Although the epicentre of the euro, Europe’s single currency, there is a long list of things Frankfurt is not. With just 700,000 inhabitants, this compact German city – often referred to as the world’s smallest metropolis – can’t compete in size to other financial centres, such as London, Tokyo or New York.
In fact, on the Global Financial Centres Index, it ranks only 10th in the world and fourth in Europe behind London, Zurich and Geneva. It isn’t a capital city either, not even of the central regional state of Hesse where it is based.
Although home to more than 300 banks, both national and international, it isn’t Germany’s wealthiest city, even if – with its ever-growing skyline of gleaming steel and concrete skyscrapers – it likes to style itself as “Mainhattan”, a play on the name of the river on which it is built.
In terms of household income, Frankfurt is Germany’s 23rd richest city, behind Hamburg and Munich and even the likes of Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn.
Greater Frankfurt ranks third behind Munich and Hamburg in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. It is home to the once-mighty Bundesbank and now the European Central Bank,
and also hosts Deutsche Börse, Europe’s second-biggest stock exchange after London.
Despite the competition however, Frankfurt has fared much better than all other European financial and banking centres during the region’s long and debilitating debt crisis. The German economy, too, has weathered the crisis storms much better than its eurozone neighbours and its blue-chip stock index, the DAX, has recently soared to new all-time highs.
While the challenges are the same – an economic slowdown in the euro area, an environment of ultra-low interest rates and profound restructuring of Europe’s banking sector – analysts say Frankfurt has a number of advantages.
London’s City axed more than 30 percent of the workforce in its banking and financial sector between 2007 and 2012 to 249,000, according to data compiled by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).
And more than 13,000 more jobs are facing the chop by the end of next year, bringing the number of people employed in the sector to its lowest level since 1993.
By contrast, a study by German regional bank Helaba calculated that just 3,000 jobs have been lost in Frankfurt since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the number of people employed in the sector is projected to fall by just 2.0 percent to 73,000 people at the end of next year.
“Frankfurt is doing well as a financial centre,” said Lutz Rättig, spokesman for Frankfurt Main Finance, a financial sector lobby group, and supervisory board chief for Morgan Stanley in Germany.
“The climate has deteriorated somewhat as a result of the financial crisis, but there’s been no downturn. Frankfurt’s banks haven’t had to cope with the dramatic blood-letting that we’ve seen in London or Paris,” Rättig said.
Christoph Schalast, professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, argues that unlike other European financial centres, Frankfurt has never been a major player in investment banking, which is at the root of the crisis.
On the contrary, Germany’s banking sector is largely centred on credit and savings, and entertains close ties to the small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, that form the main backbone of the country’s economy, Schalast said.
“There is a close link with the real economy which is absent from other financial centres,” said Rättig. “The excesses seen elsewhere have not been seen here.”
Foreign banks are also drawn to the established financial centre of Frankfurt because “Germany’s federal structure isn’t always easy to understand,” said Schalast.
“Thus when they consider setting up a branch in Germany, it’s Frankfurt they’ll choose because of the presence there of the Bundesbank, the ECB and Deutsche Börse,” he argued. With the ECB now also to become responsible for banking supervision across the euro area, Frankfurt’s importance might grow still further.
A referendum vote on Britain’s place in the EU, as promised by Prime Minister David Cameron, could also prove decisive. But Schalast reckons that it is unlikely the city can de-throne London as Europe’s financial capital any time in the foreseeable future.