Bankers Fleeing Brexit May Find Luxembourg an Acquired Taste

  • Grand Duchy seeking to lure bankers to post-Brexit foothold
  • Michelin stars may struggle to outshine London’s luster

A street crossing in the finance district of Luxembourg-City.

Photographer: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

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Little Luxembourg is luring firms on the lookout for a post-Brexit foothold in the European Union, from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to insurance giant American International Group Inc.

While many find the Grand Duchy a multilingual paradise, would-be expats are being warned not to expect the cosmopolitan lifestyle they currently enjoy in London and that they should prepare to spend long hours on clogged roads.

The nation is already packed to the rafters with banks and investment houses despite the loss of banking-secrecy rules that helped propel its transformation from a bastion of coal and steel in the postwar years.

After Brexit, “it will be crazy,” said Jose Pedro Fernandes, a 56-year-old taxi driver, who moved to Luxembourg from Portugal 15 years ago and earns a living transporting financial workers around the jammed capital that lacks a subway and suffers from inadequate bus services.

Traffic congestion has become “unbearable,” according to Fernandes, because of construction sites everywhere to create a new tram line and a wave of new office buildings that can be seen popping up in and around Luxembourg city, the capital of by far the EU’s richest state.

AIG in March said it will open an operation in Luxembourg following the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. U.S. insurer FM Global and Lloyd’s of London insurer Hiscox Plc., as well as private equity firm Blackstone also chose Luxembourg as their new EU hub. JPMorgan this month said it plans to move hundreds of London-based bankers to expanded offices in Luxembourg, Dublin and Frankfurt. 

Read more: A Q&A explainer on Brexit’s banking exodus

Luxembourg remains the world’s largest fund market after the U.S. and its swift adoption of EU laws and rules for so-called passporting fund administration and other services have swelled assets under management at its banks.

Passporting is a massive draw post-Brexit because it allows foreign firms authorized in a state such as Luxembourg to do business in the rest of the soon-to-be 27-nation bloc plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

There is not one financial passport, but rather a series of sector-specific agreements covering everything from banking to insurance and asset management. It’s why global firms such as Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley can currently have the overwhelming bulk of their staff in London, with only satellite offices in other capitals like Paris and Frankfurt.

Liver Dumplings

Culturally and socially, Luxembourg has been trying to adapt to the growing demands of its wealthy population and a likely influx from the U.K. capital. Celebrity artists now regularly pay a visit and, unlike in bigger cities, it’s still easy to snap up a ticket for shows.

Well-paid bankers and their families won’t starve. What Luxembourg lacks in sandwich bars it makes up for with 11 Michelin starred restaurants often serving regional delicacies such as black pudding and liver dumplings washed down with Pinot Gris.

Still, Luxembourg is light years behind London when it comes to things to do and places to hang out. The U.K. capital was last year ranked best city in the world for quality of life, ahead of Paris and New York, in a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey.

Chris Edward

Source: via Bloomberg

“There’s no atmosphere in the city in the evening,” said Chris Edward, U.K. country manager at Lombard International Assurance, who, nevertheless, says he likes being one of the 590,000 people crammed into the EU’s second-smallest nation. “Where I live locally, it’s totally different.”

Million-Euro Homes

Luxembourg’s house-price index in the second quarter of last year grew by 5.6 percent from the previous year, according to the country’s statistical office Statec. In 2016, the average price for existing apartments was 4,613 euros ($5,165) per square meter, and 594,379 euros for a one-family house.

The data don’t show the full picture, since high-quality family homes with two or more bedrooms close to Luxembourg city, are priced at or above a million euros.

Not in the same pay league as many of the new wave of immigrants, Fernandes, the taxi driver, can’t afford to live centrally anymore. His home now consists of a room in the northern town of Clervaux, more than an hour’s drive away from the center.

Benoît Wtterwulghe

Source: ABLV Bank Luxembourg SA

While renting or buying a house in the center costs too much for many, others who crave a bigger place in the countryside must also pay a price -- a tortuous journey from neighboring Belgium, France and Germany. That means dodging long lines of Porsche 911s and Audi station wagons is already a daily ritual for the hordes of white-collar workers.

