As a guide to the issues facing the City of London during Brexit, who could be better than Tony Norfield, a university Marxist-turned-City-trader now sporting a Ph.D. in economics from the University of London?
With 20 years of experience in dealing rooms at money center banks in London, he explains how finance concentrates power and profits in just a few financial centers, and London leads as an international center. As England and Europe prepare to set the terms of Brexit, Norfield’s historical perspective on how England has promoted finance is fascinating.
For fintech firms wondering if they should stay in London, follow the siren calls from Berlin, apply to the French Tech Ticket program, or look at Lisbon. Norfield has some history to offer: The City, with backing from both Labor and Conservative governments and the Bank of England, has adapted remarkably well to change. It shifted from lending to acting as an intermediary. It used the Big Bang to bring in foreign competition and capital. It shifted from sterling to doing business in the U.S. dollar and dozens of other currencies. And it has welcomed Arab capital with 22 Islamic banks, more than all other western countries combined.
Writing before the Brexit referendum, Norfield predicted that Europe might act against the financial domination of the UK and U.S., and that does appear, sporadically, to be happening. French President François Hollande recently called for a hard Brexit to discourage other countries from following the UK’s example, but the erratic nature of French politics confirms Norfield’s emphasis on the value arising from the security and centuries-long stability of the British state. Unlike Paris, London did not erupt in 1968 and it hasn’t experienced a leadership assassination attempt like the one on DeGaulle. (Norfield kindly omits comparisons with the U.S. on this topic.)
London,which holds a substantial lead over New York as an international financial center, has a geographical advantage, sitting in a time zone between Asia and the U.S., so it can trade with both during regular working hours. It also enjoys a regulatory climate that has long favored finance by allowing its banks, for example, to work with communist countries during the Cold War.
The author occasionally mentions his personal experience at some key points in finance. He was working at a Japanese bank when that country’s surging economy imploded, and he was at ABN AMRO when it moved its securities business to London, but left FX in Amsterdam. A stint in Sydney showed him Australia’s time-zone disadvantage, and he was in regular chats with a Bundesbank officer in London when Britain pulled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
Norfield uses the term imperialism to describe the role of financial power centers.
The concentration of financial power is a little startling. In 2013, Norfield writes, 75% of the top 100 international corporations were in just six countries — the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.
“All forms of international finance, and even commerce, can also be seen as parasitic on the value created elsewhere,” he wrote. Countries with advanced finance find customers in countries, rich or poor, with less sophisticated finance. In 2013, the U.S. had a net gain of $209 billion from its foreign investments, equivalent to receiving the entire economic output of the Czech Republic.
Finance is intertwined with politics, with corporations and with competition between the U.S. and UK for primacy. American banking laws have sometimes handicapped the U.S. financial services industry. Even as the U.S. was trying to gain access to the British Empire and trade with Commonwealth countries, American restrictions on foreign banking clashed with its large corporations which were seeking international expansion.
One result was the euromarket, which grew from $1 billion in 1960 to $1,050 billion by 1983, drawing European finance houses to expand their London operations. German banks, Norfield notes, do most of their securities business in London. U.S. banks also expanded London offices because they could serve international corporate clients with funding that was not so readily, or cheaply, available in the U.S. By 1971 the eurodollar market was equal to the money supply of France, and London had attracted 160 banks from 48 countries.
Staying outside the euro has also been a key to London’s position. British political leaders saw in 1976 and 1992 that inside Europe’s monetary system, it would be constrained by other states, particularly Germany.
Norfield believes global developments, often first visible in the financial sphere, can destabilize relationships between major powers.
It is likely that finance will continue to have the support of the British government to help it adjust.
Fintech firms and banks based in London might find Britain’s consistency encouraging. For updates, check Norfield’s blogs about Brexit and other finance topics. And for regular reports on the status of international finance centers, see Z/YEN’s Global Financial Centres Index.Comments