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Senior US bankers are privately drawing up contingency plans for Brexit that would give them more time to decide how many jobs to move out of London, in contrast with the industry’s public rhetoric about mass relocation.
Executives from some of the biggest US banks told the Financial Times that a two-stage process could initially avoid moving thousands of jobs out of the UK once the country leaves the EU. Meanwhile, top asset managers said they would be far less disrupted than investment banks.
Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the American bankers said they had drawn up plans for the most disruptive Brexit outcome — one that leaves the UK without a trade deal to maintain access to the EU’s single market for the financial services industry.
The first step the US banks have taken is to ensure they have all the necessary legal structures, capital, licences, systems and regulatory approvals to continue operating in the EU after a hard Brexit, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible.
One US banker estimated this initial phase would “cost hundreds of millions of dollars but not a lot of people moving”.
Another top US executive said: “You need to have a broker and a bank in the UK, and a broker and a bank inside the EU. We have that already. There will be other small adjustments, but it is as simple as that.”
The second step, which the US banks plan to take once the new trading arrangements between the UK and EU have been established, involves deeper changes, possibly including larger-scale job losses or moves.
“This is going to take a lot longer than people think,” the US executive said. “This is about real people and real people have to make decisions,” he said.
The US bankers’ cautious comments came after a number of banks issued high-profile warnings this week, including HSBC’s confirmation of plans to move 1,000 roles in its London-based investment bank to Paris. UBS said about the same number of its London employees could be affected by Brexit, while Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said that more than 4,000 of his bank’s 16,000 UK staff could be hit.
“It looks like there will be more job movement than we hoped for,” Mr Dimon told Bloomberg TV. “We don’t want to — it is not a threat — it is just a fact that we will have to accommodate the new requirements. ”
James Gorman, chairman and chief executive of Morgan Stanley, told analysts this week that Brexit was “a moving chessboard. We like the UK; we like the rule of law in the UK, [and] our aspiration is to keep as much of our business there as possible. But to the extent we have to comply with, obviously, the Brexit rules, we’ll be putting a headquarters somewhere in continental Europe and that will have some implications going forward.”
Barbara Novick, vice-chairman of BlackRock, who oversees regulatory issues for the world’s biggest fund manager, struck a more sanguine note. “We have a fund range in Luxembourg and a fund range in Dublin, with offices in most major European cities, so our ability to service existing clients is still pretty good under a whole range of Brexit scenarios,” she said. “But we’re obviously still reserving final judgment on how this will play out.”
Jes Staley, the American chief executive of the UK’s Barclays, said it would be “very difficult” to move Europe’s financial centre out of London. He downplayed the significance of a likely move that would put Barclays’ Frankfurt operations under the auspices of the bank’s Irish subsidiary rather than being a branch of the UK parent bank.
“Same people, same traders, you have to book a trade in Ireland as opposed to London, but that’s not a wholesale move of our capability from London to Ireland,” he told CNBC.
He added that governments could not “preclude a company from managing its liquidity in the most beneficial place”.
Bankers’ plans have come under the spotlight this week after Theresa May, prime minister, made speeches in London and Davos declaring that Britain would leave the EU’s single market following Brexit, eschewing a Norway-style relationship that would allow privileged access to the 500m-strong market without full EU membership.
Single-market rules allow banks to sell products across the EU via “passporting” rules that allow them to bypass local licenses. Eurozone authorities are also expected to move to strip London of its ability to serve as the international hub for euro clearing.
The prospect of losing passporting rights meant several banks had already signalled plans to shift jobs out of Britain even before Mrs May’s speech.
Tidjane Thiam, Credit Suisse chief executive, said his bank had been cutting its London workforce since before last year’s Brexit vote from 10,000 staff to 8,000 and had a target to reach 5,000 that was “irrespective of Brexit”.
At Davos, Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, said the US investment bank was “slowing down” its strategy of moving more operations to the UK because of concern over Brexit.