- Leasing in Central London banking sector 4.9% above 10-year average
- Banks rethinking real estate strategies to maximise efficiencies
2015 saw a marked increase in banking and finance leasing activity in Central London according to CBRE, the world’s leading global real estate advisor.
A relentless drive to cut costs has forced financial services occupiers to focus on reducing real estate costs and adopting strategies to occupy their space more efficiently. Using a combination of offshoring and nearshoring, there has been an ongoing move by big banks to relocate non-core functions outside of Central London, as seen in HSBC’s decision to move 1,000 head office staff from London to Birmingham.
Financial services firms are also turning to outsourcing. Areas such as risk management, trade reporting, compliance and IT are increasingly being outsourced. Last year alone, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Commerzbank, JPMorgan, Société Générale and Standard Chartered joined forces last year with Swift to develop and use a centralised due-diligence system.
However despite the inherent challenges, banks continue to cite client needs, recruitment, profile and presence as key reasons to keep office space in London. This is reflected in last year’s leasing figures with banking and finance occupiers leasing 3.2m sq ft, 4.9% above the 10-year average.
There are a variety of compromises companies may make as part of rationalisation strategies to maintain their position in London. Consolidation is an ongoing trend. But it is not a one size fits all approach. Some occupiers are taking the decision to move to lower cost locations within Central London, while others will compromise on space to remain in a more expensive market. For example, Deutsche Bank is moving certain operations from the City to Canary Wharf, at the same time as moving their Wealth Management business to a new office in Victoria. Société Générale also plans to consolidate its London offices in a new Canary Wharf HQ, although their Hambro business will remain is St James’s Square.
Katherine Bain, Director at CBRE London commented: “As part of the consolidation process, financial occupiers are seeking to change desk utilisation from its current rate to as high as 85%. Achieving this could make a significant difference to the bottom line, but to do so would require various intensification initiatives, including different people using the same desk at different points in the day. As well as cost saving this also promotes better collaboration which is as important to occupiers.”
The report highlights the numerous challenges the sector faces in maintaining its status with regulation and economic uncertainty topping the list. With Brexit looming, a key concern of potential occupiers lies in the loss of passporting, which currently makes London an attractive location for businesses to establish European or global headquarters.
Katherine Bain continues: “In the UK, the upcoming EU referendum is a key source of economic uncertainty and potential regulatory tightening. A vote to stay means EU regulations will also stay, including the AIFMD and EU Bonus Caps which have been unpopular in the City. On the other hand, those favouring a ‘stay’ vote warn that an exit would erode London’s position as a gateway to continental Europe.
“London’s ability to position itself as a leader in some of the growth areas of the future, including FinTech and specialist banking are a key element of the city’s resilience. However, the rapid growth of FinTech is increasingly threatening incumbent banks. In addition, the success of these companies has led to an increase in office demand and cost escalation in fringe City office markets, including the Old Street/ Shoreditch office market and Canary Wharf which is recognised as the largest FinTech cluster in Europe.”
A total of 3.18m sq ft of office space was let to banking and finance firms in 2015. Despite various sources of uncertainty over the year, the increase has been driven by the gradual recovery of the sector.
James Nicholson, Senior Director at CBRE London added: “Offshoring, outsourcing and consolidation continue to be widely used by banks, however as well as cost, the culture of the firm and the types of services offered are integral to any decisions.
“The future challenges the City must face will have numerous and wide ranging implications for the London property market.”
However, the banking and finance sector has become less dominant in the London office market since the financial crisis, accounting for 22% of all Central London leasing in 2015: a long way from the low of 13% in 2012, but still well below the 28% pre-crisis average.
The space leased to banking and finance firms in the West End has increased as a proportion of all space leased in the sector, as specialist competitor firms have proliferated, accounting for 32% of the volume of deals between 2010 and 2015, compared to an average 21% between 2000 and 2010.
Proportion of Banking and Finance Take-up (sq ft)
|↓||Canary Wharf||City||West End||↑|
Volume of Deals (sq ft) Compared to 10-year Average
COVID-19 and PCL property – a market on the rise?
By Alpa Bhakta, CEO of Butterfield Mortgages Limited
Over the last five years, demand for prime central London (PCL) property has been fairly inconsistent. Sudden peaks in interest from buyers could be followed by periods of stagnate price growth. Nonetheless, the advantages of PCL property investment, particularly by international investors, has remained well known.
Well-funded development and neighbourhood re-generation schemes, alongside an influx of overseas investment, has resulted in a vibrant market with a diverse range of opportunities for prospective buyers.
Nonetheless, the PCL market has not been immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first half of the year, the lockdown meant physical valuations and onsite inspections could not take place. People in the UK were also discouraged from moving properties unless they found themselves in extreme circumstances.
