UK: City under siege - is London set to lose its superiority in European finance? (4 of 4)

UK: City under siege - is London set to lose its superiority in European finance? (4 of 4) - Reuters' managing director of Instinet UK, Bryan Cavill, agrees that bigger and more creative deals need the human touch, but he believes that the lower cost, sp

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Reuters' managing director of Instinet UK, Bryan Cavill, agrees that bigger and more creative deals need the human touch, but he believes that the lower cost, speed and transparency of automated trading will in time capture a good chunk of the market. Instinet is still small in London, but has had reasonable success in its five years in the US and, says Cavill, "once you get the ball rolling this is the only game in town".

Automation may just come into its own as global cross-border trading picks up. Futurologists love to speak of a time when the equities of numerous international corporations will be traded 24 hours a day in one electronic marketplace. The suggestion is that these companies could be virtually homeless - traded universally and capable of raising capital anywhere. The intimation is that such giants would likewise be serviced by global finance houses.

Hoare Govett's new American boss, Peter Voss, adopting typical British cynicism, responds: "Nobody's really yet proven the success of the global firm. We all went global. We all said 'Gee, 24-hour trading - it's only a blip away'. Well, since '87 and some of the shocks like Kuwait, people have all gone home. They sell their foreign stocks first. It's the domestic franchise that still is the bulk of earnings."

Large investors are nonetheless venturing abroad more these days. Overseas investment by UK fund managers jumped from about 8% to 20% of total assets in the 10 years to 1990. Legal and General's Michael Payne says that over the next few years he expects that his fund "will grow more in Europe at the expense of UK equities", particularly now that Britain's entry into the European exchange rate mechanism has reduced the currency risk. He also says that he deals through the broker with the "best local intelligence". That usually means a local one.

The implication for City brokers is clear. Either they are one of the best of the bunch at home or they make their name abroad. James Capel is taking the latter tack, while Hoare Govett, which will soon be 51% owned by its employees, will concentrate on quality at home. "Our goal is to be in the top five," Voss states confidently.

London itself is also bound to transform. It might be the only city in the world which speaks "English proper", and English is easily the reigning language in the financial world, but success can breed complacency, and complacency sloppiness. The continent is eyeing London's huge tranche of cake jealously and the Americans and Japanese will yet again start to roam abroad. Inevitably some of London's international financial market share will go the way of its former land empire. Whether that means less business overall for the Londoners will depend on their own feistiness and on the speed of Europe's growth. Awareness of this is high, but survival, not aggressiveness, is still at the top of the agenda.

Christopher Brown, managing director of the City-based Corney and Barrow bar and restaurant chain, is quite right when he insists that the hearty times of eating and drinking will return, "because people still want to meet and talk". But Amin Rajan could also be right in predicting that financial houses will have a declining influence in the City. He suggests that they will be replaced in part by three more diversified and stable services, all of which are sitting on golden eggs in a restructuring Europe: accountancy, law and computing.

The greying of the City, you could euphemistically call it. More grey matter, more grey suits, more grey faces. The City's once colourful financiers could still prove the theory wrong. But if somehow they do not, it may be time to start buying Eurotunnel shares.

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