of risk-weighted assets in the UK versus about $200bn in the EU. The banks underpinned their UK units with $136bn of core capital, while the figure for the EU was $45bn.
Banks measure both their total assets and their balance sheet weighted according to its riskiness. Bloomberg has used the latter in this story to ensure comparability between the UK and EU units. All five lenders declined to comment.
As JPMorgan’s transfer shows, these distributions may have already changed since the end of 2019 and more capital is likely to shift as the nature of Britain’s exit becomes clearer in the coming months.
Still, London’s head-start suggests Brexit’s ultimate effect on London’s role as a global financial centre remains an open question even as Britain’s protracted exit from the single market enters its final months.
Business with EU clients represents anywhere from a 10th to a quarter of London revenue, according to industry and Bank of England estimates. The European Central Bank says that while some lenders have made good progress in setting up in the eurozone, others need to move more staff and assets. The regulator wants the units to be robust enough to manage risk locally.
As a docking station for global investors, London’s role extends beyond business with EU clients. The city’s critical mass means it is an efficient place to do business for banks and their customers. Even if the UK fails to reach a trade deal with the EU, both sides have a system in place to preserve some financial ties.
While international banks continued to move some of their balance sheet to Dublin, Frankfurt or Paris this year, some bankers say privately that they won’t need to relocate as much capital as originally anticipated. That’s partly because UK regulators are also encouraging them to maintain adequate reserves for their giant operations in London, the bankers say. There’s also the question of whether the revenue they stand to generate in the EU is worth the cost for smaller banks.
The foot-dragging reflects a reluctance to spend or subject staff and clients to upheaval as long as there’s uncertainty over how the UK’s divorce will play out. The pandemic and subsequent restrictions on travel have also slowed decision-making and transfers.
Equally, banks may accelerate the shift as the UK’s transition phase runs out, and lenders are already planning for a messy divorce at the end of the year.
“We keep an eye on all possible eventualities and that of course includes a no-deal scenario,” Dorothee Blessing, JPMorgan’s co-head of investment banking in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said at a conference in Frankfurt earlier in September. “We are fully prepared to continue conducting the business we did for clients before Brexit. But there’s a lot left to do in the next months.”
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