However, as we now enter the final weeks of 2020, I believe there’re plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future prospects of the PCL property market. Buyer demand has resulted in a new wave of activity, and this is resulting in significant house price growth. Indeed, it was recently revealed by Halifax that the average rate of house price growth in November was at a four-year high.
Obviously, there are multiple factors that have helped sustain this strong level of house price growth. Most notably, the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) holiday has succeeded in coaxing buyers back to the property market––be they seasoned buy-to-let (BTL) investors or first-time buyers––by offering up to £15,000 in tax savings on any given property purchase.
However, it’s worth considering the other factors underway in London’s property market. With the UK in a second national lockdown, many investors will be keen on hedging against future COVID-imbued market uncertainty through acquiring safe-haven assets like British property. As you’ll read below, this is having a positive impact on the PCL market.
Investors are flocking to PCL opportunities
The PCL property market has managed to be one of the most active areas of the UK’s real estate market during the whole of 2020. When discussing why this is so, we must first begin by understanding the behaviours of overseas buyers.
Given that international investors represented over half (55%) of all the PCL property purchases recorded in the second half of 2019, anything to further incentivise or dissuade such foreign actors would hugely impact PCL property transaction figures.
Earlier in the year, alongside the announcement of the aforementioned SDLT holiday, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak indeed announced that he would be implementing 2% SDLT surcharge for non-UK based buyers of British property from April 2021 onwards.
So, for those seeking properties worth over £5 million in the UK capital, a 2% additional cost may represent a substantial amount of wealth. To avoid this, many overseas buyers who may have been contemplating a PCL property acquisition have rushed to buy such properties before this surcharge is applicable. This trend will undoubtedly continue until 1 April, 2021.
Remote working and PCL
On the topic of the PCL market’s future, many property speculators were concerned earlier this year that London’s property market would potentially collapse entirely as a result of remote working. With homeworking set to remain the norm for the foreseeable future, commentators predicted that professionals would escape the capital en-masse in favour of roomier, cheaper properties farther from their London employer’s offices.
While there have been some signs of shifting demand from urban London neighbourhoods to suburban ones, according to Rightmove statistics, there has been no recordable effect on the UK’s property market as a result.
Conversely, property specialists Savills have actually discovered that over half of all transactions including properties worth more than £5 million in the UK this year were all located in just five central London postcodes.
A busy few months
Given the performance of the PCL property sector in 2020, I only foresee this market growing stronger and stronger in the years ahead. Recent developments in the production of COVID-19 vaccine have many hoping that we may return to normality by Spring 2021, which would represent fantastic news for those involved in bricks and mortar, should it transpire.
In the coming months, I anticipate a surge in activity across the PCL market as buyers look to take advantage of the tax breaks on offer. As such, it will be important that these buyers have access to the financing needed to complete these transactions quickly. If not, there is a risk any purchase they attempt might be concluded in April 2021 when the current tax breaks in place are removed.
Overall, I cannot help but be impressed by the performance of the property market more generally during the pandemic. Having experienced slow growth in the years following the EU referendum in June 2016, it is clear that buyers are eager to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. This is particularly true when it comes to PCL property.
An outlook on equities and bonds
By Rupert Thompson, Chief Investment Officer at Kingswood
The equity market rally paused last week with global equities little changed in local currency terms. Even so, this still leaves markets up a hefty 10% so far this month with UK equities gaining as much as 14%.
The November rally started with the US election results but gathered momentum with the recent very encouraging vaccine news. This continued today with the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine proving to be up to 90% effective in preventing Covid infections. This is slightly below the 95% efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already reported but this one has the advantage of not needing to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. One or more of these vaccines now looks very likely to start being rolled out within a few weeks.
Of course, these vaccines will do little to halt the current surge in infections. Cases may now be starting to moderate in the UK and some countries in Europe but the trend remains sharply upwards in the US. The damage lockdowns are doing to the recovery was highlighted today with the news that business confidence in the UK and Europe fell back into recessionary territory in November.
Markets, however, are likely to continue to look through this weakness to the prospect of a strong global recovery next year. While equities may have little additional upside near term, they should see further significant gains next year. Their current high valuations should be supported by the very low level of interest rates, leaving a rebound in earnings to drive markets higher.
Prospective returns over the coming year look markedly higher for equities than for bonds, where return prospects are very limited. As for the downside risks for equities, they appear much reduced with the recent vaccine news and central banks making it clear they are still intent on doing all they can to support growth.
Both factors mean we have taken the decision to increase our equity exposure. While our portfolios already have significant allocations to equities and have benefited from the rally in recent months, we are now moving our allocations into line with the levels we would expect to hold over the long term.
Our new equity allocations will be focused on the ‘value’ areas of the market. The last few weeks have seen a significant rotation out of expensive high ‘growth’ sectors such as technology into cheaper and more cyclical areas such as financials, materials and industrials. Similarly, countries and regions, such as the UK which look particularly cheap, have fared well just recently.
