I was in Frankfurt a couple months back to host a client roundtable and there was a palpable rubbing of hands in anticipation of a possible Brexit. It reminded me of the time I had spent in Frankfurt in the late 1980s, right after university, back when the only real skyscrapers in town belonged to Deutsche Bank. There was a real sense in that era that with the coming together of the European Union in 1992, Frankfurt stood to emerge as a global financial hub.
Obviously, London was to usurp that role. For reasons of language, geography, regulation and infrastructure, that ascendance seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. And yet now, with the UK vote in favor of Brexit, London’s preeminence appears to be at risk.
Jangled announcements of redundancies by a few large banks belie the fact that once the dust settles, financial institutions will shift into a wait and see mode. Yet to say that much remains to be determined is as interesting as saying that the original Star Wars movies were better than the litany of duds that followed.
I hate to fault my friends in Frankfurt, who have fostered the growth of a robust fintech sector and capital markets businesses, for seeing opportunity in the UK decision to step away from the Continent. Schadenfreude is after all, a German word. But I believe that Frankfurt’s aspirations are overdone. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that HSBC and a few other institutions were threatening to decamp Britain for Hong Kong and Singapore? Wisely, they decided to stay. The acquisition of the London Stock Exchange by the Deutsche Börse was another vote of confidence in London.
The ties between the UK and Europe are thick (London is home to second largest community of French citizens after Paris) and mutually beneficial. They are unlikely to be undone by this plebiscite. Yes, the vote will give heart to seccessionists elsewhere in Europe, and increase the fissiparous tendencies (look for another Scottish independence referendum) already present in the UK.
But it’s important to take the long view. The UK has survived, even thrived, in the wake of greater challenges, including strikes, war and the loss of global empire. It is a mature democracy that hosts a financial services hub unrivalled in the world history. Surely it can work through this Brexit.