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Business Maverick: Wall Street’s Penchant for London Remains Even as Brexit Nears

JPMorgan Chase & Co. is moving about 200 billion euros ($230 billion) of total assets to its Frankfurt-based subsidiary by the end of the year as a result of Britain’s exit from the EU. Other banks have also been beefing up operations in the bloc.

The Square Mile’s current dominance is such that plenty more banks would have to shift as many assets as JPMorgan to start undermining it.

Capital City

Wall Street’s five big firms retained three times the equity and more than four times the amount of risk-weighted assets in their U.K. subsidiaries compared to their EU ones at the end of last year, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of regulatory filings and annual reports.

JPMorgan, Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp. had a combined $900 billion of risk-weighted assets in the U.K. versus about $200 billion in the EU. The banks underpinned their U.K. units with $136 billion of core capital while the figure for the EU was $45 billion.

London “continues to be a very important” financial center, JPMorgan’s EMEA investment banking co-head Dorothee Blessing said at a Bloomberg webinar Thursday. She also said the bank will keep moving staff and assets from London as it grows its business in continental Europe.

Read more: JPMorgan’s Blessing signals more Brexit moves after ‘first wave’

Banks measure both their total assets as well as their balance sheet weighted according to its riskiness. Bloomberg has used the latter in this story to ensure comparability between the U.K. and EU units. All five lenders declined to comment.

Banking on Britain

As JPMorgan’s transfer shows, these distributions may have already changed since the end of 2019 and more capital is likely to shift as the nature of Britain’s exit becomes clearer in the coming months.

Still, London’s headstart suggests Brexit’s ultimate impact on London’s role as a global financial center remains an open question even as Britain’s protracted exit from the single market enters its final months.

Business with EU clients represents anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of London revenue, according to industry and Bank of England estimates. The European Central Bank says that while some lenders have made good progress in setting up in the eurozone, others need to move more staff and assets. The regulator wants the units to be robust enough to manage risk locally.

Docking Station

As a docking station for global investors, London’s role extends beyond business with EU clients. The city’s critical mass means it is an efficient place to do business for banks and their customers and even if the U.K. fails to reach a trade deal with the EU, both sides have a system in place to preserve some financial ties.

While international banks continued to move some of their balance sheet to Dublin, Frankfurt or Paris this year, some bankers say privately that they won’t need to relocate as much capital as originally anticipated. That’s partly because U.K. regulators are also encouraging them to maintain adequate reserves for their giant operations in London, the bankers say. There’s also the question of whether the revenue they stand to generate in the EU is worth the cost for smaller banks.

The foot-dragging also reflects a reluctance to spend or subject staff and clients to upheaval as long as there’s uncertainty over how the U.K.’s divorce will play out. The pandemic and subsequent restrictions on travel have also slowed decision-making and transfers.

Equally, banks may accelerate the shift as the U.K.’s transition phase runs out and lenders are already planning for a messy divorce at the end of the year.

“We keep an eye on all possible eventualities and that of course includes a no-deal scenario,” JPMorgan’s Blessing said at a conference in Frankfurt this month. “We are fully prepared to continue conducting the business we did for clients before Brexit. But there’s a lot left to do in the next months.”

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