We think this rotation has further to run and will be adding to our UK exposure. This does not mean we have suddenly become converts to Boris’s rose-tinted post-Brexit view of the UK’s economic prospects. Instead, this more favourable backdrop for cheap markets is likely to favour the UK.
We will also be adding to US equities. Again, this does not represent a change in our longstanding caution on the US market overall due to its high valuation. Rather, we will be investing in the cheaper areas of the US which have significant catch-up potential.
We are also making a change to our Asia ex Japan equity holdings. We will be focusing some of this exposure on China which we believe deserves a specific allocation due to the strong performance of late of that economy and the sheer size of the Chinese equity market.
On the fixed income side, we will be reducing our allocation to short maturity high quality UK corporate bonds, where return prospects look particularly limited. We are also taking the opportunity to add an allocation to inflation-linked bonds in our lower risk, fixed income heavy, portfolios. These have little protection against a rise in inflation unlike our higher risk portfolios, which are protected through their equity holdings.
Optimising tax reclaim through tech: What wealth managers need to know in trying times
By Christophe Lapaire, Head Advanced Tax Services, Swiss Stock Exchange
This has been a year of trials: first, a global pandemic and, now, many countries facing the very real possibility of a recession. For investors, private banks, and wealth managers, these tumultuous times have manifested largely in asset price volatility, ultra-low interest rates and uncertainty about when things may level out, as well as questions about what can be done to safeguard portfolio performance.
The answer here lies within identifying and creating efficiencies to maximise performance and minimise cost, and while there is a slew of options as to how to do this, they are often siloed or have a single USP. Tax optimisation, on the other hand, provides benefits to all, not just in increasing returns for investors, but also in creating economies of scale across stakeholders, creating millions – if not billions – in savings for banks.
Evolving tax reclaim
The tax reclaim process used to be a tedious one banks had to manage themselves, and required detailed, industry and country-specific knowledge to stay on top of constantly shifting requirements and regulations. And when we consider that many countries – such as the UK – allow for capital gains exemptions, tax optimisation may not seem like an integral part of the process. However, this isn’t the case for all countries, and can lead to severe after-tax implications on global portfolios.
Furthermore, even if you’re able to avoid double taxation, getting the money back is not always as simple as it sounds. This, combined with the fact that countries often have contradictory taxation rules or requirements, makes navigating the tax reclaim space a challenge even for those with the right expertise and experience.
Ultimately, providing tax optimisation to investors ends up being a heavy lift for private banks and wealth managers, who often don’t have the right solutions, are relying on outdated technology and manual processes. While this is generally fine for business, it is no longer fit for the purpose when it comes to tax optimisation. To date, knowledge and expertise have been the key to protecting and maintaining profitable investments and avoiding tax leakage. However, through tax optimisation services starting to emerge, portfolio managers can now manage and reinvest easily.
Today, technology has evolved the process so that banks are able to access and submit tax reclaim – and the relevant documentation – online, leaving the tech provider to coordinate next steps with custodians and tax authorities behind the scenes. In essence, taking the legwork out of the process while assuring consistency and completeness in execution.
Simplifying tax through tech
While tax optimisation may seem like an easy choice in theory, it is not always the go-to for every private bank or wealth manager. Without the right supports and setup, including innovative technologies and automation, tax reporting must be done manually, leading to labour intensive processes and huge time wastage. Changing these processes can be overwhelming for those used to a certain way of operating.
By making tax reclaim digital, banks will be more able to optimise returns and gain efficiencies while reducing redundancies and unnecessary complexities. Cloud based solutions or platforms can offer a safe and secure solution for banks, wealth managers, and investors to access and submit any information required, processing the data automatically for conformity and completeness.
It is critical that providers who intend to offer tax services are able to do so efficiently with the right software and data processing capabilities. Not only does this drive continuity in service and efficiencies in process, but it is the only sustainable way to handle such a complex landscape sustainably without wasting time or money.
End-to-end, technologically driven tax services offer a huge number of advantages to private banks and wealth managers, the most important of which is the ability to provide continuity through tumultuous times. As we move through the end of 2020 into 2021 this will only be increasingly important as banks, managers and investors look to provide new services to clients and strengthen existing relationships in a difficult market.
As investors seek to find returns amid the global economic downturn, the demand for innovative solutions will only increase. Technology like cloud-based software, AI, and data optimisation can all serve to improve not just the tax reclaim processes, but the overall client experience within capital markets. Private banks and wealth managers are suitably equipped to provide these innovative solutions, but those who do not prepare themselves effectively and keep ahead of trends will run the risk of losing current and new clients to someone who can offer more for less.
COVID-19 and PCL property – a market on the rise?
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