Will Brexit end London's reign as financial capital of Europe? Probably not

The Canary Wharf financial district, as sen from Greenwich Park. Image: Getty.

Following the Brexit vote, the race to succeed London as Europe’s financial capital is on. “We know that groups based in the City are planning to leave for Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris,” the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, told journalists soon after the UK’s referendum. Other countries in the European Union are also intent on stealing financial services jobs from the UK. Even the economy minister of Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, invited City of London escapees.

In reality, however, London will remain Europe’s main financial centre.

There are three reasons for this continued dominance over European financial services:

  • The pre-eminence of the British court system in upholding the rule of law, including the protection of creditor and shareholder rights.
  • The superiority of the UK’s university education in economics and finance over its continental counterparts.
  • The UK’s tax and employment regulation that is conducive to the industry’s health and profits.

Protecting the interests of creditors and shareholders from the rapacious behaviour of competitors or the state is obviously important for attracting financial services. On this score, the UK is ahead of the rest of Europe. The World Bank’s Doing Business project ranks the UK fourth in the world in shareholder protection, behind only Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore.

In the balance. Image: Lonpicman/wikimedia Commons.

France is in 29th place when it comes to the strength of laws protecting shareholders; Germany is 49th. In terms of protecting creditor rights, the UK ranks 19th in the world, France 79th, and Germany 28th.

Of course, the rule of law can improve in Europe so that financial investors feel equally well protected in Paris or Frankfurt. But this process will take years, perhaps decades.

In terms of education, markets increasingly require a sophisticated understanding of economics and finance, as well as in-depth knowledge of the legal architecture underlying financial services. Here, too, British universities lead Europe in offering quality education. In the latest Shanghai global ranking on economics education, there are six UK universities among the top 50 and only three continental European universities (one in the Netherlands and two in France). Four of the top five masters of finance programs in Europe are based in London (the only exception being INSEAD near Paris).

And in terms of tax and employment regulation, the financial services sector in the UK benefits from lower corporate tax rates and more flexible employment laws than Germany and France. In the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking on paying taxes, the UK is ranked 15th in the world, well ahead of Germany (ranked 72nd) and France (ranked 87th). The UK’s lead is even wider in terms of flexible labour regulation. The latter is especially important in the highly cyclical financial sector that annually hires and fires tens of thousands of white-collar professionals.

Looming large: Paris’s La Défense financial district. Image: Hofi0006/Wikimedia Commons.

Vulnerable areas

The finance industry has many fields within it, however, and some parts are viewed as more vulnerable to Brexit. One candidate is foreign exchange trading in the euro – a $2trn-a-day market. Currently, more than 70 per cent of euro trading takes place in London, compared with 11 per cent in Paris and 7 per cent in Frankfurt, according to Bank for International Settlements data. The European Central Bank has already tried banning clearing houses outside the eurozone from trading the euro.


But in 2015, the EU’s highest court disagreed. Hence London’s vulnerability may be overplayed: Brexit does not alter the status quo as the UK has never been a member of the eurozone.

Insurance is another sector that’s European activity is highly concentrated in London and where Brexit may hurt. But the UK’s main competitors are in Asia (Singapore and Tokyo) and the US. The access that London has to European money is based on proximity and historic relationships, not on being part of the EU. In short, even in insurance markets it is hard to see a rapid shift away from the City of London.

But Brexit may have a negative effect on London’s position as the world’s best-regulated financial centre. Following the uncertainty around its EU exit, Asian and American markets could take some business away from the City of London. The government’s knee-jerk reaction to this development may be to erode some of the UK’s financial regulation in an effort to attract more investment. The Conversation

Such a response would be unfortunate as London has attracted a lot of talent because it is a place for clean business practice. This possibility notwithstanding, London is unlikely to lose its crown as a global financial centre.

Simeon Djankov is executive director of the Financial Markets Group at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.