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London loses crown as Europe’s stock-trading hub

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An early-morning view of London's financial district, known as the City.

An early-morning view of London's financial district, known as the City. The district has lost jobs since the Brexit vote, and European financial centers are eager to profit from regulatory changes. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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London has lost its top spot to Amsterdam as the center for stock trading in Europe. It’s the latest blow to the city just a month after the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union was finalized.

Trading volumes in January rose fourfold in Amsterdam to more than $11 billion dollars per day, while London’s volume fell to $10.4 billion, according to data from Cboe, one of the world’s largest exchange operators. Financial services is a key driver of the U.K. economy, but so-called equivalence rules about how the industry works its European counterparts were largely left out of the last-minute Brexit deal struck in December.

Since Jan. 1, European Union-based financial institutions have been barred from trading in London since the bloc has not recognized that U.K. exchanges meet the same standards as those in Europe. On Wednesday night, Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, in a speech, argued the EU is holding the U.K. to unrealistically high standards — in part due to worries about whether Britain might choose to loosen financial regulations in order to attract more post-Brexit business.

“None of these proposed changes mean that the U.K. should or will create a low-regulation, high-risk, anything-goes financial central system,” Bailey said. “We have an overwhelming body of evidence that session approach is not in our own interests, let alone anybody else’s.”

And, the lack of progress on equivalence has been met with frustration in the U.K. government, which argues it has supplied all necessary paperwork to the EU in order for it to grant equivalence.

“This has meant that a number of EU shares that were previously traded on U.K. venues have moved to the EU venues on advice of the European regulator. But our position is fragmentation of share trading across financial centers is in no one’s interest. So we will remain open to discussions with the EU about this,” Downing Street said in a statement to the BBC.

Indeed, back in late 2019, with Brexit on the horizon, Cboe launched a trading venue in the Netherlands to, as it said, serve clients across the continent after the U.K.’s split from the bloc.

“We experienced a smooth transition in activity from [the U.K. to Amsterdam] in EU-listed shares at the start of the year,” Cboe said in a statement. “We are committed to growing both our U.K. and Dutch venues to continue to bring competition and choice to Europe’s equity markets, and as evidence of that, we were excited to reintroduce trading in Swiss shares in the U.K. from Feb. 4.”

The big question now for the U.K.: Can it retake its top spot for share trading in Europe? And if it can’t, what does that mean for jobs in London’s business district?

On the global edition of “Marketplace Morning Report,” the Financial Time’s correspondent Philip Stafford — who first reported the CBOE’s figures — explains whether this change is more symbolic or one that will have a deeper ripple effect for the U.K.

Below is an edited version of his conversation with the BBC’s Victoria Craig.

Phillip Stafford: In the short term, it’s more symbolic than a significant blow in terms of jobs or lost tax receipts. Share trading itself isn’t taxed on the number of shares due, and it’s actually quite a lean and efficient industry when it comes to the number of people actually in it. It is mostly done by computers. So it’s not a really person-intensive industry.

That said, this was something that London just did. And I’ve looked at the numbers pretty regularly for most of the last decade, talking about once a month, at least, and London has always claimed the top spot. And that really has changed in just a couple of weeks. The point is, of course, that once you actually establish a new center of trading everyone sees that’s somewhere else, then there’s always a danger that sooner or later jobs and money follow.

Victoria Craig: Now, the U.K. and the EU have set a new March deadline to come up with an equivalence policy to make trading and financial services businesses easier between the two places. So if that happens, could London retake it crown?

Stafford: I think, as the reality of life has unfolded, and people have got used to living without it, those hopes have really faded. And I think there is a much more a sober assessment of what is likely to come at the end of March. If the U.K. and EU agree to something, it’s just as likely to be a sort of a technical, regulatory dealing, which would allow regulators to decide what they can accept and share with each other. I don’t think it’s going to go as far as giving any sort of wider market access permissions that, in effect, allow the trading to come back.

We can understand it from the EU perspective, they have wanted to have more oversight of what are essentially euro denominated assets to have them within their own purview. It’s moved. In essence, why would you want to change something that has turned to your advantage? And don’t forget that this permit that we’re talking about, this isn’t a bilaterally negotiated permit. This is a unilateral decision on behalf of the EU that it can make for itself.

Craig: We heard last week on this program from the boss of Barclays, Jes Staley, who said, actually, he’s not too concerned about the impact of Brexit, because the U.K. should be less concerned with competing with Europe and more focused on Asia and the U.S. What have you been hearing? Do you think that’s a refrain that is common in “The City,” as we call it here, effectively London’s Wall Street?

Stafford: It is fairly common, although something as big as The City isn’t ever really going to speak with one voice on anything. But having said that, yes, I think there is a certain feeling that the EU will be the EU market, you’ll need access to it, but there are other opportunities, especially in the bigger end of the markets. The web is a lot of investment banks and then their biggest customers, whether it be huge, big corporations or hedge funds, pension funds, asset managers, they will play and tend to look much more globally. You know, that said, nobody ever wants to cut off from a market and face additional cost to enter a market, and that’s sort of what is happening when it comes to dealing with the EU. A lot of people are just finding the only way to actually ensure that you’re going to have access to the EU market is to base people and headquarters specifically within the bloc.

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