London, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore; the names of cities that are famous hubs for global finance are easy to recall. But the very reason for their success has evaporated like morning mist at high noon. And it’s got very little to do with Brexit and Covid.
The coronavirus pandemic merely helped to illustrate something that was already happening beneath the surface. As trading moved from floors to screens, and banking moved from tellers to phones, there was little reason to congregate in a similar location for deal making or transactions. Complicated deals like buying a business might need face-to-face discussion, but then you can just use Zoom.
Back in the day, the coffee shops, bars and restaurants of Wall Street and the City of London were important nodes of the ‘liquid network’ that fueled information flow. Deals, tips and the exchange of favours were commonly negotiated over a drink or meal on neutral territory. But then tech and regulation got in the way.
Now everything is electronic, recorded and regulated – a lot of it by algorithms. And the chatter at the local watering hole is way behind the curve, anyway; and not to be trusted. Twitter is just much more efficient if you want to pick up market sentiment. Regulators insist on transparency, and speed and efficiency are more sought after than insider knowledge to boost returns.
Of course, in the glory days of investment banking it was great to have your competition across the road – perhaps they’d hire you! But now, with decentralized finance and algo arbitrage, most of the heavy lifting is done in the cloud. Just ask Ant Financial and Amazon; but then you might not have noticed how they’re eating your lunch.
Which is why cities like London and New York have to reinvent themselves to keep attracting top companies and talent. Tax incentives and preferred lifestyles for staff are making other places much more attractive. The ‘global financial centre’ is dead.