Brexit Banks Risk Finding No Offices If Quitting City for EU

Carney: Financial System 'Sailed Through' Brexit Vote
  • Few buildings have contiguous space for 2,000-plus employees
  • Banks ponder moving London staff to Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin

Banks planning to move staff out of London after Brexit face a stark reality: There isn’t much prime real estate up for grabs in rival cities.

With vacancy rates for prime space in the business districts of Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam at the lowest levels in a decade, there are only a handful of empty and appropriate office buildings in those cities capable of housing the thousands of employees that banks might need to relocate, according to data from property broker Savills Plc. In Dublin, there are currently no buildings big enough.

"There is no obvious successor to London," said Matthew Fitzgerald, Savills’s head of European tenant representations. "It could take several years to see a financial cluster of a similar scale."

While the banks have so far waited to see what Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiating plan will be, first movers may gain an advantage given the limited stock of space. Bank executives are planning for the worst -- an outcome where they lose the right to sell services freely around the European Union from London -- and would want to have new or expanded offices set up elsewhere before the end of the two-year Brexit negotiation period. 

The problem is particularly acute for Wall Street firms, who have a majority of their European employees in London. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. investment banks’ EU staff are located in the U.K., which is also home to 78 percent of the region’s capital markets activity, according to New Financial, a think tank.

Spreading Roles

Given the scarcity of supply, banks are considering dispersing employees across a number of different European cities, according to three people with knowledge of their contingency plans. Regus Plc, the world’s largest provider of serviced offices, has already said it’s speeding up expansion plans in Frankfurt should banks need temporary solutions.

"We might see a gradual spread of roles around Europe, and these would likely be department moves of no more than 200 staff," Fitzgerald said.

In the days following the June referendum, real-estate brokers say they were inundated with calls from panicked U.S. investment banks asking about the availability of offices across the continent. Nobody has publicly signed a lease on new space yet, as executives weigh their options and wait to get a sense of what May’s government is hoping to achieve from Brexit talks.

UBS, Lloyd’s Warnings

Last week, UBS Group AG Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti said the Swiss bank may have to move as many as 1,500 jobs from London to elsewhere in the region. Lloyd’s of London Chairman John Nelson said insurers will be forced to move part of their businesses from the City to the European Union if they can’t continue to access the single market.

Before the vote, JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon said he would relocate as many as 4,000 employees to the continent after Brexit. Morgan Stanley may move as many as 1,000 employees out of the U.K., while Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. indicated they would also shift people abroad. European-based banks including HSBC Holdings Plc and Deutsche Bank AG said they may have to move people or activities to France and Germany.

In Dublin, often touted as a likely destination for U.S. investment banks given the common language and cultural ties, Big Tech has beat Wall Street to spaces that were once vacant after Ireland’s debt crisis. Airbnb Inc. and Twitter Inc. have added space in the city, helping to boost lease signings in Dublin by 25 percent last year to a level last seen in 2007, according to broker Jones Lang Lasalle.

La Defense

In the La Defense high-rise district of Paris, there are eight office buildings that have contiguous space for 2,000 employees or more, the Savills data show. In Frankfurt, that number dwindles to five.

While there is no such office space currently available in Dublin, one building under construction is scheduled to be finished within two years.

If a bank wanted to move all of its staff and headquarters out of the U.K. tomorrow, then the options would narrow further. In the major financial hubs of Europe, only Paris and Frankfurt currently have an office complex big enough to accommodate 5,000 people or more, Savills says. Dublin, Madrid and Amsterdam have one development each in the pipeline that could house that many people, but those projects aren’t scheduled for completion for at least 18 months.

10-Year Leases

A tenant would have to commit to a 10-year lease to secure any of these offices; if a bank commissioned its own building, it could take up to four years to be built.

The prospect of a lengthy wait for new space is one reason bank executives are lobbying May and other European leaders to strike an interim agreement that would guarantee a lengthy period of transition from the current rules to whatever fresh terms of trade result from Brexit.

The day after the Brexit vote, the head of the Paris regional government sent a letter to 4,000 British executives extolling the business advantages of the French capital. On a trip to London in July, Luxembourg Finance Minister Pierre Gramegna said that his country was the "first and obvious choice" for banks looking to move.

In a bid to make Frankfurt more attractive, the German state of Hesse is exploring ways to loosen employment law to allow banks to easily fire highly paid employees in a downturn -- something firms can do in the U.K. In July, Commerzbank AG was forced by a Frankfurt court to reinstate an employee fired at the request of a New York regulator who was investigating the firm for sanctions violations.

It’s little wonder that other countries are eyeing the spoils of the City. Despite the 2008 crisis and subsequent recession, financial services remain a crown jewel of the U.K., accounting for more than 12 percent of the economy and providing 2.2 million jobs. Banks paid the U.K. Treasury 66 billion pounds ($88 billion) in tax in 2014, more than any other sector.

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