Doubts hang over Frankfurt's prospects after Brexit

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Doubts hang over Frankfurt's prospects after Brexit
Will 'Mainhattan' cash in from Brexit? File photo: DPA

Media reports in recent months have suggested that the financial capital on the Main could steal London's banking thunder if Britain votes to leave the EU. But it's not the only city in the running.


At first glance, Frankfurt am Main looks like the perfect candidate to become the financial centre of the EU if Britain really cuts ties with Brussels after the vote on June 23rd.

The city can point to almost 200 foreign banks with a presence there and 62,500 people – almost a tenth of the population – employed in the banking sector.

“Large numbers of specialist workers, good infrastructure and not least the strongest national economy in the EU” - as well as the European Central Bank (ECB) planted firmly in its new headquarters just outside the city centre - are sure to provide “a certain magnet effect,” said Stefan Winter of UBS, head of the Association of Foreign Banks in Germany.

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But Winter cautions that “given the many variables, unknowns and uncertainties about how things would go after a UK vote to leave the EU, it's a bit hasty” to talk about Frankfurt profiting from Brexit.

Far from a shoo-in

There is no question that banks need a presence in an EU member state to do business with customers inside the Union.

With Dublin and Paris also in the running as potential fall-back options after London, though, it's far from clear that Frankfurt would be the big winner.

As home not just to the ECB but the European insurance regulator EIOPA, Frankfurt may well be the EU's capital of financial regulation.

And Frankfurt-based stock market operator Deutsche Börse is in the process of merging with the London Stock Exchange company (LSE).

Deutsche Börse shareholders fear, though, that the value of the LSE could plummet in the wake of a British divorce from Brussels.

Frankfurt could also prove a victim of its own success.

Its high cost of living – the second-most-expensive in Germany – is a sign of a pressurized housing market with little room for a new wave of financial services workers.

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And while it may boast good IT infrastructure, with one of the world's largest internet traffic exchanges, getting about in the physical world is a bit more complex, as the city often suffers through long traffic jams.

A day of particularly bad traffic jams on the A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt in 2011. Photo: DPA

Dublin also enjoys the advantage of sharing a language with the USA.

US banking giant Citigroup has already said it would move its European HQ to the Irish capital in the event of Brexit, while Wells Fargo is already there and Switzerland's Credit Suisse recently opened a trading floor in Dublin.

Paris also has its eyes on the lucrative financial services sector should the Brits decide to pull up the drawbridge.

Its developed La Défense financial district and the two-hour train ride to London make it an obvious candidate for London-based firms looking for a new home inside the EU.

Deutsche Bank to come home?

Many German eyes have turned towards Deutsche Bank with its 9,000 workers in London.

“If [we're going to move] at all, it would be Frankfurt,” CEO John Cryan told the Financial Times (FT) in April.

The veteran British bank executive had told the Deutsche Bank annual meeting earlier this year that “with its strong presence in Frankfurt and London, Deutsche Bank is well-positioned to manage the short- and long-term effects of a Brexit.”

Deutsche Bank CEO John Cryan pictured in October 2015. Photo: DPA

But in his FT interview, Cryan added that people “are not looking enough at the other side of the coin and asking what Brexit would mean for Europe.

“We say very clearly: it would be anything but good.”

No easy answers

With so little known about what the relationship between Britain and the EU will look like if the Leave campaign wins the day, it's been challenging for anyone to make contingency plans.

It's even possible that Britain's exit agreement could include stipulations allowing banks to continue their EU operations from existing London headquarters.

“In this case the hopes of some financial actors in Frankfurt to profit hugely from Britain leaving would prove premature,” said Gertrud Traud, head economist at the Hesse-Thuringia state bank Helaba.

That was backed up by Andreas Meyer-Schwickerath, director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany (BCCG).

"The majority of BCCG members and the German public expect that there would be economic and political problems after a Brexit decision," Meyer-Schwickerath told The Local on Monday.

With that in mind, Britain leaving would be more a cause for regret in Germany than for excitement and national ambition, he added.


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