Bullish City of London stays confident as Brexit nears

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London’s powerhouse financial district fretted over a brain drain when the country voted for Brexit, but its leading players are now convinced of one thing: the City will win.

Christopher Hayward is one of the nearly 500,000 Londoners who work in the City, Europe’s largest financial centre and a hub that traces its origins back almost 2,000 years.

Emerging from an Underground station, Hayward’s walk to work takes in recently built skyscrapers such as the “Cheese Grater” and the “Walkie-Talkie”.

Countless cranes document the booming activity, overlooking the main roads and narrow alleys that lead to the majestic Guildhall building, the administrative centre of the City of London.

The centuries-old hall still echoes with the cries of horror from the Brexit referendum night in June 2016, a result that threw the British business community into panic.

“We were very worried that we would lose hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Hayward, chairman of the City of London’s urban planning committee, told AFP.

“That has not happened,” he added, saying it will be “a few thousand” at most.

Taking into account the City and the nearby financial hub at Canary Wharf, the figure represents a small fraction of London’s 800,000 financial professionals working in the banking, insurance, asset management, legal and consulting sectors.

The British capital continues to vie with New York for the status of the world’s financial top dog, coming ahead of the Asian centres of Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo in a ranking by Z/Yen, a commercial consultancy and think tank.

“Everybody thinks that because of Brexit, we are going to be threatened by Paris, Frankfurt and so on, but our challenge does not come from other European cities,” Hayward said.

“Our major challenges are coming from the major financial and professional services centres, like New York and Singapore.”

European markets that have struggled for two years to attract workers from London recognise the challenge.

“The idea that the London market will move en masse to another market on the continent, it won’t happen,” admitted Marie Celie Guillaume, head of Paris’s La Defense financial district.

London led the way in attracting international real estate investment between the summers of 2017 and 2018, pulling in $25 billion (22 billion euros), twice as much as next-placed Hong Kong, according to a Cushman & Wakefield study.

Chinese, Indian and Japanese investors increased their investments by almost 50 percent.

“A lot of Far East countries are seeing the City of London as a safe haven… This feeds the demand for businesses wanting to be in the City,” said Hayward.

Tax haven?

In addition to its large pool of international talent, its culture and its nightlife, one of the City’s strengths lies in Britain’s business-friendly regulatory and tax systems.

Commentators have pointed out that outside the EU the City could become friendlier still towards foreign investors — a prospect that the main opposition Labour Party has warned could turn Britain into a tax haven.

Several large British financial heavyweights have come out in favour of Brexit, seeing it as a way of escaping the gaze of Brussels.

“To be honest, it will do the world of good,” said Stephen Lansdown, co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown, a financial service company listed on the London Stock Exchange’s top index.

The City will have “to work harder, and actually work out what its role in life is and how to do it well rather than just expect it,” he added.

Beyond the advantages of experience and the global prevalence of English, London has also proved that it is durable, having recovered from market crashes, fires, revolution and war.

“The City of London has seen many ups and downs, many challenges, but always we have been adaptable,” said an optimistic Hayward.