The weeks before Easter are usually some of the busiest of the year for bankers, lawyers and consultants in the City of London, as clients rush to get deals done before a run of public holidays.
But this year comparatively little has been happening.
City workers had been hoping the torpor of the first quarter would be lifted if Britain left the European Union on March 29, or indeed, April 12.
But with Brexit on ice until as late as October 31 and the terms of the exit still to be agreed, fears are building that this could be one of the leanest years for the City since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The London Stock Exchange has had only one corporate listing in excess of 75 million pounds ($97.61 million) so far this year. Trading turnover on the London Stock Exchange in February and March was down a third from a year ago, and the lowest since August 2016.
Average daily turnover on London’s blue chip FTSE 100 stock index fell harder in those two months than all the main bourses in Europe except the DAX 30, according to a Reuters analysis of Refinitiv data.
European investment banking fees – the biggest chunk of which are earned in London – were down 25 percent in the first quarter, according to Refinitiv. And there were just 11 new UK-based hedge funds launched in the first quarter, compared to 35 in the same quarter in 2018, data from Prequin shows.
“There is going to be a long hiatus. Investors will need to see something far more positive in politics to be persuaded to move again,” Alastair Winter, economic adviser to Global Alliance Partners told Reuters.
“I can’t see how Labour and Conservatives can agree a deal. They are playing games to avoid blame. And until they figure it out, the City will be left to just twist in the wind.”
Recruitment firm Morgan McKinley’s latest London Employment Monitor, which tracks financial services hiring trends from January to March, showed vacancies and job seekers dropping 9 percent and 15 percent respectively year-on-year. The number of job vacancies and job seekers in the first quarter were half the level they were in 2017.
Hakan Enver, Morgan McKinley Managing Director, said the figures showed confidence among City employers was flatlining.
“Even with all the uncertainty of the last few years, there was always an assumption that come March 29, we would have some answers. Yet here we are, still waiting,” Enver said.
Neil Robson, regulatory and compliance partner at law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, said in the six weeks leading up to the end of March the “chargeable” work he had done was what he would usually do in a week-and-a-half.
“People are not setting up new funds, are not hiring, firing, they’re not doing new deals because they’re just waiting for what’s happening with Brexit,” he told Reuters.
Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, there is no sense of panic, just a pause pending greater clarity around Brexit, as well as other global issues like the U.S.-China trade dispute.
“We haven’t seen any panic-selling. There is resilience, and people have decided they need to just watch this play out,” one senior private banker said.
Robson said he had seen a small pick-up in activity since the Brexit extension was agreed, but it was still not at full capacity.
The slowdown has forced firms to be more creative about how to make money.
Several large investment banks, including JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, have ramped up fundraising for private companies to fill an income void left by shallow capital markets activity. JPMorgan recently helped British banking start-up Starling raise 75 million pounds to fund expansion.
Banks are also spending more time taking companies off the stock market.
“I’m probably spending more of my time talking about take-private opportunities than I was a year ago. You will see more of that from now on. There are going to be more take privates if valuations continue to be depressed,” Indy Bhattacharyya, director at broker Peel Hunt, said.
The slowdown is not isolated to London – U.S. banks this week reported slides in their trading businesses globally.
But with Brexit uncertainty confounding the issue, UK-based finance houses in particular are finding it tough going.
“The bigger players will survive this, with some cuts here and there. Where there will be carnage is among the small-cap brokers, the boutique operators,” said Winter.
Canada’s Canaccord Genuity Group last month blamed Brexit and regulatory pressure for unacceptable returns in its UK capital markets business and the launch of a restructuring program expected to lead to significant job cuts.
As part of that plan, the company has put 48 jobs in London, more than a quarter of its City workforce, at risk of redundancy, according to an internal document seen by Reuters. It also plans to axe its mining and investment trust businesses, two sources familiar with the situation said.
Canaccord said in a statement that it was going through a consultation process and could not confirm details about the affected employees.
“This process, while difficult, is in connection with our previously stated strategy of better focusing our operations in the areas where we can be most relevant to our clients, while limiting our exposure in areas that are more sensitive to an unpredictable market backdrop,” the firm said.
With the threat of potential cuts, bankers say they are holding off booking extended holidays and doubling down on meeting clients and pitching ideas instead. But until there’s more Brexit clarity, few expect that to lead to much new business.
“There’s every chance this year that you’ll see more bankers doing the school run,” Peel Hunt’s Bhattacharyya said. ($1 = 0.7684 pounds)
(Additional reporting by Helen Reid, Maiya Keidan and Virginia Furness.)