Fighting London's corner: The battle for the European central bank is not over

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The Independent Online
THE interim report on London's competitive position published yesterday by the Corporation of London, the local authority for the City, looks like an eleventh- hour attempt to bring the European central bank to London.

Ostensibly the timing is coincidental. Professor Dick Brealey and his team from the London Business School have finished the first part of a three-year report costing the corporation a total of pounds 3m, just as the argument over the location of the central bank is reaching a climax.

Though the outcome has yet to be announced, it is already widely expected that the central bank will go to Bonn rather than London.

In the City it is said that No 10 has already given up the battle, partly because it recognises it is on weak ground, given the Government's attitude to monetary union.

But the Corporation of London, which claims to be apolitical, is not giving up the fight yet. It is spending pounds 1.5m on an increasingly lonely campaign to win the bank for the City.

Michael Cassidy, chairman of the policy and resources committee, says the interim report's findings will be useful in the central bank campaign.

The corporation believes that London would be best for the bank because of the size of its financial markets, and that the bank would be good for London.

Siting it there would be a recognition of the Square Mile's prime position in Europe and so help to entrench that role.

Mr Cassidy would find his task easier if the report were more positive about London's competitive position as a financial centre. As befits an academic report, however, it outlines both London's strengths and its weaknesses.

It also relies heavily on previously published research rather than new work by the LBS.

London's attractions as a financial centre - particularly against those in Europe - are well known. They include the widespread use of English in business, the size of its existing financial markets and the high concentration of brokers, bankers, accountants and lawyers.

More people work in London's financial services - about 800,000 - than live in Frankfurt, a rival financial centre, according to the report.

London has huge shares of markets in international banking, share trading, foreign exchange, insurance and futures trading. But its grip on some of these is loosening.

In international bank lending, London is second only to Tokyo. But over the years Britain has lost share to Japan and, more recently, to the Continent.

In foreign exchange trading, London is dominant with a 29 per cent share. But it has lost ground to Tokyo and New York.

It probably remains dominant in eurobonds and has, if anything, increased its share of international share trading. It accounts for more than 90 per cent of cross- border share dealing in Europe.

Market shares in the fast-growing derivative markets are difficult to measure. It is nevertheless apparent that London has lagged behind in traded options but fought successfully to stay ahead of competition from Paris and Frankfurt in financial futures. In swaps and currency options it is an important centre.

Innovation has been London's hallmark. The LBS team found that the first market to introduce a derivatives contract - such as the French futures market Matif with the ecu bond - usually keeps most of the business.

The problem is that US firms, which are the greatest innovators, have tended to introduce new products in America rather than in London. The report says this 'may be an area of potential vulnerability'.

Insurance is a more immediately worrying area. Disasters at Lloyd's have not just been bad news for hard-hit names but also for the market's commercial viability. International customers can take their business elsewhere.

Lloyd's and the UK insurance companies account for 30 per cent of the world's direct marine insurance market and 38 per cent of direct aviation insurance. These proportions are falling.

The report says: 'Although London's share of international insurance business has undoubtedly declined with the emergence of strong European and Japanese competition, there is little statistical evidence of the decline.'

This is one of a number of areas in which the LBS team could usefully fill gaps in the statistics, if it is to come up with a workable final document.

Its interim findings on the factors that determine the success of a financial centre are more original. As well as tax, regulation and transport, the report considers the influence of technology.

It concludes that, far from encouraging firms to move out of financial centres, new technology tends to concentrate their operations in single sites. The reason is that improved communication allows better access to what the report refers to as 'hinterlands'.

Its findings on transport are inconclusive but likely to be disputed by struggling commuters who arrive late for work after paying through the nose for their tickets. Professor Brealey suggests that commuting problems are far less important in determining the success of a financial centre than access to airports. He singles out the proposed fast link from Heathrow to Paddington as especially important.

Property costs, once a big disadvantage for London compared with other European centres, are no longer the concern they once were.

Perhaps the biggest threat to London identified by the report is international harmonisation of rules and regulations in financial markets.

This is because harmonisation could reduce the flexibility and innovatory strengths of the City.

It could impose bureaucratic rather than practical frameworks. Above all it will reduce the differences between centres.

Oddly, London has no single champion. At different times the Bank of England, the regulators, government departments and the exchanges speak up. But none of them speaks consistently for London in its battle for market share against Frankfurt and Paris.

The corporation may be the only body that can bring all these interests together.

(Photograph and charts omitted)