Benoit Wtterwulghe, the chief executive officer of ABLV Bank Luxembourg SA, is one of a constantly rising number of 177,000 people commuting in and out of Luxembourg every day.

Wtterwulghe, 47, moved there from neighboring Belgium almost 20 years ago. Having lived in Luxembourg for a while, he, his wife and their three children decided to move back to Belgium, just across the border, where they found a bigger house, with a garden.

Early Starts

“We are only a few hundred meters from the border, but the price is 10 times cheaper,” he said. “It’s quite tough with all the traffic jams. Sometimes I leave very early, but you need to cross the border before 6:30 a.m. Or, I start to work from home and get in a bit later.”

Even though no one knows exactly how many people will head to the nation, Luxembourg for Finance, the agency for the development of the financial center, estimates that Brexit could create some 1,000 local jobs. According to realtors, prices are already under pressure due to current demand exceeding supply.

“Finding good accommodation here is becoming the real issue,” said Wtterwulghe. “It’s not just the price, you also need to grab a place during your first visit, or it’s gone.”

Wtterwulghe is skeptical that Brexit will attract thousands of people to Luxembourg. Still, the number worries him, because “even 100 people make a difference. Luxembourg is small and there’s not a huge stock” of available real estate.

World Heritage

Those staying closer to the center may have fewer square meters and may have to forgo big yards. But the payoff is being able to get to and from Luxembourg’s beautiful heart, part of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, in just a few minutes.

That’s a welcome contrast to London for Helen Cranmer, 34, who moved to Luxembourg two years ago after her partner joined the 1,500 strong workforce at Amazon.com Inc. “The quality of life here is just so much better,” said Cranmer, who lives in one of the most sought-after and family-friendly city districts. “We can walk to town in 15 minutes. That’s super convenient.”

Luxembourg’s internationally oriented schools, many of them free, are another big plus for parents wanting multilingual kids, said Nicolas Mackel, chief executive officer of Luxembourg for Finance.

Multilingual Kids

They are “a unique opportunity” for anyone looking to move over with their families, to have their kids schooled in German, French and English, not to mention the local language of Luxembourgish. “You can’t find that anywhere else,” Mackel said.

Luxembourg “has the capacity to further adapt, should there be an increase in demand,” said Myriam Bamberg, a spokeswoman for the education ministry. The International School of Luxembourg, one of several private schools, is monitoring the Brexit situation, saying that families coming to Luxembourg get priority over those who apply locally.

For those with younger children, the situation could be trickier, as daycare centers are becoming scarce, according to Julien Pillot, head of office at real estate group Inowai.

Demand for spaces that can accommodate new daycare centers has gone up massively in recent years, he said. “Daycare centers need to be able to afford the high prices, but also find a place that meets all the norms in terms of security, ideally with a garden, or a park nearby, and there’s just not enough around,” he said.

Pros and Cons

Despite his moans about the lack of nightlife and the traffic jams, Lombard’s Edward also reckons the pros of life in Luxembourg outweigh the cons.

He came over at the age of 21 when he was still dreaming of a career in London or Zurich. He never thought he would end up in Luxembourg. “It was like, what am I doing here?”

But Luxembourg grew on him. He now would “definitely not” be happier living in London, he said. Edward lives near the country’s wine region, alongside the river Moselle, which borders Germany. After another trip to London, and a journey on a crammed subway in a suit with a suitcase in hand, he is happy to come home to this.

“I like the lifestyle here. I get in my car, or I can get on my bike and just cycle along the Moselle and look at the vineyards. It’s very scenic, very beautiful.”

If that isn’t enough, there’s another consolation for home-sick bankers who just can’t stay away from their old haunts.

From as little as 9.99 euros each way, flights back to London with budget carriers Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc are often cheaper, if not quicker, than the extortionately priced taxis to Luxembourg’s squeaky clean airport.

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