France Goes for London’s Gold Market Amid Soft-Brexit Hopes

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In the feverish reshuffling of financial services for a post-Brexit world, London still comes out ahead, but less so.

By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

As two years of Brexit negotiations finally come to a head and all eyes are on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s frantic efforts to get the draft deal passed, France is making a big move on the City of London’s gold market. As Reuters reported Monday, the Bank of France has partnered with mega-bank JP Morgan Chase, one of the world’s largest bullion trading banks, to offer global central banks and sovereign wealth funds the full gamut of swaps, leases, and gold deposits.

Sylvie Goulard, the Bank of France’s deputy governor, recently wrote in The Alchemist, the in-house journal for the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), that Paris is looking to reestablish itself as a mover and shaker in the international bullion market. “While these gold investment services have until now only been offered from London, it recently became possible for the Banque de France to offer them also from Paris,” she said.

France is already the world’s fifth biggest sector gold holder, carrying around 2,435 tonnes of gold in its official reserves. But until now central banks holding gold at the Bank of France had to go through London, home to the world’s largest commercial bullion trading pool, if they wanted to perform market transactions.

But the Bank of France has been expanding its gold services. It has also refitted its bullion vaults to allow heavy forklift trucks to operate within their confines, and upgraded the quality of its gold reserves so they can trade on the international market. Its newly consummated partnership with JP Morgan, a member of a select group of global banks that settles trades in the LBMA, is the clearest sign yet that Paris wants a piece of London’s $25 billion-a-day gold bullion market.

France’s central bank has not been shy about its intentions. In May Bank of France Governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau announced that one of the central bank’s key aims is to become “the markets’ central bank in Europe” and that Brexit represented a “historic opportunity” to restructure the EU’s financial system. “In this respect, Paris has a lot of assets to become a major center for corporate finance and innovation in Europe,” he said.

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Paris has already won a bid to become the new home of the heretofore London-based European Banking Authority, the EU regulatory agency that, among other things, conducts periodic stress tests on Europe’s biggest banks. The French government has also done everything it can to woo financial firms fleeing Brexit uncertainty, including promising them light-touch regulation, flexible labor laws and income and corporate tax cuts.

The government’s efforts have met with relative success. So far, nine major financial institutions, including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and HSBC, have committed to move part of their London-based operations to Paris, according to a recent survey by German bank Helaba. That’s three more than Luxembourg and Dublin have managed, and six more than Amsterdam.

But it’s far below the tally notched up by the ultimate winner in the race to displace London, Frankfurt, which has attracted a total of 25 lenders looking to move operations out of the City of London before Brexit. Those lenders include Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, UBS, Nomura and Standard Chartered Bank. In all, Germany’s financial capital is expected to draw around half of the Brexit-related jobs moving out of London over the coming years, with 8,000 new roles expected in the greater Main region surrounding the city.

There’s an obvious reason behind Frankfurt’s blossoming allure: proximity to power. The city is already home to the ECB. The fact that Germany also enjoys more influence over European economic policy-making than any other EU Member State would certainly be an added enticement for the world’s biggest financial institutions.

But that’s not to say that the impending arrival of thousands of well-minted foreign bank executives and staff is being welcomed with open arms by the city’s residents. Many fear that the influx of new money will propel the city’s already elevated housing prices and rents into the stratosphere, much as has happened in London. Frankfurt is one of a number of Germany cities to have witnessed protests against rising rents in recent months.

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For the City of London the current state of affairs is probably not as bad as many feared it could be by this stage of proceedings. If, by some miracle, UK Premier Theresa May is able to crowbar her widely unpopular Brexit bill, which would grant equivalence to the City’s financial services industry, through a largely hostile parliament, it could get better.

London has not experienced the mass loss of tens of thousands of highly paid financial services jobs that many think tanks predicted, though there’s still time for that to happen, particularly in the event of a crash-out Brexit. Nor does the City risk automatically losing its dominion over the global derivatives industry in the event of a no-deal Brexit, thanks in large part to a last-minute concession by EU negotiators.

Most importantly, there is no sign of London losing its place as Europe’s preeminent financial center in the near future, although Europe’s banking activities and operations are likely to be spread more evenly across EU territory following Brexit. As Ulrike Bischoff, the author of Helaba’s report, says, “in principle, our ranking of Europe’s major financial centres continues to apply: London before Frankfurt before Paris.”

If, in the best case scenario, the draft Brexit bill is passed, London will automatically lose seamless access to the world’s biggest trading bloc. That could accelerate the narrowing of the gaps between Europe’s three major financial centers, a process that began on June, 19, 2016, when a small majority of British people voted to leave the EU. For Paris, which seeks to reestablish itself as a major global financial center with a world-class gold bullion market, the bad news is that Frankfurt has come out the clear winner. By Don Quijones.


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