From City Hall to wealth management startup: Meet Boris Johnson’s ex-economic adviser, Gerard Lyons
Not many wealth management firms can boast a chief economic strategist with the CV and public profile of Gerard Lyons.
Formerly of Standard Chartered and Swiss Bank, Lyons joined the launch team of Netwealth this summer after a lengthy stint as London mayor Boris Johnson’s chief economic adviser.
Bearing in mind Johnson’s high-profile support of the Leave campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum, it may not come as a surprise that Lyons himself was a prominent Brexit backer.
But did his views when he was Johnson’s economic advisor play a part in the new foreign secretary’s decision to campaign for Leave? “I would like to think it did, yes,” he tells City A.M., sitting alongside Netwealth’s chief executive Charlotte Ransom.
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In the run-up to the referendum, Lyons co-chaired the Economists for Brexit group. They were in a minority, with the vast majority of economists warning against a Leave vote.
But Lyons is confident on the prospects for the economy after Brexit and believes London “is going to remain, whatever happens, the major financial centre of the EU”.
Isn’t the falling value of the pound a concern? “Um, no,” he says, flatly. “I would argue that the pound was overvalued full-stop when one looks at the current account deficit in the UK.”
Lyons believes that economic data after the vote has shown the consensus view was wrong, suggesting this is part of a “long tradition”, pointing as an example to economists failing to forecast the 2008 financial crisis.
The Bank of England and Mark Carney have come in for criticism from Brexiters. But Lyons believes they have done “very good job both sides of the referendum, both beforehand and more particularly after”.
He also praises the work of Theresa May since taking over from David Cameron, who he felt failed in his position in the run-up to the referendum.
“I think the Prime Minister is doing very well, being sensible. Because, unfortunately, the previous Prime Minister and chancellor didn’t prepare, or leave Whitehall prepared enough. So hence we’re having to make up for lost time, shall we say.”
And what of Lyons' former boss, Johnson? Can he succeed as foreign secretary? “At City Hall he was fantastic mastery in the brief, he did detail incredibly well. Both of those factors, plus the fact that he's incredibly well read and global in his outlook, should hold him in good stead at the Foreign Office,” he says loyally.
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Clearly still very much immersed in politics, why did Lyons choose to step into wealth management, a sector he had little experience in? After meeting with chief executive Ransom and her co-founder Thomas Salter, Lyons spoke to others with experience in the industry to get their views. “All of them basically said: ‘Go for it.’ This is an industry that’s ripe for disruption.”
Ransom, who previously worked for Goldman Sachs for 20 years, had the idea for Netwealth when she herself was looking for a wealth manager but was not willing to put her finances into the hands of any of the existing companies offering services. The founders think there are problems with transparency, high costs and poor performance in the industry, and that Netwealth can offer something new.
A couple of months old, Netwealth currently has a modest office in a grand building just off Hyde Park. But Ransom has big plans for the company, and is looking to FTSE 100 broker Hargreaves Lansdown for inspiration.
“There was a time they were doing their thing very well: they were on the radar, and they were gradually becoming more and more on the radar,” she says. “And I think now they’ve built the most fantastic business and they are the best known online surpermarket, by a mile. And they have close to £60bn of assets.
“That’s our target: to be the online discretionary wealth manager of choice.”