City chairman says the politics of envy is causing an exodus of talent

Steve Dinneen
Follow Steve
Stuart Fraser’s office at the City of London Corporation features an interesting contrast. Along one wall is a series of large photographic prints of the London skyline, including a shot of the stunning white Guildhall Yard, next to which we are sitting. The opposite wall contains a small shrine to Asia: a scale model of a Chinese bell, a temple carved out of wood and a scroll painted with Chinese characters.

The division is telling; the power-struggle between Asia and the West is a recurring theme for the City of London Corporation policy chairman, with new EU legislation on bankers’ bonuses threatening to accelerate an exodus of talent he says has been quietly underway for years.

The Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) announced its labyrinthine new rules earlier this week, which, after cutting away the yards of red tape, will boil down to bankers receiving a fraction of their bonuses up front (around a tenth for those earning upwards of £1m). Add to this the spectre of a unilateral tax on bonuses being thrust onto the agenda by business secretary Vince Cable, and things start to look very uncomfortable indeed for City workers.

“What worries me,” says Fraser, “Is that the rest of the world isn’t doing it. We live in a global age with global opportunities and Asia is very keen to take business off us. This is Europe not taking into account the rest of the world and it will drive away talent. It is a very serious concern.

More financial services will go to Asia regardless, but if we want to accelerate the trend by driving business away, this is how to do it.”

Fraser, 64, is a City stalwart, taking his first stockbroking job in 1963 and working across fields including forex, equities and fund management. He was elected to his current role in 2008 but maintains an interest in the private sector as director of Brewin Dolphin. He is also an adviser to the Shanghai government, presumably in the spirit of knowing your enemy, helping it to develop as a global finance centre. But his loyalty lies with the City, which, as new research commissioned by his department shows, contributes more to the Treasury coffers than any other industry – a staggering £53.4bn.

Given its vastly disproportionate contribution to the public purse, Fraser is angry that the financial services sector is still being demonised by populist politicians who want to win over disenfranchised voters.

“We are not talking about systemic risk anymore,” he says. “We are not talking about another financial crisis. We are being anti-highly paid people in the financial services industry. It’s as simple as that.

“I would call this targeting of the bonus structure the ‘politics of envy’. No government outside of Europe is telling employers what they can pay their employees.

“We’re in danger of castigating a whole industry because of the inappropriate actions of a few. Some of this legislation has a vindictive nature and it will drive away the talent.”

And Fraser is in no doubt where the talent will go – Asia. His links to the east give him a better idea than most of the threat it can pose to UK financial services.

But bears have been predicting migration of talent to new financial hubs like Hong Kong and Shanghai for years – when will it happen?

“It’s already here,” he says. “The danger is that you don’t see it. It’s not a mass exodus of 100,000 people. It’s the rainmakers – the most talented fund managers and traders. In terms of numbers, you’re not going to notice less people on the trains. But over time they will bring other businesses over to service them.

“Why would you stay, if you could earn at least the same amount of money for a lot less tax? These are young men, and a lot of them, particularly traders, have very short careers. They burn out after about 15 years, much like footballers, so they want to go and earn some money.”

Ironically, the biggest loser will be the British taxpayer. The new research shows the average tax paid by financial services workers is £40,000. Even a relatively small migration would cause overall tax receipts to plummet.

Fraser is cautious not to heap the blame entirely at the door of politicians (“not only do we have the comprehensive spending review coming in, we have bonus season around the corner too. People are very angry. No wonder politicians are keeping a low profile...”). However, Cable’s antipathy towards the banking sector – and his predilection for a unilateral bonus levy – would be “disastrous”.

“I have known Vince for a long time and obviously he has very strong convictions on this, but clearly I have to disagree with him – it would be a big mistake.”

But with chancellor George Osborne loathe to resurrect Alistair Darling’s bonus levy, Fraser is more concerned about the often-pernicious grip over the City wielded by Brussels, which he says dominates UK financial policy.

“That is why we have to be very active in Europe, to make sure new rules do not destroy London’s place as a global financial centre. It would be a disaster for the UK if we became just another European city.”

He hopes that continued lobbying can bring the European rules from their current state into something “workable-with”. He points to the alternative investment directive, which he says was initially “awful” but, after a great deal of tweaking, is no longer such a drain on the industry.

Part of the problem with the regulation, he says, is the sheer speed at which the finance industry has changed in the wake of the financial crisis.

“It’s like technology – when the change is slow you can keep up. But nowadays I’m struggling with my BlackBerry Torch. That’s not age – it’s the fast pace of change. Regulators are struggling. You need someone who can keep up.

“The problem is, if you are a bright young man and someone is offering you half the money to become a regulator, why would you take it? What the regulators need to do is pay more for talent. We need the poachers to become the gamekeepers for a while.”

He says the pace of change underway is akin to the Big Bang in 1986, when Thatcher, almost literally overnight, deregulated the banking industry. Wall Street banks clamoured to expand their UK operations and London regained its spot as the world’s foremost financial hub.

Now Fraser says the movement is towards Asia: “When you think of the sheer size of the Asian economies – China and India in particular – you have billions of people at the early stages of finance. When they get to our standard they will be the leaders. It is inevitable, although I think it’s several decades away.

“What we have to make sure is that when they grow, some of that comes back to London. That’s the key.”

Unless the importance of the City is recognised by politicians – at home and in Europe – this seems far from guaranteed.

1963: Entered the City as a trainee stockbroker before moving through a number of investment related disciplines, including foreign exchange, money broking, international equities, investment research and fund management.

1980: Became a member of the London Stock Exchange.

1993: Became a common councilman of the City of London.

2008: Took up current role as policy chairman of the Corporation of London.

Personal life: He has been married to his wife Laura for 41 years They live in Blackheath. In his spare time he enjoys travel, walking, golf and the theatre.