Now Banks Look Like They’re Worried About Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The exodus from London is getting real.

Ever since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, people have been watching for signs of how the prospect might affect London’s role as a global financial center. It stood to reason that it should: Assuming the breakup meant that the U.K. units of global banks would lose their passports to sell services throughout the EU, they would have to move staff and assets onto the continent -- to Paris, to Frankfurt, to Dublin.

Yet for more than a year, bankers didn’t appear to be putting their money where their mouths were. Sure, they talked about moving. But their balance sheets told a different story: Cross-border lending from the U.K. kept growing, suggesting that global financial institutions were doing even more business out of their London operations.

Now it looks like the tide turned in early 2018, as the government of Prime Minister Theresa May edged closer to the Brexit deadline with no clear plan for a friendly separation. According to the latest data from the Bank for International Settlements, the cross-border claims of U.K.-located banks declined for two quarters in a row from April, by a total of almost $200 billion.

Now Banks Look Like They’re Worried About Brexit

So who stands to gain? On that point, the data are less clear. So far, only France has seen a significant increase in cross-border lending, indicating that Paris might be the biggest beneficiary.

Now Banks Look Like They’re Worried About Brexit

London has a lot to recommend it as a financial hub: culture, transportation connections, a critical mass of educated people and all the benefits of agglomeration. Apparently, a big enough political blunder can overcome even these advantages.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg Opinion. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily.

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