New rules won’t end London’s golden lure

March 20, 2009

— Alexander Smith is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

alex-smithNew regulations may be cooked up to curb the excesses of its bankers but London will always attract those who believe its streets are paved with gold.

Some predict that the financial crisis spells the end for London as a major global financial centre, arguing it has thrived on lax regulation and a quasi-tax haven status and that the regulatory backlash which inevitably follows such a catastrophic economic debacle will suffocate the innovation and the financial incentives which have driven the growth of services in the British capital.

But these doomsters are overlooking key factors which have made London a world hub for centuries. London’s geographical position — most notably Greenwich Mean Time — has served it well as a bridge between the time zones, its almost unrivalled cultural diversity, its global outlook, the advantage of English as the common language of finance and not least the trading and financial heritage it has built up since Roman times.

Throw in the advantages of maintaining its own currency during a period of downturn (particularly when a weaker pound gives it an economic advantage) and London is well served alongside New York and Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo when competing with other centres which have harboured global ambitions such as Frankfurt, Paris or more recently Dubai.

The City of London, also known as the Square Mile, which immodestly by British standards bills itself as “the world’s leading financial centre” also clings to a host of antiquated traditions whose quaintness, including the appointment each year of a Lord Mayor, remains a tourist draw if nothing else.

Another factor in London’s immediate favour is the infrastructure spending which is taking place to coincide with the Olympics in 2012. The massive Crossrail project will link the capital’s east and west, while despite constant carping from its users, the underground “Tube” network is undergoing a major upgrade to bring it into the 21st Century. The lure of the capital’s arts and culture, its shops, restaurants and pubs all combine to keep people coming to visit and to live and work.

Mayfair’s hedge funds, the mammoth City bonuses and the days of light-touch regulation may be a distant memory, but London still has the trading infrastructure, the expertise and the confidence to reassert its position at the heart of the financial system. Given its dependence on financial services, London is far from immune from the global downturn, but with huge volatility in the markets it has traditionally dominated, including foreign exchange and commodities, as well as booming equity and debt issuance, its prospects are nothing like as bleak as its detractors would have us believe.

London’s streets may be paved with less gold than before, but that won’t stop people finding new and inventive ways to make money on them.

— At the time of publication Alexander Smith did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.

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