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Brexit: still in denial?

Brexit: still in denial?

For all the anxiety about the fate of Europe's financial industry in the wake of Brexit, few have been able to articulate the magnitude of the problem or the specifics of what the sector needs. This makes life tough for those policymakers striving to agree a deal. For one thing, Brexit uncertainty is as big a headache for European Union-based financial services companies, eager to retain access to the UK, as it is for British businesses heading the other way. For another, this industry goes well beyond conventional financial services.

The first of those two realities behoves negotiators to consider the interests of banks inbound to the UK as well as finding a means to support outbound business. The second is even more fundamental: while Brexit will have huge impacts on banks, investment managers and insurers, many large corporates will be affected in the same ways. Businesses in sectors ranging from aerospace to car manufacturing currently operate with banking licenses or depend on passporting regime as funds move through complicated supply chains across the EU; these companies need a deal that works for them too.

The uncertainties are daunting. We do not yet have any clear idea about how to frame contracts after Brexit, or how market access will be facilitated. The regulation of data flows across borders is a serious issue, particularly in the context of the general data protection regulation that comes into effect in May. And every business must confront counterparty risk - the extent to which Brexit poses threats to the counterparties with which they currently trade.

Agreement on a transitional deal is vital so businesses do not have to implement two major overhauls. Ideally, a standstill agreement would preserve the status quo from next March until a final deal comes into effect.

Companies will leave it as long as possible before making significant changes to their business model for fear of it proving ineffective or unnecessary in light of the final deal. Most firms are now building in short-term optionality, taking positions that will be reversible if the Brexit settlement delivers unexpected outcomes.

Without knowing the detail of the UK's relationship with the EU after 29 March 2019, there is only so much work these businesses can do. However, large investment banks are leading the way on Brexit preparations, the biggest corporates are ahead of the commercial banks - and certainly ahead of asset managers and insurers, many of which are just getting started.

Still, there is growing consensus that the balance of power in Europe will now shift, at least somewhat. Frankfurt, home to the European Central Bank, and Paris, which hosts the euro repo-market, are likely to take on greater importance as centres.

Germany, in particular, is in a strong position, given its links to Asia, a trade corridor that is so vital to European businesses. Not only is Germany the largest economy in the EU, but also, it is Europe's only renminbi gateway outside London. That said, Germany's banking industry is fractured and often unprofitable - and therefore a tough challenge for new entrants. It cannot rely on an automatic Brexit boost.

There are, in other words, no easy answers for Europe's financial industry. And so the game of wait-and-see continues.

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