CXO

Brexit: FinTech firms fear for staff shortages and lost EU customers

London is an international hub for financial-technology firms. Some of these fast-growing start-ups are now weighing in on how the UK's vote to leave the EU will affect the industry.

UK prime minister David Cameron launched the Tech City initiative in 2010 in East London, home to many of the capital's startups.
Image: Tim Ferguson/ZDNet
London is a major player in the international FinTech market, with startups in the UK capital securing more venture capital funding last year than their European counterparts.

That status won't necessarily change after Britain leaves the EU but FinTech firms have said it will complicate the picture, particularly when it comes to their ability to sell services to Europe and attract new talent.

Like many UK businesses, a big question for London's FinTech companies is what Brexit will mean for access to European workers.

Controlling migration was the second most important reason for quitting the EU, according to those who voted Leave in last week's referendum. This desire to reduce EU migration puts Leave voters at odds with business, with firms large and small calling for continued access to the EU single market after Britain leaves the EU.

Access to the single market allows goods and finance to be moved between EU countries without tariffs. However, full access also requires free movement of workers between European countries, something many Leave voters oppose.

Nevertheless, for peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platform MarketInvoice, as for many other London-based FinTech firms, free movement of European labor is essential to meet its demands for skills.

"Here at MarketInvoice we have a super-diverse team from all corners of the globe. Most notably within our software-engineering and data-science teams. Many FinTech founders themselves come from outside the UK," said Anil Stocker, CEO of MarketInvoice.

"It would be a real shame if leaving the EU resulted in this talent pool shrinking, and in the long term this will seriously damage the UK's productivity, innovation and economic growth."

Another concern for Stocker is continued access to European markets. Currently UK financial firms are able to operate inside the European Economic Area (EEA) without having to be authorized in each of the EEA's 28 countries. This right is known as passporting.

Bank of France governor Francois Villeroy de Galdhau has warned that this right won't be available to UK-based firms unless the country signs up to all the rules of the single market, including free movement of EU labor.

Given the difficulty the government may have in satisfying EU labor demands, Stocker is again mindful of the potential impact.

"What might become more difficult is the passporting of the different models into European jurisdictions as FinTech platforms go international, from an operating as well as compliance stand-point. So we watch this space with interest," he said.

Passporting is also a worry for some of the world's largest investment banks, including Citi, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, which have said they will shift jobs to EU financial centres if the UK fails to secure access.

Taavet Hinrikus, the chief executive and co-founder of foreign exchange service TransferWise shares Stocker's fears about how Brexit will impact the FinTech industry.

"This is likely to affect regulation and the movement of talent, two massive issues for business," he said.

"The two main benefits of being part of the EU are access to talent because of the free movement of labor and the fact that you can 'passport' regulation so if you're regulated in the UK, you're regulated across the EU. We don't know what's going to happen with either of those."

Before the referendum, Hinrikus said, should the UK vote to leave the EU, the firm would focus on increasing staffing outside the country, even raising the possibility of relocating its headquarters.

However, there are also potential upsides to the Brexit vote for FinTech firms. MarketInvoice's Stocker believes certain businesses could benefit from the economic conditions resulting from Brexit. In MarketInvoice's case he sees that the return offered to investors who choose to lend money using the P2P lending platform could become more appealing.

"Given the fears of a recession, UK interest rates are likely to now remain low for the foreseeable future, which means investing through peer-to-peer platforms will remain attractive relative to other investment opportunities," he said, adding the platform could attract more borrowers due to banks being reluctant to lend.

Similarly, Rhydian Lewis, CEO of fellow P2P lender RateSetter, anticipates an opportunity for P2P platforms to fill the gaps in banks' lending that Brexit may open up.

Both Stocker and Lewis expect Brexit to have no impact on the light-touch regulatory framework for peer-to-peer finance in the UK.

A complicating factor when considering Brexit's impact on FinTech is the number of unknowns. In the short-term there will be little effect. Britain will remain a member of the EU for at least two years, with the process of leaving not expected to be initiated until October.

However, there is also no guarantee, even if the UK does secure access to the EU single market, that this new trade deal will kick in at the point at which Britain leaves the EU.

The EU trade commissioner has said the UK can't begin negotiating a new trade deal until after it leaves the bloc. That position could mean a period of years without any favorable terms for trade between the UK and EU. Canada, for example, has been negotiating its Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement for seven years.

Read more about Brexit

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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