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Some of the City’s most influential bankers say that they would halt or even reverse moves out of London if there was an eleventh-hour deal to keep the UK in the single market, in a significant departure from previous warnings of an imminent “point of no return”.
The prospect of continued single market access is seen as remote but possible after the UK last week promised to maintain “full alignment” with the EU internal market’s rules if it cannot settle the terms of its future relationship with the bloc after the Brexit divorce.
Regulators including Germany’s Bundesbank and the UK’s FCA have publicly warned that the first quarter of 2018 is the point of no return for banks, since they must plan for a future where they may be unable to access the EU market from London after Brexit’s March 2019 implementation.
With the year drawing to a close, bankers have changed their rhetoric. One senior executive at a large US institution said that he had privately told the UK government that if they “pulled a rabbit out of a hat 10 minutes before midnight” on March 31 2019, then banks including his would reverse their decisions.
He added that if banks had already taken major steps, such as transferring clients to new EU entities, then there would be a “multiyear adjustment” before their London operations were returned to their current state.
It is “so compelling to reconsolidate” in London that banks like his would be willing to bear the costs, he added.
Banks are planning on moving the minimum staff possible in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, which gives them more flexibility over their more substantial long-term restructurings in the event of a late deal.
A senior executive at another large institution said that in the event of an eleventh-hour deal he would be reluctant to “mess with people’s lives too much” by recalling the small number of permanent staff who have gone out to the EU in the first wave. But he added that they might bring home people who were temporarily sent over to build up the continental operations.
The minimal infrastructure his bank is creating for the immediate aftermath of Brexit, such as EU booking centres, would be kept in place for clients in the short term but might be cut later if clients did not choose to use them.
He insisted that there was much still to play after the first quarter. “We will still be lobbying furiously after March 2018 to not move unnecessarily the ability to do business via the UK,” he said.
A third executive said the first quarter of next year was the “emotional point of no return” rather than a technical cut off after which decisions could not be changed. “The first quarter of next year (is) . . . the emotional point by which you’ve gone so far that I think it’s very difficult to go on a reverse journey,” he said.
A fourth executive said the point of no return depends on the size of organisations. “We want to leave it as late as possible (to commit to things),” he said.
A senior executive at another large institution said that if the UK’s common market access was enshrined, his bank would “hugely slowdown” its expansion in continental Europe but would not reverse because the UK’s image has been so tainted in the eyes of his company.
“The love affair of basing everybody in London that you possibly can, that trust has been broken,” he said. “[Banks are] looking to hedge themselves against the UK in the long term.”