‘Banker’ has become something of a curse word in the British lexicon but it’s another ‘B word’ that Bank of America (BoA) is trying to stamp out. The US bank has told senior staff they can’t talk about Brexit in the run up to June’s referendum vote.
Last week it told managers ‘not to provide opinions, not to influence voters, not to assume a particular result and not to engage in campaigning,’ (but apart from that they're free to do what they like...) according to the FT, and it has also reversed a decision to donate around £100,000 to the Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe. Although its advisers will surely still discuss the potential outcomes of such a move on clients' finances, the bank is clearly keen not to be seen to be taking a side.
This mirrors a dilemma that has afflicted many boardrooms up and down the country. While many businesses are hoping for a particular outcome, getting political can be bad for a company’s brand. The issue could be particularly problematic for BoA, which will want to avoid looking like a foreign influence interfering with a democratic decision made by citizens of the UK (though that hasn’t stopped Goldman Sachs and other American banks getting stuck into the campaign).
It’s still not at all clear what Britain’s relationship with the EU would look like after a potential Brexit, but it comes with many risks. Though literal barriers are unlikely to spring up, figurative ones in the form of tariffs and regulations could make it significantly more difficult for UK-headquartered companies to do business across the continent.
It would be easy to decry BoA’s decision to remain neutral. Businesses have so much at stake in this debate and while it may be US-owned, the bank employs thousands in the UK (even if it’s not paying corporation tax at the moment...). But on the other hand, given their reputation in the UK, perhaps the best thing banks can do to prevent an out vote is to steer well clear.